25 March 2024

A chip off the old block.

    When I went to sailing school, our instructor noted that it’s not a matter of if you get seasick, but when.

    That was about 25 years ago, and it still hasn’t happened. This after a few times in six-foot plus confused seas (this is an actual term, which roughly equates to being in the agitator cycle of a giant washing machine).

    Now that I’ve made this boast public, it’ll likely happen the next time I get in a kayak,  but I’m taking my chances.

    By that logic, I’ll take another flyer. I admit I’ve never had writer’s block. This thought was occasioned by a novice writer who asked me how I handle such things, including what he called “hitting the wall”, which I assume means confronting an impassable edifice suddenly erected in front of your work in progress and not the side of a building on Dead Man’s Curve. I had trouble answering because it’s never happened.

    My heart goes out to anyone who has dealt with this.

    As I once felt crossing the English Channel in a storm, watching most of the passengers lined up along the rail sharing the contents of their insides with the salt water and torrential rain. The rest were in the loo.

    A significant percentage of the mystery writers I know are journalists.

    I bet few are beset by writers block, which is probably true of former copywriters like me. From what I understand, editors share the same general attitude as creative directors. If you aren’t able to write what you were supposed to write that day, they fire you. Usually the next day.

    Aside from generating colossal amounts of stress, which by correlation supported a lively bar trade in the neighborhoods surrounding newsrooms and ad agencies, this also focused the mind, and instilled the kind of discipline notable in air traffic controllers and members of the bomb squad.

    Pressed by my novice friend, I did have a few suggestions when ones productivity seems to be flagging, or when you’re not sure what should happen next in the novel.

    Getting up to go to the bathroom is the first tactic. I wrote a lot of headlines standing at a urinal. If you have a more luxurious schedule, a nice walk around the block usually does the trick. If you have both the time and means, perhaps a quick trip to Italy. Countries where you don’t know what people are saying are excellent places to write in public, say at a trattoria or outdoor cafĂ© a la Ernest Hemingway (though go light on the Pernod).

    Reading other people’s writing doesn’t do much for me in this context, except for a few extraordinary stylists, like Bill Bryson, Gillian Flynn, or Amor Towels, whom I find inspirational, despite setting insurmountably high standards.

    But above all, whenever I feel the writing at hand is stalling out, I simply switch over to another project, any project.

    I usually have about three books going at once, at various stages of completion, and there are always emails to old friends and short stories waiting to be written.

    The best palliative for being stuck is to just start writing. The act itself, for me, usually limbers things up and then I'm back in business. The greatest impediment to writing is not writing. Don't worry how it's going to come out. Just start typing.

    Another trick with books is to write down in advance what I call "things that could happen." These are scenes or plot features, and often twists, or something unexpected. I can refer back to that to see if there's anything there to latch on to.

    I don't fear the blank page. In fact, I like it. It means anything goes. Dive in! Most editors will tell you the beginnings of books and short stories are often the weakest parts, and they're good at noting where you should have actually started the thing. That's fine. It just means you hadn't yet warmed up the engine.

    Writing for SleuthSayers, I have a long list of possible topics, and several opening paragraphs. These are handy diversions, and usually result in something I can use. Today, I thought, geez, none of this is helping.

    Then it occurred to me, why not write about not knowing what to write?


  1. I get writer's block, but I write anyway - If a story's stuck, I'll work on another one, or write in my journal, or start a SleuthSayers blog. I, too, generally have 3 projects going on at one time, just so I can switch it up.
    BTW, I have gotten seasick, but only once, in a North Sea gale somewhere between Greenland and Iceland. Dramamine works.

    1. I wouldn't call that a block, Eve, more like a temporary obstruction. And I've decided to strike North Sea gale of my to-do list.

  2. Elizabeth Dearborn25 March, 2024 13:50

    I've never been seasick either. My cousin Louis L'Amour used to keep two desks in his office, each with a typewriter & a stack of blank paper, & a swivel chair in between. When he hit a snag working on one of his books he would swivel around & work on the other project. No, I never did get the chance to meet him.

    1. I was told by the editor of Asimov's Science Fiction that Isaac would have a row of typewriters just like Louis's and roll from one to the other all day. She said he really never stopped writing, proven by his output, which was stupendous.

  3. Cool, Elizabeth! I have a Louis L'Amour in my top ten books to take to a desert island (I really want it to be a dessert island, however). Chris, I do as you do. If I am dragging myself on the current project, I switch to something else for the day. Love your humour at the end! Melodie


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