On Writer’s Block

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My friend posted a status on Facebook asking for fellow NaNoWriMo participants to form an accountability group. I sporadically attempt NaNoWriMo– well, I do my modified version of NaNoWriMo, which really means that I cheat– so I scrolled through the comments. Someone mentioned that she had a great idea, but chronic writer’s block. Which got me thinking about how I might solve writer’s block on my own projects.

As I’ve mentioned rather recently, I try to write 250 words every day, which is one good way to keep going when you’re hitting the wall.

There are a lot of opinions about writer’s block. To oversimplify, the “butt in chair” school tends not to believe in it; the “muse” school does. My thoughts fall somewhere in between. I believe in writer’s block, but I think that timing can lie at the root of the issue. If you keep hitting your head against a wall, you start to ask “why?”

Sometimes an idea– even a great idea– is not yet ready. It needs to marinate for a little while longer. It needs another element. It needs a different narrator, a switch from first to third person, a plot twist, a transition from A to C.

I come across this problem all the time in my own writing. I’m a longform writer. I like novels; I like television. But even long projects come from a single germ of an idea. I once wrote a novel from a title. I’ve written from a line of dialogue, from an image, from a scene. I’ve finished these projects. But there are a lot of ideas I’ve had that sit in a notebook. I let them rest. Sometimes, another idea pairs with them down the road.

Here is how I write. Everyone has a different process; everyone should have a different process. (Additional strategies for combatting writers block that I do not use will be detailed below).

I need to know where a story is going before I get into it. I’m a planner, not a pantser. If I don’t have an outline for where the story is going, I get stuck, usually around the 1/3 or 1/2 mark.

When I have an idea I want to play with or a premise that I love, I allow myself to write 5,000 words with no guarantees. By the time I hit 5,000 words (which falls anywhere between 1 and 3 chapters), I force myself to write an outline.

I start slowly with novels. My word count per session grows the closer I get to the end. By then I know my characters, I know what’s happening, and I’m exhilarated by the final act. So while I write my 5,000 words, I’m usually jotting down notes. Plot points, scenes, characters, great lines I need to jam in somewhere. By 5,000 words I take a step back. I spread out my notes and figure out how to structure this novel. I make a chapter-by-chapter outline– not extensive, anywhere from one line to a paragraph about the action in each chapter or the problem it needs to solve–just something that I can look at when I get stuck. I don’t always stick to the outline; often, my best plot twists are the ones even I don’t see coming.

My brain thrives on structure. I like to think I can inflict structure on any chaos. Every time I start something new, I believe that my idea is so sound, it’s going to fall into place flawlessly.

A lot of the time, I fall flat on my face.

The outline has a way of pointing out flaws.

I’ll give you a couple examples.

  1. I was writing a YA novel about a girl who decides to carry out her dead sister’s bucket list. It pains me to admit that I thought this was a fantastic idea. The first two chapters flew out, but I started to get stuck on the third. I had some notes: characters to introduce, bucket list items to check off. Then I spent three weeks promising myself to write an outline. I couldn’t get past chapter five. I knew my three acts; I knew the climax and resolution of each one, but I couldn’t fill in the middle. I couldn’t come up with more bucket list items that would fit into the story. And after three weeks, I admitted that I needed to put it aside. I would have another idea. And I did.
  2. I’d been playing with an idea based on a short news article about a dead body in the LA River (which is not strictly a river). I wrote a great prologue/first chapter. Really. I remain immensely proud of that page. Then I tried to figure out the rest. I had a couple characters, some ideas for who this man was, how he ended up there, but it just wouldn’t gel. I decided to let it sit and hope that it would untangle in my mind. Months later, I had a breakthrough. I had the wrong main character; it needed to be told from two perspectives. I was energized, but as I tried to parse it out, I became stuck again. Someday, I think, it’ll work out. But for now I’m moving on to other things.

This is why I have a rule: if I can’t make an outline work after some serious effort, the novel isn’t ready. And that is okay. Ideas take nurturing. You have to trust them to grow.

I think that a lot of writer’s block can come from not being ready or from being scared. You need to know when to push through and when to rest.

Here are some other ideas for writers block:

  1. Try working on the most vivid scene in your head. Even if you’re working in order. The more you exercise the writing muscle, the more in shape you get.
  2. Write about your day. The logistics, thoughts, feelings, your plans for tomorrow. The story doesn’t need to spring from your imagination, but it will get your brain thinking about writing.
  3. Take a walk. Listen to music. I like to get into my Spotify Discover playlist. Go through a few songs. Sometimes I challenge myself to pick a random song and imagine a scene around it.
  4. Read a book. Copy down a page you really like. What do you love about it?
  5. Don’t write. Seriously. If you’ve been trying and hitting the wall for several days, take a couple days off, then come back to it. Sometimes taking a step back is what you need.

I hope this is helpful. Do you have any tips for combatting writer’s block?

Sunday, October 16

Good morning!

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Here is my book: The Disappearing Spoon and And Then There Were None

Here is my breakfast: cappuccino and croissant from Shakespeare & Co.

Come join me at the table.

Last week was mostly calm, which I appreciated after the last two weeks ran me ragged. I didn’t make plans; I didn’t attend any events; I went to work and came home.

On the recommendation of my coworker, I started watching Younger, which is set in publishing. I’m really enjoying it so far, even if one character’s title as “junior editor” is driving me crazy.

A friend is coming to stay with me for a couple days this week, which means that today is dedicated to cleaning and tidying the apartment (switching out my closet included).

Happy Sunday!

Kait

 

Sunday, October 9

Good morning!

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Here is my breakfast: a croissant and cappuccino from Shakespeare & Co. cafe

Here is my book: submissions. I’m forgoing a recreational book today in favor of work.

Come join me at the table.

This week was exhausting. So exhausting, in fact, my body crashed yesterday. Monday, I attended a book party in Soho. I was going to type, “it was one of those parties where you think, whoa, is this my life?” but that was pretty much my entire week. Tuesday, I had choir rehearsal, which was mainly devoted to rehearsing for the next night’s performance. On Wednesday, my choir performed at the Park Avenue Armory gala, where we sang backup for Patti LuPone, among others. She performed “Blow, Gabriel, Blow” from Anything Goes, a song that I love, and I was so excited to sing with her. I found her great to work with. If you’d told me even six weeks ago that I’d be singing backup for Patti LuPone, I would have laughed. Because who really expects crazy opportunities like that to fall in one’s lap? To round out my crazy week, I attended a fundraiser Thursday night, held at an apartment at the El Dorado with insane views overlooking Central Park and south.

It was an amazing week, but I’m really looking forward to this upcoming week in which I do absolutely nothing of note (which hopefully means I can clean my apartment).

Happy Sunday!

The Breakfast at Tiffany’s Party

I can’t remember exactly why I decided to throw the first Breakfast at Tiffany’s party. It was August, and I was about to start my sophomore year of college, and it had seemed like a waste to let Truman Capote’s birthday party go by without a party. I handwrote invitations, asked people to dress up, and prepped my dorm room for a cocktail party. Because back in college, a cocktail party was exotic. Twenty-five people crammed into my tiny dorm room. My room was in the basement. Exposed pipes ran along the ceiling. We didn’t care. Most of my friends adhered to the theme; the guys from my freshman dorm showed up in flannel. I hosted the party as Holly Golightly. We had an amazing time.

I was abroad junior year, so I waited until senior year to throw the party again. This time, I held it in the living room of French House. More people showed up. Everyone dressed according to the theme.

For a long time, I dreamed about throwing a Breakfast at Tiffany’s party in New York. After all, this is where the book and movie are set. But it took until now to have the space. So last Friday, on the 92nd anniversary of Truman Capote’s birth, I hosted my first Breakfast at Tiffany’s party in my New York apartment.

It didn’t disappoint.

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In preparation for the party, I finally had the paintings I’d had laying around the apartment for months hung. I scattered my Capote memorabilia– first editions, a Breakfast at Tiffany’s poster, Tiffany & Co. catalogs– throughout the apartment. I spent a couple evenings baking what I called “breakfast-inspired desserts” aka maple bacon biscuits, cornflake-chocolate chip-marshmallow cookies, and lemon cornmeal muffins (my doorman refers to them as “cupcakes”).

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As usual, I dressed up as Holly Golightly. Cat was a Christmas present from my parents; he came with the poster at left. I’m particularly pleased that he comes from FAO Schwartz. He’s a real New Yorker, having been forced from his home due to sky-high rents.

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Friends from all different parts of my life showed up to fête the occasion. At least three friends had gone to the parties in college, but most hadn’t. I had friends from kindergarten, friends from high school, friends from college, friends from work, friends made living in New  York. It was sort of surreal to see them all together.

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My friend Nico was there for the first incarnation of my Truman Capote obsession, back when we were carpooling to choir together and I used to read Capote short stories out loud for the entire duration of our half-hour commute. Thank you, Nico, for still being my friend. I promise not to make you listen to “A Mink of One’s Own” ever again.

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My friends’ dog Bradley was the star of the evening. He was also terrified of Cat. He didn’t quite understand the concept of a stuffed animal, and the plastic eyes freaked him out. He eventually came around.

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Bradley and Cat face off.

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Flying Tiger, a Danish chain with a store near my apartment, had a package of 16 of these party props– glasses, mustaches, accessories, etc.– for $4. I’m pretty sure it is the best $4 I have ever spent. They will continue to make appearances at various functions at my apartment.

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We couldn’t let the night pass without an attempt at recreating that famous photo. Four people art directed this shot, probably because I don’t know how to hold a cigarette– even one that is actually a novelty party straw.

All in all, it was a fabulous night– the perfect way to ring in the first September 30 in my (somewhat) new apartment.

For me, Breakfast at Tiffany’s the book has always been about belonging. About finding a place in the world, about finding your people, about belonging somewhere, even if you don’t quite recognize it at the time. So it was really amazing for me to have a tribe of friends to come celebrate. Not all of them are die-hard Capote fans, not all of them have read the book or even seen the movie, but I am so grateful they humor me every year.

See you September 30, 2017!

xo Holly

Sunday, October 2

Good morning!

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Here is my book: The Fever by Megan Abbott (really, this week!)

Here is my breakfast: coffee and a homemade maple bacon biscuit (recipe from the Huckleberry cookbook)

How can it possibly be October? It seems like just yesterday August turned to September. It was warm in New York for much of September, but in the past week or so it’s turned cool. It rained most of last week. I pulled out my fall (but not yet winter) coats. I’m typing this from my terrace, wearing a cashmere sweater, staring at the small pumpkin perched on my patio table; it is not quite 60 degrees.

I spent most of last week preparing for my Breakfast at Tiffany’s party Friday night, which seemed like a big success. Wednesday, I had a handyman come and hang art on my walls, which have remained bare for six months. The apartment looks totally different with art; it feels warmer and lived in and more mine.

On Thursday, I had drinks with my cousin Joe, who was visiting for a work trip, at Spyglass, a rooftop bar at the top of the Archer Hotel. They had great drinks and a fantastic view of the Empire State Building just four blocks south.

After relaxing yesterday, I’m back to work reading submissions and preparing for the week ahead today.

Have a wonderful Sunday!

Kait

An “Everything” Hypothesis

“Later–when things happened that they could never have imagined–she wrote him a letter that said: When will you learn that there isn’t a word for everything?”

Nicole Krauss, The History of Love

When I first contemplated this post, I wanted to call it “a theory of everything,” then remembered that I am no physicist, nor have I seen that movie starring Eddie Redmayne– even though “starring Eddie Redmayne” is one of the only things that will entice me to see a movie in theaters. (Is The Danish Girl on Netflix yet? Will investigate.)

But as much as I love talking/thinking/daydreaming about Eddie Redmayne, he has absolutely nothing to do with this post.

Instead, I want to talk about Megan Abbott’s The End of Everything and Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You. I read both novels, which had been on my list for quite some time, in quick succession. I’m a sucker for titles that contain “everything.” Slap an “everything” on either end of a title, and it’s on my “want to read” list.

There are many other examples of books with “everything” in the title. Everything Is Illuminated; Everything, Everything; Glory over Everything; The Beginning of Everything. Thanks to my recent reads, I was looking for a pattern, and one seemed to fit, if not exactly, then well enough. A disproportionate amount of these titles featured young protagonists (two of these six titles are young adult, but there are more young adult titles with “everything” in them, which I think is related to this).

The End of Everything and Everything I Never Told You, though, are not young adult fiction; they are adult literary fiction, both with a crime or mystery element. Megan Abbott is the writer’s writer of noir/crime fiction; Everything I Never Told You unravels the mysterious death of a family’s golden child.

The End of Everything is narrated by thirteen-year-old Lizzie, who has started to grow apart from her childhood best friend, Evie. They do so in the clumsy, tentative way that I think all teenagers do, one friend holding on too tightly to the other. Lizzie loves Evie’s family– her warm father; her sister Dusty, the beautiful apple of their father’s eye– and she feels something like one of them. But then Evie goes missing, the only clue a car, and Lizzie finds herself combing through Evie’s life, looking for clues and unable to fit the pieces– those she finds and those she thought she knew about Evie– together.

Megan Abbott is a master at depicting the inner lives of teenage girls. And, more remarkably, she does so in the adult fiction realm. Not all of her books are narrated by teenagers, and there is a certain element of looking back to The End of Everything that frames the narrative in an adult way, but she mines that territory in a way that feels fresh. She also does atmosphere extremely well, a feeling that something is not quite right below the surface, but you can’t put your finger on what. My rule with great suspense is that I should never definitively know the perpetrator until the end. I love books that keep me on my toes, that make me doubt my instincts to the point of frustration.

Everything I Never Told You begins with one of my favorite first lines in recent memory. “Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet.” it reads. The novel follows the Lee family. They are Chinese-American– a Chinese father and a white mother with three children. Sixteen-year-old Lydia, the middle and favorite child, drowns in the lake nearby as her control on her life began to crumble. The parents have their own secrets, their own wounds that haven’t quite healed. Her brother Nath is heading off to college, having drifted apart from Lydia recently; Hannah, the youngest child, observes, knowing that she will always be second to Lydia.

I don’t want to spoil too much of the book, because that’s part of the fun of reading it, seeing how one choice influences another, how they come back to haunt when the characters believe they’ve moved on. The novel is heartbreaking and surprising and beautiful. I have been shoving it into the hands of everyone I know recently. Read this, I urge. It’s the last thing that blew me away. I had wanted to read it for ages, ever since Amazon named it the best book of 2014, which is what helped propel the book onto bestseller lists.

In both of these books, “everything” is uniquely an adolescent’s territory. It is a life laid before them like a treasure map, a “you are here” marking their location, wondering how to get from that point to the “X.” At some point, that seems like too much. “Everything” means a kind of longing to have all your desires all at once, that fear that they will slip away. “Everything” is a life before we’ve made all our choices, when three or five or twelve paths present themselves to us, and we have to choose one. Our lives both narrow and broaden as we get older. The choices we make force a narrower world; you major in something in college, you get a job in your field, which leads to another job, that makes switching careers that much more difficult. But our lives broaden in the sense that we get to make those decisions; in an ideal world, no one forces our hand.

Adolescence is the time when you can still believe in the possibility of having everything. It’s the time of wanting everything without knowing how to obtain it. To my ear, everything is the language of longing.

If you do pick one or both of these books up, please let me know below!

Happy Reading!

Kait

Sunday, September 25

Good morning!

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Here are my books: On Beauty by Zadie Smith and The Fever by Megan Abbott (not pictured)

Here is my breakfast: Trader Joe’s steel cut oatmeal (the best) and Starbucks Pike Place roast

Come join me at the table:

This evening I’m headed to the Gilmore Girls Book Club at Word Bookstore in Greenpoint. We’re discussing On Beauty today. I bought it a month ago and should have made more progress, but I was lulled into a false sense of security believing I had all the time in the world to read it. Note to self: a month is not all the time in the world.

On Wednesday, I went to the Metropolitan Opera Young Associates kickoff party with my friend Ollie. It’s always a great time. We listened to one of the young artist program singers, had drinks and hors d’oeuvres on the terrace, and strolled around the Grand Tier.

I’ll spend this week prepping for my Breakfast at Tiffany’s party, which I’m holding for the first time in four years. More on that next weekend.

Wishing you a wonderful Sunday!

Kait

Welcome to the Table: Sunday, September 18

Good morning!

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Here are my books: When in French by Lauren Collins, A Life in Parts by Bryan Cranston, You’ll Grow Out of It by Jessi Klein, and On Beauty by Zadie Smith

Here is my breakfast: croissant and cappuccino from Shakespeare & Co.

Come join me at the table:

This weekend I have an uncharacteristically long TBR (to be read) pile. I rarely read more than one book at a time. I like focus, and I am a fairly obsessive reader, meaning that once I get into a book, I tend not to put it down until I’ve finished. But this week I have dabbled. I have another recreational book on my iPad, along with a dozen submissions queued up to read. I’ll be lucky if I finish two (already half read) books.

Let’s start with the most exciting news of the week. After nine months of scaffolding and construction, my apartment terrace is finally finished. I could hardly wait to relocate my patio furniture and find my way outside every night after work. With the temperatures cooling in New York, the terrace will be perfect for fall.

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The view directly across the way

My friends Bri and Kate were staying with me last weekend. Bri left Tuesday, and we celebrated her last night in town with dinner at my neighborhood favorite, Eats. We had burgers (their steak burger is the best in the city) and drinks. We came back to my apartment, and Bri helped me create this blog (Hi, Bri! Thank you!).

Last night (Friday), I strolled around the Feast of San Gennaro festival in Little Italy with my friend Yuliya. After snacking on cannoli, we left the crowds behind for dinner at an old favorite, Bar Primi. And by “dinner,” I do mean two sangrias, one burrata appetizer, and one tiramisu between us.

Today I plan to run some errands (groceries, outdoor plants, apartment cleaning), then watch Stanford football take on USC, either here at my apartment or downtown at Finnerty’s. Go Card!

Wishing you a wonderful Sunday!