As part of The Paris Review‘s ongoing video series, Akhil Sharma reflects on his journey to becoming a writer and the experiences around writing his first book. A wonderful look at the emotional ups and downs of the business.
Pretty much everyone experiences it once in a while. Call it burn out or fatigue or brain drain (my personal favorite), but you stop running long enough to sit in front of your keyboard and get some writing done and your mind just goes blank. No one home. No ideas, no energy, nothing but the sensation of your brain cells possibly liquifying and draining out through your ears — the origin of my preferred moniker for the situation.
Honestly? That’s me right now. My blogging has been a little sparse in recent weeks, and I feel the self-imposed pressure to come up with an informative, thoughtful post for all of you. Something that’s not a list of links or a general announcement or an embedded video of someone else’s ideas or experience. All of those are wonderful blog content, but I always aim to keep a percentage of posts my own original material and, well… not much of that going on at the moment. Because the instant I clicked on Add New Post (a good 40 minutes ago), I realized that my brain was not going to be cooperative this morning.
What causes brain drain? In my case, I’ve been on a reading jag for work — more so than usual — pushing through a lot of submissions and client material, some of which require editorial notes. I attended a conference, taught a webinar, tackled a whole bunch of behind-the-scenes contract/vendor/distribution details on a number of projects. It’s been brutally hot on and off for weeks and I’m sleeping badly as a result. And I won’t even go into the personal end of things. So, business as usual? Busy life as always? Yes, of course, but it does add up, and my brain has apparently decided I’ve hit the point of maximum density. Time to drain everything and start over. In other words, it’s telling me I need a little break.
Now, brain drain is not the same thing as writer’s block, though they certainly can overlap. But where writer’s block often signals that you need to get a better fix on where your story needs to go (or where it has been in those last pages you wrote), brain drain calls for a letting up — taking time away from the chaos and the hectic schedule to breathe and clear your head. Brain drain demands a day off or a long nap with the phone silenced or an honest-to-goodness vacation. It’s tempting to try to squeeze the life out of every moment of your day, especially for writers who often need to fight so hard just to find the time to focus on their current work in progress. But as important as it is to commit to your writing, it’s also important to maintain your health and well being so you can produce your best work. And sometimes that means giving yourself a break.
So the next time you find yourself staring at the blank page, ask when you last did something completely mindless. You may discover you’re overdue for an afternoon playing hooky or a long weekend at the beach.
This is just a quick reminder for those of you interested in attending my Writer’s Digest webinar: Conquer the Dreaded Synopsis. The course takes place online tomorrow, August 2nd, at 1pm ET. You can sign up right until the class begins and still be eligible for the critique synopsis that’s available to anyone who registers ahead. Full details on the course and information about sign up can be found here. Hope to have some of you in class tomorrow!
As part of The Paris Review‘s First Time series, Vivian Gornick shares the somewhat roundabout route she took to writing her first book. Further proof that there is no “right” way to become an author, and how opportunity may knock, but it’s how you respond that matters.
If there is a constant in this career, it’s the sound of authors complaining over the need to write a synopsis of their work. Sadly, this task will remain with you if you continue to write for publication, as there is always another novel to pitch/sell and a strong synopsis is part of your sales kit. So I’m delighted to say I’ll once again be teaching my Writer’s Digest webinar on how to write a synopsis, on Tuesday, August 2nd, 20016, at 1pm ET.
Conquer the Dreaded Synopsis aims to help you break down this often-daunting project and get the job done. Over the course of the 90-minute live webinar, you’ll learn what your synopsis should include, how to coax those details out of your much-longer manuscript, and how to polish them up so you can show off your writing skills even while selling your story. The webinar includes time for Q&A, and after it is over, you’ll have time to apply what you’ve learned, writing or revising a synopsis that you can then send me for critique. Complete details are available at the Writer’s Digest site.
I realize not everyone can make a live webinar in the middle of the day, but keep in mind that attendees receive access to all the materials — audio and visual — for a year after the class date, and only those who register ahead will be able to submit their synopsis for comments. So if you’re struggling with your synopsis and would like some feedback, consider taking the class, even if you won’t be able to join in for the live broadcast. Either way, I hope to see some of you in class!
The mid-point of the year approaches, with July only ten days away, which makes it an excellent time to assess the goals you made for the year and see how things are coming along. So find your goal list, journal, computer file, or whatever you used at the start of 2016, and see where things stand.
If you’ve been following this blog, you’ve been checking in with your writing ambitions periodically all year, so you should have a pretty good sense of what you would like to achieve, what you have already accomplished, and what might need some tweaking based on life in general. That last one is an important one to remember. Your goals are your own, and only you know which are life-long ambitions set in stone, and which are things that feel more like stepping stones to other goals or perhaps even flights of fancy that struck you as interesting but may no longer work into your big picture. Your goals are malleable. Feel free to alter them if things have changed; add, subtract, change your priorities. Make your goal list work for you.
That doesn’t mean you should let a little frustration or discouragement chase you away from your dreams. Set backs happen, disappointment comes to everyone. Be honest with your assessment. What can you do differently? How can you approach things in a fresh or renewed way that might get you some forward movement with a particularly stubborn goal? Are you putting too much pressure or responsibility on yourself? Remember that sometimes you can only affect your own part of the equation, your efforts. The results might also hinge on someone else’s decisions or needs, so don’t beat yourself up if you’ve been doing your part and not seeing exactly the results you want. Just keep plugging away and have faith that your persistence will eventually get you where you want to go. And don’t forget to celebrate your successes! If you’ve checked off a goal, or made significant progress on something, give yourself a pat on the back in the form of a night out, a day off, a trip to the spa, or whatever will make you happy.
Don’t have a list of goals that you made for 2016? It’s never too late to start. Think about what you’d like to accomplish in the next six months regarding your writing, or any other aspect of your life, and set out some specific targets. Don’t just write down the goal, but add the system you need to put in place in order to achieve it. Want to write daily? Put reminders in your calendar. Have a deadline looming? Breakdown how much you need to write each week and make a point of checking on your progress as you go. It’s not enough to know what you want; you need to know the steps required to get there.
Whatever your goals — writing related, romantic, family-oriented, financial, or anything else — take a few moments to figure out where you are, and what you can do in the next half of 2016 to make your dreams come true. Wishing you luck and success in everything.
Are you a writer? Do you aspire to be one? Whatever your current status and goals, you have a set of motivations that drive you. Perhaps you’ve loved telling stories since childhood and the ideas are piled up inside your brain, pushing you to let them out into the world. Maybe you’re a wordsmith who enjoys crafting sentences and creating a beautiful flow of text. Or maybe your motivations are a combination of things, such as a love for storytelling, a fascination with research, and a driving need to work a flexible job that you can perform at home or while traveling.
Whatever your reasons for becoming a writer, you likely have a list of things that motivate you — large and small — to sit down at your computer and work on your manuscript. There’s the bigger picture — which includes your desire to be a writer in general — and the smaller one, as well — which might be a combination of a challenging scene you’re dying to write and a deadline looming on the horizon. These things join forces to motivate you, to make you want to get down to the actual work of writing.
But what happens on days you don’t want to write? Days when you don’t feel like it? Maybe you’re not quite sure what comes next in the story, or you had a late night and just the thought of being creative makes your head throb. Or it’s possible your day job requires you to put in some extra hours this week, and the only way you can squeeze in your writing time is to stay up an extra hour before going to bed each night. And you really don’t want to do that.
It happens. No matter how much you love to write, no matter how strong your desire to succeed, you are only human, and it’s impossible for a human being to be highly motivated about something every hour of every day. This is where discipline comes into play.
Discipline gets a bad wrap in terms of the words we use. It tends to have more of a negative connotation these days, bringing to mind parents who believe in spankings, or long prison sentences. But somewhere among those numbered dictionary definitions is the one I need, meaning self-control, or orderly or prescribed conduct. Discipline is the thing that gets you to the keyboard when you’d rather not get out of bed in the morning.
People have two basic modes of conscious behavior: Things they do automatically, and things they think about before deciding whether or not to move forward. The things that come automatically didn’t always do so. Your parents reminded you to brush your teeth for years, most likely, before you truly adopted the habit. It probably took a few years of your childhood for you to get out of bed without prompting and get ready for school, but that habit helped train you for getting ready for work later on.
As an adult, you’ve developed your own set of routines, and it probably took a certain amount of discipline to put them in place. You may not always feel like hitting the gym, but you make yourself go because your health and fitness are important to you and because you understand the dangers of breaking that habit. Likewise, you don’t always wake feeling excited about going to your day job, but you go because you’re a responsible person who needs to pay their bills, and because your coworkers count on you. So where does writing fit on your scale? Is it something you do daily, automatically? Or is it something you think about and then decide to move forward, or not?
If you wish to make writing your career, if you want to be serious and professional about it, you need to treat it as you would any other important, nonnegotiable aspect of your life. Behave like a professional writer from the moment you determine that’s your ultimate goal. You don’t write because you happen to feel like it that day; you commit to writing because it’s important and you set the time to do it. Then you show up and do the work. Don’t wait to feel inspired. Don’t take time off simply because you’re feeling less motivated that day. You need to treat writing as a job if you wish it to become one.
Happy Friday! I’ll kick off this weekend with a reminder that tomorrow, April 30th, is Indie Bookstore Day. It’s a wonderful excuse to hit your favorite local indie bookstore and browse those shelves. Many stores have events scheduled and assorted special merchandise available for the occasion. It’s also a wonderful way to spend a few hours with the kids in your life, so be sure to take them along.
This weekend is also another good chance to check in with your writing goals for the year. End of April means we’re a third of the way through 2016, as hard as that might be to believe, so take a moment to assess where you are and where you’d like to be. Maybe set some mini goals for May — a task per week — to get yourself back on track or to make a bit of quick progress.
To help you on your way, I have both writerly and bookish links for you today. Several have something to do with time, and timeliness, and though I by no means encourage anyone to wait around for fate to determine their course of action, sometimes it steps in when we least expect it. I hope these links give you some inspiration for your own work, and maybe an idea or two of something to pick up on your bookstore visit. Enjoy, and have a wonderful weekend!
Shakespeare and His Stuff — As part of the ongoing celebration of the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death, an interesting look into what he know of the man through his things.
Alexander Chee on What Writing Parties Reveals about Characters — How to make those group scenes really work for you.
Ondaatje: Embrace Creativity in Your Writing — The author shares his approach to creating. Please note that this site, rather than requiring registration or a subscription, asks readers to take a very short survey before loading the article.
On Finding the Right Book at the Right Time — An author shares two occasions when a book particularly entwined with her experiences.
Jonathan Coe on the Top 10 Books Written about Books – Pretty much as described.
Paula Hawkins: The Woman Behind The Girl on the Train — A brief background on the author and discussion of her break-out work.
Writing for a Better World — Author Christopher Golden shares his keynote speech from the recent DFW Writers’ Conference.
The last few weeks have been particularly busy over here, which means my brain cells are very slowly draining out of my skull from overuse. So rather than blabber at you myself, I offer you Neil Gaiman, with thoughts on where ideas come from and other writerly things. He will be far more entertaining than I will right now. So take a gander, then go write something. Enjoy!
As children, we fall in love with books that take us along for the ride, stories where we can close our eyes and easily imagine ourselves into the adventure. Book lovers never really lose that urge to join the story, to fall into the romance between the pages or head out on the dangerous quest. The writer’s job is to craft their tale in such a way as to allow the reader this mental insertion. But how does that work? What makes a novel that accessible?
Writers of otherwise polished, well-paced stories often hear back from agents or editors that they could not “connect” with the protagonist. Or that they weren’t “feeling” the voice. In some instances this is a case of personal taste, but in others it can mean that the writer has held back from really delving into their main character, especially if they are writing a limited third-person narrative. The character might be portrayed in great detail — lots of showing and not too much telling — but what’s lacking is the why behind the actions. If the reader is going to be able to walk in the character’s shoes and feel that connection, the writer must walk there first, and showing the details of that character’s journey includes conveying their thoughts and motivations and making sure they have direct correlation to their actions.
A writer who puts themselves inside their character’s head and asks why — why are they doing this, why are they saying that — will soon find their story changing. Filler actions, such as smiles and sighs and other character twitches that often serve no purpose, will get deleted. Dialogue might become more meaningful, or more sparse, or more snarky, depending on the character and the point in the story. Emotions such as fear and anxiety get ramped up. Characters might be less likely to faint or cry without true provocation. Complications could arise, making the text richer and more layered. All of these things help pull the reader into the story. The character will no longer be shuttered and closed off, keeping the reader at bay.
First-person narratives might seem like an easy fix to this issue, but the truth is that writers can fail to dig deeply into the character even when writing in first person. The danger with first person can be the temptation to ramble on inside the character’s head, creating overly long monologues that cover every nuance of their thoughts. As with real life dialogue, which features far too much chit-chat to include in character dialogue, a real person’s thoughts include more tangents and fluff than is interesting in a novel. A writer must still crawl quite consciously into their character’s head and sort the important details from the detritus. Again, it’s important to ask why the character thinks these things, how they connect to their actions in the story, and to make these things shine through in the writing so that the reader feels welcome in that character’s head as well.
Knowing the character, drilling down, strengthening motivations, taking it further — all ways of referring to this opening up the details of the story in order to make it accessible for the reader. The goal is to pull that reader in on an emotional level, make them wish they were part of the action on the page. A well-written novel is an invitation to fall in love, to catch the killer, to find the treasure, to slay the monster. A completed novel might be an accomplishment, but it only truly comes to life when someone opens its pages and dives into the world the writer has created.