I Am Not A Fly Fisher

This past weekend I did two things I’ve never done before: 1) took a writing retreat; and 2) fly fished. Let’s just say neither turned out quite like I’d hoped, but the weekend wasn’t a total wash.

In my previous post, I talked about my current WIP and how difficult it is to write. I’ve been stuck in a particular spot for the last couple weeks. I know where the story goes, what happens, how everything goes down, but the words wouldn’t work. They kept coming out all wrong and nothing I did made them any better.

I planned writing nights to focus solely on working through the problems, but life kept intervening. A conference call at work that ran hours over. A meeting at church. A run away dog. Hang out time with friends. Every time I wanted to write, something came up that took me away from it. Every time I finally got to sit down with my manuscript, the coffee shop would be loud and packed, or the words wouldn’t budge from my stubborn brain.

So I figured a writing retreat was just what I needed. I found a cabin a few hours away on one of the best trout fishing rivers in the country (or so the internet proclaimed). One that was nice and secluded, with a good kitchen so I could cook and not have to leave all weekend. Hubs loves fishing, so he loaded up on fly-fishing gear and came along. Just us, the river, and words.

Or so I thought.

A couple things I hadn’t planned on happened. Upon arriving at our adorable cabin–which was as promised, nice kitchen, hot tub, riverfront, and so secluded I thought the car was going to slide off the sketchy one-lane dirt road and down the extremely steep hill to the side–we learned our section of the river was below a dam. Meaning the water was prone to random rapid rises. Random, because even though the folks at the dam posted a schedule of when they would be releasing the water, they never stuck to it. And rapid as in within ten minutes the water rose several feet and the current sped up enough to sweep everything–people included–down river. Suffice it to say, this made for a bit of a nerve-wracking fishing trip for Hubs, and for distracted writing time for myself. Every time he’d don his waders and pick his way to the center of the river, we had to choose a reference point to keep an eye on in case the dam released. Of course he was distracted by trying to fly-fish (did I mention he’d never done it before? We stayed up the night before watching instructional videos online. Yep, we’re professionals, ha!), and I was nervous he wouldn’t notice the water rising until it was too late, so I ended up down at the dock writing long-hand and watching a seam on a rock.

Further complications were my fear of getting hooked by an overeager cast (which almost happened once and made me understandably fearful), the enthusiastic four-wheeler riders at the cabin down the way, and the fact that all the trout the river was supposed to be teaming with were nowhere to be seen. Frustrated, Hubs found a public park/hatchery a little ways down and talked me into going with him the next day.

Despite all this, I managed to get words down. Four-wheeler-ers aside, the woods were pretty quiet. Not to mention a large part of my WIP occurs in the woods, so being right in the thick of it inspired a couple new scenes. By the end of the day I’d typed up what I’d written and was feeling so good I decided to treat myself by hopping into Hubby’s waders and getting in the water. The dam had released by this point, so I didn’t wade out into it or anything. I stayed on/by the ladder on our dock, but it was a neat experience.

So neat that the next day I decided to give it another shot. We went down the park Hubs had found, only about a five minute drive once we got off the steep, sketchy dirt road. Hubs fished for a couple hours while I sat at a picnic table continuing the scene I’d been working on the previous day, still writing long-hand. The words came a little, but it was still a lot of [insert action here] and [write something along these lines], and I was grateful when Hubs said he’d had enough. Nothing was biting and our stomachs were grumbling. Before we left though, I wriggled back into the waders and slipped into the water, fishing pole in hand, ready to try this fly fishing thing for real.

Like I said at the beginning, I’d never fly fished before. I had, however, watched all the instructional videos. I knew what to do. I confidently strode through the water and tugged the line out to the right length. I locked my wrist, whipped the line back and forth, and released, expecting the line to float out over the water.

Nope.

It wrapped around my wrist and went absolutely nowhere. I tried again. Nothing. Over and over. Finally it went a little ways, but nothing like the smooth cast in the videos. Hubs had struggled the first day, but he picked it up pretty quick. We’d watched the same videos, I had my hand in the right place, moved the rod like I was supposed to, surely I’d get the hang of it too, right? Wrong. I fought that line the entire time, and the more I fought, the more frustrated I got, and the worse things went. When I finally gave up and waded back to shore, Hubs showed me a video he’d recorded.

Holy crap, I looked goofy! Arm raised like the Statue of Liberty. Rod extended way behind my head. It was terrible. You can actually see the moment I realize it won’t work and give up. My shoulders slump. I turn to the shore and shrug. Then hang my head and wade back–not even gracefully gliding through the water like I thought. I clomp over the rocks like a little kid dressing up in their parent’s shoes (the wading boots were a men’s 11 and I’m a women’s 9, so not sure why I thought I’d do anything but clomp).

So fly fishing is not my thing. I tried and failed. Gloriously, I might add. That’s one video no one other than me and Hubby will ever watch. But I did realize something: I’d been fighting my story the same way I fought the fly rod. I was struggling against the story, so the story wasn’t flowing.

Sometimes your story gets away from you and you have to wrangle it back in. The line gets twisted around the pole and doesn’t flow out when you cast. You wrestle with it and fight it and sometimes it’s like it takes on a mind of it’s own, determined to make your life miserable.

That’s when you stop.

I bet if I watched a video of me trying to write over the past few weeks, I ‘d see the same thing I saw when fishing. I’d literally watch myself get dejected and give up. I’ve been struggling, trying to make the story do what I wanted it to do instead of letting it work the way it’s meant to work.

There’s a key difference between fly fishing and spinner fishing. I’ve always spinner fished, where you let the reel do all the work. It controls the line, you just flick your wrist. Fly fishing is a completely different world. A fly reel is basically a line holder. It’s up to the fisher to make the line work.

I am not a fly fisher. I’m a spinner fisher through and through.

When we returned to the cabin that afternoon, I stopped trying to fly fish my story. I stopped struggling against the words. I paused and let the story turn in the direction it needed. And for the first time all weekend, I felt like I had the perfect cast.

Sometimes you just need to stop trying. Take a breath. Listen to your story. Like a spinner reel, let the story do all the work and just go along for the ride.

Hubs finally caught a fish on our last night, and I finally caught my story again. So overall, I think my little retreat was a success.

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The Mid-Game Slump and the 7th Inning Stretch

I have a love/hate relationship with baseball. Everything surrounding the game is wonderful. The songs and chants, the root-root-rooting for the home team, the smell of dirt and grass, the aluminum foil wrapped hot dogs fresh off the grill, the creak of ball glove leather, and the crack of bats. The game itself though? Meh. Hours of sitting on uncomfortable metal or concrete bleachers, or those hard plastic seats that afford zero leg room to anyone over five feet, while the drunk guy behind you sloshes warm beer all over the place and/or spits his chewing tobacco at his feet, which, thanks to the narrow rows, is right next to your head. Or worse, tips over his dip cup onto you and your belongings (that actually happened to me once and still induces a hard shudder as I picture my grainy, brown, used tobacco stained, reeking purse. I threw it away in case you’re wondering). All while you’re waiting for something, anything, to actually happen during the game.

Playing baseball is completely different. I love it. I played softball for twelve years and considered playing in college. I could play all day long. But watch? No.

The thing about baseball is it starts off so great. The first inning or so is exciting. Energy is up throughout the stadium, people are still (relatively) sober, the food is fresh, the players are ready to go. But toward the third or fourth inning, it slumps. The excitement wanes, the beer flows more freely, the seat starts to hurt your butt and you check your watch repeatedly, like that will speed up time, wondering if it’s acceptable to just go ahead and leave. Then, at the end of the sixth inning, the game picks up again. The seventh inning stretch. Every minor or major league baseball game I’ve ever been to has something special, some tradition they do, for the seventh inning stretch. (They almost always involve everyone singing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame”). The excitement picks back up. The close of the game is here. It’s the last chance for the teams to come from behind or solidify their win. You’re on your feet, root-root-rooting once more, urging your team forward, to the win!

Writing is a lot like baseball, at least it is for me. The beginning is always wonderful. A great new idea takes hold, like a baby plant, its roots spring out and dance across the top of your mind. You put pen to paper or finger to keyboard and write and the roots dig in a little deeper. You get on a roll, ideas firing left and right, as the characters and the story reveal themselves. Then you hit the third or fourth inning. The mid-game slump. The story slows down, you forget to water the plant and the leaves droop. Sometimes, this is when I want to leave the game. Both teams suck and the story isn’t going anywhere. I question my writing. “I suck. I can’t write. What am I doing?” But, I stay. That far in, I always stay. You slog through. You re-read the scene you thought wasn’t fit to use as toilet paper and it wasn’t so bad after all. In fact, it was pretty good (although the current scene is definitely terrible…ha!). You water the plant and the color picks up and the roots deepen. Then realize you’re nearing the seventh inning. The home stretch. Excitement grips once again and your off, writing like a bandit. The plot twists and energy builds and you’re rooting for your main character to hang in there, to overcome the bad guy, to win! When you finish, you sit back and stare at the scoreboard and marvel at a game well played.

I’m in that mid-game slump right now. The story is planted in my brain and I know I’m going to finish; I’m in too far and too much in love with the story to quit. I’ve just got to get over that hill. The Pixar Touch posted a list of story rules as tweeted by Emily Coats, basically how to story board tips.. (Go check it out, there are some really good ideas!). Here are three of the tips I think I’m going to try to push myself to the seventh inning stretch:

#7: Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard, get yours working up front.

#8: Finish your story, let go even if it’s not perfect. In an ideal world you have both, but move on. Do better next time.

#9: When you’re stuck, make a list of what WOULDN’T happen next. Lots of times the material to get you unstuck will show up.

There are so many other gems she mentions. The tip I have is don’t quit. In the middle of the game when the guy behind you is steadily getting more drunk and the players seem like someone slipped Quaaludes in their Gatorade, and that stupid fluffy contraption they call a mascot won’t freaking shut-up, and your butt hurts, and you just want to leave– DON’T. Stay. Because in a little while, the excitement will build again. The crowd will rise and start singing and the game will pick up and you’ll figure it out.

Do you have any tips for getting through the mid-game slump? I would love to hear them! (Oh, and go Red Sox! Yes, I’m a southern gal, but I love that team!)

Writer’s Block

Those are two of the worst words in the english language.  I shudder when I read them.  I want to cover my ears with my hands when I hear them. and sing “lalalalalala, I can’t hear you!” like it doesn’t exist.  Except it does.  And I have it.

I have been trying to write a particular story for a long time.  I posted the first chapter a little while ago (see “The Terminal Circle”).  The story won’t come to me.  I know the general plot and what happens to the main character, and I finally know who the main character is, but I just can’t get past the first chapter.

Heck, it’s taken me over two years to get the first chapter down.  I sit at my computer screen and beg the characters to come to life.  I lay down and close my eyes and try visualize them.  How they act, talk, and walk.  What they say and how they say it.  Their movements and mannerisms.  I just can’t do it.  I’m afraid that I’ll never be able to, which then causes me to seize up like a kid about to bungee jump.  I’m standing on the platform all suited up and ready to leap, but my feet won’t move forward.

What scares me the most is that this isn’t how I write.  This is a plot my dad and I discussed.  It was his idea, not mine, but he wanted me to write it.  Now my dad isn’t here anymore and I can’t even discuss it with him and talk it through, which usually helps when I’m stuck.  The big problem, though, is that I write spontaneously.  I’ve written two books so far, and both of them came from middle-of-the-night-can’t-sleep ideas.  They weren’t something I thought through and analyzed.  For both, I laid there in bed and saw the characters every time I closed my eyes.  Before I fell asleep, I knew their names, saw their faces, knew how they moved and acted instantly.  I knew what they were going to do and why.  When I woke the next morning, I put it on paper and just didn’t stop writing.  Of course it needed polishing, but getting everything down in a first draft was a snap.  For the most recent manuscript, I had a first draft done and to betas within two months. (So thankful for beta readers by the way!)

I’ve written short stories in this manner as well.  It’s like the story comes to me and begs to be written down, no matter what I’m doing at the time (even while studying for the bar exam…okay, especially while studying for the bar exam).   However, I have short stories that I’ve tried to write that don’t get past the first few pages, even though I know I have a good idea, because I sat and thought it through too much. 

I recently read “On Writing” by Stephen King (excellent read whether you’re a fan of his or not), and he describes writing as finding a fossil.  You trip over it in the back yard and start digging, then keep digging until bit by bit the fossil reveals itself to you.  I completely agree with this analogy.  The characters I’ve written about, I don’t feel like I’ve created them so much as found them.  Then I just had to keep writing to discover more about them until I had the whole story.

These stories that I’ve found, they write themselves.  Sure, I’ve had to put some thought into it, but once I sit down and my fingers hit the keys, it’s like my fingertips take on a mind of their own.  They fly and dance over the keyboard and before I know it, I’ve got 60 or 70 thousand words.  It’s like that in my legal writing as well.  I always had to wait until the mood struck me to write.  Sure, I would get things out by the professor’s deadlines in school (in my working life I was left to my own devices), but I did my best work when my fingers could think for themselves.  Sometimes that was down to the wire, but I’ve never missed a deadline in class or the real world and never made a poor grade (or below an A minus for that matter).

So I’m not entirely sure what to do with this…writer’s block (shudders like the hyenas in the “Lion King” when they hear the name “Mufasa”).  Do I try and push through and write the story anyway, or do I let it breathe and hope the characters come to life?  I’ve already let it breathe for two years, but maybe that’s not enough.  Stephen King said he encountered a block when writing “The Stand” (one of my favorites) and only got unblocked when he realized that his characters were too comfortable and needed a shake-up (i.e. a bomb in a closet).  That was a mid-book block though.  Mine always occurs in the first stages of a manuscript, and so far have all been stories I eventually abandoned (bless their little hearts.  I see them now, huddled in a forgotten folder on my desktop.  Ragged shawls draped around their shoulders, tin cups at their feet, begging for me to revist them, to try again.  I want to help, but what can I do?  So I ignore them and keep moving with hollow promises to one day return and do what I can). 

How do you handle writer’s block?  Do you work through it, or take it as a sign that the story isn’t meant to be written right now and move on?