Posts Tagged ‘writer’s block’

Writing requires fewer expenses than any art except singing, and everyone who finishes grade school learns a few rudiments. For these reasons, it has never lacked wannabes. I’ve heard the claim that if you ask random strangers in Los Angeles how their screenplays are going, you have just bought yourself ten minutes of boredom – and, considering my experiences at science fiction conventions, I can believe it (except that, there, what you shouldn’t ask about are stories). But most of the wannabes never get where they would like to be, usually because they run afoul of one of the following myths:

  • You need to be inspired to write: You can have many Eureka! moments as you write, and a new love or a lost one may urge you to new heights. But if you wait for inspiration before you start to write, then you will never write six days out of seven. Like most forms of mental and physical exercise, writing is something that gets easier if you practice and keep in practice. As Peter S. Beagle said, “If the Muse shows up late to work, you start without her.”
  • Writing done when you are inspired is better than writing you do at any other time: Although you may feel better about your work when inspired, what you produce is usually no better or worse than what you write when every word comes out like a kidney stone you are passing. If you don’t believe me, save one piece you write when inspired and one written when the words come hard, and compare them a week later. Neither is likely to be much better than the other. And, if one is better, it may be the hard-won words, not the inspired ones.
  • Writing block can keep you from writing: In my experience, writer’s block is generally a luxury enjoyed by amateurs. Professionals have no time to have one. The best cure for writers’ block is a deadline. When you have to write, you have no time to play games with yourself. Real writers often have problems that they need to work out, but they view the problems as part of the process, not as an opportunity for self-dramatizing. In the few cases where writer’s block is more than that, a sleep, violent exercise, working on something else, or any other change of pace usually cures it.
  • Talking about your writing is a good idea: Not for anyone I’ve ever met. You will only bore others, and waste energy that you could use for writing in talking. If you prefer talking about your work rather than doing it, then chances are you are more in love with the idea of being a writer than with actually writing. At least, that’s how most practicing writers will view you – and most of the time they will be right.
  • Developing style is the most important thing you can do: An awareness of style is essential as you learn to write. But your own style? Don’t waste time worrying about it. It will come along without any special effort as you focus on clarity, conciseness, accuracy, and otherwise learning how to get down something like what you mean.
  • Style is hard: Even relatively inexperienced writers can learn to polish a phrase or two. By contrast, how to structure and pace your work takes much longer to learn. That’s one reason why, although many poets have done brilliant work before they were twenty-five, very few novelists produce anything memorable before they’re thirty.
  • If you’re talented, you’ll be discovered sooner or later: Possibly. But getting to know publishers, editors, and other writers works even better. Knowing you probably won’t mean that they’ll take an unpublishable work from you, but it does mean that they are more likely to give you the benefit of the doubt in borderline cases – and let you in on the industry news.
  • A work that’s rejected is no good: Often, yes. Most times, even. But works are often accepted and rejected for reasons that have nothing to with their quality. Maybe the editor is overstocked with submissions. Maybe the publisher just did a novel featuring a family much like the one in yours. The rumor is that Stephen King got his start because his publisher was looking for more works that would interest women, and Carrie opens in a high school girls’ locker room. Your rejection might be random as King’s acceptance, so try again. But collect four or five rejections on the same work and maybe you need to start thinking about revisions.
  • There’s nothing wrong with being self-published: Many good and even great books have been rejected before being published, and we’ll never know how many others disappeared before their writers got discouraged. However, the odds are that the number is far fewer than the number of self-published books that succeeded. An editor’s job is to detect salable writing, and, while one or two can make a mistake, five or six are less likely to. The prejudice against self-publishing is not irrational; it’s based on experience. If you really can’t sell your work and want to publish it, you can get free blogs on line at any number of places far more cheaply than you can publish a book or win a contest promising publication. Oh, and calling your vanity publishing an Indie Book won’t make anything said here less true, either.

Harsh words? Maybe. But who said that writing was about your ego? It’s about working to do the best job you can in the time that you have. Anything beyond that is playacting about being a writer – and if you have time to pretend to be one, you won’t have time to actually become one.

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Does writer’s block really exist? For all the dramatic agony it causes among would-be writers, I’m not sure it does. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, being at a loss for words is the result of sloppy writing habits, and can be overcome if you make the right effort.

The easiest way to avoid writer’s block is to write every day. What you write doesn’t matter, so much as the fact that you keep in practice. You wouldn’t expect to play the violin well or run efficiently if you didn’t practice every day, and writing is no different. Keep a journal where you write loosely and without any pressure (not a blog: you might start worrying about how readers will react), and after a couple of weeks you’ll be warmed up as soon as you pick up a pen or sit down in front of the keyboard. Instead of being an unusual act for you, it will become something you do as naturally and unthinkingly as you touch-type (assuming, of course, that you do).

Another important tactic is to divide the writing and editing processes as you write. Writing is an intuitive process, uncritical process and editing a rational and analytical one, so the two don’t go well together. If you constantly finding yourself writing a few words, only to scratch them out or change them, you’ll know what I’m talking about. Most of the time, you make slower and slower progress that way, until you stop with a scowl on your face and writer’s block firmly lodged in your brain. But if you can force yourself not to be too critical in your first draft and to start correcting it only after it’s complete, then the words should come more easily – and probably more quickly as well. When I used to teach first year composition at university, realizing the need to divide these functions was often all that students needed to start becoming fluent writers.

However, if writer’s block occurs despite these first two tactics, the best thing you do is persevere. Words that come slowly are usually no better or worse on average than words that come easily, and you’re in no position to judge them while you write them. They only seem worse than usual because of the effort you’re making.

However, if you are still having trouble, try to get a different perspective on what you are writing. Skip to another paragraph or chapter – after all, nothing says you have to write in order. Read whatever you have out loud. Try writing the passage in which you’re bogged down without looking at the original. Play a game, such as imagining what the passage would sound like if a famous writer was composing it. Anything to get a new perspective, If all these ploys fail, try writing something else, so you still make some progress in the day.

Only after you have tried all the tactics of this sort that you can imagine should you take the last step of taking a break. A writer, don’t forget, is one who writes; if you nap instead, you’re a napper, not a writer. Often, cleaning or another form of creativity such as cooking will help. Heavy exercise is even better, either because of all the chemical stimulants with which it floods your brain or because when you’re straining your legs and arms, your unconscious can set to work on what’s bothering you. Try any of these tricks and the chances are high that you will start to write again.

However, the best cure for writer’s block is a deadline. If you have to submit a piece by a certain time or day, you don’t have time to worry about writer’s block. You simply have to produce. In fact, it’s exactly the motivating factor of deadlines that makes me doubt that writer’s block. Instead, I believe that writer’s block is mostly ineffective work habits or a love of the drama of being a tormented writer. If you don’t have time to work inefficiently or to dramatize yourself, then you’ll likely do neither. Most of the time, overcoming writer’s block is as simple as that.

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