Finding the Beacon

photoSome of my writer friends say they do not believe in writer’s block. I’d like to think I’m a faucet of creative genius that I can just turn on when it’s time to start working, then turn off when it’s time to do something else (like go to my job), and then magically turn it right back on when I get home and have more time.

I wish it was like that. The truth is much more frustrating. I get stalled. I might have a half a dozen ideas for novels rolling around in my head, but I often just don’t know where to start. Should I start that YA book I’ve been thinking of? Finish the one that’s more literary so I can send it to some agents? Or get back to that series that needs its next installment?

Sometimes I’m thinking about so many different possibilities (even within the scope of one book), that it’s crippling. I start second-guessing every move I make in the story, and I end up deleting more words than I leave on the page. Or worse, just stare at the computer screen for hours.

I’ve tasked myself this year with finding ways to get out of this monstrous cycle, and so far I’ve learned this: a scary deadline is sometimes the beacon. A deadline forces me to keep moving, stop second-guessing, and just bang out the words. I’m a firm believer in the “zero draft.” I think you have to write a ton of words before you have something to really shape into a great story. HOWEVER the more efficient side of me (which has been winning these last several months) wants to by-pass that slog of words destined to be cut, and get right down to the heart of things.

Back in the winter, I was agonizing over which book to start next. I had a draft close to being finished that needed to have something a bit bigger at stake; I had an idea for a whole new book that I felt compelled to write; I felt obligated to write another book in the Bayou series to keep myself on track, but had no idea what it would be about. As I pored over which was the smarter move, my fella said, “Just write the one you’re most excited about.” That was somehow easier said than done.

I made notes, drew out potential story maps, thought about my characters until my brain hurt. But I was still nowhere closer to figuring out which was the smarter route to take. Each idea pulled me towards it for a different reason, and there was no way I could work on more than one at a time.

So I did something completely different. I saw a call online, asking for authors to be part of a collection of novellas. The deadline was six weeks away. I wrote the author in charge and was invited to submit a novella. By the time I factored in time for my beta reader to read it and for me to make edits, I figured I had 4 weeks to write it. Ready, set, go.

Having that deadline forced me to commit to decisions as I crafted the story, and just crank out scenes with discoveries and repercussions. I banged out a draft in less than three weeks, and then took a week to revise before sending to my beta reader. Knowing that I had to deliver kept me moving forward and stopped me from waffling on plot lines and story arcs. It kept me on a steady course.

When I was nearly finished with that novella, I saw a contest for short stories—1500 words or less. The deadline was ten days away. I hadn’t written a short story in years, but had the urge to enter this contest—even though I had exactly ZERO ideas for short story. But as I was driving home a day or two later, I spotted a jon boat hanging from a crane at a construction zone by a bridge. I spent the next few miles wondering what in the world it was doing there, and decided to write that 1500-word story about it. With the clock ticking, I wrote the story over three days.

It seems sometimes you just have to create your own beacon, and then let your creative self follow it.

 

Want to check out that novella? Part of the Bayou series, it’s called Just the Trouble I Needed. It appears in the collection Dog-Eared Love, which releases on June 6. You can pre-order here for just 99 cents.