Advice Paralysis

How’s your writing going? How’s your quarantine going? How are you doing today? 

I finally identified my current writing problem. Instruction fatigue that leads to paralysis. I’m editing a novel as I try to write more poetry. I’m using search and replace to search and destroy insidious words. Good advice I read somewhere. Normally, I would embrace what I can use, discard the rest. I enjoy helpful advice. 


Since all the writers are stuck at home, advice is gushing out to blogs and writing sites like water from a fire hose. Everyone has the time to advise right now. “Write All The Things!” Advice flies at me every time I open my email or browse to my favorite sites. At first, it seemed good. I gulped the gushing water. Then I tried to apply it to my own work. That’s when I choked. Contradictions rattled in my brain. Do this, not that. Do that, not this. Write, no, write more. Wear a mask. Wear two masks. Wrap duct tape around your face and wear a welding shield. Don’t touch your face. Don’t touch anything. Don’t breathe, it’s safer. But despite that, write. 

Tons of articles appeared on how to use this stay at home time to your advantage, most of them exhorting you to not waste time and get that Great American Novel (or Poem) in the works. Sort of NaNoWriMo, the Pandemic Version. It can guilt-trip people frozen in place by everyday fears—money, food, rent, worry about loved ones. The numbered “C” that has replaced the Big C. Getting through the day seems more important than getting Sylvia out of the murder house and on the run for her life. 

It’s a dystopian novel that sprung to life. Kudos to those who can keep plugging on despite the looming end of the world as we know it. (Too much?) I struggle to do any real editing of my novel, other than nit-picky stuff—eradicating weasel words like “that” and “would”. My poetry has undertones of despair. Even a poem about a flower ends with its death. I’m afraid to edit previous work because of this. I’m trying to pull up my bootstraps and accept writing isn’t coming from a happy place right now.

I don’t want to journal. Meditating is not the answer to all problems. Hurtling an asteroid into Earth seems like a good place to end a sci-fi novel.

Must Not Give In To Annihilating Humanity. 

Find inspiration where you can. Don’t worry if you can’t. 

That’s all I’ve got right now. I venture out the door to my “essential” (sacrificial) job with the public that leaves me fearful I’ve caught coronavirus every time I leave at five. That I’ve brought it home to my family. Writing needs to be a safe space. Not swallowing the fire hose of advice is now refuge from my tendency to beat myself up over not producing more, since I’m stuck in the house when I’m not at work. 

Advice is a sign of the times. It’s a cozy blanket fort offered up as salve to our burning fears. It wants to distract us from the underlying terror that something bad is going to happen and we’re helpless to stop it. I like to be in control of my world and damn it, the world is spinning out of control. I’m embracing the paralysis by easing away from social media and the news. I’m baking bread. Writing ideas in a notebook with my favorite pen. Petting the dog. Reading everything I can get my hands on. Paralysis retreats inch by inch. By the weekend, I’m ready to write again and send my plaintive “How are you doing today?” out into the world once more. 

Why I Don’t Write Political Poetry

Arguing sheep

Sometimes I think too much. That is my main excuse for not writing political poetry. I’m an after thinker. I’m non-confrontational. By the time I’ve absorbed the daily news cycle and thought about its background and implications, weeks have passed. 

I’m not timely.  

In today’s fast-moving poetic world some people can write a poem on the current news by the end of the day. I envy that. Of course, some are well versed in politics and can fire out opinions with a brain full of background on the issue. As a sporadic reader of news, I can’t make the leap between today’s story and one that came out two weeks ago. It all seems the same to me. Dumpster fires, train wrecks, and slow-motion car crashes abound, cleverly disguised as news.

The current hype of the day is easily missed when you don’t watch television or get the daily paper. 

Read All About It.

I scan headlines, maybe read the first paragraph. I get the gist that way if the writer is any good at all. How do you turn gist into a poem? Maybe a mashup of gists in one rage-fueled epic?

Continual outrage is tiring. Reading the news makes me outraged. Politics as usual, makes me outraged. I can’t write on a diet of calculated fury. Some poets can channel their wrath into biting poems addressing the issue of the day. 

I don’t think I received that poetry gene. 

Maybe it’s because poetry is my safe space to explore more leisurely issues. To wax philosophical about things of importance to me. To hide in my blanket fort. 

With the way things are going today, I want to come out of my shell and sling some of the smoldering indignation into a poem. But I’m not sure how. Snarling and gnashed teeth poetry is not my favorite and I can’t see writing it. I leave that to those who are good at it, and there are some very good poets out there demanding we look at the issues. With the way things are going today, I need to express my discomfort and fears. Poetry is the vehicle for that. 

Learning to Spew

What am I afraid of? Spilling my guts in a blood-soaked mess on the page. But maybe, just maybe, I need to confront my writing (writhing) nest of guts. Scribble it out. There is no poetry police. I don’t have to show my work to anyone if I don’t want to. 

So I have a notebook just for gut spilling. Politics. Things that piss me off to the point of apoplexy. Sentences with more four-letter words than a sentence can carry. And you know what? It’s a good feeling to put the pen to paper and spew. Sometimes in magic marker. I highly recommend it. 

You probably won’t see many, if any political poems from me. Don’t think I don’t care. I care too much. My notebook knows all about it. For those of you that tackle political poetry, kudos. I’ll be reading. 

Do you write political poetry? How do you handle the red hot topics? If you don’t write it, do you want to? Should we be tacking it to telephone poles on hot pink paper?

Staying Afloat in a Writing Ocean

What’s true with the rest of life/hobbies/interests is true with writing. So many facts and details to keep track of. I really want to keep up with what’s going on in the writing industry, so I read blog posts and tweets and articles and books and newsletters. You know what? It’s too much information to absorb. You can read too much about how to do things and it can be paralyzing as all the advice you read rolls through your head when primarily there should be the story, or poem up there. 

Or at least that’s how I want it to be. The information also paralyzes by raising doubts. Do I have story beats, plot structure, character arcs, action, a catchy opening? That can lead to obsession and reworking things over and over again until the piece is informationed into a hot mess. Then you say Argh, I can’t do this, I’m going to take up knitting. (Knitting is a lovely hobby. Highly recommend.)

Social Media Overload

It’s also intimidating to read breezy posts about how someone tweeted something and had an agent the next day. Or has 20,000 followers and aren’t even published yet. It’s exhausting to think of social media and the time sink of promoting yourself. It doesn’t stop me from gritting my teeth and posting cheery—okay, okay, mostly sarcastic—stuff. Maybe I’m too old for social media. But it’s probably because I’m way too private a person to hang my laundry out for the world to see. I was told cultivated glimpses were the answer to that. A thought worth exploring. I think I can do that and still be my sarcastic self. That’s definitely me, too. 

Reading agent blogs/websites/tweets is a whirl of conflicting information. Query like this, no, like this. Start your novel like this, no, like this. Same with writer’s forums. So much chaff to sift through to get to the nuggets. The time sink can swallow you whole. Of course, what it all comes down to is, do the best you can. If it’s not good enough for one person/publication, shrug and move on to the next. I gave up taking it personally a long time ago. I have skin of mithril. It leaves bruises, but they heal quickly. 

And what’s up with all these contests? The lists to find places to submit have more contests than regular spots. I just want to submit some poems or a book/chapbook, not pay $20-30 for the privilege of doing so each and every time. It’s like The Hunger Games of writing, but the odds are never in your favor. The slow grind of society is monetizing everything and offering shortcuts, advice, and motivation—for a price. I need to be able to afford yarn and dog food also. 

Throw Me a Rope

There are so many places to send poems and novels it’s overwhelming. Research can cut the odds considerably but suspiciously feels like sending a message out in a bottle—the same time frame for a response also. The writing industry is an ocean and I’m out there on a paddleboard. But I really like the ocean so I stay and play. Information can be your life preserver or boots filled with water. It’s up to you to choose your own adventure.

What do you do to combat the tsunami of writing advice?

Revising 101 (Housekeeping)

The most important thing to revision? Buy lots of ink cartridges and printer paper. You might be tempted to skip this step. Don’t. This applies to both novels and poetry. Print that sucker out. I know, I know, it seems like a PITA to use all that ink and paper on something you just know is perfection. 

Trust me, it’s not. Errors are insidious, from little things like the word ‘out’ instead of ‘our’. Hard to spot. Or transposed letters because your eyes crossed when reading that particular section. Or words just flat missing. My favorite in my work is prepositions that go AWOL. Those suckers scatter like roaches when you turn on the light. 

Go Big or Go Home

The advice I scoffed at—at first—was to change the font of the work to something totally different, and enlarge. So I changed from Times New Roman to Arial. To Calibri. I still missed things. But when I changed it to Comic Sans 14 point. Oh, My. Errors stood out with big flashing signs. “You screwed up here! Notice me! (Pick the ugly font of your choice. It works.)

It takes a lot of paper to do this. I could use my novel as a doorstop. Or a firestarter. Somedays, it’s Burn, Baby, Burn first and foremost in my brain. Oh, and paperclip every chapter together. Or bull clip it, or put in separate labeled file folders in a drawer. Because when you drop it—and you will—frantic sobbing won’t put things back in order. Neither will the cat that chooses that moment to walk over it and sharpen his claws on stray sheets. 

If you hole punch after editing each page and put it in a binder, make sure you empty your hole punch sooner rather than later. Because if you accidentally knock the tray off, little white circles go everywhere. You’ll be finding them for months. They defeat the suckiest of vacuum cleaners. You could always sprinkle catnip over it, and hope your static-y cat rolls in them and picks a bunch up. Then you can vacuum the cat. 

Let me know how that works out. 

What are your housekeeping revision tips?

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