14 April 2012

Hills and Valleys

All of us who are writers are familiar with the ups and downs of the writing life. Sometimes ideas seem to come as easily and frequently as the electric bill, and making stories out of those ideas seems even easier. Other times, your mind goes blank (I should probably avoid Etch A Sketch comparisons), and you wouldn't recognize a good idea if one crawled up and bit you on your writing hand. The same thing applies to marketing your completed stories. One week, or month, or year, you might have a run of unusually good fortune--acceptances, publications, awards, etc.--and the very next week, or month, or year, might be as dry as a lizard in Death Valley. It's feast or famine, when you're hot you're hot, when you're not you're not, and when it rains it pours. (I'm trying to come up with even more cliches, here. Give me a minute . . .)

A Failure to Communicate

There have been more articles written about writer's block than anyone would ever want to read, but the fact is, sometimes you do find yourself without the words or ideas you need. It lasts longer for some folks than for others, but I've known a few writers who say they weren't able to produce what they call meaningful work for a year or more. I sympathize. That would not only be tough, it would probably be enough to make you wonder if you might be more suited to some activity other than writing. Carpentry, maybe, or gardening or photography.

I can honestly say it hasn't often happened to me, in the eighteen years that I've been writing for publication. Some times are better than others, sure, but so far I've seldom found myself in a position where I didn't have workable ideas for stories, or the ability to sit down and turn those ideas into manuscripts. What I have had are periods when I wondered if I would ever again sell a story. I guess that happens to most writers, now and then.

The Little Train That Could

There is, of course, a fairly reliable treatment for both conditions. First, if you're not able to write anything that you think is good . . . write something bad. Write anything, as long as it involves putting words on paper or screen. I've heard people say that's the only cure for a blocked imagination. If you do enough directionless, pointless writing, I'm told that you'll eventually start writing something that is good, or at least you'll be able to go back through the crap that you just wrote and change it up and make it good. (Or you'll quit completely, I guess, and never write again, and if that happens, you probably shouldn't have been doing the whole I-want-to-be-a-writer thing in the first place.)

As for the second problem--not enough sales--I think the answer is to just keep submitting material. Over and over and over. If it's stories, send in the manuscripts; if it's novels, send in the queries. Reject the rejections. The summer between my sophomore year and junior year in college I sold dictionaries door-to-door in Michigan, and our student bosses--"crew leaders," they were called--offered us a profound piece of wisdom: Don't ever try to sell something to someone with a pit bull in his yard. Just kidding. The piece of wisdom was: The person who gets the most no's also gets the most yeses. The salesman who knocks on the most doors makes the most sales. That's almost always true, and sometimes it applies to life (and fiction submissions) as well as to dictionary peddlers.

For those of you who have also experienced these ailments (derailments?) firsthand, what do you do to get the word train (or the marketing train) back on track? Are there better ways than the ones I mentioned? I'd enjoy hearing your take on this.

On the Home Front . . .

This has been a good year for me so far, in terms of story writing and story sales. I hope that run of luck continues. But I also realize it might not, and in that case I can only hope I'll keep the confidence that's required to keep writing and keep submitting manuscripts.

I recall yet another saying, one that I think I might have mentioned in a past column at the Criminal Brief blog, but I like it so much I'll mention it again:

There's a lot of attrition among writers--so don't attrit.


  1. Amen to that.
    Plus all that scribbling keeps us out of trouble.

  2. I think your advice is right on target, John. Nothing cures a block like activity--just write. Janice is also right: It doesn't do for me to grow idle, and I'm sure that I'm not alone in this.

  3. this may sound like I am bragging, or tempting fate, but I dont feel like I have experienced writer's block in a serious way. i think this is because I have half a dozen projects going and can always switch to editing and rewriting. maybe an advantage to those of us who rewrite everything twenty times?

    On the other hand I do have times when i feel like my writing is, as one of my characts put it, just piling words after each other and hoping none falll off. i find that most of the time if you just keep working through that eventuallly you get to a part where the piecke comes alive again, and rereading later itmay be hard to tell which parts were written in which moods...

  4. John, I agree. You've got to just do it, which sometimes requires an act of faith. I like the image of piling the words on and hoping none fall off.

  5. I don't write as much as the rest of you. In my most productive (and best) year I wrote and placed four stories. I usually write only two or three stories a year. So my writing time is in segments. I write, submit and move on to other things for a couple of months. Then I do it again. The pace suits me. So, before a writer thinks he's "blocked," he should examine and know his own pace.

    When I am writing, I do something-write, research, edit, every day until the project is complete.

  6. Herschel Cozine14 April, 2012 12:37

    I just went through a period of "writer's block" that lasted far longer than normal. But a lot of it was just intellectual laziness. I came out of it by looking at various writing websites where a specific story was requested. Sherlock Holmes Magazine was looking for stories written in the Holmes style, including, (and this is important) parodies. I wrote a parody and it was accepted. There were other similar opportunities, and I have managed to place several stories written "on request" if you will. I still struggle to come up with original ideas, but at least I pulled out of the funk.

    Good article, John. And I have to give you some credit for keeping me motivated.

  7. John, I agree. You've got to just do it, which sometimes takes an act of faith. I like the image of piling on the words, hoping none fall off. Terrie's right of course, we each have our own pace.

  8. That's an interesting point, about knowing your pace and not necessarily feeling you're blocked if you don't constantly produce stories and sales.

    As for me, I do write a LOT, so if go awhile without being able to, something's wrong--but if you create, say, one story a year, a lapse of a month or two might not mean a thing.

    I suppose writers's block applies to a situation when you feel you should be writing but are for some reason unable to do so.

    BY THE WAY, I apologize to those of you who have sent in comments today that have not yet appeared. I've asked about this and we're trying to fix it. Thanks for your patience, AND for your comments.

  9. Never give up, never.

    Including comments: SleuthSayers' software is smart about detecting spam but dumb about recognizing good stuff, which requires us checking SS's spam bucket from time to time. So often it's empty, we become lulled into thinking it's always empty. Sorry, our fault.

    One way around this is to register as a SleuthSayers Follower. As long as you use the same eMail address, SS will recognize you and let you comment.


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