The Art of the Barf-Sheet

This post began as a post on writer’s block. Then I thought going with something on how to beat writer’s block, as cliche’ as it is, may itself be a symptom of writer’s block. I had about a paragraph on how to beat writer’s block written out and then I hemmed, and hawwed, and puttered, and decided to change my topic and write about something else.

Getting derailed.

Being derailed is one of the worst things beginning writers do to themselves. But it is so, so, so easy a pit to fall into. Wait, are you falling into a pit, or going off the tracks? Which metaphor am I going with? Is there another metaphor for derailment that involves holes? Like, digging yourself out of a hole you jumped in to because you’re tired of and–oh my gosh I should write a post about how to put your protagonists in metaphorical holes and–wait, there I go again.

It’s easy to get derailed. This is how I do it, and how I imagine a lot of other writers do it as well:

1. Yay! I just got the best idea for a new novel and it is fun and exciting!
2. Yay! I just thought of the perfect opening for this idea and it is so cool, I’m going to write it down!
3. Ooh, and now this and this happens. Maybe I should outline? Nah, things are going well so far let’s just keep going. I’m on page thirty.
5. Now I am on page fifty this is so awesome!
6. Hunh, I just ran out of ideas. That’s OK, I’ll sit here and stare at the screen, I am sure they will come to me.
7. Wait, omigosh, I just got the best idea for a new novel and it is fun and exciting!

Now go back and repeat steps one through seven on an infinite loop. Or, there is the alternative Step 7b: Wait, omigosh, I just thought of how to write the beginning way better then I did last time! Then you repeat steps 2-7.

The problem with this is that you wind up having spent many, many days diligently writing, and what do you have for it? Either tons and tons of 50 page, incomplete manuscripts, or one 50 page incomplete manuscript with the best first ten pages of all time. This is great if you’re a hobby writer and you only write for fun, but what if you want to make this your job? Unfortunately, there is not a market for unfinished manuscripts.

Why is this happening?

The first thing you need to do is really understand and acknowledge the reasons you, personally, are getting derailed. Put a Post-it next to your computer that says: “Why?” The next time you stop in the middle of one project and think about starting another, look at that note and ask yourself that same question. Be objective. Why do you want to change projects? Do you have a short attention span? Do you enjoy world-building more than actual writing? Are you stuck and not sure where to go?

I have a hunch, more often than not, most of the problems stem with one thing: The point you are most likely to be derailed is when your writing goes from a fun, entertaining hobby and turns in to work. Everything grinds to a halt as your subconscious says, “But, what? This isn’t fun, I don’t wanna do it.” It’s the same voice that tells you not to get up out of bed in the morning and put on those work shoes. But while years of public school and bills to pay have told us that we do have to get out of bed and put on our work shoes because it sucks but you need money, when you’re used to something being fun your subconscious fights to keep it that way.

Well, it’s time to tell your subconscious to shove it and get back to work.

This is your job, damn it.

You may be a teacher, a nurse, a bookkeeper, a stay at home mom, but if you want to be a writer, this has to be your job, too. You have to accept it, internalize it, and embrace it. So what if it’s the crappy job where you don’t really get paid and you have to toil for hours with no appreciation and no compensation–if you want to get paid “someday” you have to make it your job “today.”

What differentiates your job from other parts of your life? Work clothes and a schedule, most likely. So set up a uniform and a timeline. My “uniform” consists of PJs. Actually, loungewear. Like PJs but you could wear it to the grocery store if you don’t care what people think. But, they match and color coordinate. When I wake up, I change out of my “sleep” PJs and into my “work” PJs. My husband, changing in to his suit, gives me an evil look, but I just laugh and say, “Them’s the knocks.” Because I’m mean. But I love him and he loves me, go figure.

With a map, you have a better chance of getting there.

My first suggestion for fighting derailment is to avoid the detour in the first place. In real life, if you’re taking a road trip on a long and complicated journey, you generally have a map. When you’re building a house, you have a blueprint. If you don’t have a blueprint, your house will probably fall apart midway through construction. See the pattern?

Undertaking any massive project without a guide is asking for failure. Yet time and time again I meet writers who blithely say, “Oh, I don’t need an outline! I just let the story take me where it takes me!” What if the story takes you down a long dark road, forces you out of the car, pistol whips you in the head and leaves you in a ditch? How will you get home from that if you don’t have a map?!

After the excitement of writing your first five pages wears off, take a deep breath, steel yourself, grab that book on writing structure you never want to look at (I recommend “Save the Cat” by Blake Snyder, because I want to make the ultimate film adaptation of my novels easier, but take your pick, there are tons out there) and force yourself to come up with an outline. It sucks. It is hard. Outlining, to me, is the second hardest part of writing a book. Usually, I have to go back and re-do my outline at least once. Sometimes I can’t read my own writing and sometimes the big gaps make me cry. But this is a job, and we do our job, right? Besides, three days of hell coming up with an outline sure beats two weeks of hell due to writer’s block later down the line.

Is it harder to climb 100 steps, or climb 10 steps 10 times?

That’s some zen mumbo jumbo, isn’t it? But seriously, if you were to look at the blueprint of a house (I love to continue with my metaphors) and you think of all the work you have to do before it’s habitable, you freak out. Plan approvals, permits, digging holes, pouring foundations … a million little steps just to get you to the point where you can pick out paint colors. Thinking of the work it will take to complete your project is a good way to end up in a fetal position and sobbing your little heart out as someone tells you to relax but you can’t relax you can’t dammnit because there’s so much to do and you must start doing it right now you must work right now because it must be perfect and the best and–where was I? Oh, right, steps.

I once wrote a 120 page screenplay in ten days. No joke. And it wasn’t terrible (it wasn’t amazing but it wasn’t terrible). Also no joke. How did I do it? Goal setting.

Goal setting is another way to set yourself up for success. Take your project, eighty thousand words, right? How many pages is that? When do you want to complete the project by (be reasonable, now, don’t get too ambitious)? Divide. Ta-da! Daily guidelines. Now take the page count and divide it by four – ta-da! Reward points! For the above screenplay, I had two weeks, so I gave myself the goal of ten pages a day. Some days I met and exceeded the goal, some days I didn’t, but overall it worked because I finished in ten days.

Maybe word count and page counts are not your thing. I feel ya. Personally, I prefer to work in forms of scenes and act breaks. I usually set bench marks based on my act breaks, and I usually try to make it so I finish a scene a day on work days. Whatever your goal is, keep a few things in mind:

1. It should be reasonable and attainable, but not too easy. Anyone can write 100 words a day. But 10,000 is so many you might feel too intimidated to try. Figure out what your average is and set your goal for 5% more than that. Adjust as necessary.
2. It should take your lifestyle and current schedule in to account. If you have Fridays off, but you work 9-5 Monday through Wednesday, don’t make your goal writing 10 pages a day on the work week. Rather, make your goal writing 10 pages on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.
3. There should be little goals and big goals. I’ll explain why in the next section.

Positive reinforcement – not just for doggies anymore.

The best part of goals is what goes hand in hand with goals–rewards. We are not machines. You go to your 9-5 job because you get positive reinforcement in the form of a check each month. You work as a stay at home parent because you secretly know that your child loves you more than the other parent, and you delight in it. You have to reward yourself for hard work, or what’s the point? Don’t tell me “a job well done is a reward in itself,” because we all know that’s just something they tell volunteers when the volunteers are hoping their job will become paid.

I have big goals and little goals, and these earn me big rewards and little rewards. For example, I like to finish a scene a day. If I get my scene done, I can go play PonyIsland for an hour as my reward. Or I might get half a Hershey’s bar, or a donut. Or a star sticker I can put on my chart to show my husband that I accomplished something. That’s a little reward. Ideally, it should be tangible and concrete.

Now, let’s say I complete the first half of the second act. Whoo, mamma, that’s a big goal! I get to go out and by myself a new Barbie doll! Ha ha, just kidding, it’s actually going to be a My Little Pony or a new pair of shoes. Don’t break the bank, but it should definitely qualify as a treat–why? Because you earned it, damn it. And thinking of that treat is going to help you stick it out when the going gets rough. “C’mon self,” I say, “I’m only two scenes away from getting a new Twilight Sparkle!”

Don’t look back!

So you have another idea on how to make the beginning better, stronger, faster, etc. Ok, great! But do it later, after you’ve finished the last page.

That’s right–don’t fix the first page until you have finished the last. I know this is hard, I find it hard myself. Whenever I get stuck, I find myself scrolling up, looking at what I originally wrote … why, so I can remind myself how awesome I was two and a half weeks ago? When I had the light and glory of inspiration behind me? But wait, what if I just tweaked this, then it would be really amazing and–

Don’t do that! Nothing is perfect, it will never be perfect and if you are of the perfectionist mind set, you can get stuck in an infinite loop of endless tweaking. So make yourself a promise. You will revise your project–but not until you have completed it in full. Period. I think it was Cherry Adair who wants advised, “Puke it out now, clean it up later.” This is a motto I embrace fully. Just write, I don’t care how much you secretly feel it is sucking, write and don’t look back.

If all else fails, ask yourself, “What’s better, 50 pages of gold or 350 pages of bronze?” Fifty pages of gold may look pretty sitting in your work folder, but 350 pages of bronze has a better chance of getting published – or polished into gold. Let’s pretend that wasn’t the corniest thing you’ve ever read.

When all else fails, fall back on the barf-sheet.

Ah, the barf-sheet. My precious, precious, barf-sheet. I must have at least fifty of them, if not one hundred.

What’s a barf-sheet you ask?

Simple. It’s a Word document filled with all of my idea “barf.” Let’s say I have an idea for a story, Frank McGillacuddy, Policeman, M.D. It’s about a guy, Frank, who’s a policeman by day and a rogue vigilante doctor by night. He rides around town in his motorcycle providing medicine to the needy and unfortunate, but he has a dark and troubled past as a radiologist in the war that may one day come back and haunt him. Television gold, right? However, I have a problem. I’m in the middle of writing my other story, Mississippi Swing, about swing dancers who are trying to bring the glory days of the old south back with the magic of swing dancing, and who along the way encounter prejudice and run-ins with the staid bureaucracy of their tiny town. But Frank McGillacuddy is a great idea, the best ever! What if I forget?

Enter the barf sheet. Give yourself one hour, or one day, one unit of time, and open up your barf sheet. Write down absolutely everything you can think of about your new idea. I use bullet points but do it however you want. Do it as fast as you can. Characters? Scenes? Dialogue? It all goes in to the barf sheet.

Frank McGillacuddy, Policeman, M.D.
* Motorcycle rider
* “This crime looks like it just flat lined.”
* Pet parrot that he got while overseas in the war – inherited from dead war buddy? Parrots mate for life and at night, the parrot calls for Mickie. Listening to the parrot ask for his dead war buddy over and over breaks Frank’s heart. He keeps bird as form of self punishment for responsibility in friend’s death? Or is the bird’s calling really what drives him out on to the streets at night?
* Hot IA officer with a knack for getting in to trouble and needing stitches. She may be on to Frank’s MD second life, but will she turn him in if she finds out?

Got it all? Are you sure? Save and close.

Now don’t look at it. You wrote it down, it’s there, waiting for you, the egg of a golden goose waiting to hatch. But first you must finish the current project. Your other ideas can wait. Best yet, with time and distance and a chance to cook, they will probably even get better with the waiting! So take the time to do your current project right instead of leaving it behind, half completed. Just dig in and get it done.

Why? Because this is our job and we never, ever, look back.