Sunday, December 12, 2010

Guest Post--Self-torture Techniques for Writers

Yes, it is Christmas time and I've been busy, so once again, I've talked Carolyn J. Rose into doing a guest blog. In the interest of the season, she has decided to do her blog on self-torture. We've all been there, right? She has also been kind enough to offer a book for a contest. More about that later. Without further ado, heeeeere's Carolyn.

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We humans are comfort-seeking creatures. Being a Virgo, there’s nothing I find more comforting than a routine—unless it’s the thrill of checking items off a list. My writing days are marked off by coffee in my favorite mug, peanut butter on homemade bread, reading the comics in a specific order, walks in a counter-clockwise pattern, water aerobics, cheese crackers, and a set number of pages written by nightfall.

The rut of routine is a comfortable place, but the deeper I slide into it, the easier it is to spin my wheels and write the same kind of book over and over. In that comfortable rut, there’s no incentive to change, no challenge to learn and grow. The other danger is that I might eventually get so mired down that I decide to turn off the engine and stop writing entirely. So I’ve got to get out of the rut and go where I haven’t been before. But how do I do that when the pull of routine is so powerful?

Well, I know that comfort doesn’t lead to change, but pain and pressure do. So I’ve learned to torture myself in many ways for many reasons. Here are some of the techniques I’ve used. Some involve mental or emotional pain and a few involve a degree of physical discomfort. If you’re faint of heart or your writing is where you want it to be, stop reading now, otherwise, repeat “no pain, no gain” and read on.

• Write in new and unfamiliar places. Leave that cushy chair, the coffee shop, the air-conditioned office. Drive to the airport and write in the lounge, cram yourself into a bathtub, pick out a park bench, writing standing up beside the washer. (Legend has it that Thomas Wolfe wrote in longhand, using the top of a refrigerator as a desk. Granted, refrigerators were shorter then, but he was 6’ 6” tall. I’m 5’ 2”. That’s why I suggested a washer.)

• Write with new materials. Shut down the computer and grab a legal pad. Toss aside the legal pad and pen and write on a paper bag with a nub of a pencil. Try finger-painting your next novel or grab a stylus and a clay tablet or a chisel and a block of stone.

• Write hungry. Skip breakfast and forego that cup of coffee.

• Treat food as a reward for meeting your writing goal, not an entitlement.

(But set small goals. Try to knock out 100 pages before breakfast and your blood sugar will be lower than the winter temperature in Nome.)

• Start a conversation with a stranger. Make it even tougher—pick out someone with a scowl, someone who appears unapproachable. (I suggest a well-lit public area for this one. Approaching the wrong person on a dark street could result in more pain than you bargained for.)

• Read challenging material. Pick up something by Henry James, James Joyce, or Stephen Hawking. Get a copy of the health care bill and take Cornell notes.

• Create artificial deadlines. Set an oven timer. Tell yourself you work for a newspaper, you’re on deadline, and the editor is breathing down your neck and checking his watch. (Use a hairdryer aimed at the back of your head to simulate that breath. Use the scent of your choice to further enhance the effect. Back in the day, many of my editors carried the scent of cigarettes or adult beverages.)

• Change critique groups. Group members can become too supportive or too snarky. Find a group where you’ll be “the new kid” and see what a fresh audience has to say.

• Invite a reader to beat you up. Ask for criticism from someone who will mangle your manuscript—an ex-lover, the neighbor who complained when your dog pooped on his lawn, a politician you heckled.

• Try a different style or voice. Write in the style of William Faulkner or Jonathan Lethem. Write in the voice of Huckleberry Finn or Stephanie Plum.

• Try a different genre. If you write science fiction, try romance. If you write romance, try your hand at a western, if you’re all about mystery, try out fantasy.

When you challenge yourself, you’ll challenge your characters. When you ratchet up the tension, they could surprise you by how creative they become. And, after a few weeks of pain, you’ll look in the rearview mirror and see that the rut is far behind you.

Bio: Carolyn J. Rose grew up in New York’s Catskill Mountains, graduated from the University of Arizona, logged two years in Arkansas with Volunteers in Service to America, and spent 25 years as a television news researcher, writer, producer, and assignment editor in Arkansas, New Mexico, Oregon, and Washington. She teaches novel-writing in Vancouver, Washington, and founded the Vancouver Writers’ Mixers. Her hobbies are reading, gardening, and not cooking.

She is the author of eight mysteries, Hemlock Lake, Consulted to Death, Driven to Death, and Dated to Death, and the co-author of Sometimes a Great Commotion, The Big Grabowski, The Hard Karma Shuffle, and The Crushed Velvet Miasma.

Following her own advice, she and her husband co-authored a young-adult fantasy, The Hermit of Humbug Mountain. In this epic battle between good and evil, the fate of the world depends on a teenage boy with a flair for drumming and his precocious sister.

Visit her virtual home at


  1. Useful post, Carolyn. I couldn't do the "write hungry" one. My brain completely shuts down when I'm even the least bit hungry. The other ideas sound interesting, though. I find it helps me when I write in a different room for a day or turn my office chair around and face in a different direction. Maybe I scare myself when I do these things.

  2. Here's my tip: I got stuck in my current manuscript and bought a book of poetry. The first page fired up the creative juices and I was back on track. I love the airport idea, but I'm too cheap to pay for parking.

  3. I love your creative ideas. Have to admit I'm in a writing rut in that I get up early each morning and write for a few hours before anyone else is awake. But what helps me is doing a variety of different types of writing: poetry, plays, nonfiction articles and short stories. I don't work solely on novels. But even my novels are out of the box in regard to genre. It draws criticism from some folks who don't get it, but I enjoy experimenting.

    Jacqueline Seewald

  4. L.C., LOL I don't think I said that I ever do write hungry, it's just a suggestion. Unfortunately, I use snacks to prime the creative pump. Don't even want to think about the childhood incidents and characters that fueled that idea.

  5. Jacqueline, I'm all for experimentation. In fact, this morning I think I'll experiment with a cranberry muffin instead of that usual toast.

  6. Carol, try public transportation. That will introduce you to even more people who might influence the characters in your WIP.

  7. I've just reread "Zen In The Art of Writing" by Ray Bradbury. He suggests we read some kind of poetry everyday, because it's like a stretching exercise for the mind. Did Carolyn mention there's a special price in December on "The Hermit of Humbug Mountain" on Kindle. Only $2.99. Check it out at Amazon dot com.

  8. Great topic!
    I'm lucky that Jo Epstein is both a poet and private investigator and insists on expressing both sides of her hyphenated identity. Each chapter opens with a poem - when I get rusty I go to the Seattle Slam and get blown away!

    Jo often takes on cases that require overseas travel, so I've had to get on the plane with her to Moscow and will soon be going to Cuba - not places I "normally" would go. Thanks Jo for keeping me on my toes!

  9. I so want to try the airport thing. I wonder if Horizon Airlines still has free coffee?

    It would be inspirational and intriguing to get the reactions of the people going through the strip searches.

  10. This is a fun piece and I enjoyed it very much. These are all good ideas to make us stretch, but I'm not sure I like the idea of going without my caffein. The advice to read something way out of your/my comfort zone is spot on. When I find I have trouble with some part of my book in particular, I try to read something that is so different but does that particular task well--nature writing for a nature scene, a fight scene, you get the idea.

  11. Joyce - what a great opportunity to travel. Makes me want to start a new series with a sleuth who gets farther from home.

    And Susan, I'm glad you enjoyed it. And don't for a minute think I actually give up coffee. Just thinking about that inspires me to get to work.

  12. I find routines very discomforting and do my very best to avoid them.

  13. Amos,

    Some habits are good, people say. I only seem to adopt the bad ones, so I'm right with you on that. :)


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