Tag Archives: writing books

The Winds Have Changed

It’s been awhile since I’ve posted regularly. In fact, except for last Friday’s post, it’s been awhile since I’ve posted at all. So much for all that Platform stuff from last summer about posting regularly and often…

I don’t know what happened. My desire to write just dribbled away… Other things claimed my time and attention. When I considered the book, the blog, even email, I was blank and utterly without motivation. First time in my life that I’ve felt like that.

Or so I thought.

Of course I’ve prayed about it. Repeatedly. What is wrong with me, Lord? Has the fire gone out? Am I not getting enough sleep, or just being undisciplined? Should I relax and trust You to move me when it’s time? Or is there something more I can do?

It’s been a very strange two and half months. No, it’s been longer than that, especially when I take my progress on Sky into account… which, until last week, was not much progress at all.

So, for a time now, I’ve been reading stuff — books, blogs, news — and making cards, and cleaning the house and working on long-put-off projects and dealing with Stuff… can’t clearly remember all of it. Church stuff, taxes, ailing relatives, shingles, stuff going wrong, breaking, getting lost… a leak in the water line from the main to the house…  not getting enough sleep, drinking too much caffeine (which means any caffeine at all), beset by the terrible distractibility I’ve written about in previous posts…

But then, at the beginning of May something happened.  I’d just finished and sent off the guest post I wrote for Seriously Write and “for some reason” says my journal entry, “I picked up Overcoming Writing Blocks.”


It’s on the shelf above my desk. I’ve had it for 30 years. I’ve read it and reread it and read it again. I’ve underlined passage after passage, starred portions in the margins… even blogged about here  and several other places…  In the past few months, while wondering if I was blocked I’d look at it on its shelf and think it would be no help. After all, I’d read it. Repeatedly. I already knew everything that was in it…

But on the first of May, for some reason I picked it up again, and was… SIGH… again “amazed to find,” in the section on Preparing to Write,  not only a description of what I’ve been enduring, but also some new and slightly different insights I’d not considered before.

One of the new and slightly different insights was this:

This is the training and gestation stage of any writing task. You know what you have to do and you must prepare yourself properly for it…you need to develop basic fitness habits that will get you in shape for prose composition.”

That’s true, I thought. If you just go out and try to start a daily running regimen, it’s not going to work. You have to work up to it, you develop some basic habits…

The precise description of what I’ve been going through recently, is exactly what I’ve gone through in the past, repeatedly, and you’d think that I’d remember that but for some reason… this time it all seemed New and Different and Far Harder and More Hopeless than ever before.

I believe the Bible when it says we have sick heads and deceitful hearts… How can I be so thick-headed?

Well, here’s the recap of the description of blocking at the preparing to write stage:

  • restless, anxious procrastination
  • can think of 1000 things you’d rather do
  • when you finally force yourself to sit down — dozens of extraneous but apparently urgent thoughts bubble up
  • when finally do get yourself to concentrate, all you get is dull blankness. There’s no excitement, no inspiration about the project. It leaves a flat, sour taste in your mouth.

YES! YES! YES! That is exactly how I felt! EXACTLY!

I thought this was all new. That I’d never experienced it before. At least “not like this”. Ha!  It was a great comfort to know it was not new, that I had experienced it and though I thought I already knew what was in this book and all the advice it had to give, maybe I should give it another look…

At least the Preparing to Write section, anyway. First up was”Managing your Environment.”  But I’ll save that for tomorrow.

The Open Ended Writing Process

Things are looking up! Last week I came into the office and actually worked a minimum of 2 hours a day, and usually more like 3 or 4, on The Other Side of the Sky! For 6 days in a row!


Okay, so maybe my use of the word “work” might be giving you the wrong idea. The first few days I came in and wrote in my writing log, walked laps around the house, walked laps around the yard, lay on the bed and thought, did nonstops and all too often caved to my desire to read the news, which after all, is only a click away.

But each time I fell into that made me more desirous of not doing it again.

I also made a point of closing down the computer around 9pm and getting to bed earlier. Not being sleep deprived helps tremendously in being able to control one’s sudden impulses to do other than what one has decided to do for the moment.

And after a week I have learned that it really is true: I can not do as much as I wanted and thought I could. But I am liking that. I am feeling uncluttered. More able to breathe. More focused on the work.

Last week, Tuesday, actually, sometime around the end of my daily work period, I opened one of the books I keep on my shelf, that I have referred to often during the course of my writing “career.”  That book is Writing with Power by Peter Elbow.

I have a paper on doing “Open-Ended Writing,” one I prepared from concepts taught in this book, and I had been trying to do some, but they didn’t seem to be working out. So  I decided to look up Elbow’s original writing on the matter.

Here’s the first thing I found, most of which I copied into my journal:

The open-ended writing process… is a way to bring to birth an unknown, unthought-of piece of writing — a piece of writing that is not yet in you. It is a technique for thinking, seeing, and feeling new things. This process invites maximum chaos and disorientation. You have to be willing to nurse something through many stages over a long period of time and put up with not knowing where you are going. Thus it is a process that can change you, not just your words.

As the most creative and unmethodical writing process, I associate it with poems or stories or novels…”

This blew me away when I read it. For two reasons, one, because it’s exactly what I’ve been experiencing… chaos, disorientation, taking a long time, not knowing where you are going… YES!  That’s exactly what it’s been like.

I have hit a wall because I am trying to take the story someplace it’s not supposed to go. I know that sounds weird and esoteric, but it’s the only way I can describe it. It’s happened before.

Years back in writing The Light of Eidon, I wanted there to be a fire in Southdock. Abramm was supposed to run in there and help put the fire out as I recall. I couldn’t get myself to write it.  Kept trying. Even forced myself to write it until I couldn’t stand it any more….

And then I realized that I was trying to take the story in a place it wasn’t supposed to go. I backed up, rethought and came up with a new line that worked perfectly. Later, there actually was a fire in Southdock… I think that was in book 3, Shadow Over Kiriath. But even in that book Abramm was not involved in fighting the fire, it was just one of those things you want to “have happened” but not that you want your protagonists involved in.

Anyway, I think something like that is happening now. It may not be as major of a course correction as “don’t have that scene at all” but it’s set me on a new line of thinking. One that has suggested perhaps I need to change the whole world as I’ve developed it.

The reason this is such a difficult proposition for me is that I don’t just sit down and by fiat say, “This is how the world will be. There’ll be this single nation and this floating city, and it will be inhabited by these people and…”

Because that never works. I need the world and the characters and the doctrinal analogy and the plot all to come together and I have never been able to do that by taking one part of the story and developing it rigidly and then heading on to the others. Just. Can’t. Do it.

The biggest problem I have with all this is that I keep forgetting that. Keep wanting to take control and try to get my mind around at least one piece so I can develop that, and have at least SOMETHING that won’t change when I think about it. And that’s not what God would have me do.

Here’s the rest of the quote from the book on this subject that I transcribed into my journal, plus my response after copying it:

“I think of the open-ended writing process as a voyage in two stages: a sea voyage and a coming to new land. For the sea voyage, you are trying to lose sight of land — the place you began. Getting lost is the best source of new material. In coming to new land you develop a new conception of what you are writing about — a new idea or vision — and then you gradually reshape your material to fit this new vision. The sea voyage is a process of divergence, branching, proliferation, and confusion; the coming to land is a process of convergence, pruning, centralizing, and clarifying.”


YES! This is what I’ve been doing! Haltingly, reluctantly. Thinking I’m failing instead of S-L-O-W-L-Y  progressing. All these whirling ideas, things that appear in my head but I can’t see how they fit into the whole… It frustrates me, and yet it’s exactly the work I’m to be doing. It’s the same process Pastor John’s been teaching in the spiritual life. I have all these papers and cards with notes on them, these half-formed ideas regarding the world and as I’ve encountered before, I can’t just start deciding stuff because it’s not linear, it’s holistic. It comes together all at once seemingly out of nowhere, not piece by piece.

This is kind of how the spiritual life goes as well, the chaos, the blindness, not knowing, the crazy stuff and where is God… and all the while, like in the Artistic Coma, He’s there, beneath it all, inside, so deep we can’t see it, can’t feel it, can’t even tell, but He’s working on us.

It’s weird the way all this fits together for me… But that’s gotta be Him as well.

Back to Overcoming Writing Blocks

  Over four years ago, on my old blog on Blogger (Writing from the Edge), back when I was starting into The Enclave, I put up a series of posts taken from the material in the book, Overcoming Writing Blocks by Karin Mack and Eric Skjei. I’ve owned it for over 30 years and it is thoroughly marked up, passages underlined, highlighted, circled, starred… It’s no longer in print, and when I went to look on Amazon — where it’s available used for about $6 —  I found it had only one sorry review by someone who obviously did not need the book as much as I do.

I say do, because yesterday I was moved to pluck it off my shelf again and look through it. I’d say this one book has served me more than all the rest of the writing books I have combined. It reminded me of so many things I thought I already knew. Well, yeah, I did know, but as with the word of God, I wasn’t using the things that I knew. (Which is why repetition is so important!)

And today, as I went looking for those old posts mentioned above, I found one that I literally could have written yesterday, just change the names of the books involved. Sky is the “other novel” mentioned below that I began to develop after Steve rejected Black Box (now known as The Enclave) in its infancy.

Thus, I thought it might be interesting to repost it here:

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Getting Started Again

Yesterday I started out with high hopes for getting in some good work on Black Box. I had my morning chores done quickly, I didn’t have to go anywhere, I knew that I would have the whole day to devote to working on this book and I intended to use it to full advantage. After all the interruptions and delays and so forth that I’d encountered since my official beginning of the book, now, finally I was set to go.

Or so I thought. I started developing this book years ago, after I’d written Arena but before it sold — during the year and a half that Steve Laube held it, waiting for the right moment to approach the editorial board. He’d said in a seminar at Mt. Hermon that if what you want to write is “C,” but the market is at “A,” you should write “B,” that is, something that incorporates elements of the marketable A, but also the passion of your C.

So, operating on the premise that Arena might not sell, I wanted to develop a book that might be more palatable and yet also be a bridge to Arena. So I came up with Black Box — an alternate world story set in our own world, but still almost as strange as Arena. I think I worked about 10 months on it before Arena sold. After the sale, Steve wanted to know what I was working on for a follow up but when I ran a brief summary of Box by him he nixxed it in about five minutes (literally).

I figured the Lord wanted me to go in another direction so I dropped it and started developing another novel. After that I went back to Eidon and then the Legends of the Guardian-King series. A year ago January (2006) I knew I had to present something new to Bethany House and took up Box again. But this time I had no time to spare, because every day devoted to that was another day away from Return of the Guardian King. I had to take the notes I had and come up with a story synopsis that made sense and was interesting and that’s what I did. I also, at what I believe was the Lord’s nudging, added a new and unexpected element to the story.

It sold, amazingly, but I was deep into RotGK by then and didn’t give it a thought until well… this last month. March 1 I began ferreting out all my old files and notes from their various hiding places, collected them into my office and was completely overwhelmed. I have tentative plot lines, lists of possible events, index cards of notes on background issues, setting details, details of character, more possible events, research snippets, incidents or scenes, writings about where I’m going with the story, what kinds of things I might want to do… stacks and piles and folders.

Plus I have about 8 1/2 chapters written, some of which I like and some of which I don’t. And over the course of this very distracted month, every time I came in to wrestle with the alligator, I found myself wanting to read email, or staring out the window, or …

Well, here’s a quote from Overcoming Writing Blocks that describes it quite well:

“The paramount symptom of blocking at this first stage is restless, anxious procrastination. You can think of a thousand things you’d rather be doing than sitting at your desk pushing your pen, and when you do finally force yourself to sit down, dozens of extraneous but apparently urgent thoughts bubble up, as your recalcitrant mind ingeniously struggles to distract itself from the task at hand. Then, when you do finally manage to focus your attention on the job, all you get is a dull blankness, or nothing but the most obvious banal truisms. There’s no excitement, no inspiration about the whole project; it leaves a flat sour taste in your mouth.”

 I had forgotten about this. It is right on. Yesterday, when I had all those hours to really get working on the book, sometime in mid-afternoon I picked up the Robin Hobb book I’d started a couple of weeks ago (Fool’s Errand — it was lying enticingly on the dining room table) just to finish the chapter I was in the middle of… and read almost straight through until midnight (minus time to make dinner and watch 24).

Arg. Not at all part of my plan. When I woke up this morning, I refused to let myself go on the usual guilt trip, realizing instead that this was a familiar pattern. That it wasn’t just lack of self-discipline, but that something else was going on. The work I had before me was hard, and the strategies I was using to tackle it were not working. I needed more. And so… back to Overcoming Writing Blocks. Check back tomorrow for the rest of the story…”

For now, back to September 2011 where today, thanks to the help I got from OWB, I reached the end of Chapter 1.  Tomorrow I start chapter 2.

I think.