Are you depleted of ideas, or do you just need to re-energize? Three questions to ask yourself when experiencing a creative block.

It was Saturday morning, and I stared at a half-written scene in the all-to-familiar agony of writer’s block. My usual urge to craft a scene had left me, and my cat, Horton, made a bed of my forearms. The time had finally come to do something else.

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My relationship with creativity is ridiculous.

At times, ideas won’t stop entering my mind. However, there is the occasion when I feel like my mind has run completely dry. During these times, I often try to re-energize my writing, change a routine, or work on a different aspect of my writing project.

This usually happens after I have planned an arc or chapter and the actual work of fleshing out the scene stands before me. Don’t get me wrong – I very much enjoy the process, especially if the idea is brand new. This was not the case with my current project.

Routines and Low Points

For those of you new to Paper Palaces, I am working on a fantasy saga known as A Thousand Watchful Eyes. I chip away at this project each day in a different way. Last week, I wrote about how little changes in my routine have impacted my writing progress.

While I have continued with my routine this week, I took some time to reflect on how I could revamp my daily writing habits. I added a half-hour writing sprint to my morning tasks.

The results were surprising:

  • 4/5 of the days were successful.
  • On Thursday, I wrote nothing, opting for more sleep from an exhaustive week. (I made up the lost word count on Friday).
  • I wrote an average of 800 words per sprint.
  • With each day, I felt like my scenes were developing, but all too slowly. Some were a little stale.
  • By Saturday, I felt some writer’s apprehension and eventually some blockage with creating new material.

What I do when faced with a creative block:

When faced with a creative block, I usually turn to revision. Revision energizes me and gives me relatively simple task to accomplish. It activates the creative part of my mind, and pushes me forward.

For me, the obvious solution was to take the new scenes from this week and revise; however, I just didn’t want to do it. I was completely tired of writing the novel, which many writer’s know is a dangerous place to be. This is what I consider a low point in the writing process.

So… what did I do?

I worked on something else.

I decided to take the day off  – not from project itself, but rather from the task of generating and revising scenes. Instead, I opted for investing time in tasks that inspire me to write the chapters, refresh my mindset, and help me build a richer, more interesting fantasy world for my characters to live in. 

This is my advice for any person feeling the lull of a project that requires dedication willpower, time, and sustained effort.

Here are three questions you should ask yourself when feeling sapped of creativity:

  1. Is there something else I can work on?

  2. How can I make this more fun?

  3. Am I depleted of ideas, or do I just need to re-energize?

These open-ended questions will help you to reflect on your project, whether you are a writer, reader, musician, dancer, entrepreneur, or anyone else who dedicates time, effort, and routine to a task. They help me revitalize my projects and habits that have devolved into mind-numbing work.

At the end of the day, I write because I love it, because I am fascinated by the world, and because I just really, really have to tell the story of these characters. Some mornings, I forget these simple reasons, as many people do.

In order to keep the momentum going, we must re-connect with the passion behind our passion projects. Here is how I approach each question:

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Question # 1: Is there something else I can work on?

This question is definitely inspired by the idea of creative procrastination. At the end of the week, and the beginning of the weekend, I often want to rest. This was especially true after this week. By shifting my focus to a different aspect of my project – world-building and map-making, I made good use of my time and kept my passion for my fantasy series fresh.

Question # 2: How can I make this more fun?

I won’t lie to you. When I answered this question, it lead me to Youtube, where I began “researching” how to make fantasy maps.

After ten minutes, I felt better.

I cannot deny that this is a form of procrastination, but I would be lying to you if I said it didn’t help me create new material for my novel.

This world-building step was very fun. I ended up drafting new ideas for how the setting of this series will impact my novel without detracting from the integrity of the world I had already created.

Question # 3: Am I depleted of ideas, or do I just need to re-energize?

This question is the most important, as asking the question always leads to activity. Usually, this question comes first.

While my answers vary, I rarely say that I am depleted of ideas, even if I feel that it may be true. When I ask this question, I often can find that there is something in my writing for me to investigate, some idea that makes me interested, a character who needs attention.

Although I have experienced writer’s block, I find the notion of “lacking ideas” a little silly. This is mostly due to my experience with curiosity. If I stay curious, I often come up with new ideas. On the other hand, I almost always feel the need to re-energize at the end of the week.

Maybe this is a signal to me that I need to take a closer look at how I work. Maybe I should always revamp and re-energize on Saturday. Maybe I should schedule blocks of time for just having fun with the novel, or maybe I should schedule nothing at all.

Take-Away

If I remember anything from this Saturday, it is to always re-connect with the passion behind my projects, to push forward with my tasks, and not to give up just because a blank screen or half-written scene feels intimidating.


I hope these questions help you with your creative projects.

-Curtis

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A Lightning Storm in My Brain – Navy SEALS, Dark Magic, Middle School, and a Secret Worth Sharing

On my way to work, the sun is rising, I look across a snowy field, and a flock of birds scatters into the air like flakes of debris from a campfire.

I hear a navy SEAL sternly recount the horrors of war.  He talks about discipline in everyday life, and I absorb his experience through my headphones.

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The SEAL’s adventures are far too modern for me to write about, but this field and his words recall an older type of warfare to my mind. The rhythm of horse hooves enters me. When his podcast is over, and everything is silent, my brain is still busy.

I daydream:

Steel clashes and a young woman rides her horse across a snowy field, much like the one I see before me. The woman will travel an entire realm, beyond the forest and the mountains, to a place where she discovers something far more powerful than the enemy she faces.

She is not yet seventeen, yet she tries to save the world from the rise of dark magic.

I breathe in slowly. Right now, she is a twelve-year old girl, a character in my novel, that has yet to grow. She cannot even hold a sword, but someday she will set foot in a snowy field. Someday, after she has surpassed the challenges of the book I am currently writing for her, she will change.

The Lightning Storm in My Brain

When I write, one thought leads to another branching out in several unpredictable directions, like a lightning storm. I feel the same is true when I listen to music or podcasts. One person’s experience leads me to think of another’s.

Sometimes I chart story ideas, plotting possible novels based on these little moments of exploration. Other times, I sit down and draft a scene, discovering the characters within it.

Most of my ideas are forgotten when they are not written down, but there are always a few that resurface. Some even return after years of paying attention to other story ideas, other characters, other plots.

It is as if some themes and some characters have a life of their own, an insistence for their voices to be heard and their stories to be told. 

The thrill of creating fiction, especially pre-writing and beginning stages is often amazing, and most writers know it.

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A Secret Worth Sharing

At times, the act of writing a novel is somewhat mechanical. I found more progress in my word counts and chapter construction simply from dedicating more time towards the craft. Still, one aspect of writing fiction amazes me:

The world seems to change when I’m working on a fiction project. Hours go by while I am absorbed in a scene, and then the next day arrives.

Every detail of every aspect of my life begs to be stitched or weaved into the tapestry of the story. 

Strangers in Chicago become workers in a medieval village square. An unruly beard of a friend becomes the mark of an ancient man in Brylennia. The arguments and discussions of my middle school students remind me of the energetic relentlessness of human curiosity. In the midst of growing from childhood to adulthood, the complexity of human emotion unfolds for us. The world feels – somehow – new and familiar when I write.

It is with this feeling – this thrilling mixture of happiness, introspection, and inquisitive observation, that I share with you one realization I had today. Here is one secret, or rather one truth, worth sharing.

Writing is more than just a mechanical act; it is more than just meeting a word count or completing a novel.

Writing, in many ways, is forging a sword from raw material, imagining the person who will wield it, shaping and tempering the wild steel into something crafted and refined.

It is recalling the family and friends who have loved you, and remembering the lessons within every tarnished relationship.

Writing is the act of bringing together the seen and unseen in any given circumstance.

It is living deeply, and it is a challenge worth pursuing.

 

A Beginner’s Guide to Geeking Out About Medieval Armor

Swords, Shields, Armor

 

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Picture courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

My interest in swords, shields, and armor started when my father took me to the Art Institute of Chicago. Their exhibition on medieval metalwork featured artifacts that would make any knight-obsessed kid happy.

As a child, I gleaned much of what I knew about medieval weaponry and armor from movies, television, and paperback novels, so my frame of reference was slightly skewed. Nevertheless, my enthusiasm remained.

The swords and shields were beautiful, and the armor set my curiosity in motion. While I had no factual or working knowledge of metalwork and forging, I was fascinated by the level of craftsmanship needed to produce even the simplest of swords.

My interest in these techniques and tools has never ceased. In fact, it has only increased over time, especially as I researched topics related to my twelve-novel fantasy saga.

If you would like to share in the enthusiasm, here are a few simple steps for the beginner enthusiast:

How to properly geek out about medieval arms and armor:

1. Find some authorities on medieval arms and armor:

Reading quality articles on swords, shields, and armor is a great place to start; however, it’s important to find a reliable source.

For example, take the Met Museum. The Metropolitan Museum of Art has a variety of articles and blogs centered around the artifacts in their collections. I spend a lot of time plundering their resources.

Here are two articles I found while conducting research for my series:

Arms and Armor – Common Misconceptions

The “Cutting Edge” of Fashion: Designs for the Decoration of Arms and Armor on Paper

Be warned, if you are really into arms and armor, reading these will quickly send you down the rabbit-hole. If you like these, I have included more articles from the Met Museum and other sources in my ongoing Swords, Shields, and Armor Google Collection.

2. Learn terms like fire-gilding: 

Finding the right words to express your newfound enthusiasm for swords, shields, and armor is a huge part of geeking out.

For example, after reading multiple articles on crafting armor, I found the term fire-gilding. Knowing the term itself serves no practical value, and I will never use it in my novels or daily conversation. Still… it is pretty cool to know.

See fire-gilding explained here: Fire Gilding of Arms and Armor

3. Appreciate the level of craftsmanship:

Part of learning about swords, shields, and armor is discovering the process behind their creation. There are plenty of ways to build your own appreciation for this type of craftsmanship. I strongly suggest watching videos, even if they use modern techniques. It’s a complete sensory experience.

Here’s one from Mitchel Jacobsen :

4. Reach out to a community of like-minded enthusiasts:

Sharing what you care about is one way to keep your passion alive. Why should your enthusiasm for medieval swords, shields and armor stop you?

Here’s a community that I started:

Swords Shields, and Armor Enthusiasts Community on Google Plus



Like what your reading? Here’s some good news!

After reaching out to the Art Institute of Chicago, I am planning on writing another curiosity post on medieval armor and weaponry, featuring pictures from the Deering Exhibit. If you’re not already following the blog, consider it to stay posted on more curiosity posts.

-Curtis

You Pick the Next “Curiosity Post” Topic – Vote on Twitter or in the Comments

If you have an extra suggestion, you can add it below!

-Curtis

How One Children’s Fantasy Book Inspired Me to Rethink My Artistic Process…

Lyra’s Oxford

Philip Pullman published his trilogy, His Dark Materials in 1995.  The three main books in the series included:

Northern Lights (The Golden Compass in the U.S.)

The Amber Spyglass

The Subtle Knife

Lyra’s Oxford is a companion novel to the set, along with Once Upon a Time in the North. When I was looking through my book collection, I found an old copy of Lyra’s Oxford in my bookshelf. It was sandwiched between a few other paperbacks I’ve neglected over the years. This edition is simply beautiful in the way it is designed and executed. It is this design that made me take a step back and rethink my creative process.  Take a look at the photos below:

The artwork is the most striking aspect of the book’s visual appeal.  Jon Lawrence, illustrator and engraver, contributed these visuals to the book. The aesthetic is amazing. For me, I can’t resist the look of woodcut and engraved design, nor can I resist the appeal of engraver as a metaphor.

Engravers work on their products with sustained effort over a long period of time, eventually rendering an intricate whole from thousands of little creative decisions.  The parallels to the writing process are pretty obvious.

Jon Lawrence’s work inspires me.  The artwork, layout, and overall aesthetic of this edition urged me to sit down, slow down, and rethink what I do.

Mapping Out A Story

In the center of Lyra’s Oxford, a neatly creased fold-out waits for readers to discover its secrets. This unassuming piece of paper is folded into eighths, with the facing page entitled “The Globetrotter,” a “Series of Maps for the Traveller.”

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The Globetrotter – Lyra’s Oxford, Philip Pullman

As the reader unfolds each section, the pages reveal publications, sketches, and advertisements that directly and indirectly allude to characters in the whole His Dark Materials series. It is an outstanding example of keeping continuity within a series.

When fully unfolded, one side of the fold-out  features a tricolor of Oxford, rendered in gorgeous engraver’s print. This style reminds me of the woodcuts of Will Schaff, another artist whose artwork I enjoy. The other side features a plain grid-style map of Oxford. Of course, the map is not the “real” Oxford. This is the Oxford of Lyra Belacqua, the main character in Pullman’s series. Still, there are similarities between both Oxfords.   

 

I felt a surge of curiosity when I first opened the map. My eye was drawn to each cartouche, emblem, and ink-lined street.

 

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Fold-Out: Jon Lawrence, Lyra’s Oxford

 

Lawrence’s work does a great job at mapping out a story without even telling it. I imagine the collaboration between Pullman and Lawrence was riveting; or, at least I hope so! While I looked at this map, I thought about a comment my fiancé made in my early journey of planning The Staghorn Crown, a fantasy quintet that follows the lives of four girls as they come of age in a magical fortress called the Stellaria.  As I drafted the first scenes of The Staghorn Crown, Laura turned to me and said, “I assume when this is published, you’ll have a map of this place.”

Of course, I had a very specific idea of what I wanted the Stellaria to look like, but I had not thought about hiring an artist to make it. Until then, I had made my own sketches of rooms, towers, and ancient keeps.

After my encounter with Jon Lawrence’s engravings, I could enrich the reading experience of my novels by having these maps available. My search for the best artist to render them is underway, and I continue to sketch in the meantime.

Keeping My Goals, Changing My Process

What is my  largest take-away?

I learned that I need to periodically slow down and look at the bigger picture. How will my own books provide an experience for the reader? How can I make my own writing immersive? After all, I enjoy the experiences provided by Pullman, Martin, Gaiman, Rowling, Barnhill, and Nix,  and feel inspired whenever I read them.

Lyra’s Oxford gave me the space to sit down and rethink my creative process. I have so many questions:

How do I craft fiction with excellent continuity? How many revisions will this take? I write this, smiling and knowing that it will take enough revisions to make me happily exhausted.

Part of this blog is documenting this complex process.

For those of you new to Paper Palaces, I am a self-publishing author and teacher.  My overall goal is to write a twelve-novel fantasy saga. In 2016, I created the world, mapped out the books, and treated the project as a hobby. My fiancé and I traveled to England, where I was inspired by the beautiful seaside town of Whitby and the Yorkshire Moors.  After that, I had to create these books. It’s become a little bit of an obsession.

While this dream began with a student’s response to a writing exercise, it has since grown. I hope it keeps growing. In the end, creating these twelve books is about sharing a great story with others. I have decided to keep the same goals, despite add one important aspect to my practice. I am thankfully spending more time slowing down.

The Goals I will Keep, No Matter How:

  • To complete the series and build a readership over the next six years.
  • To release preview chapters and installments of my work online to readers, patrons, students, and friends/family.
  • To become part of a writing community so I can see, appreciate, and share the magic of writing.

I hope the little decisions I make along the way are guided by these larger aspirations.


To stay updated on my books, consider joining the Books of Brylennia Facebook Group, where you can connect with Laura and me on the process of writing, editing, creating this fantasy series, and self-publishing. You can post your own contributions too. Join us on the journey. 

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