Brain Drain and the Writer


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.

Friday Links: Techniques and Toys for the Writer’s Toolbox

TGIF! Welcome to the end of yet another very weird week. My brain keeps turning over that old blessing/curse from Confucius: May you live in interesting times. For better or worse, I’d say recent weeks/months/years certainly count. But it’s Friday and I feel bruised and beaten up after a long few days of too much desk time, way too much coffee, and far too little sleep, so that’s about as much as I’m going to say on the social/political front today.

What I do have for you is a great collection of links for the week. Like last week, there’s a bit of a mishmash, but I feel many of them will help you load up your writer’s toolbox — both literally and figuratively — and to tackle your writing goals. But don’t worry, there’s plenty of reading goodness to distract you, too, if that’s where your mood is. Wishing you a wonderful weekend filled with all things word related. Enjoy!

The Mental Health Benefits of Writing, Backed by Science – In case you were worried that writing was driving you crazy.

Novels Bring World War II to Life for a New Generation – A look at the recent uptick in popularity of WWII-era novels for young adults.

Laptop Buying Guide for Writers – K. Tempest Bradford pulls together a few of her podcasts that talk laptop features and her recommendations specifically for writers.

Faerie-led: Thoughts on Writing Meaningful Fantasy – A thoughtful look at the genre.

Apple Begins Paying Out on Ebook Settlement – In case you haven’t heard, you might have some extra book money floating around.

Think You Couldn’t Possibly Lose Your Amazon Publishing Account? – Important read for self-pub/hybrid folks, but interesting for all.

A Map to Get Out of Writer’s Block – A very handy, helpful graphic, worth saving for future emergencies even if you always feel inspired and ready to write.

49 Underrated Books You Really Need to Read – Have read and loved a number of these, but better believe my TBR list just got longer.

New York Taught Me to Be a Better Listener – Interesting read. Note that this didn’t have to take place in New York, the author just happened to have her learning experience there.

Serial Reader app – Looking to squeeze some classics reading into your life? This free app sends you classics in short installments, a new 10-15 minutes’ worth of reading each day. Huge and growing collection of titles. So far just for iOS, but an Android version is in the works.

Friday Links: A Few of Publishing’s Many Faces

Happy Friday, everyone! This week flew by, which means I’m looking at a busy weekend of things I didn’t quite manage to fit into my week. I hope you all had a good one and that your weekend looks a little bit more relaxing than mine.

For this week’s links, I have a few interesting looks at the publishing industry from very different angles — writers new and experienced, a long-time reviewer, technical innovators, and more, along with a few other fun odds and ends. Together I hope they form an intriguing mosaic and illustrate the way that there is no single story when it comes to this industry. You have to find the journey and the space that works for you.

Have a wonderful weekend, and happy writing!

Moneyball for Book Publishers: A Detailed Look at How We Read – How e-books report back to publishers, and what they might do with the data.

24 Things No One Tells You about Book Publishing – Author Curtis Sittenfeld on her publishing experience.

The Rumpus Interview with Jessa Crispin – Crispin, the long-time publisher of Bookslut (which I am sad to say will be shutting down in May after 14 years), discusses her two recent books and her take on the publishing industry.

The Literary Fiction Drinking Game – From the pages of McSweeney’s. Because it was there, and I was amused.

A Fairytale for all Aspiring Writers – interviews Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney, author of The Nest, about her “overnight” success.

2015 RT Award Winners – Romantic Times announces this year’s winners of their Reviewers’ Choice and Career Achievement Awards.

How to Beat Writer’s Block – An interesting article that might help you shake your story loose.

Refilling the Well: On Avoiding Creative Burnout

No matter how much you love something — your job, a favorite book, playing sports, chocolate chip cookies — there comes a time when you need to take a break from it. Nothing remains lovable 24/7 for weeks or months on end. It might be tempting to indulge, especially if you haven’t had access to something for a while, but the risk of binging is always going to be burnout.

Writing is no different. Whether it’s something you work on full-time as a career, or you squeeze it between your day job and family obligations, writing draws upon your creative reserves and demands you give it your full attention when you sit down in front of that blank page. It can be exciting and rewarding, but also emotionally draining to the point of exhaustion. That burnout can lead to some common issues, including writer’s block or sudden disinterest in a project that previously had you all fired up.

As with a day job that gives you weekends off and a couple of weeks of vacation each year, you need to schedule small vacations from your writing in order to keep the creative energy flowing. Julia Cameron refers to this as “refilling the well” in her series of books on writing. She recommends a weekly “artist’s date,” where you take yourself off for some non-writing personal time for a couple of hours — a trip to a museum, a movie, a long walk. But it doesn’t need to be a hard-and-fast weekly thing. Consider how much time you spend writing and then plan your breaks in proportion. But do take them seriously. Mark them on your calendar and don’t blow them off for anything other than a true emergency.

So what does it mean to refill the well? The idea is to simultaneously give your creative mind a break where you stop demanding it deliver story content, and to garner a bit of inspiration to supplement your existing arsenal. Creativity is a funny thing; the more you imagine, the more you can dream up, but the variety and strength of the ideas does require fresh input from time to time. It can be as casual as giving yourself permission to daydream without the pressures of an agenda, or as formal as planning a full day of culture or other activities. Take into account your level of fatigue; if your burnout is purely mental then some physical activity might make for a great break, but if you’re exhausted on every level, plan something low key and relaxing. Try mixing it up, as well, so you’re not always focusing on the same senses. Listen to music with your eyes closed, or wander through a botanical garden and smell the different flowers.

You can refill the well with purpose, too, checking out things that might help you flesh out the background of your current writing project, but try to make the focus on taking a break rather than looking at your outing as research. Let yourself absorb the sites and sounds and information, but draw the line at taking notes. You want to come away inspired and refreshed, not feeling like you were actually working.

What sorts of activities are good for filling the well? Anything that lets your thoughts wander and sparks new ideas. Long walks through new neighborhoods make for great opportunities to daydream, people watch, and check out different architecture. Or hike a local walking trail or through a nearby state park. If you live somewhere that offers walking tours, take one and get a new perspective on your city. Take in a sporting event or participate in one yourself: pick-up basketball, a local running club, etc. Seasonal outdoor activities can also make for wonderful breaks: apple picking, ice skating on a pond, horseback riding, gardening, sailing, wandering on a beach.

If you’re more of an indoor person, check out local museums, concert venues, or theatrical productions. Fix a mug of tea and stretch out on your couch with your favorite music playing. Indulge in a bit of pampering: a massage, a good manicure and pedicure, a facial. Take yourself out for a nice lunch in a restaurant, someplace where you can sit in the window and watch the world go by. Take a cooking class or learn to throw pottery. Head for the local arts theater and see a foreign film or documentary. Hit up some yard sales or wander through thrift stores and see what sorts of strange items you find for sale. Live near an historical site? Go take a tour. Indulge a neglected hobby.

Ideally, you will schedule these breaks occasionally and keep yourself from reaching the burnout stage. Think of them as mind maintenance. But if you do run yourself ragged — whether from pushing to make a deadline or because your non-writing life has conspired to keep you hopping — make a point of refilling the well as soon as possible. The worse the burnout, the more time off you’ll require — and you might need to devote time to a nice nap as well as to your well-refilling activities. Treat your creative mind as the important writing tool it is, and you’ll keep your best ideas flowing when you need them.


The Mysteries of Writer’s Block

Put a bunch of writers in a room together and the subject of writer’s block will inevitably come up. Who gets it? How can you beat it? Does it even really exist?

Some people will argue that the concept of writer’s block is merely a crutch, an excuse a writer waves when they’re running late on a deadline. After all, you don’t hear other professionals claiming an inability to work due to a mysterious impediment. Plumber’s block? Dentist’s block? Not likely. But others swear it’s a true affliction that can paralyze a writer and bring the creative process to a grinding halt, and they will do virtually anything to escape its clutches.

At the end of the day, however, writers don’t really care whether writer’s block is an actual thing or not. What writers care about is the ability to write, to move forward on their projects, and to be satisfied with the results. So the important thing, when feeling a little stuck, is to figure out how to get the writing flowing once more.

Diagnose the problem. When writing feels impossible, it’s important to determine what sort of problem you’re up against. Are you facing a blank page? Not sure what happens in your next chapter? Unable to bring yourself to sit at your desk? Figure out what kind of challenge you’re facing, because only then can you unravel the situation to see what might be causing it.

Getting started. Facing a blank page is always a challenge, and it can be difficult to sit down and start from scratch. So many decisions to make. So many ways things could go. And that first sentence is so important, must capture the reader’s attention and draw them into the story. The very freedom of that empty screen or sheet of paper, and the pressure of making a strong start, overwhelm many writers. Because they can write anything, the process seems daunting, and it becomes impossible to write at all.

The thing to remember here is that first drafts are meant to be terrible and are destined to be rewritten. It is far easier to revise a shoddy piece of writing or to revamp a boring opening than it is to write a beautiful first paragraph on the very first try. So write anything that comes to mind. Jot notes, character ideas, bits of dialogue. Start in the middle, start at the end, start with a scene that might never be included in your final version. Get your fingers moving and words flowing and don’t worry if it feels like gibberish. Put down what you need to so the page in no longer blank. Eventually your ideas will start to pump again and something useful will appear.

Lost in the middle. You’ve been writing along for days or weeks and your story or novel is taking shape. Then suddenly one morning all progress screeches to a stop. You have no idea what happens next. Perhaps you’ve written your protagonist into a sticky situation and you don’t know how they’ll solve it. Or someone new has shown up and you haven’t planned for them in the action to come. Or maybe you just feel like the story has gotten boring and you’re losing interest in it yourself.

When you’re stuck in the middle of your story, you generally have two choices: go forward, or go back. If you want to keep moving forward, your best bet is to skip ahead to the next point in the story where you have an idea of what’s going to be happening, or throw something exciting and unplanned into the mix, and write that section next. Ask yourself “What if…?” and go from there. You can go back and tackle your stuck storyline later. Of course, the risk with this approach is that when you return to the earlier point in the story, the fix might upend everything you’ve written later on, but if the result is a better story it will be worth all the work.

Your other option, going back, means backtracking from your problem point to see where you might have taken your story in the wrong direction. Did you add a twist that has caused the issue? Your protagonist make a move that was out of character? Or do you need to insert some more clues leading into that problematic section to make it possible to move ahead?

Things to keep in mind, whether you move forward or backward in your story: Are the character motivations consistent? Does each scene serve the protagonist’s goal? Have you allowed another character to hijack the plot? Is this still the same story you intended to tell?

Reluctance to write. Some days, just the idea of writing might feel too difficult, and when this happens you need to take a close look at your feelings. Are you just a bit burnt out and needing a day off away from your keyboard? Go to the movies, visit a museum, hang out with friends and let your brain clear out a bit. Are you feeling overwhelmed and/or anxious in other areas of your life beyond your writing? You might need to talk to someone about potential depression or anxiety, especially if you’ve been feeling this way for a while. Creativity dries up pretty quickly when a person is extremely stressed or suffering from depression, so be kind to yourself and seek the assistance you require.

Writing is not an easy endeavor. Regardless of your level of skill and/or experience, you will face days when the words flow even less easily than usual. Try poking at your project from another angle, write a different scene or determine if you need to backtrack, and give yourself permission to write something bad. Other ways to tap into your inspiration include working on another project entirely for a few days, doing warm up exercises such as writing prompts, or brainstorming ideas for future stories. It can also help to step away from your desk and do something completely unrelated to writing. Take a walk or a bubble bath, garden or hit the gym. Be sure you’re eating and sleeping properly; your brain will work better when you take care of yourself. And accept the fact that, no matter the writer, some days the writing must be coaxed.


Coaxing Your Story Forward through Character and Motivation

It’s Monday morning and chances are good that, for each of you who got plenty accomplished over the weekend on your current writing project, there is another writer who is feeling a bit frustrated with their lack of progress. Call it writers’ block, call it a stumbling block, call it a failure to plan ahead–whatever the reason, most writers find themselves facing this sort of slow down at some point or other. The question is, what to do about it?

There are many ways of jump starting your WIP again, but today I’m looking at character and motivation. Sometimes your issues are as simple as losing track of who your character is and what drives them forward. Go back to your protagonist and really think about what makes them tick. Who are they? What are their motivations? What do you know about them that doesn’t necessarily affect your plot but still somehow informs your character’s state of being?

For example: Your protagonist is afraid of heights. You know this. But what does it mean? If it doesn’t play into the action itself, it still might have helped determine other things about that character. Perhaps they live in a rural area because buildings tend to be shorter–no high rises or skyscrapers to contend with; maybe they refuse to fly when they travel. The fear helps sculpt the person, and can provide new insights that might ultimately transform your storyline. If you need that character to leave town to attend a funeral, how will they get there? Train? Road trip? Can they make it in time? What if they’re a law enforcement officer called to investigate the death of someone who jumped off a bridge? Do they need to stand on the bridge themselves and look down into the water? Can they hand that duty off to someone else? How will that affect their job, or their reputation?

If you’re having difficulties deciding what your character will do next, look at how you’ve developed their personality and their back story. Then pose a series of “what if” questions. What would your protagonist do if X, Y, or Z happened? How would they react? Make sure the questions you pose are relevant to your overall plot. Base your answers on careful thought about the character you’ve created, by looking at the foundation you laid at the beginning of your story, when you were just getting to know this character.

Motivation as it affects the story is just as important as motivation that fleshes out the character. Consider your character’s initial goal, the driving force that carries them through the entire book. Are they looking to avenge the death of a loved one? To find true love? To marry well? Is there a quest involved, to rescue someone or find the treasure? Are their motivations politically driven? To save the kingdom, take down the dictator, end a war? Now look at the last scene you wrote, the one immediately prior to your hitting your block, and ask yourself if it’s advancing your character toward their primary goal, or, conversely, if it’s presenting an obstacle for them to overcome. It needs to do one or the other. Each scene, in whatever small way, should either move your character forward, or issue a set back. If it does neither, you may be off track, and that’s contributing to your inability to move forward. Find the place you last addressed your character’s primary goal and see if you can get your story moving in the right direction. Let that primary motivation determine the path they take.

Again, there are many stumbling blocks that can halt your writing progress. These are just a few ideas to help you get moving once more. Good luck, and happy writing!