Coloring Within the Lines

A Pen In Each Hand

By Beaver

In the past year or so, adult coloring books have become very popular, with countless articles written about the trend in an attempt to understand it. Here are just a few:

Some are dismissive of the trend, viewing it as “Peter Pan” behavior by adults who don’t want to grow up, parallel to the rise in popularity of young adult fiction among adults. Others take a more generous perspective, seeing coloring as akin to meditation and other meditative activities such as knitting, a way to quiet one’s mind and be creative within boundaries.

Coloring offers that relief and mindfulness without the paralysis that a blank page can cause. It’s easier in the way that ordering from a restaurant with a small menu is easier than deciding what you want at Denny’s, where you could eat almost anything. This is the paradox of choice, and it’s been well-studied—too many options is overwhelming. But with coloring, you know what you’re working with. You just choose how to fill it in. … [T]he coloring … involve[s] repetitive motion and limited space in which to work, creating a locus point around which thoughts can revolve. [Julie Beck, “The Zen of Adult Coloring Books”]

Like coloring books, writing contests, prompts, and challenges provide a frame to work within. Facing a blank page can be intimidating. Having a place to start can help assuage some of those fears.

This month’s exercise is to choose a frame and “color within in the lines.” Don’t think of the parameters as a limitation. Think of them as freeing your mind to be creative instead of staring at a blank page and stressing about what to write.

Some suggestions for your frame:

  • contest guidelines (even if you don’t actually plan to enter, give them a try)
  • writing prompts (try using more than one at a time) or challenges
  • formal poetry has built-in constraints—make your frame a sonnet or haiku
  • use an existing story (perhaps from another medium, such as a movie or TV series)
    • retell a story (e.g. a fairy tale) from a different character’s point-of-view or in a different time period or setting
    • write a prequel or sequel to an existing story
    • flesh out an existing story
  • make up your own rules, for example:
    • choose a theme (alphabet, seasons, cities…)
    • restrict word length
    • restrict genre
    • write all in dialogue
    • limit the number of characters
    • include a specific person (e.g. a celebrity or another famous person)

If you like, you can transform these pieces later, but first and foremost think of this exercise as a low-stakes warm-up, a way of getting past your blocks, stretching your writing muscles, and easing into your primary writing project (perhaps that one you’ve been avoiding). To make it more like a coloring book frame, have both short-term (equivalent to completing a page) and long-term (equivalent to completing a book) end-points.

Not Your Average Writer’s Block

Absolute Blank

By Shelley Carpenter (harpspeed)

Attention Deficit Writing Dilemma, noun, a writer’s behavioral dilemma characterized by a high volume of creativity followed by an overwhelming lack of writing focus and stamina, disabling the writer from completing a single piece of fiction or non-fiction prose.

In case you didn’t know, this is not your average writer’s block. This is something different. Writers who suffer from this tragic dilemma have not fallen out with their muses. They do not have minds that are at an “absolute blank” or lack writerly ambitions or aspirations or scholarly ideas. They are frustrated, like writers suffering from the conventional writer’s block, but for the opposite reason. Their frustration is the result of an overactive muse (not an absent one), of creative energy in overdrive that leaves the writer feeling mentally breathless, exhausted or overwhelmed.

Often, these particular writers are very prolific. They may have dozens of great ideas and thoughts constantly flowing in their heads, vying for their attention and brain space in which to grow. It may sound like a writer’s heaven, but it isn’t. (Trust me. I know this from personal experience.) The end result is still the same: No copy.

Background Image: Saad Faruque/Flickr (CC-by-sa).

Background Image: Saad Faruque/Flickr (CC-by-sa).

Does this sound familiar?

The crux of this writerly dilemma lies not in the ideas or thoughts themselves, but in the ability to stay singularly focused on one, avoiding distraction from all the other great ideas that keep arising.

“Hey, Writer! I’ve got a new word for you to try on: fug.”

“Yo writer-dude, that new character has like no purpose. Get rid of him.”

“You said you were going to write an essay on BBQ customs.”

“Equity and The Importance of Cat Licenses in a Dog-eat-Dog Society.”

“Here’s the perfect ending for Chapter 7…”

“Psst… Why not write a book review for Toasted Cheese?”

People who suffer from Attention Deficit Writing Dilemma often have a difficult time finishing their writing projects. Because ideas are always present, these writers are great starters and are frequently working on several projects at once. Unfortunately, instead of finishing any one of them, these writers just move on, abandoning one writing project to jump to the next with promises to return later. And much like their characters they may be stuck in several climaxes that are too dizzying for them to sort out, contemplate, and complete.

In essence, these writers are like air traffic controllers who are solely responsible for the safety of a dozen or more planes in the air and on the ground. They are the ultimate jugglers. For the writer, each of these planes represents one of their written works in progress.

Can you juggle?

This is what it looks like: One or two stories are taxiing down a runway—Go writer! Two are in a circular hover pattern, waiting for the writer to finish that last chapter or piece of dialog. Wait. There’s more. Some new works have just arrived and have no writing space. Others have run out of fuel. One older piece of work is being diverted to another place—not over the rainbow or into cyberspace to a stream of agents or publishers, but sadly to the bottom drawer that is already half-filled with abandoned stories and crashed essays.

What’s in your bottom drawer?

With all the fiction and non-fiction in the air and on the ground the writer can be very stressed. What’s more, in most cases there is no OFF button for these folks. If there is, then it is frequently stuck. They can’t tell their muses to take off because often they have several muses who seem to work even harder than they do. Even if one were to go away, there still would be a crowd of them hovering around the writer, inspiring the writer to, of course, write something else.

Sound like anyone you may know?

Most writers are constantly writing even if they do not fully realize it. They are list-makers, leaving behind trails of Post-its on various topics that need to be addressed by them at some fuzzy later date. They are bloggers, chatters, journal-writers and diarists. They are the writers of letters—from the old-fashioned friendly note to business letters, editorials, queries, and more. And no surprise, they often write outside of a single genre: Horror and Essay, Chick Lit and Sci-Fi, Mystery and Memoir…

The same may apply to their reading. These writers perhaps read two or three books at once, also in various genres and platforms. They often annotate their personal books and are the ones who tear articles out of magazines in public waiting rooms when no one is looking—for later.

The trick is to find balance, dear writer.

Because there is always something to write about, these writers don’t know the meaning of boredom. In fact, many have interests outside of writing. Their bodies are constantly in motion almost mirroring their minds. It’s surprisingly therapeutic. Some writers find that physical exercise silences their muses. Others find meditation helpful. They practice yoga, calming their bodies with the breath, or they channel their energy through volunteer work. Another set like to use their hands to build and create things like backyard projects, gardening, knitting and cooking, sculpting, and painting

And these separate interests allow for some mental rest that these writers crave. Writers who live with friends or families have an added perk: Their significant others tend to be great interruptions and often provide distraction. The same may be true for pet owners. My dogs require frequent daily attention, especially the new puppy that is not fully trained. Having a job helps, too. A paycheck is non-negotiable for most. Although it may provide fodder for writing, a job is still one of the best mental kill switches for many writers mainly because it pays for paper, pens, and PCs and, of course, the other necessities of life.

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There you have it. Attention Deficit Writing Dilemma. An invisible and disabling predicament that perhaps has been distressing you or someone you know at one time or another. If the family and friends, the various hobbies and the paycheck do not work, then you might also consider trying the A Pen in Each Handexercises that accompany this article. They may provide some relief and assist in navigating all your writing projects to their ultimate destinations, as well.


14-02

If at First You Don’t Succeed,
Write Smut

Absolute Blank

By Ana George (Broker)

Writers’ block is a fact of life. There are a great many reasons for it, and the remedies are as varied as the causes. Stay tuned for some words about a remedy that often works for me: Smutwriting.

Now sex is a part of life for real people. It informs who they are in subtle ways. On the other hand, many fictional characters are flat, cardboard creations, caricatures of people, who appear, play their role, and disappear without a further thought from reader or writer.

In a novel with many incidental characters, most of them might be forgettable. But as Michael Cunningham once remarked at a reading, each of those people is the main character in his or her own novel. He also said that his fiction is autobiographical in the sense that he tries to be true to each character, her own needs, and fictional life course, even if he only tells a small part of the story of that character.

And sex is a part of that, for many people. And not, for others, but that’s also taleworthy. Perhaps even more so.

Let me be clear: I’m not (or at least not necessarily) saying all writing should be smutty or even contain romance or overt sexuality. Backstory, what happens to the characters off stage, the part of the story you don’t put in the book, is also important. It helps the author get to know the characters, so they behave more like real people, so you as the writer are not surprised by their motivations. Hemingway pointed this out in his Iceberg Theory.

So you’re stuck, trying to figure out where the story should go from wherever you left it. You have an idea for another plot element, but getting from there to there is not something you can see from where you’re standing.

Follow the characters home. Write everyday details of their lives. She comes home, wonders why her partner’s car in the driveway inspires such dread. She fixes supper, but one of the kids won’t eat it. Familiar, well-worn arguments, advanced incrementally, because, after all, you’re only writing one Tuesday night. And maybe she’s randy come bedtime and he’s not. Next morning when she reports to work in your novel, she’s grumpy and tired but for no reason she’s going to tell you, because it might end up in the book.

Or there was this guy she saw on her lunch break that had that certain dreamy hurt puppy look in his eyes that always made her knees weak, but that she’s ignored for years in an effort to keep her life together. Does she miss the feeling? Or is she grateful for being delivered from the need to pay attention to it?

In a way it’s like writing fan fiction (or even slash fiction) about your own universe. I suppose fan fiction is an examination of (usually someone else’s) a canonical text, asking what-if questions, what happened before this, what happens next. These two characters are so luscious, I want them together, dammit, and I’ll write the story myself if I have to. The resulting stories are in no way part of the canon: the actual story that’s in the book, on the screen, whatever. And yet, for the fanficcer, the existence of these backstories (erotic or otherwise) enriches the experience of the canonical story.

Sex is also a way people in real life express rebelliousness. It might be a way for fictional characters to do that, as well. You have this nice life all plotted out for them, a nice plot arc, and then in chapter twelve, they break the fourth wall, walk out of the book and into the writer’s studio, sit down, and say, “No, I’m not doing that for those reasons.” Is that rebellion because of some facet of their lives you haven’t written (or even thought) about? What would a teenager do in this situation? For another take on this, see Mikhail Bakhtin’s ideas of the Carnival and grotesque realism.

It is perhaps a truism that disappointment and regret are great sources of story ideas. If nobody does anything regrettable or disappointing, the story is the poorer for the lack. And, for many people, sexuality is rife with disappointments and regrets. Again, it’s not necessarily the case that you need to write about it explicitly (or if you do, to include it in the book) to reflect on the lifelong regret caused by an off-stage broken romance.

I recall being told as a young writer that sex scenes in stories must always advance the action, and significantly change a character. I set out to break this rule, if only because it’s not true of real-life people. Why is sex different from other biological needs and wants, such as eating or sleeping? Sex is something people do, some of them fairly often, and having life-changing experiences every time is just not in the cards. It may be true that the reader only wants to be in the bedroom on those rare occasions when something like that does happen, but the characters are there whether it does or not. Perhaps it’s our job as writers to convey this aspect of our characters’ personalities. For example, their familiarity (or lack thereof) with each other could convey a lot of information to the reader. I’m not convinced I’ve written a sexy scene that’s not transformative that is also worth keeping. So maybe the rule is a good one, but it’s a boundary and writers exist to push at the boundaries.

This past year has been a difficult one for me, largely because of events in my personal life. Sometimes I feel like writing, and sometimes I really don’t. Sometimes writing is therapeutic, or cathartic, and sometimes it’s just fingers moving, putting symbols in little rows on a computer screen.

Recently I found an erotic picture on the internet that was very engaging, for a variety of reasons. Certainly one of those was that the woman in the picture was strongly reminiscent of the way I imagine one of the characters in an ongoing saga-in-progress. Her body was mostly hidden behind her partner’s, and it was clear she was taking charge of the encounter.

And I found I had to write the story of a time my character did just that with her partner, whatever the larger context might have been. How did she feel about it beforehand? Was the experience memorable enough that she thought about it the next day? Was it wonderful? A disappointment? Forgettable? What about his feelings? Are they the same as hers (surely not entirely?) and if different, are the differences important? And which two scenes should I set this encounter between? How does it fit into their lives as they move through the story?

And so now it makes sense that she snaps at another character the next morning, that she seems distracted, that her eyes keep straying to her cell phone, wondering if she should wait for a call, or call her partner, and wondering what she’d say if they did talk. I’m sorry, what was that you said?

Backstory is important, and people’s (and characters’) sex lives are part of the backstory that forms their personalities. Characters will ring true if their authors think about who they are, beyond what appears in the story. When in doubt, write smut!

Final Poll Results

Unblock Thyself

Absolute Blank

By Lisa Olson (Boots)

Writers are emotional. In fact, we strive to put that emotion into words and transmit our feelings to others. We do it as often as possible and we love doing it. It is our sacrifice for our art and we pay the price with each carefully constructed phrase and each coyly placed period.

But every emotional well sometimes runs dry. Like a drought, we feel our strength is sapped and our will to carry on and through is gone. We have given and given and now we feel have nothing left to give.

Perhaps it was nothing more than a bump in our story. We can’t think beyond the character’s next move or we can’t see beyond the poem’s next line. We can no longer see the finish line and we’ve lost our way.

Perhaps it was a rough critique. We bled on the pages, and they were torn to shreds by uncaring claws of the jealous and the snobbish. Our readers misunderstood what we were trying to tell them.

Perhaps it was the real world intruding into our creative world. Cries from our children, our spouses, our parents, and our siblings: they all need attention and they need it right now. They demand the writing be set aside in favor of them; that the bond you have to a piece of paper is nothing compared to your love for them.

We know we must move past these obstacles, but we can’t find a way. Here are a few ideas that might just help you push past your emotional block and get you back to the work you love.

Story problems can be overcome. It doesn’t seem like it right now, but they can be. Set the work aside and work on something else. Try writing something fun, something without real ‘meaning’. Take a writing class. Write in a new setting. Write every possible outcome for the situation your work is stuck in, choose one, and move on. Believe you can do it, and you can.

Critiques are meant to help. Read them a once, then set it aside for a few days to think about it. Read it again and analyze it. Did the critique mean to harm, or to help? Which parts do you agree with? Which do you not? Discard what you can’t use, accept what you can, and adjust the work accordingly. Chances are it wasn’t as mean as it originally sounded; someone was just trying to help.

Real world issues are a lot harder to deal with. Find a good friend and pour out all your woes and maybe even have a nice cry. Write in a journal or diary and shed your emotional trials. Talk to your family and friends and be honest about the importance of your writing and ask for compromises and find solutions. Be true to yourself and to your writing, and find a way to work through it.

If nothing seems to be working, try riding the wave. If you feel sad, play depressing or wistful music for a few days and just sit and stare at the walls. If you feel uninspired, read a book or two or three. If you feel stupid, watch insipid programs on television, like game shows or soap operas, until all hours of the night. If you feel drained, take a day trip or an outing.

When you feel up to it, open your work. Heck, open it when you feel like you never want to see it again. You might find it the most interesting thing you’ve seen in days. Perhaps something you saw or did sparked an idea you didn’t know was there. Perhaps the solution to the problem presented itself. Perhaps you gave up finding the perfect phrase and found instead the phrase that worked.

There is no shame in taking a break from writing. Just remember to come back.

Final Poll Results