On Writing: What Stymies You?

nowritingI’m doing manuscript critiques for the Backspace Writer’s Conference, which I’ll be at tomorrow and Friday. As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, I love going to writing conferences. I love having the opportunity to interact with writers, giving them feedback that I just don’t have time to give  when answering queries. I also get very inspired to write. I am, after all, first and formost (at least in my own mind, if not in actuality) a writer. I had lunch the other day with my client Joe McGee, who is not only a very fine writer himself but also teaches writing to others.  Joe and I were discussing writing, inspiration, and how difficult it is can be to get out of our own way.

As an agent I’m constantly reading other people’s work and assessing their writing and ideas to see if they have legs for publication. I see many of the same mistakes or weaknesses in writing over and over and over and over again. Information dumping. Descriptions of things/events/thoughts/etc… that do nothing to move the plot forward or illuminate a character. Lots of throat clearing. Lots and lots and lots of telling (versus showing) of a story. Tons of wiggling eyebrows, noticing of something suddenly, and thoughts conveniently crossing a main character’s mind. And let’s not forget dream sequences, staring into mirrors, and remembering one’s childhood or dead mother/father/grandparent/sibling/best friend/boy or girlfriend.

So as I critique these pages for the conference, I’m mostly saying the same things to these authors. Does this make them bad writers? No, not really. Actually, some of them are darn good writers. But the repetitiveness of my critiques points to how difficult it is to overcome these pitfalls, regardless of one’s skill level or innate talent.

So how does doing this affect me as a writer? Well, it actually stymies me. I find it excruciatingly difficult to get out of my own way. Joe’s (excellent) advice, and the advice of so many who have commented on the blog, is to just write the goddam first draft. Write it without revising. Write it because it wants to be written. Write it without thinking too much. Write it for yourself, not for anyone else’s eyes. Just write it.

Although I know many of you are eager to give me your advice, honestly I don’t really need more advice. As my kids say to me, “I’m good.” I mean, we all know what to do about it: Just write anyway. What I’d love to know though is what stops you. What stymies you when you’re writing and why do you think it does that? 

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12 responses to “On Writing: What Stymies You?

  1. For the longest time, what stopped me was believing that I had to write in a linear fashion, that I HAD (like some writing police were going to come nab me if I didn’t) write scene after scene IN ORDER. It was only in this last year that I trained and allowed myself to jump around, to write scenes. Now, I think of them as lily pads all connected, floating in the same pond. If you know what your character wants and, ultimately, where they are going (even if it is just a hazy idea of where the far bank of the pond is) then you can craft individual scenes. Some times doing this frees up ideas for the scenes you were stuck on and skipped. Either way, you are moving forward and writing “the goddam first draft.”

    I also get stopped by shiny, new ideas. Suddenly a hot new character wants me to write about them, or a new genre rolls in like a fresh pot of coffee and I want to start banging out a story. I’ve gotten better about staying the course. If you need a “break,” do something that still holds true to your WIP, like interview your character, write a scene in which they interact with your new idea, have them explain to you what they think about the front page news. If that doesn’t work, and you want something new..write a poem, or a piece of flash fiction. Something short and something that has an ending. That should satisfy your hungry creative urges.

    • Oops…see? I can’t help myself. I started giving advice despite your CLEAR instructions on NOT giving advice. Heehee. :]

  2. Kathy

    Nerves maybe? For me, it is the pressure of trying to do everything I’ve ever read or heard I should do in those beginning pages. I can’t remember where I put my car keys most days, but I can’t forget every bit of advice I have heard along the way and it has paralyzed me. Thanks for the advice at Backspace though. it was an “aha” for me to shove all that out of my head and get back to telling a story.

  3. I have a hard time filling in the “small details”. I naturally want to write about what directly happens to progress the plot but one of my pet peeves (about my work as well as others’) is when a story is too predictable. So I have to consciously add in some detail to fill in the gaps between the major story events to disguise what’s happening a bit. This has always been by hardest struggle.

  4. Giora

    Nice interview with you in Writers Digest May 23. No advice from me, just best wishes.

  5. karenleehallam

    Exactly why I write by hand in composition books. Also keeps me away from computer.
    Thank you so very much, for the tips on what you see bogging down our manuscripts. I’m keeping these on a pinboard.

  6. Having a plot bump stops me cold. I’m not a planner, wish I were, but most of my plot points occur on the fly and when I feel as if I have no direction to move towards, I’m practically paralyzed. It’s awful.

  7. Transitions make me stall too, and so does writing snappy endings to chapters that keep the tension without being too contrived.

    When I first started writing, I went full-steam ahead, filling the pages with all sorts of nonsense. After many excruciating rewrites, I’m a lot more cautious. Which may well be a good thing, but sometimes I miss that reckless old anything-goes approach, however mindless and naive it was.

  8. I get stuck is in transitions from one scene to the next. During first draft, I tend to just skip the transition and figure I’ll fix it during revision. Unfortunately, time does not improve my ability to smoothly tie some scenes together.

  9. What has stymied me from writing is trying to write after a stroke. Before my stroke, nothing stopped me but self doubt. I wrote because I had a story in me to tell. Good, bad, ugly, or gorgeous I wrote it all down. It didn’t matter in the first draft. That’s what first drafts are for. Editing and multiple drafts later is for the clean up.

    I found compartmentalizing your brain helps with a light switch to turn on and off segments you don’t want to intrude works. My daughter used to say to her friends that she brought home from school, “Don’t mind her. She’s lost in (whatever location the book I was currently working on).” But I do have a default switch or main cut-off switch that allows me to snap back to present when I hear certain sounds (or lack of) or smells. That’s my own protection mechanism kicking in. Otherwise the words keep flowing from brain to page.

    How many drafts or editing passes do you think a writer goes through before you read the first word as an agent? Sometimes hundreds. I’ve narrowed it down to six to ten after DECADES of writing. My current WIP is the first that I’ve sent to my agent as an uncompleted first draft because she and he demanded to see what I had.

    As my tag line for my blog, I use “I’d spend my life writing if real life didn’t get in the way.”

  10. All of the above? Even if I don’t tumble too deep into a particular pitfall, I still worry about it. If I were to bit one, it would be trouble finding the right amount of detail while keeping my wordcount from getting so great that it collapses under its own gravity to form a singularity. I think I run into that problem because I like to put a lot of moving parts, you could even say cogs, into my plots.