Reading for inspiration, part 1

Like many of us who are groping (come on, get your mind out of the gutter) our way into the writing world, I have my share of brain-stuttery days when the whole creative process grinds to a painful, definitive halt.

You know those days. There’s a tumble of words slopping around the old cranium, but the few that want to be written only allow themselves be slung together in strands of relentless triteness. All the ideas and imaginings that felt so fresh and vital yesterday have turned to mold overnight. The characters who bounced off your fingers and onto your keyboard are now so stultifyingly tedious that you’d strangle them yourself if they had any actual substance.

Yeah. Those days. Whether you write, or paint, or take photographs, or throw pots on a wheel, if you create, you’re probably bitterly familiar with those days, in all their grim, uncompromising absence of spark and inspiration.

We all have our own little tricks for reinvigorating our saggy, baggy, flagging inspiration. Many, many tricks, if the truth be told. Some tricks work well when our plot has taken a detour into the realm of convolution and improbability. Some tricks are just the ticket when we realize that our main character has the personality of a desiccated booger. It’s all about knowing which trick is going to wreak its tricksy magic on a specific creative crisis. Is this a “just keep your butt in that chair” problem, or is it a “take the dog for a stroll and blow the stink off” problem?

One of the most effective strategies I’ve found for rekindling the writing magic is reading.  It’s a piece of advice we hear all the time, isn’t it? If you want to be a better writer, read! But reading doesn’t just fuel our writing talents; in my experience it can also fire up the creative barbecue with startling efficiency, even when the ashes appear to be stone cold. I’m not talking about just picking up whatever novel you’re currently reading and diving in–although that, too, can be just the poke you need. No, again, I’m talking about figuring out the specific piece of reading that will wreak its tricksy magic on the specific writing damn-jammer that is currently causing you woe and despair.

Over the next few blog posts I’m going to share a few of the writing quagmires that tend to suck at my boots and the reading inspirations I’ve found most helpful for slogging  my way clear. I’ll be talking about the reading remedies I use when I’m laid low by plotting woes, by insecurities around structure, by character implosions, by stagnant prose and flat dialogue, and by the general malaise of indolence that has me convincing myself that just one more episode of Dexter or the IT Crowd could be construed as research if I only squint hard enough.

And I’ll try not to mix my metaphors as egregiously as I did in that last paragraph, but no promises. If you have your own reading inspirations that you’d like to share, have at it in the comments, or tune in again on Wednesday when I’ll be looking at the therapeutic benefits of taking a voyeuristic peek into the writing practices and processes of other authors.

T is for Taking the Long Way Around

With apologies to the Dixie Chicks for usurping their song title for my own purposes…

As some of you already know (and wish I would shut up about already) I did a spectacular faceplant onto pavement while crossing the street on Easter Friday. (For those of you who have already heard more than enough about this, please bear with me–this bit will be really short.) I’ve never had a concussion before, and I’ve been truly shocked at how long it’s taking me to recover. Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve tried to return to work twice and have had to turn around and go back home twice. I made my mind up this weekend that today would be the day. The dizziness and headaches have been improving, and Saturday was an especially good day. Sunday was less good, but I figured I was ready.

Well, guess what? I wasn’t. I stayed at work for almost six hours, which was incredibly stupid. Even more stupid, when I started feeling like crap about two hours in, I stayed anyway. The net result was that by the time I dragged my sorry ass home, my head felt like it was about to spin right off my neck and launch itself into the further reaches of the galaxy, I was shaky and woozy and weepy, and for the next four hours I lay on the couch and whimpered like an abandoned puppy.

I’m not telling you this because I’m starved for sympathy. I’m getting plenty of that from my family and friends, because they’re all kinds of fabulous and I’m lucky beyond belief to have them propping me up. No, I’m telling you this to illustrate a point, which you probably thought I was never going to find, but here it is: some things can’t be rushed. Sometimes, to get from A to B, the only possible route is a twisted, switchback road that winds its way through the deepest valleys, up the steepest and most inhospitable mountains, along sheer rock on one side and a plummet to the abyss on the other.

There are some destinations for which there are no shortcuts. Recovering from a concussion is, apparently, one of them, but in spite of this lengthy preamble, it’s not the one I want to talk about. The destination I want to talk about is writing.

Writing–good writing–is all about taking the long way around. The long way around is, in fact, the only way to become a good writer.

Think about it. You have this idea for a novel, a brilliant idea, a never-before-conceived idea of such blistering hot wow-ness that you know in your heart of literary hearts that to keep it from the world of ravening readers would be an act of supreme selfishness. And so, like so many before you, you plonk yourself down in front of your computer and, although you’ve only ever cobbled together a few essays and a couple of short stories that your mother thought were fabulous, you begin to bang out that brilliant idea.  You’ve got to get that sucker written and onto people’s Kindles as soon as your clever little fingers can rip it out of your brain. Because the world is waiting.

At this point I would ask you to lift your fingers from the keyboard and wheel your wheelie chair a few rotations away from the danger zone. The world can wait.

That’s right. The world can wait for your sizzling sausage (vegan options available for the meat-free folk) of an idea.

And do you know why? The world can wait, because your idea deserves better than the hack-handed treatment it’s going to endure if you don’t slap your writing self into a headlock and drag her away from that keyboard. Your idea deserves the time it’s going to take for you to gather unto your writing bosom the clan of skills required to let it shine in all its glittering glory. And when is it time to wheel your butt back to that computer? You’ll be ready to dive into that idea when you:

  • Understand the interplay among story, plot and theme
  • Understand the basics of story structure, and the role that conflict and character play within story structure
  • Have learned how to create complex, nuanced characters–and not just your major characters 
  • Can write dialogue that doesn’t make your characters sound like talking fish sticks 
  • Understand pacing and how to keep a story moving 
  • Have a solid–and I mean concrete foundation solid–command of grammar and punctuation rules; few things sink a good idea faster than a great mish-mash of comma splices, dangling modifiers, run on sentences, faulty subject/verb agreement, mixed metaphors, random ellipses and forests of exclamation marks
  • Know how to spell or know someone who can take care of that little detail for you
  • Understand what a Mary Sue is and why it’s important to bury her in the back yard with tulip bulbs
  • Are committed to the concept of editing as a vital ingredient in the process
Because that’s what it takes to be a good writer. It’s not a quick trip. There aren’t any shortcuts–and that’s okay. Your idea (and your readers) will thank you for taking the long way around.

During the month of April, I’m participating in the A to Z Blogging Challenge. My challenge posts will focus on 26 of the things that have inspired me as a writer or that I’ve learned as I stumble my way toward becoming a writer. Clicky-click on the link to read some of the other bloggers who are participating in the April madness.