Physical Therapy For Your Writing–Keeping Your Manuscript In Balance

by Jenny Hansen

You can thank my husband and his knee for this post.

The wear and tear of fifteen years of football finally took its toll this last year and he hurt his knee working as IT Wonder Man at a conference in San Francisco.

He came home limping and the pain got progressively worse until he had to cave and go to physical therapy.

In our heads, his knee would need replacement and he’d be doing physical therapy to get used to the new knee. In reality, his work at the conference threw his body out of balance and the therapist spent eight weeks strengthening key muscle groups until he was back in balance. (He’s fine now and we’re doing Crossfit.)

My bloggy self always perks up at the mention of words like “balance” and maximum potential, so I sent Hubby in with some questions.

What was their goal for him?

To strengthen weaker muscles to balance with the stronger muscles to keep his kneecap aligned. His pain was from his kneecap (patella) literally being pulled toward one side of his knee.

Keep reading about what they did to achieve this balance because I swear it sounds like what we do as writers.

There are three components that assist you in keeping your body in balance:

  • Your vision
  • Your inner ear
  • Your musculoskeletal control

(Say what??)

The example they gave him:

When you hold your arm out in front of you, you see your arm. As you look at your arm, you remain upright through the balance of your inner ear (which is the only aspect of this that is really out of our control). You sense your arm through nerve impulses transmitted from the core strength of your muscles which attach to your bones.

All this lets you keep that arm held out straight and still, for much longer than you might think you could. Try it…the act of staring at your hand, out there at the end of your arm makes a huge difference in the amount of effort you need to expend for this exercise.

The reality is that if any of these three components are out of whack, the arm (or the leg, or even your entire body) will no longer be able to stay upright. Focusing all three components on the task is what makes it work.

So how do we relate this to writing?

Let’s change the order around a bit and dig a little deeper.

Part 1 – Your Inner Ear

Your inner ear is your voice. Voice is the cadence that is essentially you; it’s what makes your work stand out as unique.

The best description I’ve ever heard of “voice” is:

Imagine you are sitting in a café, telling your friend a story. The way you tell a story is quintessentially you. You don’t stop to think about how the story sounds when you’re talking to your friend, you just tell it. The visual and verbal cues you get back are what help you time the rhythm of your story and play certain parts of it up or down.

The best part, and the hardest part, about writing is that we do it alone. There is no one across the café table, or computer screen, to tell you what’s “just right” and what is falling flat. We learn to recognize what works on our own (through Craft) or we find a great critique group.

Part 2 – Musculoskeletal Control.

Techie Definition: This control is essential in our balance and vital to our ability to walk normally. The mechanics of human ambulation, or walking on two legs, is quite unique in nature. It has been described as consisting of a cycle of `controlled falls’, which highlights the complexity of distinguishing between a fall or stumble and normal, controlled walking.

This definition immediately made me think of a blog Kristen Lamb wrote on the importance of learning to fall.

For the writer, “musculoskeletal control” is Craft.

The more you exercise your writing muscles, the more balanced and resilient they become. It took me ages to recognize (and accept) that it doesn’t matter whether you can lift a five pound weight or a fifty pound weight, what matters is that you can do it a lot and do it smoothly.

In writer-speak that means: a good writer with the courage to approach the page every day is going to be published long before a great writer that approaches the page sporadically.

Just like targeted physical therapy can turn a weak knee into a strong one, daily writing can turn a good writer into a wonderful, well-disciplined one.

Craft must be practiced and honed with daily writing. All the greats say this – Anne Lamott, Natalie Goldberg, Julia Cameron – and it has always been the thing that made me groan the loudest.

Who has the time? I can’t! I don’t wanna!  My inner Lazy Ass said all that and more.

The reality behind these complaints was: I’m scared. What if I fail? Won’t that make my writing so important I will want to die if I fail?

We all have these fears, just like we all have that rat bastard inner critic. The fact is, no one said it would be easy. Writers are a tough breed and my money will always be on us. Just hitch up those titanium panties and sit your butt in the chair to write (as soon as you’re done reading this post :-)).

Some great Craft posts:

Part 3 – Your Vision

Your visual strength is what you rely on after you’ve gotten the words on the page. Your vision translates into editing.

I know wonderful writers who have lyrical prose and the ability to create fantastic worlds with engaging characters. Yet they are still fighting to be published. Why?

Is it those mean editors? Those crazy publishers? I regret to say, it rarely is. Most of these writer friends tell me it’s actually because their editing or proofing is not strong enough yet. Practice makes perfect and we’ll all get there if we keep at it and build a powerful writing team to provide help when we need it.

There is a reason why Oscars are given for film editing – it is the art of separating out the unnecessary footage to keep the viewers hooked. It works the same with books.

There is a famous quote by Elmore Leonard that frustrates the hell out of most new writers: “I try to leave out the parts that people skip.” The structure of a story is a lot harder than it looks because we have to learn what parts people will skip and why.

Some fantastic posts I’ve found on editing are:

Wherever you are on your writing journey, DON’T STOP. The best is always yet to come because we keep improving the more we do it. What you hear with your inner ear and see with your writer’s eyes will eventually be translated by the “musculoskeletal” strength of your Craft.

I heard Linda Howard speak at a writer’s conference in San Diego some years back and I’ve never forgotten her words, which meant so much to me.

“Everybody dreams,” she said. “But writers are special because they write down their dreams.

“As writers, we can do anything and be anyone. You can be astronauts or spies or time travelers. Writers can go to amazing places and build imaginary worlds for others to visit.

“The sad fact is that no matter how hard you try, the music and the magic of your dreams will never be equaled by the words you put on a page.

“Do it anyway.”

Every writer in that room started crying because it IS so hard to translate the grand scope of our imaginations into words on the page. The words never seem quite big enough or important enough to express the magic that lives inside our minds.

My hope is that, even on those days when you feel that all is lost, when you wonder why you ever believed that YOUR words were important, you keep at it.

Do it because you have to. Do it because you need to. Do it because the act of sharing those words is more than most people will ever attempt.

And finally, do it because no one else will have the inner ear to hear the words exactly as you do, the strength to birth them onto the page, or the vision to translate those words into the perfect story that floats from your heart to ours.

Do it anyway. You won’t be truly happy unless you try.

What part of writing do you struggle with the most? Voice, craft or editing? I have the hardest time with structure and editing myself, and head-hopping, and conflict and…Oh, sorry. Enough about me. What’s your writing albatross?

Till next time,
Jenny

About Jenny Hansen

Jenny fills her nights with humor: writing memoir, women’s fiction, chick lit, short stories (and chasing after the newly walking Baby Girl). By day, she provides training and social media marketing for an accounting firm. After 15 years as a corporate software trainer, she’s digging this sit down and write thing.

When she’s not at her blog, More Cowbell, Jenny can be found on Twitter at jhansenwrites and here at Writers In The Storm. Jenny also writes the Risky Baby Business posts at More Cowbell, a series that focuses on babies, new parents and high-risk pregnancy.

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59 Responses to Physical Therapy For Your Writing–Keeping Your Manuscript In Balance

  1. Pingback: Keeping Your Manuscript In Balance | Jenny Hansen's Blog

  2. zkullis says:

    What a good post Jenny. I’m starting to go back and edit my manuscript, and I can see where I’m weak in two of the areas you mentioned.

    My “Craft” needs work. I write almost every day, but I am such a noob author that I feel like I’m still on the bottle. My editing needs work too, but I’m not sure if that is a result of poor craft or not.

    Your point about how we would tell a story to a friend was very enlightening for me. As you well know, I get a little verbose when I write. Part of this is because I tend to get diarrhea of the mouth when I talk. My mind goes hundreds of different directions, and more often than not, three or four of those directions make their way through my vocal chords.

    I will take your good advice and work on beating my albatross into submission. (I don’t know if you were thinking of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” when you made the albatross comment, but it made me want to read the story again.)

    Thanks Jenny

    • Jenny Hansen says:

      Zack, we’re ALL noob authors when we sit down to the page (at least we feel like it). I write short more easily than I write long so I have to really push to get through a novel. (Honestly, it’s more like flailing.)

      If you want it – and you do – you’ll keep at it. One day (usually about 3 books in) everything will start clicking and you’ll start feeling *a little bit* better.

  3. Another wonderful post.

  4. WOWZA! This one gets bookmarked so I can reference it when I need a kick in the Vision. Plus, those handy links are oh-so-tempting, but today is a write, write, write day. I have to kill some darlings, and then write forward. Clever phrasing? I think so. Move the story along? Not so much.

    My personal challenges when writing? Inner Editor (Gracie), who is like a little devil sitting on my right shoulder whispering “you should fix that now”.*

    [*Yes. I know Gracie is the Fear of Failure Devil in disguise. Dang it! As is her shiny bauble chasing sister, procrastination.]

    I haven’t yet found the most effective writing paradigm for me. And, yes, I believe each writer has to find their own balance for writing through to the end. I’ve tried fast drafting it, but ended up spending more time on HazMat (Hazardous Material) clean up than I would have had I balanced it with some Gracie clean up time.

    I’ll keep working and writing and trying new approaches because I have to. I have to write.

    Those words from Linda Howard are the best I’ve read on why we write.

    Well done, Jenny!

    • Jenny Hansen says:

      The bauble-chasing sister hangs out at MY place, thank you very much! I completely get it. Now, just ignore that Gracie (she’s a hag) and focus on the important thing: 2013 is your year!

  5. I’m sooooo sorry for Hubs’ knee, but um… holy great analogy.

    And I love that your Lazy Ass talks.

    Honestly, I struggle with with different things at different times. I rarely struggle with editing.

    And yet.

    It is also my Achilles heel.

    Because I am a teacher, I have a strong inner critic. I have to read a piece over 1,243 times before I am certain it can be released into the world. My perfection gene (which Kristen has also talked about) really slows me down. So while I write everyday, I can’t post everyday. It is just too much for me.

    On another weird note, I am technically a very slow typist. Probably 30 words per minute. I don’t use the proper fingers because I started typing when I was five, and I never took keyboarding in high school. Big. Mistake. Because I also have to look at the keyboard AND then check the screen. It really makes me laggy.

    That said, I keep at it. Even though my computer melted down and ate my manuscripts one was magically returned to me. The other one is gone forever. I’ve had to make my peace there. So getting motivated to start over is a little rough right now. I’m just writing and reading — and working again. (More on that soon!)

    Off too proofread.

    • Jenny Hansen says:

      Thanks for coming to visit me here, Renee! I appreciate your kind words and love seeing your smiling face in my morning!!

      Question: have you ever tried taking a typing class as an adult? Or buying Mavis Beacon? (I love Mavis – she’s got *ways* to get you typing faster.) It sounds like it sure would make you feel better.

  6. I can see why writers all over the room started crying from that speech. That hits the frustration button in all of us I think because what we have in our heads will never, ever be perfectly translated to the page. So what we write always seems not quite good enough in comparison.

  7. K.B. Owen says:

    Love this, Jenny! You know, I thought in the “vision” section you were going to talk about having a plan for what you wanted from your book – logline, plot, etc, and when you stray from it, to get back on track. But editing works, too!

    • Jenny Hansen says:

      That is a lovely thing to put in for vision. You know what I’m going to say, right? I think it would rock if y’all did your own post on what each of these three things mean to you. I’ll bet they’re (at least slightly) different for everyone.

  8. It all comes down to butt in chair. Always. Of course that means butt in chair and writing, not cruising the SM. But it’s posts like these that keep me writing, and inspire me to actually attempt the writing every day thing. I’ve never done it, but it’s my goal for NANO in November (which I’ve also never attempted). Sit in the chair every day and at least write 100 words for 30 days. Hit 50 K? I’m not even dreaming it. Have quality words that Gracie (Gloria’s friend, not mine) would love? Nope, not gonna do that either. Just sit down and try to lift that 5 pound weight every day.
    Thanks Jenny!

    • Jenny Hansen says:

      Jessica, I do NaNoWriMo every year for the same reason. And I have NEVER finished. I just can’t keep up that pace for a whole month. Still, the cameraderie and Chris Baty’s shenanigans keep me coming back year after year. I love it!

      SO proud of you for setting your own goals this year and “just doing it.”

  9. Monique Headley says:

    Wow! I too got a little teary eyed at Linda Howard’s words. So powerful! I really struggle with editing. That horrible creature self-doubt tends to rise at exactly that moment. I second guess everything. Delete stuff thats essential, so on and so forth. But I keep at it, because I know eventually it will get easier!

    • Jenny Hansen says:

      GOOD for you, Monique! You’re in great company if you read the comments here. There’s a beauty and a dignity in the struggle that I find so moving. It WILL get easier!

  10. Stacy Green says:

    Great post, Jenny. I do love that bit about voice. It’s a great explanation. And I agree – the more you write, the better you get, just like anything else. Studying craft is vital, but knowing what to take with you and leave out is important, too.

    • Jenny Hansen says:

      Ahhh, the old “what to take with you and what to leave out” conundrum. Isn’t that the hardest thing? Thanks for the sweet comment! I’m getting very excited about your upcoming book. :-)

  11. Sharla Rae says:

    Love the post Jen. I’ve blogged on all kinds of craft issues and I’ve learned that a good story is knitted together with all the good elements of writing. One twist of the knitting needles depends on the next to keep it place. Unravel one strand and soon the entire story unravels. There has to be balance as you’ve stated here. :)

  12. Jami Gold says:

    Great post, Jenny! It’s a great explanation for physical therapy–and for writing.

    My balance of all that stuff is terrible in real life (I’m holder of the Klutz Queen crown for a reason ;) ), but I hope my writing is more balanced. LOL! Thanks for the link to my post too. :)

    • Jenny Hansen says:

      Jami, we like to say that the women in our family can stand in an empty room and fall and bust their ass. I get the klutzy gene. And yes, your writing is quite balanced from what I’ve seen. :-)

  13. I have the hardest time with voice. After four books, I’m still not sure I could pick myself out of a book line-up. It’s still a very nebulous thing for me….

    • Jenny Hansen says:

      Patti are you making sure you really focus on voice when you blog? That’s been the very best exercise in voice that I’ve ever found. Keep at it…magnificence awaits all us hard workers. :-)

  14. The Linda Howard quote is priceless. All this stuff in my head, all this time planted in my chair writing, studying the craft, speaking with my true voice: I get angry because no matter what I do, what others read was never what was in my head and my heart.

    As a songwriter, sometimes I can get closer, because song lyrics are different from fiction, and the music adds another dimension, especially performed live.

    Maybe I’ll make my next mystery a song cycle and sing it on a dark night out in the woods.

    • Jenny Hansen says:

      Joel, of course you get angry. We all do. But I really think it makes us keep working at it until we get closer.

      I love the idea of singing in the dark of the woods. I can totally see that. Thanks for taking time to comment. :-)

  15. Beautiful post, Jenny. I love the analogies, especially how you described voice. I really need to practice it more with my blog posts instead of sharing other people’s wisdom. Linda Howard’s words made me nod. Been there, felt that. And wow what great links. I always appreciate more shiny links.

    • Jenny Hansen says:

      Reetta, I’ve never found anything better than my blog for pushing me to be strong with my own voice. Especially with the demands of small kids at home, maybe you’ll only have time to do it once a month, but I absolutely think you should try it. :-)

  16. Love the post, Jenny. Thanks for the thoughtful interpretation!!

  17. Lyn Horner says:

    Jenny, when you related musculoskeletal control to craft, my ears perked up (figuratively.) As you may know, I have a neuro-muscular disorder, so I’m very familiar with the balance problem caused by weak muscles. I had never compared it to the writer’s craft until reading your post, but I must say it makes sense. Maintaining balance, especially with a disability, is hard work. The same applies to writing. It’s a juggling act, balancing all the different aspects of our craft, and the only way to do it is to work at it constantly. I spent years avoiding that disciplined approach for the very reason you stated. I was afraid. Afraid of actually selling a book and having to meet deadlines; afraid of having to get out and promote my work; afraid of receiving harsh criticism from readers. As a result, I gave up and pretty much quit writing for a number of years. What a fool! Now I wish I had those years back.

    • Jenny Hansen says:

      Lyn, I didn’t know you had a neuromuscular disorder! That’s a lot of extra energy you must expend each day, dealing with that. My goodness.

      I understand the fear – trust me, I do. And how wonderful that you cared about your writing enough to hitch up those titanium panties and jump back on the Writer Merry-Go-Round!!

  18. macswriter says:

    Excellent post, Jenny. Well written and beautifully constructed. As Gloria said, it’s a keeper! I also like your advice to use blogging as a way to find your voice. Or maybe just recognize it. I like that your usual blog is about something other than writing. While talking about writing is a good thing once in a while, it can bog down the actual getting work done part. It can even cause migraines and tears when you realize the learning never ends. Cheers.

  19. Jenny, sorry I am so late coming to this … not only was I out all day … but when I returned the cable company was having “technical” difficulties in my area and I was booted out for another three hours. Oh well :)

    Being athletic and active caused major problems with my joints. I also have a bone like bunion that pushed my foot out of alignment, which threw off my knees, which threw off my balance when walking. It is taking a long time and will require two surgeries, yet I will get my balance back and not require a knee replacement.

    In my writing my weak link is also editing and learning to trust my inner voice and not hold back what I know is the best way to approach any chapter. Like getting a coach for PT, I found three wonderful BETA readers with three unique talents and approaches. By combining what their feedback with a more honest approach to the work, I am getting stronger each time I take an edit pass at the work.

    Thanks so much … I always love your posts … educational, inspiring and fun to boot :)

    • Jenny Hansen says:

      Oh, wow, Florence! What a day for you…thanks for stopping in with your rays of sunshine once you got back on line. It’s crazy how one little bunion can throw off EVERYTHING. I hope you get to feeling better soon!

  20. Jenny, I totally need your pep talk today. It’s been one of those weeks when I’m struggling with structure and editing, both are my weak points. Tomorrow, I’m coming back here to read your post BEFORE I start writing. Thank you!

  21. Interesting analogy and perspective on writing. I like it. My struggle with my MG novel appears to be voice at the moment and structure. I hear my nieces voice when I write my MC. But, it seems their voices, while real, may not be the correct voice of a child of like age in fiction. Huh. As to structure, info dumping is bad in general, but in MG flashbacks to drop info in as the story goes is not desirable (so I hear). Trying to work through all this.

    • Jenny Hansen says:

      Debra, writing a child’s voice is hard and your concern is completely valid.

      I’m wracking my brains for a book from someone who writes MG books so you can go read their blogs of how THEY do it. My best advice would be to get some kids beta readers, perhaps by volunteering at the library or a school. You would hear their voices, and their feedback. In 8-10 years when I have a child that age, I’ll be able to offer more specific advice. :-)

  22. I loved this analogy! As my wife works as a therapist here in Bangladesh I particularly appreciated the metaphor. I was challenged by the idea of building a writing team. That has given me some food for thought. Thanks for the advice and all the links!

    • Jenny Hansen says:

      How fun is that, Ken?! I didn’t realize you were visiting us from so far away. :-)

      The lovely thing about social media is that your writing team doens’t have to live nearby anymore. You can meet over the internet or GoToMeeting.

  23. That is such a great analogy! I do think the inner ear is the key to finding your author voice. I can usually tell when my manuscript is out of tune, though I still struggle to fix it! Thanks for a great blog post!

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  25. marsharwest says:

    What a super post, Jenny. I don’t even know where to begin with commenting. And if I commented on all I’d like to, I’d never get to anything else and the post would be entirely too long. LOL However, Linda Howard says it all. Years ago my husband got me a Romance Writing for Dummies because she had written the forward and he knew how much I loved her books.
    Your interpretation of what Linda said is truly beautiful: “And finally, do it because no one else will have the inner ear to hear the words exactly as you do, the strength to birth them onto the page, or the vision to translate those words into the perfect story that floats from your heart to ours.” I’m pasting your quote above my computer as a reminder of how lucky I am to be a writer. Thanks for such inspirational words. (This was me being brief.) LOL

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