At a Loss for Words

Every writer runs out of words – at least good words – at some point. I’ve come to the conclusion that this is both normal and inevitable. Nature goes in cycles, from the seasons to the life, death and rebirth cycles of everything from stars to mayflies. From writers to dancers to architects, everybody hits points where our creativity and energy go dormant. Stars and mayflies, however, do not have to meet deadlines, performance schedules and project completion dates.

What do I do when words and energy run out? I remind myself of the opening to Ecclesiastes, Chapter 3: “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven…”. So the first thing to do is not panic. The words are gone now, but they’ll come back.

The first thing I don’t do is not write. It’s frighteningly easy to say “The words aren’t coming, so I’m not going to try today.” Next thing you know, you haven’t written anything new for a week, or a month. Or longer. For me, not writing is never an option. Even if you can’t do more than journal and brainstorm, write something every day. I also edit previous scenes. They get me back into the story and (hopefully) remind me of why I wanted to write it in the first place.

Or maybe you don’t have to write out a full scene. When I’m really desperate, suffering from severe ‘page fright’ – the conviction that everyone down to chimpanzees could write the story better – I resort to my fallback habit: lists. In this case, it’s what I, as the author, need to have happen in a scene, and with whom. Mine often look like this:

  • Introduce Imogen and mother
  • Morgan panic
  • Alix lie to save him
  • Morgan disgusted at lie
  • Reaction of servants? How can A. be guest and employee?
  • Study or entry????

Far, far, far from a full scene. Not even the bare bones of a scene. But at least there are a few building blocks of life swimming around in the primordial broth. I can see the major players and necessary action, which gives me something to work with.

And I know from personal experience that the thing with the most question marks behind it is where I need to start. Sometimes I’m stumped for the location, as above. Sometimes it’s whose point of view to write a scene in. Whatever it is, the question marks tell me what is not nailed down that needs to be.

It helps to leave a scene that’s not working. Is there another scene you can imagine more clearly? Write that one instead. You might discover that the problem scene might not need to be in the book, or it could work better in another character’s point of view.

An excellent way to avoid blockages like this altogether is to allot time in your schedule for stuff that you like, but which has nothing to do with writing. Physical activity is crucial for good health. We don’t all have the time or money to join health clubs (I sure don’t), but we can take daily walks most of the year. Take a few minutes to put on a good song when you’re alone and boogie around the room. Seriously. If all you can do is chair dance, do that! The music alone gives you a mental break.

People do a lot of things when they’re stuck. I also find cooking and needlepoint soothing. What do you suggest to refresh yourself?

The Play’s the Thing

I earned my bachelor’s in Theatre Arts and I’m not sorry. As a writer, I still use what I learned in acting, criticism, and theater history. Playwrights and actors, like writers, are storytellers at heart, and books, screenplays and stage plays all share similarities. But the best thing about spending years during and after college immersed in theater is that I learned how to talk.

Yes, I could speak before I started college. But plays depend on the spoken word for every aspect of the story: character development; setting up Goal, Motivation and Conflict; description; and back story. Most actions on a stage are rooted in the dialogue between characters. (The italicized stage directions are, in most cases, notes taken by the stage manager of the play’s original production.)

Each character in a play has his or her own voice, made up of vocabulary, speech patterns, and slang; influences include but aren’t limited to education, economic status, occupation, gender and historical era. Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire speaks differently not only from Stanley Kowalski, her brother-in-law, but from Stanley’s wife Stella, who is her sister. In Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women, three actors play the same character at different stages in her life. You will think, and thus speak, differently at 90 than you do at 52, or than you did at 26, as Albee’s dialogue for A, B, and C makes clear.

Whether it’s on the stage or the page, dialogue shows how a character thinks or how they respond to other characters. If a conversation or a line of dialogue — especially interior dialogue, a luxury playwrights don’t have — doesn’t convey something about the characters or advance the plot, cut it. Tight writing keeps the reader engaged in the story and turning the page.

And the spoken word has a rhythm all its own. Listen to the people around you next time you’re standing in line. We repeat each others’ words, emphasize points by slowing our speech down, and convey ideas with a brief phrase.  We use slang from our workplaces or ethnic backgrounds. Even geography affects dialogue. A New Yorker is likelier to start a conversation by stating what he or she wants right away, as opposed to someone from the American South, where even business conversations begin with “How are you doing today?”

The best playwrights of every nationality and era capture the language they hear (or heard) around them. The vitality of Elizabethan English lives on in Shakespeare’s plays, as do the drawls and flutterings of the mid-20th century American South in the those of Tennessee Williams. English plays one of my most valuable resources for grasping the syntax and slang of both the nobility and commoners through the centuries.

If you’d rather rent a movie of a play, that’s great! Although film is much more visual than stage plays are, many are a good introduction to dramatic dialogue and characterization. Plays were meant to be seen and heard. I haven’t tried looking on Netflix to see if any of my favorites can be streamed, but there are a lot of DVDs of plays out there. Some library systems have good collections. Or best of all, support your local community theater! Go see a play!!

If you could pick any play,stage or movie version, to see today, what would it be? Shakespeare wrote my all favorite body of work, but my all time favorite play is Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac.

Fall: Football and Food

Warning: This will be one of those cheesy ‘Hello Fall’ blog posts.

I can’t help it. This is my favorite time of year. The broiling temperatures of summer are relieved by cooler temps, yet the wicked winds of a Nebraska winter haven’t started blowing. And the violent weather of spring (rains, tornadoes, thunderstorms, hail, etc.) have disappeared for the most part.

My favorite sport resumes in the fall. Around here, Husker football approaches the status of a state religion. Our home games have sold out for the last forty-nine years. (The 50th anniversary will be in early November 2012.) We do have four seasons, but they have different names: Post-Season, Spring Practice, Pre-Season and FOOTBALL! I not only remember where I was for the Game of the Century, I can describe the outfit I wore.

This year, we’re pretty excited about joining the Big Ten. For one thing, the Cornhuskers will be going up against new (to us) opponents, which is exciting both because we hope the team will do well, and because the competition will be tough. But you have to love a conference that has its own TV network. Yes, that’s right: the Big Ten Network. Yeah, baby! Candy bar!!

Both cooler weather and football games means I start to enjoy cooking again. When it’s over 95 F outside, my goal for dinner is ‘do not heat up the house’. Come autumn, we can go back to stews, oven-braised meats and what may be my kids’ all-time favorite dish: Roasted Rosemary Potato Slices. And then there’s baking — muffins, cookies, brownies, cakes. Life is good!

Now if only we could get Oklahoma back on the schedule.

Here are a couple of my go-to recipes: One is a great year-round appetizer and the other is the aforementioned potatoes.

Cucumber and Cream Cheese Appetizers

1 loaf of party rye or party bread

1 8 oz. package of cream cheese

1 envelope of dry Italian salad dressing mix

1 cucumber

Combine the cream cheese and dressing mix until well blended. Let it sit while you cut the  cucumber into 1/8 inch slices, or a bit thinner if you prefer. Spread the cream cheese onto slices of the party rye bread and top with a cucumber slice. Easy peasy!

Roasted Rosemary Potato Slices (serves 4)

4 Russet potatoes, scrubbed

4 T melted butter or olive oil, as you prefer

1 t salt (Sea salt or Kosher salt are also yummy)

1 t dried rosemary, crumbled

Cut the potatoes into 1/4 inch slices. Pour half the butter or olive into an 8-inch baking pan and swirl it to coat the bottom. Layer the potatoes in the pan, in separate rows, arranging them so that they overlap slightly. Pour the remaining butter over them, then sprinkle them with the salt and rosemary. Add pepper to taste.

Bake in the middle of a 425 F oven for 22 minutes. Turn the potatoes over. Supposedly you can do this with a long, thin spatula. I’ve tried to and failed, so any more I use a regular spatula and don’t worry about keeping them in rows so much. They’re not as pretty, but they’re still delicious. Aaanyhoo, after you turn the taters, put them back in the oven for another 20-25 minutes, until they’re golden brown.

Creativity for Happy Endings

I’m appearing on fantasy romance writer *lizzie star’s blog today, talking about balance. Come on by if you have a moment!