Seven Tips for Writing in Difficult Times

IMG_20200403_193951_369Hello Friends,

If you’re having trouble writing these days, you’re not alone. Every writer I know is having trouble producing new work—me included. But I’ve put together some strategies that have been helping me, and I think they will help you too. Here are seven ways to keep writing in difficult times.

  1. Write in Smaller Chunks

In ordinary times, we make big writing goals, and then we break them down into manageable steps. In difficult times, you can do the same thing, but make the steps even smaller. Nope, that’s not small enough. Make it smaller yet. Some of my friends are committing to writing 100 words a day. Others are writing fifteen minutes a day. That’s all they can do, and that’s all they need to do.

  1. Write to Prompts

If working on a novel or memoir seems too hard, try writing prompts. They are great writing practice, they will get you thinking differently, and there are no stakes. With a prompt, you can write well or write badly, as long as you’re writing.

  1. Try Editing

Sometimes, you can’t write new material, but you can edit old stuff. There can be great comfort in polishing your work. In times of stress, it’s calming to make order out of chaos.

  1. Don’t Forget to Read

If all else fails, and you can’t write a single thing, try reading. Turn off the news, stop scrolling social media, and just read. You could pick up a book about the craft of writing, or just read in your genre. Being familiar with books in your genre is an important part of a writer’s toolbox, so reading time is part of writing time.

  1. Take on This Identity

Do you call yourself a writer? Why not? If you truly take on that identity, and you know deep in your bones that you’re a writer, then the act of writing will become second nature. You take care of your children, right? Why? Because you’re a parent. You don’t think about it too much, or stress about it, you just do it. You walk your dog because you’re a dog owner. Maybe you cook because you’re a chef or you drive a bus because you’re a bus driver. In the same way, you write because you’re a writer. So take on that identity and allow yourself to write in a more matter-of-fact way.

  1. Find a Buddy

Even if we can’t meet face to face, we can still can still reach out for support. I like to have virtual write-ins with a friend. We’ll agree on a start time and then text each other to say, “Okay, go!” After an hour, we’ll text again, to congratulate each other for a good hour of writing. All you need is a little bit of time and one writing buddy.

  1. Remember This is Temporary

Do you remember the last time your writing was going really well? When you were in the zone, and the words flowed effortlessly? That was a temporary state. It was fun while it lasted, but it eventually ended and you got stuck. But the good news is, being stuck is temporary too! It won’t last forever. A writer is always bouncing back and forth between stuck and unstuck. That’s just the nature of the creative life. A lot of us are feeling stuck right now. None of us will be stuck forever.

I hope everyone is safe, healthy, and well-stocked, and that we’ll all be back to visiting our favorite bookstores and libraries again soon. I’ll post again on the 1st with my next scheduled book review.

 

Alex K.

 

Understanding Show, Don’t Tell by Janice Hardy

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This is the second book on this topic I’ve reviewed this year, but while Sandra Gerth’s how-to book is excellent, and a must-buy, Janice Hardy’s book could be considered the follow-up to it. UNDERSTANDING SHOW, DON’T TELL is extremely in-depth and will be useful for writers who want to go beyond the basics to take a detailed look at showing and telling in fiction.

Hardy starts by explaining why telling happens in prose, and how to watch out for subtle problems like the author filtering the experience, improper narrative distance, and naming a character’s emotions. Hardy’s explanations are filled with examples that perfectly illustrate her points as she shows writers how to spot telling in their own work. She examines telling trouble spots like backstory, description, and infodumps, and gives a list of red-flag words such as decided, tried, felt, or seemed.

Hardy’s chapter on the uses of telling, however, is a scant three pages long. It probably should have been longer, since there are areas where telling comes in handy and Hardy could have expanded on that point. Showing and telling need to work hand-in-hand to make a novel complete.

But most novels could use more showing and less telling, and Hardy is an excellent guide for fixing told prose. For every problem, she has a solution, and is right there with writers as they identify telling and convert it to showing. By going through all the chapters of UNDERSTANDING SHOW, DON’T TELL writers will be able to fix point of view problems, and get out of the characters’ way to let them tell the story. (Or rather, show the story.)

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UNDERSTANDING SHOW, DON’T TELL can be found here

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Rating: 4 stars

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This book is best for: advanced writers

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I recommend this book

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Note: Everyone is hurting right now, my household included, but lots of people are hurting more than me. Are you okay? I hope you’re okay. Please do NOT click on the ko-fi link on my sidebar this month. If you do, I’ll just spend it on something to ease my own anxiety, like buying yet another bottle of hand sanitizer for my mom. Hang onto your dollars this time, my friends. Take care of you.

 

 

5 Secrets of Story Structure by K.M. Weiland

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Not every how-to book is for every writer. That’s why my blog exists. But even knowing that, I’ve never had such mixed feelings about a book before. Depending on how far you are on your writing journey, and what kind of writer you are, 5 SECRETS OF STORY STRUCTURE could either be a rocket booster or blow up in your face.

5 SECRETS OF STORY STRUCTURE is ideal for people who have read at least one other book on story structure but still want a deeper dive into the topic, filled with the most granular details. If you’re the kind of writer who loves to outline, wants to know exactly which scene goes where, and has a bottomless appetite for plot dissection, this book will grow your writing craft by leaps and bounds.

However, not every writer works that way. If you’re a pantser who hates outlines, thinks story structure is a “formula,” and relies on good instincts for your plotting needs, you’ll find this book overwhelming and/or baffling.

Personally, I’m a planner. I embrace the power of story structure and rely on it for my novels’ success. Save the Cat is my bible and nothing thrills me more than a well-ordered outline. I liked 5 SECRETS OF STORY STRUCTURE a lot. This book gave me a deeper understanding of how and why stories work. It made me feel like I was building my own stories on a more solid framework.

Anyone who has read a single craft book knows about the big turning points that happen at every quarter, but Weiland goes beyond them to show what goes between those big plot points, and why. For example, Weiland introduces the concept of pinch points, which are exciting scenes in the middle of each act that serve as a reminder of what’s at stake. Weiland also shows how character change and growth are integrated into plot structure, and she explains it better than anyone else.  Too many books about plot ignore character change and vice-versa. Weiland knows the importance of both.

However, I was frustrated by the fact that all of Weiland’s examples were from movies. Not even books that had been turned into movies, but actual original screenplays like Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Ice Age. She quotes the great screenwriting teachers Syd Field and Robert McKee, and includes an exhaustive breakdown of one of the most overused and cliché examples possible: Star Wars. Weiland even tells writers to watch the facial expression of actors in movies for clues about story pacing. 5 SECRETS OF STORY STRUCTURE is a book about writing novels, not screenplays. The mediums are very different, so using all movie examples and zero novel examples made no sense.

5 SECRETS OF STORY STRUCTURE is going to be a love-it-or-hate-it book. For a certain kind of writer, this will feel like being given the Rosetta Stone. For a different kind of writer, this is going to feel like  a warped party game where everyone pretends to be in the writer’s room on a film set while playing pin the tail on the donkey.

If you think this book is for you, you’re probably correct. If you think it’s not for you, you’re probably also correct. 5 SECRETS OF STORY STRUCTURE is very short and the ebook is currently free, so if you’re not sure, this is an ideal time to check it out for yourself.

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5 SECRETS OF STORY STRUCTURE is available here

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Rating: ??

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This book is best for: advanced writers

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I recommend this book or Save the Cat Writes a Novel by Jessica Brody or Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell.

Valentine Giveaway!

It’s almost Valentine’s Day! Time to celebrate people we love, people we like, and people we feel warm affection for.

You know who my favorite person is? YOU. I like everyone who reads this blog and I wish I could buy each of you a present. I can’t buy everyone a present, but I did put together two gift boxes that I will be mailing to two blog readers.

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This year, I’m once again highlighting a how-to book from my favorite writing teacher of all time. THE LIAR’S COMPANION by Lawrence Block is one of his more personal how-to books, detailing his own struggles and triumphs in the era before he was a household name. You’re going to love this book!

This gift box also includes…
•  A blank notebook
•  “You are a badass” sticky notes
•  A coaster
•  And a stand-up pencil holder

But wait! There’s more! It’s Valentine’s Day, when things come in pairs, so of course there are two gift boxes.

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The second gift box features CREATING CHARACTER ARCS by K.M. Weiland. More than any other recent book, this one helped me get super clear on the way that plot and character go hand-in-hand. This book will supercharge your writing craft!

I’m also including the most fun blank notebook I’ve seen lately. That gemstone on the cover has LED lights in it and when you push a button on the cover, the gem lights up. I wish I could explain to you how cool it is, but you will have to see it for yourself.

This gift box also includes…
•  A set of cute erasers
•  A fridge magnet
•  And a list pad to track goals

Want to win one of these gift boxes? Just leave a comment below telling me two things: what is the most recent how-to book you’ve read, and a place I can contact you. (Email, website, or Twitter.)

I’ll draw two random names from the comments to this blog post on February 14, 2020 at 22:00 EST so be sure to comment before then!

And of course I have not one, but two notes.

First note: You don’t have to subscribe to my blog or follow me on social media to enter, but I’d be pleased if you did. (I’m @ AlexKourvo on insta and the twitterz)

Second note: This giveaway is open to everyone but I can only mail stuff to US addresses. If you live outside the US and I draw your name, I’ll send you a $10 Amazon ecard so you can buy Lawrence Block’s book or K.M. Weiland’s book yourself.

Leave me a comment with a book recommendation, and I’ll announce the winners on Valentine’s Day.

xxoo,
Alex K.
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Update: the winner of the Lawrence Block book is Bridget McKenna and the winner of the KM Weiland book is Catherine Stein. Congratulations to the winners!

On Cussing by Katherine Dunn

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I adore creative swearing. I love when someone drops a curse word in just the right place, or wields forbidden language like a dagger, or goes poetic with a long string of swear words. I love naughty language used for humor, because I’m secretly twelve and I think a well-deployed f-bomb is funny.

Dunn thinks so too. ON CUSSING is a celebration of taboo language, covering the history and neuroscience of swearing while also giving plenty of examples of how to do it well. At a short 70 pages, ON CUSSING is like good cussing itself—it makes its point without any wasted words.

At their core, curse words are emotional. Some scientists think they’re even processed in a different part of our brain. Their connotations are blasphemous or sexual or just plain filthy. These words don’t add much grammatically to a sentence. Most sentences would make just as much sense without them. But boy, do they pack a punch. And therefore, Dunn argues, these words need to be used carefully.

Curse words can be used to complain, to threaten, to solidify an oath, to lay on a curse, to insult, and to emphasize. Dunn gives examples of each, along with instruction on how to make it your own. Cussing needs to fit the character, the tone of the book, and the time period. Different eras had different curse words. Something we think of as mild would shock our ancestors, and vice-versa.

Dunn includes excerpts from classic books, although I didn’t find these very helpful. She also cautions against using curse words carelessly. There is, after all, a time and place, even for a well-deployed f-bomb.

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ON CUSSING can be found here

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Rating: 4 stars

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I recommend this book

Show, Don’t Tell by Sandra Gerth

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“Show, don’t tell” is something that every writing instructor says. It’s repeated so often because it’s the thing that beginning writers struggle with the most. Even when we understand the concept, applying that concept to our own work is difficult. Even more difficult is knowing when to show and when to tell.

SHOW, DON’T TELL is a powerful solution to this common problem. In this short book, Gerth explores every facet of storytelling to explain how to show a story instead of telling it. Gerth begins with definitions to give a writer a firm grasp on exactly what showing is. Details, not conclusions. Concrete, not abstract. Dramatization, not summary. She explains how to get the reader up close and personal with the story and why it’s so necessary to do so.

Once a writer has identified the telling in her manuscript, Gerth gives examples and exercises to convert that telling into showing, concentrating on trouble areas like backstory, dialogue, description, and emotion. She gives before-and-after examples, helping writers truly see how it’s done.

Many how-to books include exercises that are meant to be done for their own sake, which is fine. Writing requires practice. But most writers will skip those kinds of exercises in the belief that theory is enough. The exercises in SHOW, DON’T TELL, however, are meant to be done on a writer’s own work in progress, specifically chapter one. Gerth shows writers how to fix their own prose, giving the exercises an immediacy that is extremely useful.

Of course, stories shouldn’t be a hundred percent showing, either. Telling is sometimes the better choice, and Gerth wraps up SHOW, DON’T TELL by detailing the uses of narrative. Telling is useful for things like transitions, repeated information, and unimportant details.

Showing is like a spotlight, focusing reader attention on the important events of a story. When a writer has complete control over her narrative, she will use that power wisely—showing the important things, telling the less important parts, and skillfully weaving foreground and background to create a harmonious whole. SHOW, DON’T TELL is the perfect guide for this essential writing skill.

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Show, Don’t Tell can be found here

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Rating: five stars

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This book is best for: beginning writers

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I recommend this book

 

Writing With Jenna Moreci (YouTube channel)

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My review is a little different this month. I love my how-to books, but I’ve been under deadline pressure and my attention span has suffered. So I’ve been seeking writing advice from podcasts, classes, and YouTube videos. My new favorite YouTube channel is WRITING WITH JENNA MORECI.

Moreci has been vlogging for about four years, so she’s got a lot of great content to choose from. Each video is about twenty minutes long, and tackles a meaty subject with humor and wisdom. Whether it’s an element of the writing craft or an issue with the writer’s lifestyle, Moreci has a video for you.

WRITING WITH JENNA MORECI is not for the delicate. She gives rapid-fire advice (often in the form of top-ten lists) with no sugar-coating and a whole heap of swear words. She shines a spotlight on a writer’s worst habits and excuses, and tells the truth about how much work goes into writing a publishable book.

Moreci’s advice, though short and to the point, is always solid. She teaches writers how to outline a novel, how to start a novel, how to write a great sex scene or fight scene, and how to ramp things up to a great finish. She also has videos about different genres, explaining which tropes still work, and those that are past their prime. Her videos are aimed at beginners, but even this jaded old pro picked up valuable tips.

Where WRITING WITH JENNA MORECI really excels is in the lifestyle videos. Moreci has videos about writing while holding a day job, dealing with anxiety, writer’s block, and that awful critical voice in our heads. It’s a bit like getting no-nonsense advice from a big sister or favorite aunt. It might not always be easy to hear, but it’s true wisdom from someone who has been there.

Some of my favorite videos are How to Outline Your Novel, How to Overcome Writer’s Block, and my personal favorite, How to Write a Healthy Romance. But all of Moreci’s videos are worth your time.

YouTube will never take the place of the craft books on my shelf, but there are many vloggers putting out great content, and Moreci is tops. I’m glad I can still soak up craft advice even when I’m busy writing novels of my own.

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WRITING WITH JENNA MORECI can be found here.

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Rating: 4 stars

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This channel is best for: beginning writers

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I recommend this channel.