Showing posts with label writer's block. Show all posts
Showing posts with label writer's block. Show all posts

14 October 2019

Writers Blocks Build Stories


Dennis Lehane is one of many successful crime writers who doesn't outline. He writes his novels on a legal pad (as did John Steinbeck) and types what he's produced into a computer at the end of the day (not like John Steinbeck). He says that when he gets stuck, rather than considering himself blocked, he knows he's made a wrong choice earlier in the manuscript and goes back through it to find what he did that shut down the action later on. When he finds the problem, he fixes it and surges ahead.

Many writers--lots of them practicing or formal journalists--point to the value of a regular deadline as motivation. The don't have time for writer's block and will produce on demand. I have written most of my life, but didn't sell my first story until I was 60. By then, I had several rejected novels and stories I could return to and play with if I couldn't find a "new" idea. Now that I've recycled most of those ideas that merited a second look, I find that I do get stuck sometimes.

Writer's Block actually comes in two versions. The one most non-writers mean is the lack of ideas to write about. Most of the writers I know agree that the people don't really lack ideas; they fail to recognize useful ones or set their sights too high. They have the seed of a good short story or poem, but they're looking for a blockbuster novel. Unfortunately, nobody, including publishers, can see these coming. Dan Brown wrote several mid-list novels before The Da Vinci Code caught his publisher and bookstores around the world by surprise.

The second version is the idea that doesn't work with your other ideas. Years ago, I interviewed several people to get the details right for what I thought would become the third Woody Guthrie novel...even though I hadn't sold the first one yet. Those notes sat on a floppy disc (remember those?) for several years until I thought the time was right. By then, the story had moved from Detroit to Connecticut and become a Zach Barnes story. Then it changed into a police procedural featuring Trash and Byrne. Six or seven years and several title changes later, I finally sat down to write.

Normally, when I write a first draft, I produce a scene or two daily, going faster as I get deeper into the book and know my way around better. My average scene is about 1600 words. Four weeks into this story, I only had about 50 pages, a quarter of my usual output, and none of it felt right. I put it away and tweaked a few other stories. When I came back, I saw something akin to Lehane's experience.

The story had two crucial premises that contradicted each other. Writer's Block, version 2.0.

The good news is that the time away also gave me a way to handle the problem. I recycled several of the characters, and the book turned into The Kids Are All Right, which was nominated for the Shamus Award for Best Indie Novel.

A few months later, I faced a similar situation. I was revising an early unsold Woody & Meg story from about 2004. A dozen years later, I understood why that premise didn't work and the book never sold, but I thought I'd learned enough to fix it.

After three days of pushing The Great Pyramid up a vertical slope, I finished page 4.

The notes, outline, character list, and pages went into seclusion on a flash drive. But, again, something else with a vaguely similar idea bubbled underneath. A week later, I recognized that bubble. I finished the first draft of a novella, 16,000 words in eight days. It became "Look What They've Done to My Song, Mom," which won the Black Orchid Novella Award.

Now I'm struggling with yet another idea that seems to be circling the drain.

I'm going to put it away for a few weeks...and hope history will repeat itself.

20 September 2019

When the Muse Takes a Powder


by Janice Law

Although there are authors of unrivaled productivity, nearly every writer comes to periods when the Muse is unavailable. She’s pitched her hammock somewhere on the slopes of Mount Olympus, or if your favor a more modern goddess, she’s on a beach somewhere drinking pina coladas and checking her smart phone. But don’t try to contact her – she’s not taking your calls at the moment, whether you’re sacrificing at Delphi or chasing ideas on the web.
Muses by Eustace LeSueur

I’m not talking about writer’s block here, although that is another and probably more famous affliction. Joseph Conrad left two vivid descriptions of this malady. In a famous letter to Edward Garnett, he apologized for his slow correspondence. “I ought to have written to you before, but the fact is I have not written anything at all. … In the course of that working day of 8 hours I write 3 sentences which I erase before leaving the table in despair.”  In another letter he noted, surprisingly, that his imagination was extremely active during these bleak periods: “Everything is there: descriptions, dialogue, reflexion—everything—everything but the belief, the conviction, the only thing needed to make me put pen to paper.”

Joseph Conrad
Most of us would be happy to have descriptions and dialogue not to mention reflection in the hopper, but when the Muse takes a powder, it’s not will that’s lacking for most of us but ideas. Perhaps we can take some comfort in the fact that inspiration can desert even the great. I recently came across a quote from T. S. Eliot in a review of a new volume of his letters. Declaring “ it is a nuisance to be a poet”, he continues, “When it is a life work, you are sure to find from time to time that your inspiration is exhausted, and that you either repeat yourself, or stop writing. These are painful, but necessary periods.”
Samuel Taylor Coleridge

The last sentence is the one I find most significant, especially his comment that these unpleasant dry periods are necessary. I think I agree. At the same time, I suspect that I am not the only writer that faces these fallow times with a touch of dread, fearing rationally or not, that this time the Muse and all her precious ideas are gone for good. It’s certainly possible and, at my age, increasingly likely.

On the other hand, she’s always come back before which gets us to the next question. If she cannot be summoned directly is there anything that helps? Well yes. Effort does sometimes work. Conrad, you will note, was seated at his desk for eight miserable hours a day struggling. Blocked as a poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote voluminously, turning out much admired essays and criticism, but while Conrad managed more novels, Coleridge’s poetry did not return.

On a much humbler level, I have found over the years that ideas come directly from work, particularly when the work is non-fiction or shorter prose fiction. One trains the subconscious to notice what will make, say, a good feature piece or a good short mystery story. In a slightly different way, work on a novel, which begins in a burst of inspiration, enthusiasm, and pleasure, dwindles about the second week to a slog not too different from Conrad’s misery at the writing desk.

Muse regarding a MS
with some skepticism
This is when persistence and craft have to take over until around week 3 or 4, one makes the happy discovery that more copy is waiting each morning. The Muse has been called back by hard work and conscious thought and now the subconscious can do its job.

But sometimes even dedicated persistence does not work. I started a novella a couple of years ago with the usual enthusiasm, wrote several nicely crafted sections, and came to a shuddering halt. Everything was set up nicely, prose was good, voice interesting, characters all right – but the story went nowhere.

It was only a few months ago, that, trying to clean out my file drawers, I read it over, thought it was pretty good, and after a couple weeks of struggle, got back on track and finished the thing. So, while I always encouraged students to try regular habitual writing, I must say that I also believe in the hydraulic theory of composition. The subconscious takes time to fill up. There is only so much energy, inspiration, enthusiasm and confidence available at any one time. Deplete them, and you have to let the Muse lounge in her hammock for a while.


16 February 2016

Creative Drought


by Melissa Yi
I don’t usually talk about writer’s block because I’m more like a machine. Working in the emergency room? I’ll do 500 words before or after my shift. Not working? Bump it up to 1000. More if possible, but set the bar low so you can always hit the target. That was my recipe for years.

Usually, if the creative juices aren’t flowing, I can switch to non-fiction or poetry and get the job done. I can write about a patient I saw or the cuteness of my kids without batting an eye.

But recently, I’m not feeling it.

Only once before did I take a break from writing, after a death in the family. I’d been forcing myself to keep going, keep marching, soldier, at 2000 words/day, until I mentioned it to Kris Rusch/Nelscott, and she said something like, “I’m surprised you’re still writing. You could make yourself hate it that way.” Slowly, I let myself recuperate.

I found myself trying a few creative things like sketching or baking. The funniest example was that I made a zucchini chocolate chip cake with treats baked inside. My friend forgot to tell one of the construction workers who ate it and ended up chewing on a ring. And eventually, I started writing again.
Author Allie Larkin talks about balance here.
This time, it’s much more insidious. After burning myself out in December, and now starting a new job as a hospitalist, where I have to work every day, looking after admitted patients, instead of working erratic hours as an emergency doctor, I’ve gotten out of the habit of writing this week. I was working on a back pain book in January, so it’s not like I was overflowing with outlandish ideas before that.
This is not going to be a cheery list of ten ways to break writer’s block. Just a note that I’ve been here before. I had to refill the well, and then I carried on.

I recently picked up a book by David Whyte called The Three Marriages. His theory is that during your lifetime, you will generally marry another person, a career, and yourself.

By marrying yourself, you listen to your heart and what you want, not the external demands of money, prestige, or your partner’s demands. That can be hard to do. When I was sick but still dragged myself to the Cornwall Public Library’s annual party to celebrate volunteers, one of the coordinators asked me how I was doing as a person. Not as a doctor, not as a writer, but as myself. And I was silenced, because it feels like people approve of my accomplishments, but most of them don’t know the human being underneath.

After burning out, I decided not to flagellate myself anymore. I will do my best. But if the words don’t get written every single day or night, I won’t fret. I’ll just write again the next day.

The flip side is that during this week as a hospitalist, I haven’t made the time. But that’s okay. I wanted to spend my energy on medicine this week, and I did. My time is up on Tuesday, and then I have 24 hours before I start up as an emergency doctor again.

Buddhism talks about not getting fixed on ideas and labels about ourselves. “I am a writer.” “I am a doctor.” Labels change. Life is long. Things are fluid.

What about you? Have you ever encountered writer’s block? What did you do?

27 August 2012

What Do You Do?


by Jan Grape

Jan Grape
Since I have been lazy and unproductive and not feeling like my usual self (and who do you feel like, Jan?) I decided to see if my fellow SleuthSayers will help with this column.

What do you do when you have writer's block. Or you sit down to the computer to work on your latest project and your muse is asleep or your brain is empty or whatever you might happen to call the weird thing that happens to all of us at some time or another?

What Do You Do?

I remember hearing Sue Grafton speak at a conference once and she said sometimes she sits down at her desk, fires up her computer, and sits there and sits there and sits. After a while she types "The." And maybe that's all she types for several minutes, maybe even a hour. But, she has committed to sitting at the computer for four hours each day. And some days she just types nonsense after "The." The quick red fox jumped over the fence… maybe. And somehow words start popping into her head and she starts typing.

So I decided to test Sue's theory, "The…" I sat here for a while and suddenly I began typing. "The man sat down, ordered a drink, talked small talk to the bartender and after a few minutes the man tells the bartender 'I just killed someone.'" Okay, that's pretty good. Who is this man? Who did he kill? Why did he kill? And why would he tell a stranger, the bartender this? Maybe Sue's onto something here? Who knows?

I also looked at a book on my shelf called Break Writer's Block Now! by someone named Jerrold Mundis. I don't know who this person is and have no idea when I bought the book, but it's autographed so I probably bought it at some mystery con I attended years ago. He sorta gives the same idea. After telling you to have a few minutes of meditations or relaxation before you start writing, then sit down and just start writing. He advises to use a pen whereas nowadays we almost all use a computer. But he says just keep the pen moving. It doesn't matter if your words make sense, or what you're writing about. You can write about last night's dinner, or a part of a letter or a journal or just stream of consciousness, whatever. Just keep the pen moving. After a few minutes, finish your sentence and put a period. Then sit back. You have finished this exercise. Now read the next chapter in the book.

Another wonderful book I have it titled Techniques of the Selling Writer, by a man named Dwight V. Swain from Oklahoma. I met Dwight at a writer's conference and later when we had our bookstore, Dwight came to Austin and did a book signing. This book was first published in 1965 and the copy I have is from the 5th printing in 1988, but most of his techniques are as true today as then.
He specifically mentions how as writers, we allow other things in our everyday life take over. The kids, the bills, the spouse, the headache. And one big thing you have to try your best to do is realize there is a creative part of the brain and a critical part of the brain. You have to keep those two apart if possible. Face your fears. Build your self-esteem. Don't demand too much. Again, it's almost the same as others have said.

What are your fears? That no one will like your work? Okay, so maybe no one likes this book, but what about the next one? Is the earth going to shatter if you don't sell this one?

Build yourself esteem. That's often easier said than done. But try to be around people that you like and that like you. Tell jokes and listen to them laugh. Have coffee with people that make you happy. Keep thinking you're a writer and a good writer and soon you'll feel like you are.

Don't demand too much. Accept yourself as you are today. You're an okay writer, but you know if you keep this up for 5 years or 10 years that you'll be a better writer. Don't get frustrated because you're not Sue Grafton or Stephen King. You may not ever be in their category but you still can be a damn good writer if you keep writing.

And finally, my last word. Give yourself permission to write. You may have obligations, family, spouse, job, bills whatever that keeps you busy with that other life but if you intend to keep writing, then give yourself permission to do so and keep writing.

Anyone have ideas, suggestions, thoughts, fellow writers?

14 April 2012

Hills and Valleys



by John M. Floyd


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.