Writers' Exchange: Problems writers face
Published: June 27, 2003
|In our latest call for essays, we asked readers to tell us about the most difficult problem they've tackled as writers. The issues described are familiar to most of us-writer's block, rejection, self-doubt, plot and character snags, space and time limitations. Five selections-from the more than 200 received-were published in the August issue of The Writer; five more are presented here.|
|The biggest problem I've faced as a writer|
I was in my 30s when my two children were born, and leaving my full-time job in publications to be a full-time mother was an easy decision. With a rosy maternity glow, I pictured myself as a blooming freelance writer, working at the kitchen table while our children would nap on command or play quietly beside me. By the time our first-born was 1 month old, my plan was already in the revision stages.
Yes, for reasons that all mothers understand, my children were my greatest writing challenge for the first 10 years of their lives. As a writer at home, I could not simultaneously soothe my fussy infant son, find a missing puzzle piece for my rambunctious 3-year-old son and calmly discuss an article deadline with a magazine editor on the telephone.
First, I stopped thinking about earning money. My primary goal was to be published. Secondly, I decided to enlist the help of our children, starting when they were babies.
I taught my sons how to take a nap. They are three years apart in age, and each napped until age 3. For almost six consecutive years, I was at home for two hours every afternoon at approximately the same time. (My husband usually took weekend "duty.") Two hours daily was my block of time--to read, think about article subjects, write, conduct phone interviews or do laundry. While other families considered our schedule restrictive, we knew that happy, rested toddlers were a benefit to our sanity and marriage.
I taught my sons that my desk was private property. If you can teach a toddler that a stove is not to be touched, you can teach him that your desk is private property. My desk was off-limits to the entire family. No one borrowed items, opened drawers or used the desktop.
I taught my sons that our home was also my office. When the boys were preschoolers, some days I gave them 100 percent of my time, and other days I gave them 80 percent. More than once they heard me say, "My job is not to entertain you all day, everyday." Sam and Jeff also learned to read my lips during certain telephone calls. "This is a business phone call. You cannot talk to me unless you are near death. And I don't want to hear you, either!" They knew this was the wrong time to report that my car keys had somehow been dropped into the toilet, or that somehow a bottle of blue food coloring had gotten spilled on the dining room carpet.
I taught my sons some simple business skills that freelance writers need. Before we owned a computer or fax machine, I was a regular customer of a small business supply store. The boys often accompanied me, not as whining brats but as polite children who learned that they sometimes had to wait in line at the cash register, just as they did at the school drinking fountain. They were with me in the post office to mail manuscripts, and they once licked envelopes when I mailed the same query to 40 daily newspapers. Many times they noticed me copying and assembling the pages of a published clip, and then enclosing it with a handwritten thank-you note. "Why are you doing that, Mom?" "Because these people were nice enough to give me time for an interview. Without them, I couldn't have sold the article." I knew the boys were comfortable with my part-time job when one of them described me--in writing--for a class assignment in the third grade: "My Mom writes stories and rents them out."
I taught my sons that writers usually need help. One particular rainy evening when my husband was overseas on business, the boys (5 and 8 years old) were irritable and combative. In ten minutes, I needed to conduct an important phone interview that couldn't be rescheduled. In desperation, I bribed them. "If you're quiet while I'm on the phone, and if I sell the article, I will give you 10 percent of the paycheck." They were intrigued enough to cooperate. When the check for $150 arrived, they happily each accepted $7.50. I continued this payment arrangement until the oldest entered high school. Believe me, they quickly learned the difference between "pays on acceptance" and "pays on publication."
My sons taught me how capable and generous they could be. In the beginning, all I really wanted was basic cooperation. ("Find your shoes! The library closes in 30 minutes!") Sam and Jeff are now 21 and 18. In addition to cooperation, what have they given me? Respect, support, companionship, article ideas, market suggestions and free proofreading. With a benefit package that good, I'm keeping this job for life.
|Busting writer's block|
You sit down in front of your computer, and the cursor is blinking on the screen, as if tapping its little foot, waiting impatiently for you to begin.
But you're stuck. You'd started with great ideas and had been typing the words as fast as they flowed from your brain to your fingertips, but then--you became blocked.
When one of the characters in the book I am currently writing bogged me down by rooting herself squarely in my path, I cowered at first. I had an image of her, but it was unclear and one-dimensional. And cardboard cutouts don't work well in novels.
I tried writing around her. This worked for a little while, but I still had to deal with her, finally, after I'd written all the other characters. She was stubborn, but I forced her into submission with a few tricks.
I tried calling her profane names, to loosen her up a little, but this only made me feel better for a short while. I tried forcing myself to write her, but this resulted in stiff, boring paragraphs that even I didn't want to read. I thought about why this character was such a problem. I decided that I couldn't get inside her head because I couldn't relate to her and just downright didn't even like her.
Writer's block, I believe, happens for a reason. Perhaps you don't know your character well enough to write about her. So you must use writer's block as a tool--recognize that your subconscious is trying to tell you that you're not quite ready to commit to writing this character's story just yet. You need to get to better know some element of your story or a certain character before you can even begin it, let alone finish it.
That's what I did. Because my novel spans 30-odd years, I had already researched what happened during those years and created a timeline. But on the timeline, I made notations: what music the character might have liked, what current trends or fads the character may have followed, how she might have been impacted by the major events that occurred in the world. Next to each year, I noted her age--obviously, a 5-year-old will perceive and react differently to any given situation than a 20-year-old would--as well as what grade she would have been in, noting graduations and post-graduation events like marriages and pregnancies. I also jotted down notes about other events that may have occurred in this character's personal life. Even if I only used a fraction of this work, it still provided a framework that helped me to more fully construct the character and to get to know her better.
This exercise was useful for not only this specific character, but for all the characters, giving better perspective and, in general, making the novel richer in detail and authenticity.
Next, I conducted an "interview" with the problem character. I asked her questions like what was important to her in her life, how she really felt about the people, situations and events in her life.
I did the same with the character's sister, her parents, her husband. Again, most of this was set aside, used mostly as a foundation from which I could write the character's real story.
After I had done all of this, I felt more ready to approach this character. She still was the least cooperative, but this character evolved into one of the most complex and interesting in the novel. I never did get to like her much, but I understood her much better. I was able to make her less of an outright bitch and show her faults, her fears--in other words, she became human. To me, it's fine to portray a character as a villain, but also convey to the reader the underlying issues that cause that character to react to the world in a certain way. This enriches the reading experience for them, and the writing experience for you.
Don't let writer's block paralyze you! It's always a good practice to walk away from your story for a little while, so you can approach it again with fresh perspective, and fill in any holes or flesh out characters or descriptions later that might seem a little thin upon a new reading. Recognize that writer's block is sometimes a necessity, a signal that your work needs refinement. Don't fear it-- use it to your advantage.
|A room of my own, Virginia|
Overland Park, Kansas
Once upon a time when my children were small, I dreamed of a room of my own where books were in place and words transferred themselves to paper with effortless clarity. When the kids were grown and I worked away from home, I dreamed of an at-home job, a quiet retreat from the world. Well, I finally have an at-home job, but I do it so well that I often spend fourteen hours a day in the office and never get any of my own writing done.
Instead of one home-based job, I have three. I also have three phone lines, a four-in-one printer/fax/scanner/copier, a computer with a hard drive big enough to save the world, two desks, four file cabinets, five overflowing bookcases, and books, which I never have time to read anymore, stacked beside my desk.
I liked Virginia's room--a quiet place for reflection, a window to stare out of. I wonder what she'd think of this.
It's not that I'm completely disorganized--I'm not--I bought the second desk to sit at right angles to my computer desk so I'd have a clear space to put down a yellow legal pad and rest my arm to write a poem. That desk became paper stacked, so I bought a two-bin rollaway storage unit.
However, all the storage space anyone could want won't stop the phone from ringing. Or, shall I say, three phones, all of which, from time to time, ring at the same time. And if they aren't ringing, there are calls to return and errands to remove from the ever-expanding to-do list.
You get the picture. You've probably lived it.
"Help!" I said one evening as I settled into a chair with my writing group.
In a dramatic fashion, I flung my arms out to include all of my writing partners. "I'm not getting any work done because I have all this other work to do. Help me figure out how to get back to writing. Please!"
If you don't have a writing group yet, get one. It can save your life.
Frank said, "You have to stick to a certain time."
I knew that. In previous years, I'd awakened at 4:30 a.m. to write before the day became busy. However, I'd recently married, and my husband, while supportive, does not support my going to bed at eight o'clock at night.
"When's your quietest time of the day?" Jim asked.
"Between 2:00 and 4:00 in the afternoon," I said.
"Get out of the house," Marilee said. "Go sit in the park and clear your head."
"That might work. I could take a pad of paper and write at one of the picnic tables," I said.
"No, sit and clear your head. Stop," she said.
"I don't have two hours to stop!" My voice rose to a whine.
Jerry finally spoke up. "Graduate students at Harvard are required to spend a certain amount of time in The Box, a windowless cubicle in the library basement. That library near your house has study rooms. Try them."
"Thank you!" I said. I felt my shoulders relax.
I knew the rooms. An image popped into my mind like a beacon of hope in a cluttered world: clean white walls, a big bare table, chairs. No phones.
The next day at the library, I checked out the rooms. The procedure was simple: I could reserve a room for two-hours; if no one wanted it after that, I could stay. Just that easy, frustration turned into production.
Now I have an office away from my home. I take a thermos of tea, a pad of paper and all of my thoughts to a clean, quiet room. The librarians know me. They ask about my progress and assist me with research. The bookcases near this office are very neat.
Having a space of two hours with no interruptions, five days a week over the last six months has been my daily miracle. I've created three chapters to a book, a proposal, an essay and several poems. Thankfully, Virginia, I found a room all my own.
|A different kind of 007|
Ever been that much-talked-about fly on the wall? Sitting in a bar or your favorite cafe and a word or a whisper a few tables away and you feel your ears perk up? Your senses heighten? A mother scolding her son in a humiliating cadence sets your nerves on edge and gets your defenses up. A couple giggling, caressing above and below the table, piques your interest. Your body noticeably leans in the direction of the sound. Soon you begin a series of rehearsed movements disguised to resemble harmless everyday actions: a drop of the napkin, a casual side trip for extra creamer, and before you know it, you're one step closer to the inside track.
Though this may sound like an early training session for a would-be spy, these days writers of all mediums are becoming increasingly versed in reconnaissance gathering, culling sources from all avenues of life. New York Times bestselling author Maeve Binchy said in a feature interview for Random House, "I sometimes steal little aspects of people's personalities and add them to totally fictitious characters. When other people think I'm not looking, I eavesdrop and lip-read to learn how they live."
While character development entails drawing from personal experience, the trick to enlisting character credibility comes in giving the reader something they can lock on to, by nailing the subtleties of body language and personality. It was this second aspect that proved a real test for me. As an only child, I spent most of my young life buried in my own fantasy worlds of make-believe, so character creation had always been a cinch. However, as I learned more about the craft of writing, it became apparent that it was going to take more than a rich imagination to bring these figures to life in the minds of others. Making use of what I call "an exercise in applied observance," I began revisiting a forgotten childhood pastime. My grandmother's favorite activity is what she still refers to as "people watching." The two of us could sit for hours, licking ice cream cones, and watching the multitudes pass by, all the while never guessing it would prove fodder for future storytelling.
As writers, it would logically serve to have an insatiable curiosity into the behavior of those around us. But professional spies will tell you that unlike James Bond 007, with his famous high-tech, superstar approach, the basic idea here is to remain covert. In fact, most agents pride themselves on never making an appearance, even acknowledging that a successful spy will have done their job only if no one was the wiser to their existence, let alone their mission.
Fortunately, this comes as a rather easy task for someone like me: an average sort, who keeps to herself and can drift among the crowd in a most unspectacular fashion. Absorbing every nuance from the urgent rattling in the next booth as a newspaper is snapped open to the financial section to the pensive agony crossing the features of a nearby woman debating the merits of fruit over double chocolate fudge for dessert. These are the subtle characteristics of human nature that can only be found by studying it, and doing so without giving away your true purpose--to catch those unguarded moments.
This system of awareness is not only useful to writers, but stretches to other interpretive fields as well--namely, acting. Academy Award-winning actor Michael Caine explained in a 1992 interview on NPR's Fresh Air that he would "watch documentaries or people on subways" to study film acting, which he describes as an exercise in listening, reaction and behavior. After all, it's not just the characters themselves that is so fascinating and problematic in portrayal. He went on to say it's the neuroses and behavior that so seamlessly intertwines before us in everyday exchanges that can make our interpretation come to life in the reader's mind.
While I believe the adage that the greatest gift a writer has is the ability to make readers change the way they see the world, I also believe there is something poignant about imbuing a glimpse of the familiar. In the way a character walks, gestures, even a quirk of an expression can mean the difference between a character that pops off the page and into the hearts of readers from a two-dimensional "caricature" that merely rings hollow. By studying the people and situations around me, I have found ways to deepen characters and gain new insight into their motives and perhaps even a better understanding of my own.
|Leap of faith|
Sister Lou Ella Hickman
Corpus Christi, Texas
Writing is an adventure, not merely a set of problems to be solved. That said, my shift from being a published poet to an author of 60-plus articles became that adventure--a motorcycle ride across the Grand Canyon. After some 30 years of poetry writing, my adventure with prose was turned on with a simple mental click. I realized if I could challenge my high school students to write, then so could I. However, the distance between that insight and publication wasn't a very straight line.
If confession is good for the soul, then I don't mind admitting my work was cut out for me. After my first submissions failed, I decided I needed to study each of my rejections. As a result, the teacher in me took over. As I reread the material, I slowly became aware I had been preachy, wordy and even rigid in my approach. Change was even slower. Yet somehow on this wild ride across the abyss, I did manage to have one article published. I knew then the secret to success depended on my learning how to repeat the process. However, my terse verse kept getting in the way. Consequently, I had to refocus; that is, I had to learn how to s-t-r-e-t-c-h a precise 10-line poem into pages of the lyrical.
Simple does not always equal easy. As I mentioned above, it was a long, slow re-education. During that time, each rejected manuscript became a unique lesson in listening. Since my number-one commandment as a poet had been cut, cut, cut--I now struggled to listen to another voice. When I listened to that voice, I found each piece could teach me something specific and concrete. Then the lessons began to pay off; I slowly learned what to put in rather than what to delete. Every line, every phrase had something to say and, as such, words became infinitely more important than my personal agenda.
Throughout this re-education, my poetic discipline did prove to be useful. In order for prose to be lyrical, it needs expert pruning. Sad to say, many novice writers have an aversion to criticism, but not this one. I wanted to learn how to take my prose apart and put it back together the way I did with my poems. So I went looking for feedback. Once, a community sister apologized for using so much red ink on my rough draft. I shot back, "I want to get it published, don't I?"
When success began to dribble in, I moved on to study what I did right. Because I did, I noticed three major strengths emerging; the ones I had read about in writing magazines: write in active voice, use action verbs and above all create a crisp, clean style. With each success, the other side of the canyon came closer into view.
Along my route I also created a method for dealing with my poetry and prose rejections. I called it my 24-hour rule. The rule was simple--after I received a rejection letter, I had to put something in the mail within 24 hours. Needless to say, the rule also helped to add to my success.
Surprisingly, my leap of faith backtracked on me. My stretching lessons helped me distill my poems, making them even more precise and compressed. Now when I get one back via a magazine, I continue to be amazed where this enterprise has taken me.
Ten years ago, I never would have dreamt what an adventure I would embark on because of one simple insight. Yes, indeed, it has been one glorious ride for a nun on a motorcycle flying across the Grand Canyon.