Friday, August 01, 2014

Write When Ready

During the past couple of weeks I've been reminded once again of the distinction between procrastination and taking some "down time". In my last post, I confessed to being ready to pull my hair out because I was struggling to finish a book proposal for my nonfiction book about clothing and crime. My problem was that I can't write until I have a title, and I had gone through many variations on a title without finding one.

I signed off my post and headed out the door to see a movie, followed by a walk in the park, and an ice cream break. I really needed that day off. I still didn't have a title at the end of the day. But when I got back to my computer, I was feeling relaxed enough to try Googling random words. The title of an episode of Will and Grace, the situation comedy, popped up. The title was "Fear and Clothing". As soon as I saw it, I knew my problem was solved.

And this week, I had another breakthrough. This one came because I didn't change the station. I was driving into school and a NPR alternative radio program was on. The speaker was a native of India and an opponent of the global proliferation of genetically engineered crop seeds. I was only listening because the program had been on when I started the car. I wasn't in the mood to hear depressing predictions about the global impact of designer crops, but I decided to listen just a few minutes longer because she was make dire predictions about the future of agriculture. My police procedural series is set in the near future, so I told myself I should listen. And then something the speaker said made me go "Wow!" Describing the identical, tall, straight rows of corn that were produced from genetically-engineered seeds, she said the corn stalks were "like Hitler's soldiers".

I thought about that and went "Wow!" again, not because she had given me something that I could use in my near-future books but because she'd given me another way of getting into the mind of  the villain of my 1939 historical thriller.

Cullen, my villain, is the owner of a wood pulp mill and a large farm. Hearing that phrase "like Hitler's soldiers" used to describe corn, I suddenly knew that Cullen would have a scientific breeding program for the animals on his farm. Since I have only the vaguest idea of what was going on with agriculture in the 1930s, I sent out an SOS to a history professor I know whose specialty is agricultural and rural history. Since my protagonist grew up with a sharecropper father who was close to the land, I also asked if she could recommend some reading that would give me the perspective of a man who was close to nature.

My words of wisdom from these two experiences: (1) When you're stuck, get up and walk away from the keyboard. Trust yourself to be able to distinguish between the need to recharge your batteries and the urge to procrastinate when you know you should be writing;  (2) Step out of your comfort zone and allow yourself to be bored or anxious. You may hear or see something you can use. If I had changed the station, I wouldn't have heard corn compared to Hitler's army and I might never have thought of a scene set on his farm as a way of helping readers understand who my villain is and what he believes. In fact, I'm pretty sure neither I nor the reader would ever have set foot on that farm. I would have missed an opportunity to show rather than tell because the farm would have been background information.

Relax, listen, stop struggling, and what you need will come.


Rick Blechta said...

Frankie, I call it "change task" and it's something I do whenever I get stuck creatively, whether it be writing, music or graphic design. And it almost always works. Now that task can be as simple as moving over to something else, making dinner, going for a walk, or enjoying an ice cream, but it's basically the same thing you're talking about, too.

Glad you had success!

Frankie Y. Bailey said...


Thanks, I'm relieved, too. I like your term for it.

D. P. Lyle, MD said...

Great advice, Frankie. And I completely agree.

Charlotte Hinger said...

Frankie, I find that I'm not doing myself any favors when I say I have to keep working, working, working. This applies to almost any kind of problem.

Frankie Y. Bailey said...

Glad to hear that from a doctor, Doug :).

Frankie Y. Bailey said...


I need to remember that henceforth. No favors and definite frustration.

Eileen Goudge said...

Sound advice, Frankie! I've never come up with a title while at my desk. They pop into my head at random. I ask myself a question, then step away. The answer will eventually come.

Frankie Y. Bailey said...

Thanks, Eileen! I woke up in the middle of the night on Thursday with a solution to a writing problem I'd gone to bed thinking about. Luckily, I have trained myself to keep paper and pen on my nightstand. I know from experience that if not written down, it will be gone by morning.