What to Do When the Writing’s Not Going Well. . .Or Not Going At All!

SOME IDEAS ABOUT WHAT TO DO WHEN YOU’RE GETTING LOTS OF NEGATIVE FEEDBACK FROM EDITORS/FRIENDS/CRITIQUE GROUPS AND YOU FEEL CREATIVELY STYMIED AND TRAPPED IN THE SWAMP

1. Big Picture Stuff: Efficiency is NOT necessarily your friend at this point. In other words, writing fast and rewriting fast may not serve you well. A chore-oriented mindset geared to “fixes” won’t o allow you to wallow in the moment, won’t let you give a reader all that texture and emotion..

a. If itâ an editor or your agent who you feel just isn’t getting your work or who no longer likes you or your work: You might need closure for the current uncomfortable situation so you can get back to work—a note? Eventually a face to face, non-confrontational but one where you discuss the situation and lay your concerns out, even if it requires a trip to NYC or wherever?

b. Critique groups: How can you use it to get the most from them? More brainstorming? More conceptualizing of bigger story issues? Less taffy-pulling on your manuscript? Do you need to step away from the group for a breather, for a chance to regain your equilibrium and to hear the voices of your characters and to find the flow of your story? Itâ okay if you do. Critique groups by their very nature can be so helpful that they become a kind of noisy wave coming at you, confusing you.

c. One thing has always worked for me and that is an intensive analysis of some books that work for you: a kind of spreadsheet/chart of the main elements? How the writer creates characters, how the emotion is worked from chapter to chapter and how the pull through of emotion is kept central rather than action/plot. Iâ talking real, chapter by chapter, scene by scene deconstruction here. An outline, a spreadsheet of when characters are introduced, what kinds of interactions the protagonist/antagonists have with each other, with secondary characters, how many scenes in a chapter. You know, that kind of stuff!

d. Health: B-12 vitamins, good sleep, a change of scenery, some input of fun things that remind you of your strength. Your creativity goes south when the bodyâ not in tune. Hey, you can’t race a finely tuned sports car at 150 miles an hour when the carburetorâ clogged. Or two tires are flat. Right?

2. Your Process—what are some things about your process that may be working for you or may not be working to help you produce the best work? In other words, have you become so comfortable with how you work that you’re taking shortcuts and don’t realize it?

a. If so, SLOW DOWN: maybe go through the idea of the book first, jotting down emotional moments that reveal WHERE the characterâ emotional development is at that point rather than focusing on what might/should be happening? I.E. If you usually have 21 chapters, just take a pad of paper and jot down two scenes per chapter that focus on WHERE the h/hâ emotional movement is at that point. Then you can see the emotional development of the two major characters for the whole book. You can see if thereâ an emotional arc to how they change from the first chapter to the last.

b. Think about writing a one sentence emotional development line for both h/h or antagonist/protagonist: EG: In order to move forward from her past mistakes and to become whole and find genuine love, your heroine seeks and needs redemption. Then, in each chapter, test the scene against that pull through line. Same for your hero or antagonist.

c. Before you start writing each day, jot down what the emotional place is for h/h in that chapter and check to make sure that whatever action you write, whatever scene you place them in, develops that emotional touch point. Every scene must have a purpose and must push the emotional AND plot developments further ahead. If a sceneâ charming, lovely, but doesn’t really do anything except be charming? Cut the sucker.

d.Maybe do a bit more layering of scenes as you go? Wallow in the moment of a sceneâ texture? The things of the senses, concrete, that show/reveal how the character feels in that scene so that you don’t have to use internal monologue to tell us?

3. Obstacles/High Stakes

a. How much can you take away from the h/h before the story even starts? How emotionally desperate/low can you start them out? Are their circumstances as rock bottom as you can make them? What is the impossible dream? What is the unclimbable mountain? These are the elements that ratchet up the emotional pull through for a reader and make a reader care about a character.

b. Once you know exactly how close to the edge of the cliff you’ve put your characters, then they have to fight to pull themselves up out of that place, and everything they do has the risk of pitching them right back into the awful place, the desperate place. What will they risk for love? For self-respect? And, especially, what would happen to them IF they risk all for love? That has to be a real, palpable consequence for h/h.

4. Scene Development

a. Think METAPHOR for every action, every paragraph—if possible. Use objects/weather, textures to carry emotion and to key into the characterâ emotions.

How can objects be touched, seen, used, smelled in order to convey the emotion of the moment. EG: Feeling: She was uncomfortable. Action on the page: Never meeting his gaze, she folded the sheets, lining up each corner with military precision. Suddenly, fiercely, he yanked the crisp fabric through her fingers, crumpling the carefully smoothed linen, drawing her closer with each tug until their fingers clung together within the cotton.

What is the sheet a metaphor for? What do her actions and his show us about their emotional state at that moment? With your protagonist, for instance, what concrete object can you let represent represent him/her? Would a car or a drum set or a hidden piece of jewelry equal freedom? Control? Power? An analgesic that eases some emotional pain? Work a primary metaphor for all its worth.

b. Work on book time vs real time—expand the real time to give the reader the whole moment before moving on to next action/scene/chapter. EG: Say a hero is observing the heroine in action that takes only five minutes of real time: how does what he sees her doing affect his sense of who she is in reference to his feelings toward her at that moment? And how does his recognition of what heâ observing motivate him to act?

5. Sameness: think about whether or not you use the same kind of town, the same kind of setting. Those choices lead, possibly to a sameness of character? Sameness of plot?

Most important, remember above all: you know how to right the ship.

None of these suggestions is an absolute, but maybe one or more will give you some ideas so that you can get your feet back under you and regain your confidence when feedback is unsettling your creative process.

THOUGHTS ABOUT WHAT TO DO WHEN YOU’RE GETTING LOTS OF NEGATIVE FEEDBACK FROM EDITORS/FRIENDS/CRITIQUE GROUPS AND YOU FEEL CREATIVELY STYMIED

1. Big Picture Stuff: Efficiency is NOT necessarily your friend at this point. In other words, writing fast and rewriting fast may not serve you well. A chore-oriented mindset geared to “fixes” won’t o allow you to wallow in the moment, won’t let you give a reader all that texture and emotion..

a. If itâ an editor or your agent who you feel just isn’t getting your work or who no longer likes you or your work: You might need closure for the current uncomfortable situation so you can get back to work—a note? Eventually a face to face, non-confrontational but one where you discuss the situation and lay your concerns out, even if it requires a trip to NYC or wherever?

b. Critique groups: How can you use it to get the most from them? More brainstorming? More conceptualizing of bigger story issues? Less taffy-pulling on your manuscript? Do you need to step away from the group for a breather, for a chance to regain your equilibrium and to hear the voices of your characters and to find the flow of your story? Itâ okay if you do. Critique groups by their very nature can be so helpful that they become a kind of noisy wave coming at you, confusing you.

c. One thing has always worked for me and that is an intensive analysis of some books that work for you: a kind of spreadsheet/chart of the main elements? How the writer creates characters, how the emotion is worked from chapter to chapter and how the pull through of emotion is kept central rather than action/plot. Iâ talking real, chapter by chapter, scene by scene deconstruction here. An outline, a spreadsheet of when characters are introduced, what kinds of interactions the protagonist/antagonists have with each other, with secondary characters, how many scenes in a chapter. You know, that kind of stuff!

d. Health: B-12 vitamins, good sleep, a change of scenery, some input of fun things that remind you of your strength. Your creativity goes south when the bodyâ not in tune. Hey, you can’t race a finely tuned sports car at 150 miles an hour when the carburetorâ clogged. Or two tires are flat. Right?

2. Your Process—what are some things about your process that may be working for you or may not be working to help you produce the best work? In other words, have you become so comfortable with how you work that you’re taking shortcuts and don’t realize it?

a. If so, SLOW DOWN: maybe go through the idea of the book first, jotting down emotional moments that reveal WHERE the characterâ emotional development is at that point rather than focusing on what might/should be happening? I.E. If you usually have 21 chapters, just take a pad of paper and jot down two scenes per chapter that focus on WHERE the h/hâ emotional movement is at that point. Then you can see the emotional development of the two major characters for the whole book. You can see if thereâ an emotional arc to how they change from the first chapter to the last.

b. Think about writing a one sentence emotional development line for both h/h or antagonist/protagonist: EG: In order to move forward from her past mistakes and to become whole and find genuine love, your heroine seeks and needs redemption. Then, in each chapter, test the scene against that pull through line. Same for your hero or antagonist.

c. Before you start writing each day, jot down what the emotional place is for h/h in that chapter and check to make sure that whatever action you write, whatever scene you place them in, develops that emotional touch point. Every scene must have a purpose and must push the emotional AND plot developments further ahead. If a sceneâ charming, lovely, but doesn’t really do anything except be charming? Cut the sucker.

d.Maybe do a bit more layering of scenes as you go? Wallow in the moment of a sceneâ texture? The things of the senses, concrete, that show/reveal how the character feels in that scene so that you don’t have to use internal monologue to tell us?

3. Obstacles/High Stakes

a. How much can you take away from the h/h before the story even starts? How emotionally desperate/low can you start them out? Are their circumstances as rock bottom as you can make them? What is the impossible dream? What is the unclimbable mountain? These are the elements that ratchet up the emotional pull through for a reader and make a reader care about a character.

b. Once you know exactly how close to the edge of the cliff you’ve put your characters, then they have to fight to pull themselves up out of that place, and everything they do has the risk of pitching them right back into the awful place, the desperate place. What will they risk for love? For self-respect? And, especially, what would happen to them IF they risk all for love? That has to be a real, palpable consequence for h/h.

4. Scene Development

a. Think METAPHOR for every action, every paragraph—if possible. Use objects/weather, textures to carry emotion and to key into the characterâ emotions.

How can objects be touched, seen, used, smelled in order to convey the emotion of the moment. EG: Feeling: She was uncomfortable. Action on the page: Never meeting his gaze, she folded the sheets, lining up each corner with military precision. Suddenly, fiercely, he yanked the crisp fabric through her fingers, crumpling the carefully smoothed linen, drawing her closer with each tug until their fingers clung together within the cotton.

What is the sheet a metaphor for? What do her actions and his show us about their emotional state at that moment? With your protagonist, for instance, what concrete object can you let represent represent him/her? Would a car or a drum set or a hidden piece of jewelry equal freedom? Control? Power? An analgesic that eases some emotional pain? Work a primary metaphor for all its worth.

b. Work on book time vs real time—expand the real time to give the reader the whole moment before moving on to next action/scene/chapter. EG: Say a hero is observing the heroine in action that takes only five minutes of real time: how does what he sees her doing affect his sense of who she is in reference to his feelings toward her at that moment? And how does his recognition of what heâ observing motivate him to act?

5. Sameness: think about whether or not you use the same kind of town, the same kind of setting. Those choices lead, possibly to a sameness of character? Sameness of plot?

Most important, remember above all: you know how to right the ship.

None of these suggestions is an absolute, but maybe one or more will give you some ideas so that you can get your feet back under you and regain your confidence when feedback is unsettling your creative process.