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Posts Tagged ‘writer’s block’

They say, “The Devil’s in the details,” but as is usually the case, “they” are wrong. Or at least, woefully inadequate as a result of gross over-generalization. If you’re a writer (or to avoid a gross over-generalization, this writer), the Devil is in the beginning.

Here’s the problem. Ever since I finished my last novel, “The Killing Scar” (available free on Kindle Unlimited!), I have been suffering from writer’s block. Other than doing yet another in a series of edits on another book that may never see print, I have not been working. I have accomplished almost nothing of a practical nature. That “almost” consists of one story whose vague parameters I have outlined for myself. (So vague, in fact, are the parameters that one of the main characters remains unnamed.)

Now, this is a story for which I have high hopes. Conceptually, it’s really good. It has emotional resonance for me, it’s simple, and it can probably be brought in under 5000 words, which gives it a wide variety of potential markets. The problem is…

… I have high hopes for this story. I think, properly constructed, it could sell to a prime market. It might even go further. And that is scary as hell.

In his autobiography, Isaac Asimov recounted writing his classic short story, “Nightfall.” Although I don’t have the source material handy, I remember that he said something to the effect that, had an angel tapped him on the shoulder that night and said, “Isaac, you are about to write the greatest science fiction short story of all time,” he would have been paralyzed. He never could have written a word.

Now I am not claiming that I am about to write (or could ever write) the next “Nightfall.” But I am afraid this story could represent a new plateau for me–and so, like Isaac (had he but known), I find myself unable to proceed. I am so afraid to fail that I cannot begin to succeed.

The solution, of course, is obvious.

So don’t call me tonight. I’ll be working. Again.

#SFWApro

 

 

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I sometimes wonder: Is it over? Where is the next one coming from?

Writing is tough, because it’s creating something out of nothing. People ask, “Where do you get your ideas?” like that’s the hard part. It isn’t. Every writer has a hundred ideas, a thousand, that he’ll never use. The hard part is taking that lump of mental clay and molding it into a story, taking an idea and turning it into a dream.

There are times when none of your thousand ideas sparks. You just don’t see the statue within the marble. Usually when that happens, you can take a walk, or read, or work on another project… But there are times when it’s not enough, and the blank spot in your mind simply sits there, empty and unmoving. And you wonder: Is this it? Have I dreamed my last dream? There are no guarantees; just because you’ve written a hundred stories doesn’t mean there are 101 stories in you.

At times like this, I like to read stories by writers I admire; they can inspire me to create similar work (if not as good). Being similar to a great writer is okay, so long as it’s emulation and not imitation. Some of my best work has come out that way, ideas I’m glad to have dreamed.

In the end, I think, stubbornness is my greatest weapon. I have spent way too many years getting to where I am now to quit. The boy who might never would have started walking had he known how long the road was going to be would never forgive me if I gave up now, after achieving some much of what he imagined doing some day.

Show yourself, Story No. 101! I know you’re out there! I’m going to find you, and you’d better be ready when I do.

#SFWApro

 

 

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I’ve recently devoted a couple of posts to advice that new authors get which may or may not be worth its weight in gold. After all, everyone agrees that there are no real “rules” in writing–except when there are. (Seriously, no. 3.) What I thought I’d like to do this go-round was offer some tips that I’ve come to value over time. These aren’t rules, so you don’t have to worry about following them. On the other hand, they might make your life easier.

  1. You don’t have to write every day. Stephen King says you do, and he probably knows more than me, but, really, you don’t have to. It would be great if you could, and you should want to, but it simply isn’t practical. We have spouses, kids, work, hobbies, friends, lives… Unless and until you’re writing full-time to support yourself, don’t feel bad if you take a day off. Or the week-end. Burn-out is a real thing. Which brings us to…
  2. If the story isn’t coming to you, walk away from it. Writer’s block is real. Staring at the screen for an hour in mounting angst isn’t going to make the words flow. (Unless that’s your process. I’ve even seen it work a few times.) But while writing should be work, it should not be combat. It’s okay to get up, take a walk, play with the dog…exercise is a great way to free your mind. But don’t feel you’re goldbricking if you take time off to charge your batteries. (See no. 1.)
  3. Do whatever you want with your first draft, because no one will ever see it. (This comes courtesy of Anne Lamott, who wrote the greatest writing book I’ve ever read, Bird by Bird. I know this isn’t a list of rules, but trust me, buy this book.) You don’t show anyone your first draft, because (a) it’s going to suck, and (b) knowing no one will see it gives you the freedom to put down any old garbage, in the interest of getting the story written. You can always edit it away, and who’s going to know? How many drafts did Tolkien take to write Lord of the Rings? Beats me, what difference does it make? You only get to read the final version.
  4. Trust your instincts. If you feel a passage isn’t working while you write it, your reader isn’t going to like it, either. Feel free to trash it. I once had to delete and re-write the first 20,000 words of a novel. It hurt, but I went on to finish the book, which wouldn’t have happened otherwise.
  5. Don’t expect perfection. You won’t get it. Eventually, you reach the point of diminishing returns. Let someone read your third draft. Submit the story to some markets. See what happens. And get started on a new story. One of the best ways to deal with rejection is to know you already have something even better working.
  6. Don’t get discouraged. You will, of course. It’s inevitable. It can take years (decades!) to sell even a single story. Even when you’ve done that, there’s always another step to climb, another plateau to reach, another market to crack. Take a breath, look behind you, and see how far you’ve come. (Or try re-reading some of your earliest stories, if you dare.)
  7. Defy rejections with persistence. Send that story out again. And again. And again. I’ve sold stories to top-paying venues that had been rejected two dozen times. I sold one story that had been rejected 44 times. “Never give up. Never surrender.”

The classic image of a writer is a loner crouched over his desk in a freezing garret. It may be classic, but it’s not true. You’re not alone. We’re all in this together; we understand what it’s like. And take one last tip from me: It never gets any easier.

But it’s worth it.

ETA: There are no original ideas, and somebody is almost always writing the same story (or blog post) as you, possibly better. Case in point.

#SFWApro

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It isn’t easy being a writer. Or any kind of creative person. If it were, everyone would do it, and the world would be an even more beautiful place. But it isn’t, for reasons that most people could come up with if they were to bother: How do you get ideas? How do you stretch those ideas out to cover several thousand (or several hundred thousand) words? How do you find the time? The list goes on.

If you’re a writer, however, you’ve already come up with answers to these questions. (Well, all but the last three…) But even then, there’s the problem of persistence. Not the persistence it takes to submit and re-submit the same story to various markets maybe four dozen times with no reason it will succeed. (I think my record for rejections before a sale is 44.) That’s a long-term sort of persistence; I’m talking about the day-to-day, the persistence it takes to complete a single project, especially a novel.

2017 was a very hard time for writers (at least liberal writers). The year was a socio-political mess (no matter whose side you’re on), and outside events kept getting in the way. This doesn’t count all of the large and small personal crises and problems that nip at your available time (the kids are sick, your boss was mean today, a death in the family). Maintaining your focus in the face of these events is hard. They make you not want to write; they slow you down. What’s the point of creating a fantasy world when the real world is so screwed up?

And maybe that is the point. When we’re writing, when we’re creating, we have control. Our worlds are only as screwed up as we want them to be–and we can fix them (or not). I’m not saying that we should concentrate on our stories to the exclusion of the real world, but perhaps being able to exert some control in here will help us feel we can exert some control out there.

So we can’t feel guilty about focusing. At the same time, feeling guilty about not focusing just makes it worse. This is a hard life we’ve chosen, but then, Life is hard. And we get through it every day.

Just remember, your characters have it even worse than you do.

#SFWApro

 

 

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Yes, you are “supposed” to write every day. Of all the “rules” (in quotes because the only rule everyone can agree on is that all the rules can be broken), this seems to be the most common. But there are days when you just can’t. Maybe you’re tied up with inescapable family business. Maybe you’re in surgery. And maybe you just can’t muster the time/energy/inspiration to write. Some days it just won’t happen. The only people who deny that writer’s block exists are people who haven’t experienced it.

So how, you ask, can writing be like not-writing? Is this some Zen thing? No, it’s just…well assuming I can come up with enough similarities, you’ll see. If I don’t, you won’t see, which will prove my point.*

  1. It’s frustrating. Writing is frustrating because it’s slow, and difficult to get anywhere. Not writing is frustrating because you’re at a dead stop, which also makes it difficult to get anywhere.
  2. It tends toward futility. If you don’t write, you don’t sell. If you do write, often you still don’t sell, at least not for some time.
  3. It’s time-consuming. Writing a story takes time, then editing takes more time. Not writing a story takes time away from writing, then noodling around on the Internet in the name of “research” takes more time.
  4. It’s hard work. Until you’ve written a story (or a novel!), you don’t know how tough it is. And until you can’t write, you don’t know how tough it is.
  5. It expands your mind. When you write, you open the way to your unconscious and allows you to say things you didn’t know you had in you.** When you don’t write, you open the way to reading sponsored articles for things you didn’t know you cared about. (See my Internet comment in #3.)
  6. It leads to writing. When you write, you write more. You limber up those mental muscles and they become easier to use. When you don’t write, you feel the need to write more. You bounce around trying to loosen up those mental muscles until you come up with a blog post, at least.

So we come down to it. The Secret. It is simple: If you are a writer, you will write. You may write blogs. You may write children’s books. You may write movies. What you write is up to you, but you will have no choice but to write.

Or not to write. It’s all the same.

 

*That may be zen, but I really don’t know. Or do I? Would I know if I did?

**Like how two opposing concepts are the actually the same thing.

#SFWApro

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I’ve finished that short story I was asking people about a while back. It wasn’t as much work as I’d feared, once I got on the right track. (I had an idea I was excited about, but it turned out to be too much like someone else’s story. I had a bad couple of days before I came up with another idea.) I think it came out pretty well; it’s with beta readers now, and the response has been encouraging. So all in all, a successful detour from my large novel project.

Which I am now trying to get back to. As I feared, returning to a bigger task is not easy. A short story is nimbler, quicker, easier to navigate and to pilot. The novel… I have a lot of notes (for me), and a reasonably detailed idea of how to write it, but putting more words on paper after a break feels more like the high bar of beginning a novel. I expect this will fade as I reread my last few pages and return to that world, but it’s not as easy as that. In my mind, I have that BLANK PAGE feeling.

Short stories versus novels. There are advantages to both: On the one hand there’s speed, the ability to work on several sequential projects in a shorter span; the greater likelihood of publication. On the other hand, there’s money. And recognition, from both colleagues and the reading public.

These are obvious factors, save perhaps the last. But there is no getting around that if you want to be known for your writing, you have to write novels. Unless you’re one of the two or three really fine short story artists out there, they will not get you a seat at the bar. And even then, it takes years (awards only come around so often), whereas even one middling novel will get you credibility with your peers. (I’m talking about SFF, now. Other fields may be different, although I’m pretty sure it’s the same with mysteries.)

So here I am, facing the–let’s face it–fear that is the BLANK PAGE. Even writing a blog post is closer to writing a short story and offers many of the same advantages. But maybe writing this column is a way to ease back into what I should be doing, which is finishing The Cosmic City.

Or maybe it’s not. Maybe you’ll get another post tomorrow…

#SFWApro

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So, in line with my promise to try to read more in order to help my writing, I analyzed my habits and discovered I was spending so much time trying to write, I had no time to read. I then gave myself permission not to write at all, and devote the time I would normally use to write as reading time. This is not in itself bad; I have given the same advice to other writers who were struggling. (If you know enough writers, it happens pretty much all the time to somebody. This was my turn.) Unfortunately, life is a juggling act, and I stopped juggling.

After about two weeks of not writing, I have found that allowing yourself not to write is a lot different from not being able to write. Some of us believe in writer’s block (I do) and some don’t. But this isn’t that. Not writing because you choose not to leads to an itch, but not the climbing-the-walls nerves that writer’s block can cause. So overall, it’s not been an unpleasant interlude.

But that itch is still there, and I think I should scratch it. The trick is to regain that balance, to find the number of chainsaws you can keep aloft without undue stress. For me, the secret is to know ahead of time what I’m going to say. I know from experience that if I outline with some detail, I can write 2000 words a night. Unfortunately, my typing speed isn’t up to maintaining that pace while allowing time for anything else. But I can write 1000 words in 60 – 90 minutes, which is not too much time to spend at my desk, while still moving my book along at a reasonable pace.

When you’re self-publishing, though, speed is everything, and since I cannot write 2-3 books per year, once The Cosmic City is done, I’m going back to short fiction for a while.

I can’t juggle chainsaws; I’m going to stick to balls and bowling pins and the occasional puppy. Anything else would make me look like an April Fool.

#SFWApro

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