05 September 2012

Your Mileage May Vary

by Robert Lopresti

Last week Jan wrote eloquently about writer's block.  I didn't respond in comments because I wanted to ponder for a while, and besides, this way I could fill a Wednesday.  (They keep coming around every week, don't they?)

I'm not sure I can say anything useful about this because I don't think I have ever experienced writer's block the way I have heard other people describe it.  The reason for that may have to do with the way I approach writing, and - who knows - maybe discussing that would be helpful to someone.  So here goes.

I rewrite.  I rewrite a lot.

Recently I wrote that I had started a novel and R.T. gracuiously offered to critique the first few chapters for me.  (We exchange most of our works before sending them into battle.)  I had to tell him that it would be at least ten and probably twenty more drafts before anyone would be allowed to see the book.  I  have to translate it into English from the original Gibberati.

But that's the point.  At any time I have half a dozen stories in my black notebook, going through various phases of rewrite (from "this sentence might be improved if it had a verb.  Also a noun." to "one last adverb hunt and it's ready to roll.").  So if I am not in the mood to write something new I flip open the notebook and rewrite, rewrite, rewrite.  It's progress, so I don't feel blocked.

What if I want to write something new and don't have an idea?  Well, I also have a white notebook (there's no significance to those colors; but it makes it easier to tell them apart) full of story ideas.  Never throw anything away!

I believe Jan or one of the commenters talked about Sue Grafton's writing habits and I sympathize.  My memory is that Raymond Chandler said he sat at his writing desk X hours every day.  He didn't have to write during that time but he couldn't do anything else.  That reminds me of Edna St. Vincent Millay who, as I recall, said she wrote poetry for a certain amount of time every day.  The questioner said "don't you need to be inspired to write poetry?"

She replied that that was true "But when the inspiration comes it finds me at my desk!"

While working on my novel I have set myself a minimum of 100 words a day. A piddling amount, you say.  Yes, it is.  But that's the idea.  No matter how uninspired I feel I can crank out that many words.  And it keeps me connected to the work.  Plus, very often no matter how uninspired I am feeling once I get those 100 words out, the next few hundred want to follow.

So that's what I do.  As for you... well, see the title above.


  1. We must have similar styles, Rob. My business card, if I didn't keep editing it, should say 'rewriter'

  2. Puts my hand up. Affirmed rewriter. My first draft is like a Jackson Pollock (I can see words, but what do they mean).

  3. Rob, I like your idea of a minimum of 100 words a day. I started this new Callie way behind schedule and actually thought I could write ten pages (double-spaced 12 point) a day on the
    rough draft. I still believe I could if I lived alone on a mountain top, but I've adjusted my goals. BTW, how many SS'ers are working on a novel?

  4. Rob, well said. Mainly, it's whatever system works for that person.
    To be truthful, I'm afraid my writer's block problems tend to fall under the category of laziness and/or excuses. And yet, one of these days I just may finish that 2nd or 3rd novel.

  5. Last year while I was visiting with James Lincoln Warren at Bouchercon he offered the following remedy for writers' block: write!

  6. my friend Michael Mallory once said approximately "When my novel is published I'll still be making edits as I sign copies."

  7. I always liked Anthony Trollope's answer to how he wrote so much (50+ Victorian novels, etc.) - "sticking plaster in the chair." I go to my desk, re-read and re-write what I wrote yesterday, and then try to push out a few more sentences, a few more paragraphs, and, once in a while, a few more pages. That's about it. When stuck, I go for a walk. When really stuck, I... well, let's just say people get out of my way.

  8. How can we possibly be siblings? I wish I could work on more than one project at a time, but no way. And I envy that idea notebook! I could use one right now. However, when I do finally have a firm idea, my goal is 2500 words a day. But then, I don't have a day job. 100 is smart. It keeps you connected, as you said. 2500 is necessary when I'm writing a novel, but it can also be so daunting that I just stare at my monitor in a stupor and end up with zip. Sigh.

  9. Well, Diane, it's easier to work on many stories than many novels. As I said on Facebook, our ideas of what makes a good story are so different that my notebook would be pretty useless to you. Happily your view is popular enough that you can make a living at it!


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