Writers’ Block or Depression?

As a writer who suffers from motivation-affecting mental illnesses that can be exacerbated by stress, it’s important for me to be able to identify the reason why I’m staring at a blank page and feeling like I can’t write. Writing is stressful. My day job is stressful. Living in this country as a queer person is stressful. So it’s possible that my “writers’ block” is early stage depression.

But sometimes writer’s block is just writer’s block. How can I tell the difference? And why do I need to know?

As for how, it usually boils down to how my chest and stomach feel (heavy and acid respectively usually signals depression), and whether the time spent staring at the page leads to distractability (writer’s block) or negative self-talk (depression).

If I’m actually crying, chances are that the answer is depression.

Being able to tell the difference is important because my strategies for adjusting my writing life to accommodate my issues are vastly different. The only way through writer’s block is to power through it. I have to shut off the devices and just sit there until my only choice is to write my way out.  I need to sit down and make myself write no matter how hard it is. But trying and failing to power through when the underlying issue is depression just leads to, you guessed it, deepening depression. I need to walk away and engage in some self-care and when I’m feeling better, the motivation will come back.

And there you have it: the effects of depression and writer’s block are the same, but being able to tell the difference can save tons of time and emotional pain.

Beta Reader List

One of the tools I like to employ to help better my storytelling is beta readers.  Occasionally, I’m lucky enough to have a writing group that has some alpha readers (readers that are reading the story as it is written, instead of after it is finished), but it’s more likely that I have people interested in reading the story after it’s done.  I won’t wax eloquent about the benefits of beta readers.  I’ve done that before.

What I’ve noticed is that, when giving feedback, some beta readers have more useful feedback than others.  “I liked it” isn’t the most useful feedback.  What did you like about it?  Were there any parts you particularly liked?  Why?  How did it make you feel?  What was your favorite scene? “I didn’t like it” is also not useful feedback and would merit the same kinds of follow-up questions.

Pulling feedback from people can be like pulling teeth.  I have to remind myself that when I’ve given them a work product that represents hundreds, if not thousands, of hours of my time, that I eventually intend to charge for, and all I’m asking for in return is particularized feedback in response to some very specific questions, it’s okay to feel disappointed if I don’t receive that.

This is why I keep a list of my beta readers–who has read for me, what they have read, and whether their feedback was useful or not.  It’s not shocking that most of them are also writers, and I’ve read for them (and offered serious critique) in return.  But when I’m floundering for people to help me out in a qualitative way, going back to that list can be the difference between throwing up my hands and going without the feedback I need.

Self-Evaluation

After reading this piece about how writing is not a competitive sport by Andrea Dunlop, I’ve been thinking a lot about professional jealousy. As I posted last week, there are cycles when I tend to read more, which correlate with when I’m not actively writing.

I don’t know why I ever thought that reading more when I’m out on submissions would be a good idea. I think it mostly falls that way because I spend the vast majority of my time in some state of submission. If I’m not submitting my novel manuscript, I’m definitely submitting short stories to someone, somewhere. Submitting doesn’t play well with my professional jealousy. My professional jealously doesn’t usually manifest in the form of the “this crap got published, why can’t I” mentality that Dunlop describes in the article (though I’ve had that feeling once or twice myself), but usually more in the “I’ll never be as good as [insert any of my favorite authors here, but probably Neil Gaiman] so why am I even trying.” I’ll go back and read my own writing and feel like it sucks.

I’m starting to realize that this isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Through podcasts and writing blogs and following agents and editors on Twitter, I’ve been able to pick up the vocabulary to describe the things that I was only instinctively grasping a few years ago. Words are powerful. If I can describe a thing, I can emulate a thing, and when I can emulate it I can put my own touches on it. If I can recognize a thing I don’t like and have the words to describe why, I can figure out how to do a thing I do like instead.

So in a sense it’s a good thing that when I go back and read my own writing I feel like it sucks, or when I can’t wade through a book I used to be able to, it’s a good thing. It means my critical reading skills are growing, which means my skills as a writer are growing. The more skilled I become, the more I’m able to evaluate my own works and the works of others with a critical eye.

Antagonists

I’ve been thinking a lot about antagonists lately while I’ve been fleshing out the antagonist for the Touchdown novel. It’s fairly common these days that the antagonist isn’t purely evil for the sake of evil. And I like that. I want my antagonists to be like real people think that they’re a good guys doing the right thing.

I also like to think of my hero as someone else’s antagonist. Why wouldn’t she be, after all? If she has goals that she’s working toward, they’re invariably going to be different than someone else’s goals. I’m going to have more sympathy for my hero because I’m writing things from her point of view, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone is going to be sympathetic to her cause and what she wants. And the person playing opposite her main goal won’t necessarily be the same person playing opposite her minor goals, so I have a main antagonist, but I also have little antagonists scattered throughout my outline.

That said, as much as I like the ambiguously bad antagonist, some day I’d like to write a story with a truly evil protagonist. There are some very bad people in the world, people who either take good qualities to extremes or who don’t operate within standard social mores or both. I see a lot of them (distantly, thankfully) through working on criminal cases. Some day when I’m a better writer and have done a lot of mental steeling to immerse myself in a mindset, I’d like to write a character who just doesn’t care, probably a character so warped by a bad background that they’re able to justify the most horrifying things without flinching.

Until then, I think my current antagonist is going to enjoy metalworking tiny animal figurines in his free time. Will that ever come into the story? Probably not.  But it gives me a depth to work with when I think about him, and I find that helpful.

Writing Space

Any writer giving advice to aspiring writers is going to tell you to have a dedicated writing space.  And I do have a writing space in my house.  It’s actually a pretty awesome space.

Since it’s clean right now, I took a picture.  It would be a fun exercise to describe it with words, but that would take up most of my allotted blog-posting time, so I’d rather not:

PC

I’m particularly proud of my Girl Genius print, which you can kind of see it in the top left corner.  Sometimes I just stare at it to feel inspired.  Or maybe that’s just me staring off into space while avoiding the pink to-do-list sticky note.

Anyway, my point is that this is an amazing writing space.  But it’s also my home office, and the computer is my home computer, so it’s the computer I use for playing games, surfing the internet, and doing other non-writing-related things.

I’ve found that for me, it isn’t necessarily about having a physical writing space.  Last week on one of my days off, I went down to the local independent bookstore to sit in the cafe and see how much editing I could do while I was there.  People-watching did consume some of my time, as did sitting with an elderly gentleman who also needed to use the table plugs for his smartphone.  But overall, I ended up getting a massive amount of editing done on the Plague Novel.  I think it was something like three chapters.  To put that in perspective, I’ve been feeling accomplished if I can get 1/2 to 1 chapter done a day.

It’s about having a writing headspace.  It turns out that it’s easier for me to take my laptop places to write.  The only thing I use my laptop for is writing, and when I actually force myself go to somewhere else, it turns into an activity.  I’m not just at home in my office, with easy access to the internet and the dog, cats, and husband all wandering in randomly to pester me.  I’m at a foreign place with a specific purpose: to write.  That drops me right into my writing headspace.

I might have to turn that into a regular thing.  My point is, it isn’t necessarily about having a physical space for writing.  It might be about having a mental space.  I’m glad I experimented to figure out what worked for me.

Writing Under Peer Pressure

One of the things I learned this NaNoWriMo season was how much easier it is to write when other people around you are writing.  For instance, when I wrote 22k words on a Saturday during Go Green, Go Write (I still have trouble believing I actually did this), it was in no small part because I was sitting next to a complete writing machine.  Every time I looked over, this woman was typing.

Not only did it remind me that I needed to be typing, too, but it also became kind of a game.  Could I write longer than she did?  Could I type faster, take less breaks?  Sometimes I glanced over and saw her glancing back.  That woman from my NaNo group later told me that she wrote more words that day than in the whole first two weeks combined, in no small part because she was sitting next to me, and every time she looked over, I was writing.

It was the same way at the rest of the NaNo events.  I turned my phone off, I unhooked my laptop from the WiFi, and I just wrote.  Every time I looked around, other people were staring seriously at their computers.  Some of them were surfing the web, but the vast majority of people were actually writing.  My 4k+ word days were all on days that I spent around 3 hours at a write-in event.

In short, I’m extremely glad that I went to my local NaNo write-in events this year.  And I’m grateful that the group was so welcoming and supportive.  I hadn’t finished NaNo the year before, but in part because of the peer pressure, I not only finished NaNo this year, but I wrote an entire book.  I’m so glad and grateful that I’m going to continue going to the once-monthly events for the rest of the year.  Peer pressure is definitely a tool that I can use to motivate myself to keep writing.

Scrivener Follow-Up

I promised that I’d do another post about Scrivener after I finished NaNoWriMo. This is that post! Overall, I really like the program and I’m happy with it. I can see why it’s so popular. The amount of time that it saves me in organization alone made it worth my money.

Positives:

The major organizations features of Scrivener were a huge reason why I could write a whole book in a single month (well, three when you count planning and outlining). The ability to have my outline, or character sheet, or whatever else I needed, along side my drafting area without having to muck around in multiple Word windows was very helpful and kept me focused.  The cross-linking was also very handy.

The second best part was being able to import my sketches. My maps, diagrams, and concept sketches were all right at my fingertips when I needed them.

Easily moving around my chapters and scenes is also fabulous. I don’t always write things in chronological order, or the order I’ll want them to be in by the end. This is mostly coming in handy as I do my post-beta edit of the plague novel.

I like assigning chapters qualities, like first draft/to do/etc., as well. It has also been a good organizing tool for the redraft.

Downsides:

I use tables to organize things like character lists and timelines. Tables in Scrivener are not very easy to use or intuitive. It took me a while to get them set up, and they still aren’t quite how I like them.

It took forever to figure out how to make my then-present setup into a template that I could use for future projects. I don’t think that was mentioned in the tutorial and I wasn’t even sure I could do it until I was randomly clicking around.

Finally, the program does not seem to remember which part of a document I’m looking at when I use the forward and back features. I’m not exactly sure why it goes where it does, but it is almost never on the place I left it.

I feel like it has so many features that I’m not using them all, or using the ones I am using effectively. I’m not sure this is a downside, per se, but sometimes it makes me feel bad.

Side note:

My husband has started using Scrivener and he keeps saying that I was totally right about it. He uses some fancy tech term about it being a total environment, which apparently pleases him greatly.

To give credit where credit is due, I got my own recommendation from my friend Casey (@CaseyDownUnder if you’re on Twitter). I may owe her an acknowledgement or something in a book someday.

Plague Novel To-Do List, Part 2

As I talked about last week, coming back to the plague novel after two months off and with a fistful of beta-reader feedback was a real struggle for me.  There were so many problems that I didn’t know where to start.

I decided to organize everything into a to-do list.  This has worked amazingly.

First, I had to just find my beta reader feedback sheets.  Compiling them all into Scrivener was kind of a chore in and of itself, because some of them were emailed, some were private-messaged on a discussion board, and others came to me through Facebook messenger.  Note for next time: ONE format for returning feedback.

Second, I went through them and I noted everything that the readers noted as problems.  There were many more “this is so cool!” sections than problems, which was great to read, but not as helpful for the revisions that I knew needed to happen.

Third, I took that random list of thing and organized it into two sections: big things, and small things.  Small things included continuity errors, age errors, minor issues with foreshadowing.  Big things included fixing the pacing in the first twenty chapters, large areas of foreshadowing, character arc and motivation issues, and problems with my characters being more reactive than proactive.

Fourth, I made a separate section that I just titled “thoughts.”  This was the section where I noted down what I thought would help fix some of the issues, and other things that I thought I could add or change.

Finally, I made a section called “positive feedback.”  I keep looking at this section when I feel discouraged to remind myself that the vast majority of the feedback I received was positive.  Because I’m focused on trying to fix things up, I’m focused a lot on the negatives, but there are a lot of positives there.  This is a good reason to keep going with the revisions and to try to sell this novel.

Making this to-do list in this format worked really well to get me over the inner heckler hump (“oh criminey you’re so bad at this why are you even trying this is a huge mess you can’t fix it”) and into a productive state of mind.  Now I have a checklist of things that I can do to help fix the mess, and a list of positive things that I can look at when I’m feeling down.  I think I’ll plan on doing this when I start getting betas back on my second manuscript.

Plague Novel To-Do List, Part 1

I have recently finished my NaNoWriMo book, and now I’m going back to the plague novel for another revision, this time taking my beta reader feedback into account.

I have grown so much as a writer since 2012, when I first started writing on a regular basis.  I grew so much more during the progression of the plague novel, the first manuscript in my life that I’ve actually completed. And this is a problem for the plague novel.

The writing quality and storytelling qualities are different from the beginning to the end.  Part of this is that, from the beginning of the book to Chapter 32, I sort of floundered around.  I discovery wrote the first chapter of the book as a writing group project.  The story set in my imagination, and I wanted to explore the situation further.  I came up with an idea for an ending early on, and some scenes that would be cool to throw into the book.

But getting from the beginning to the cool scenes to the end was more of a muddle than a middle.  I flailed around trying to write my way out of it.  I didn’t start outlining until around Chapter 25.  As a result, there are problems with the pacing in the first twenty chapters.  There are problems with the foreshadowing of certain events.  And the second half of the book is a lot more fun and interesting than the first half, with the exception of some really punchy chapters.

There are also continuity problems.  I changed the ages of the characters several times mid-write.  I didn’t make sheets for most of the characters.  A lot of them were just thrown in as needed, without any thought about their motivations, flaws, and backgrounds.  And because I kept all of my notes by hand, they weren’t always available to reference when I needed them.

In fact, I can spot so many problems and I have so much beta reader feedback that fixing this novel initially felt like an insurmountable obstacle.  The answer was a to-do list, which I’ll talk about next week.

Language Structures

One of the most valuable things that I learned from my first judicial boss, who happened to also be a novelist, is that it’s important to think about the way that your sentence structures affect what you are trying to communicate.  With him, the lesson was in the context of writing persuasive briefs and judicial opinions, but I’ve found that the basic lessons work the same for creative writing as well.

For instance, short and active sentences are more persuasive and powerful.  If you want to de-emphasize something, you should put it in the middle of a paragraph, preferably in a complex sentence.  Snappy writing has a lot of white space, while writing gets skimmed when it doesn’t have many paragraph breaks.

This has come in very handy.  If I’m trying to foreshadow something but I don’t want it to leap right out at the reader, I should bury it in a list of mid-paragraph.  And I should always put the most prominent parts of a description, the things that should really stand out, at the beginnings and ends of paragraphs.

You’d think I would have learned this stuff in school, but I think that a lot of what I learned didn’t have any mental scaffolding to stick to.  Or maybe I did learn them, but simply forgot.  At one point I could passably speak German, after all.  Maybe that’s why doing actual writing on a regular basis, both fiction and nonfiction, has helped me become a better writer.