Friday, December 4, 2009

Tricks of the Trade

by Libby Malin

So it's holiday time, when all good writers pen their letters to Santa, asking for. . . inspiration, time, film options in the seven figures with producers who can snap their fingers and have projects come together in the blink of an eye. . . .

I'd be happy with all those things (and maybe a Kindle, too--please, Santa. . .), but today I'm going to address only one of them and how to get it without help from Kris Kringle.

That is, inspiration. Or, more specifically, the ability to keep writing when the muse is off stuffing herself with holiday cookies.

All writers have different approaches to lighting the fuse of creativity, but sometimes even the brightest-burning flame flickers out, leaving you bereft and searching, staring at a computer screen, or out the window, or at that plate of cookies you wish you'd not left so close to the desk.

Over the years, I've developed a number of tricks to help me strike the match and get my creativity glowing. When I first began writing, the best and most effective strategy was for me to set daily page quotas. Three double-spaced pages a day was my goal, nothing extravagant, very doable. Yet, sometimes even making that goal was tough, and I'd keep scrolling down the page to see just how much space I had left to fill. Nonetheless, this trudge-through approach did result in manuscripts, even if they needed editing.

Once I knew I could finish a manuscript, new winds blew out my flame. I'd stop at a plot crossroads, unable to continue as I considered what would happen if Jane did X instead of Y, if John took the train to San Diego instead of to San Antonio.

Time for a new trick--at that kind of plot indecision stall, I would start writing scenes single-spaced. This shift seemed to give my imagination "permission" to play with ideas because, after all, everyone knows a real manuscript is double-spaced. Single-spacing is so unofficial.

But sometimes my problem wasn't an overabundance of plot ideas. Sometimes, it was a dearth of them. There are days I can't seem to get John or Jane to make the train reservations at all, let alone choose the destination. That's when I realize the problem is characterization, not plot. I'm trying to fit a square (character) peg into a round (plot) hole.

Next trick--interviewing my characters, sometimes on paper, sometimes by talking out loud (yes, that's who I'm talking to alone in my car as I drive to and fro). I ask them, what do you want to do, what do you want out of life, where are you going? The answers often surprise me, but I'm back to the page, the creativity candle burning.

I asked some writer friends about their tricks. Here are a few:

Set a timer and write until it dings. No matter what the writing quality is, it helps you move past a writing funk, or a procrastination problem.

Journal in first person POV as if you are one of your characters, using stream-of-consciousness to keep you going.

Type in a smaller font. Like my "single space" trick, this tactic gives you permission to experiment, since you know you'd never submit pages set in anything but 12 point Times New Roman.

Write longhand for awhile, tackling particularly troublesome scenes.

Take a break and read some nonfiction research material.

Redo your office space -- new day, new atmosphere, new chances to shine as a writer.

Those are the tricks I've learned--what are yours?


  1. All good ideas, Libby. If I get stuck, I start cleaning my office and it's amazing how quickly I get over my slump. I've also tried handwriting, it worked great but I never tried typing single spaced. It would beat office cleaning any day!

  2. I clean after I've finished a novel, or I can't find something. :)

    Brainstorm--if I can't figure out where to go, or I want to deepen my character's characterization. What makes them so driven to do what they do? Make a list of 20 things. I don't do this on paper, but just mentally.

    What if? Then run from there.

    I don't give in to my muse, because she's usually a closet muse. I have to force her sometimes to come out and play when I get really stuck. :)

  3. Actually, a friend recommended the single-space idea to me years ago. I was amazed at how well it worked for me, how it turned off the internal editor who sometimes snarks in your ear about what won't work. :-)

  4. Thanks for the suggestions, Libby. If I get stuck, I just keep writing. A lot of ideas come to me while I'm driving, too, and some of my best plotting has been done behind the wheel.

  5. I often write things (including press releases) and then let them sit for at least a day and then I can come back and take another stab at things. If I look at it again too soon, I just mull over what I'm struggling with.

    Great advice! Thanks Libby!

  6. Great ideas!
    I was stumped at the climax of the story once. I knew how the book ended but I simply couldn't make one of my main characters go that way. She dug in her heals and wouldn't let me write anything more. So frustrating. Finally, I sat down and asked her why. Basically, I got out a pad of paper an interviewed her. This was when she told me (cue the Twighlight Zone music) the reason she didn't want to go on was because she was scared. She'd done something BAD that the hero and I didn't know about. Really bad. Turns out this plot point was the key to the story. The prefect twist because I had no idea it was coming.

  7. Libby, I'm very fond of writing long hand in first person. It helps get me deep into the character. But I much prefer typing, so I only hit pen and paper when I'm desperate.

    I just came off of NaNo. But I didn't just write 50,000 crap words, I edited along the way and now my brain is bugging out on me. Ever since I completed my 50k I haven't been able to write more than 100 words a day. I think I need to try some of these tricks so I can get my story done.

  8. I have to admit I have a problem writing longhand and usually use it only for notes.

  9. Road trips. My characters love going for a drive and I indulge them. We drive through the wine country and horse ranches and that helps. Although there's a lot of times they love to talk no matter what.

    As for me, I want a Nook. :}


  10. Some great ideas, Libby! Thanks so much for sharing!

  11. Popping in late to say THANK YOU for all the excellent ideas, Libby! I will definitely try the single spaced typing.

    When I'm stuck, I like to go to lunch with my BFF. I don't know why, but I've been hit with some great ideas driving to or from lunch with her!

    Renee, CONGRATS on NaNoWriMo! WTG on the 50k, and I'd say after all that in 30 days, you deserve a few days of only 100 words. ;-)