How do you beat writer’s block?

WritersBlock.jpgI suppose that some of you have never had writer’s block. I’ve heard about people like you. I’ve read about people like you. I guess I even know some people like you (I am thinking here of a long-time writer friend who seems to be writing morning noon and night, in pubs and coffee shops, on scraps of paper and in notebooks: his fingers fairly fly across his keyboard when he’s on a computer; and I’m thinking of another, more meticulous writer friend who sits herself down at a certain time each morning and writes for a specified number of hours every single day, then stops).

Life with a block is bad

I have been through several periods of writer’s block, some brief  (about one of which I have written previously on this blog) and some extended, and I detest them. They make me feel depressed and lazy. Most of them arise from a lack of confidence, and of course they also contribute to a lack of confidence. They are almost impossible to “will” away.

Sometimes the lack of confidence is in the particular piece I’m working on, and this has led me to abandon quite a few stories, articles and even books, half-written. Sometimes it’s a lack of confidence in my ability to write anything of value. In those periods I can write if I force myself to do it, but when I read what I have written I am overly critical and I start cutting everything out. There is no point to continuing, and I stop.

And sometimes I have no confidence in the entire enterprise of writing: particularly the closely crafted writing of long pieces that I particularly enjoy. I decide that no one is reading anything longer than a caption or more complex than a set of instructions any more, and that what I am doing is an absolute waste of time. In those periods I consider my decades-long writing career to have been pointless, and think about all the things I could have done instead that would have paid me better. However, I am unable to do anything but write, nor can I even begin to contemplate the act of giving it up. Despite my wonderful family and many friends, my life would be barren if writing wasn’t in it. So I am stuck.

Life without a block is good

Happily, at the moment I am not blocked. If anything, the opposite is true. All I want to do is write. I have recently completed three short stories that had been simmering for months or years, and I am pleased with them. I have dozens of ideas for blog posts that I want to write – not only here, but also on my I’m All Write blog site, and on my Success After Sixty blog site. Everything suddenly seems like a topic that needs to be explored with words. My confidence has returned.

What got me out of my writer’s block this time was a period during which I forced myself to write, despite how hard it was, no matter how pointless it felt – mainly because I couldn’t stand living in my brain if I wasn’t creating something. I started by leaving  my usual surroundings and writing in Second Cups and Starbucks, on airplanes, even on the subway. I used a writing competition deadline as my impetus, and tried to convince myself that the deadline was as inflexible as one for an editing client would be.  I got one story finished and submitted, and then I did another. Getting around to the third was easier – I was able to do even the preliminary work on that one at home. And now I’m eager to start the fourth. It’s fun again.

I’m not the only writer to have experienced writer’s block. A whole article about the condition appeared recently in the New Yorker. The author, Maria Konnakova, tells us that Graham Greene kept a dream journal to avoid it. She goes on to discuss opinions on the subject of writer’s block from psychotherapists and psychologists – two of whom concluded that we are not all created equal: there are four different kinds of blocked writers, they decided. (It is interesting to read their list and to figure out where on the spectrum you might fit.) These two – psychologists Jerome Singer and Michael Barrios – even developed a therapeutic intervention that seemed to help blocked writers.

When you have a writer’s block, no one cares but you, but you care about it so much that it affects everything else you do.  I hope I never have it again – maybe if I never stop writing again, I’ll never have to start again? – but if I do I’m going to re-read this post and Konnakova’s article.

So, how about you? Have you had writer’s block? How did you overcome it?

Get with the times, Ros Barber: “Self-published” no longer means “inept.”

(A rant, and a challenge)

Yet again a major media outlet has granted space to a writer who wants to rail against self-publishing and to denigrate those who have chosen to pursue that route, particularly those who write fiction.

None of the arguments Ros Barber sets out in her recent article in The Guardian  is new. In fact, they are all so old that they have begun to smell – or, at the very least, to bore writer-readers who are not already members of the choir half to death. (Writers who are in Barber’s corner love to read the list of self-publishers’ shortcomings over and over again. They will never tire of it –until they become one of us, or die, whichever comes first. Despite the fact that it would force her to rethink her views, I wish upon Ms. Barber no novel that fails to sell to her publisher’s expectations, thereby banishing her from the traditional publishing firmament forever.)

I am not going to waste space taking Ms. Barber’s arguments apart. I’ve been taking the same ones apart for years, as have dozen of other respected and respectable writers on blogs and in numerous other venues. What she (and, it seems, the team of editors in the Books section at The Guardian) takes as cutting-edge insights are merely misguided opinions that have already been widely and frequently debunked.

What bothers me are not the points she makes, but the tone in which she makes them – and specifically, the utter lack of writerly fellowship that her article betrays. Such supercilious opinions as “good writers become good because they undertake an apprenticeship,” which suggests that those who self-publish do not know how to write, are utterly insulting to the innumerable writers who have completed agonizingly long “apprenticeships,” but whose writing is deemed by agents and/or commercial and/or financially hard-pressed (!) literary houses to be too offbeat or too marginal or too kinky or too similar to something that came out last year to be worthy of their imprint. Barber’s success in attracting even a £5000 advance for her most recent novel speaks more to blind luck or favourable industry connections than it does to talent.

The one point on which Ms. Barber almost indicates a passing knowledge of what she speaks is the one in which she says that self-published authors must invest 9/10 of their efforts in marketing, leaving only ten percent of their time for writing. (Although I do argue with her numbers: she has failed to consider the time it takes for any writer to earn a living while building up a readership.) However, as I’m sure she knows, it is fallacious to use the marketing imperative as an argument against self-publishing. If Barber’s publisher does not require her to spend a good deal of her time promoting her book, she’s not having the experience of most of my traditionally published colleagues. (I think she does know: anyone who can get an article into the Guardian is no slouch in the marketing department.)

I am sick and tired of finding it necessary to apologize not for the quality of my two most recent novels (for one should never attempt to defend what one has written), but for the way in which they were published. Who the hell cares how books reach the market? Readers certainly don’t. Nowadays, only small-minded, defensive writers seem intent on railing against those of us who have chosen to take our fates into our own hands.

The challenge: I invite Ms. Barber (and anyone else who wishes to do so) to request a complimentary copy of either of my self-published novels (Rita and Don , to read at least a decent chunk of it, and then to point out either publicly or in private the precise locations where the novel displays either a lack of publishing quality or dearth of literary talent. But people like Ms. Barber won’t do that: they’ve made up their minds ahead of time.

Ros Barber, please do not tar everyone with the same brush. You may have chosen to publish traditionally, but increasing numbers of us are choosing to do otherwise. Canada’s primary organization of creative writers, The Writers Union of Canada, now admits self-published authors whose books have been approved by its membership committee. Granting agencies and awards programs everywhere are going to need to consider how to manage the books by many younger writers who (like young musicians and film-makers) are choosing to go indie from the outset.

We are all in this together. We are writers. Some of us write better than do others, but increasingly this has nothing to do with how our writing reaches readers. A traditional publisher is no longer the only imprimatur of quality, if it ever was. The opinions in your article show you to be as disdainful as you are out of touch. I hope your fiction, notwithstanding its apparently historical nature, is more current.

Interested in a new language? Why not learn two? Or three?

"WELCOME" sphere icon with translations in various languagesWhen you take the possibility of perfection off the agenda, as I do with languages, the possibilities are endless.

Source: Interested in a new language? Why not learn two? Or three?

Virtual Reality and The Writer

Last weekend, I read an intriguing article by Simon Haupt in the Globe and Mail about the impending reality of virtual realityIn “Reality Check,” Haupt explores the downsides as well as the upsides of being able to put on a headset (“…really, just a pair of special goggles attached to a smartphone,” he says) and be immediately transported to somewhere where you’re not. I’ve considered the possibility of virtual reality before – who hasn’t? – but I’ve never before considered the impact it could have on my own life… the benefit it could have, to be specific.

Here’s the thing. As I have groused elsewhere, often, I have wanted my whole life to travel, but I have only now started to be able to do it. The list of places I want to visit has been growing over the years to the point where I am sure I will never get to all the destinations I want to reach before I am too old to get to them.

Now, I have an alternative! If I can travel to the places at the top of my list while I still can, I can spend the next decade virtually visiting the ones I didn’t reach. (Although I do have a caveat: the virtual reality [VR] experience needs to include smells, because smells are – to me – a very important part of travelling. They’ll have to add a smell recorder to the Google car, I guess. By the time my knees and stamina for actual travel have given out, they should have been able to iron out that wrinkle.)

[Virtual reality is] coming very soon to a home near you, with the potential to transform not just gaming, entertainment and social media but social justice advocacy, tourism, education, marketing, shopping, and dozens of other everyday experiences. – Simon Haupt

After I’d finished thinking about how I could travel to Johannesburg from an armchair using only a headset and my iPhone (think of the money I will save!), I started thinking about the effect widespread access to virtual reality might have on writers, specifically of fiction. Haupt mentions that a VR experience based on The Martian is already in the works, and at least one VR creator he interviewed for the piece predicts that simply placing viewers in VR situations will not satisfy consumers for long.

Haupt relates his conversation with James Milward, president of Secret Location, a Toronto marketing company that is already making award-winning VR content. “Soon, he says, we’ll need stories, or ‘something you’d demand in any other medium to make it meaningful. So I think that’s inevitable. We’re going to have to continue to push how we make things, and what we choose to make, in order to make it meaningful’.”

I cannot begin to fathom how difficult it would be to create a novel that translates easily to to a virtual reality format, and I’ve already decided that Rita Just Wants to Be Thin is not likely to appeal to most people who are consumers of VR. Who wants to actually go through the experience of trying unsuccessfully to stick to a diet? Maybe once or twice, but not the number of times it takes Rita to finally figure out how to live a life that is not associated with overeating. The Adventures of Don Valiente and the Apache Canyon Kid on the other hand? That might be fun.

What do you think? Can you imagine writing something that can be reproduced in virtual reality format, or is it going to take a whole different kind of creators to make appetizing “stories” for virtual reality consumption? Maybe it isn’t possible at all, and (as Haupt also suggests) perhaps this is just a fad that is blowing in the wind.

In confidence

“You will be glad to know that there comes a time when you no longer care as much as you once did about what other people think of what you write. Now you write primarily to please yourself. After many years of practice and of being your own worst critic, you see that when you are ready to let a piece of writing go, it is because it really does have merit. Nothing has changed except your perspective, and your knowledge that you’ve earned the right to feel the way you do.”

Becoming the Person I Want to Be

(Instead of the one I was afraid I would become) *

 
By my late twenties, I knew exactly what I wanted to do with my life: I wanted to be a writer. Not only did I love to read and write, I also loved the whole idea of being a writer. I imagined myself in the future, living a writer’s life – long days of creating fiction interspersed with occasional public readings from my newest book to audiences who hung on my every word.

I knew it wouldn’t happen overnight, but no matter how long it took, I was determined that I would get there. I would become that woman.

Ten years later, I’d published a novel, some short stories and some essays, even a radio drama. Reviewers for the most part seemed to like my work, and small groups of people came out to hear me read: sometimes they even seemed to hang on my every word. That part of my life was all I had imagined, and I loved it.

But writing is no way to make a living, so when I wasn’t writing, I was stressed. I was stressed about everything – my teenaged kids, my relationships, my work deadlines, my lack of money: you name it. And while I was stressing about everything, a few bad habits were turning into serious addictions. I was smoking too much, drinking too much, eating too much… sometimes all at the same time. Which added to my stress: now I also worried that my addictions were going to kill me – later if not sooner. My doctors’ advice just reinforced my fears, and a brush with breast cancer didn’t help.

By now I had a totally different image of my future self than I’d had when I was younger. Now what I saw was an enormous grey-haired woman rolling home from the liquor store, several bottles of fortified something tucked between her immense hips and the seat of the motorized wheelchair she now needed because her arthritic knees could no longer support her weight. An oxygen tank was strapped to the back of her wheelchair; tubes snaked into her nostrils.

In short, my image of the future was now fashioned out of fear, rather than from hope.

Gotta quit. Gotta quit.

For the next ten years, I was always trying to quit smoking. I was always trying to quit drinking. I was always trying to lose weight. Every day I made a new resolution and every day I broke it. I am pretty sure that I tried every single smoking cessation, drinking cessation and eating cessation program known to humankind – and I failed with every one of them.

Somehow I also managed to write and publish a few more books, but not as many as I would have if I hadn’t been so obsessed with my lack of money and my bad habits. (And, to make things worse, the price of cigarettes and booze kept going up and up, and the publishing industry fell to pieces!)

Finally, I hit bottom. And finally – with the help of a therapist I had gone to in despair – I began to realize that I had been taking the wrong approach. I began to understand that I could never quit anything when I was focussed only on the quitting. What I had to do was stop thinking about what I was afraid of, and start remembering what I wanted to become.

What I Did Next

At age 50, I took that image of myself as a failure and I essentially shoved her off a cliff. When I saw her trying to claw her way back up toward me, I shook my head at her. That wasn’t me. No more. After a long time, she grew weaker and stopped trying to return. Now I almost never see her.

In the meantime, I took that other image, the one which had become lost in all the stresses of the years, dusted her off, and put her back in front of me where I wouldn’t lose sight of her again. I did some fine-tuning while I was at it: imagining every aspect of what I wanted to become. I was getting to the age where if I didn’t do it now, I’d never get another chance.

The woman I wanted to become was strong and healthy. She was aging powerfully and well. She was a woman whose children and grandchildren would see her as a role model – and (this part hadn’t changed!) she was a writer whose books (and blog posts! And Tweets!) made people sit up and pay attention: hang off her every word.

First, I quit drinking… one day at a time. That turned out to be much harder and to take much longer than I thought it would, but it was nothing compared to quitting smoking. That I had to do one hour at a time. Both of those recoveries caused me to gain even more weight than I was already carrying around, but I couldn’t let myself worry about that. Finally I turned to the challenge of getting healthy, and a few years later, I was able to get serious about actually losing weight.

I didn’t do any of these things out of fear of what might happen if I didn’t do them, or because I wanted to fit into some outfit for a certain event. I didn’t do them because the doctors told me I had to, or because my loved ones said I should. I did these things for me – because I know who I am, and because the person that I am has goals. I did them because I want to live long enough to enjoy my life and the people I love for as long as I can – without sickness, without shame, and especially without fear.

I Am Getting There

I have not fulfilled my vision yet, but today I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, I get out and exercise regularly, and I weigh 35 pounds less than I did four years ago (I still have 10 pounds to go).

And I write. My latest book – a novel called Rita Just Wants to Be Thin – is the story of a woman who, at 29, learns the lessons that it has taken me a lifetime to figure out.

Who knows? Maybe some day Rita (or one of my other books) will put me on that stage I’ve been imagining for so many years, in front of a room full of readers who are hanging off my every word. But if that doesn’t happen, it’s okay. Because what really matters is what happens offstage, where most of my life is lived. And there, at last, I am finally getting closer and closer to becoming the person I have always wanted to be.

* This article was written at the invitation of Jan Graham and originally published on her great blog site, Cranky Fitness. Check it out. Thanks, Jan!

Art and Reading: Combining Pleasures

"The White Horse," John Constable. The Frick Collection

“The White Horse,” John Constable. The Frick Collection

It is one of my small gifts to myself after I’ve visited an art exhibition to purchase a few postcards in the gallery shop that depict the paintings or drawings or sculptures that particularly interested me.

I bring these home and then I use them as bookmarks. I write notes on the back of the postcard about the book as I am reading. Then, when I have finished the book I leave the postcard in it, and later I can revisit not only the book and my thoughts about it, but also remember a work of art I have seen somewhere and particularly liked.

IMG_4225I suppose I could choose the postcard on the basis of how I think the book is going to “feel,” but I don’t. That would make me dither, and I have enough things to dither about as it is.

Two of the most satisfying things in life are reading good books and seeing good art. I love that I can combine these pleasures easily and inexpensively.

Everything you ever wanted to know about publishing but were afraid to ask, in case

the entire publishing landscape might have changed since the last time you checked.

TWUCvid(Which it has.)

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The Writers’ Union of Canada’s cross-country workshop, Publishing 2.0 Tips and Traps, was held — to overwhelmingly positive reviews — in 9 cities across Canada in 2014-15. It is now available as an 83-minute video.

In it, Caroline Adderson, noted Canadian writer of fiction for children and adults, speaks to those who want to know how to work with traditional publishers today. And I share experience, advice, and cautionary tales with those who are considering self-publishing their back-lists or new titles. Most writers are interested in hearing about both approaches.

Through this video, you will gain the know-how and confidence to work within the current publishing landscape, and finish with an expanded and inspired sense of what it means to be an independent writer in today’s world. – TWUC web page

I was proud to be part of this comprehensive initiative because it spoke directly to writers as the creators who today have ultimate control over how their books reach readers. This video reflects that approach.

Euphoric

John and I were humbled and delighted to see this review of our book, The Adventures of Don Valiente and the Apache Canyon Kid. The review was written by Merna Summers  – a writer I have admired for decades – and published in the June, 2015 issue of Alberta Views.

DV001

Why Any Writer Worth Her Salt Should Welcome Amazon’s Pay-Per-Page Initiative

Screen Shot 2015-06-24 at 9.34.09 AMThere has been a whole lot of uproar and outrage out there in the books world in the past few days, ever since Jeff Bezos announced a new way of paying authors who participate in Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited and Kindle Owners’ Lending Library programs. The new system (which, by the way, applies ONLY to e-books that are borrowed from Amazon, and not to e-books that are bought outright), is to be launched in August.

The outrage has largely been fuelled by media coverage such as the item above from The Guardian, where the contents of the article are accurate but the headline misrepresents the nature of Amazon’s initiative. The dismay has been spread by those who read only headlines and then react — on Facebook, Twitter, or elsewhere – without reading further, and by people with a hate on for Amazon and Jeff Bezos in particular and self-publishing in general, due often to their loyalty to traditional publishers. (The dust from the Hachette fracas is a long way yet from settling.) Now I am seeing comments that denounce Amazon’s new method for paying authors for their borrowed books from people who don’t know the first thing about self-publishing, and may never have bought a single thing from Amazon, much less signed up to participate in its lending library.

In truth, Bezos’s announcement should be welcomed by every writer with any self-respect. Those of us who are writing books of fiction and non-fiction that we want people to read and find satisfying (or at least find to be of enough interest that they will finish reading them before they rip them to shreds), are the ones who will benefit from this new initiative. Those who will lose money are those who are churning out “book products” – page after page of illiterate crap that people download onto their computers but discard after the first sentence or first page.

The Particulars

Here is what you need to know in order to assess the new payment method that Bezos has announced:

  • The new royalty payment plan applies ONLY to books that are enrolled in the Kindle Unlimited and Kindle Owners’ Lending Library programs. Writers who have self-published their books in paperback or e-book format for direct sale on Amazon do not need to participate in the KU and KOLL program. It is optional.
  • Kindle Unlimited (KU) is a program for which readers can register for $9.99/month, and subscribers can then can borrow as many e-books or audiobooks as they want during the month. (If you’re in Canada, this is the link.) After the month is up, the e-book is removed from your device. Until now, the authors of those books got paid a portion of the kitty collected from KU whenever their books were downloaded, whether the books were ever read or not. If a reader read the first page or first five pages, hated the book, and never picked it up again, the author still got paid. Or if a reader felt like downloading several books but never got around to reading any of them before the borrowing time was up (as some of us do at the library, sort of like trying on clothes at home and then deciding we don’t like/need/want them, and taking them back unworn), the writer still got paid.
  • The Kindle Owners Lending Library (KOLL) is available to members of Amazon Prime. KOLL operates in a similar way to KU, except that there is no “due date,” when the e-book is automatically removed from your device, but you can only borrow one book a month. Again, many readers were downloading books, discovering they were not of interest to them and/or were unadulterated crap, and never picking them up again. The writer still got paid.
  • The money that is available to authors who choose to participate in KU and KOLL is called the KDP Select Global Fund. Each month a percentage of it goes out to authors. Currently, the money that Amazon makes available to this fund is divided equally among all books that are borrowed via KU or KOLL. Those authors with more books have the potential to make more money.
  • Under the new system, the money will be divided on the basis of the number of pages “read” (or accessed, to be exact) when a book is downloaded. There are downsides to this if you are a poet, or are writing genius flash fiction: these writers may chose to triple-space their text in future:) . But the benefits outweigh the disadvantages for most books and most genuine writers, because now payments will be made to authors who have written books that are of sufficient merit that readers want to keep reading — either because of the quality of the writing, the page-turning nature of the writing, or for other reasons (e.g., the reasons that made the Fifty Shades book sell so well, which still elude me). With her best-selling novel The Goldfinch coming in at 771 print pages, Donna Tartt would have been ecstatic about this new plan if she’d had the foresight to self-publish.

An Attractive Option

While it is optional for authors of e-books on Amazon to make their books available on Kindle Direct Publishing Select (KDP Select) — where they become eligible for KU and KOLL – there are definitely advantages to participating, such as a higher royalty rate on books that readers purchase outright from Amazon. This makes sense: Amazon wants to encourage readers to participate in KU and Amazon Prime. But it is still a choice: we can sell our e-books and our paperbacks on Amazon without participating in the KDP Select program. I personally have made almost as much from the KU/KOLL program as I have from outright sales since I enrolled in it.

Sorting Wheat from Chaff

In case you hadn’t noticed, there is a whole lot of crap out there in the self-publishing world. I have seen “writers” on Facebook, Twitter and elsewhere who laugh at those of us who ever write a second draft of anything. To them, revision is a waste of time. These people measure their output in the number of words written in a day (5,000 being a typical minimum) and work to attain those numbers like those of us with FitBits do to acquire steps. It’s not that they write inspired first drafts: I’ve checked out several of them. Quality is not an issue: the number of books (products) on the market is all that matters. Those self-described writers have been doing very well with KOLL and KU as it currently exists — who cares if people read your book? All that matters is that they download them.

Those who are the modern versions of Charles Dickens — who, given his deadlines, must have churned out readable first drafts — will continue to make money under the new system. But they are in the minority.

Those of us who have sweated over every single word we’ve written, and after much revision (usually taking several years, not several weeks) have ended up with a few books that we find of sufficient quality to publish — and then, before we dared to self-publish them, have hired editors and book designers to make the “package” a quality item in which to deliver the quality writing — are the ones who are going to win under the new system.

It has long been my belief that the new gatekeepers for books — those who decide what books other people should read — will in future be the readers, rather than the agents, publishers, booksellers and traditional reviewers who have dictated the confines of our reading decisions in the past. This new approach from Amazon brings us one step closer to that reality.