Thursday, February 23, 2017

Dealing With Blockage

            This week, I wanted to talk a bit about a familiar malady we’ve all heard of—writer’s block.
            It happens to all of us. Y’know, four out of five writers experience writer’s block at some point in their career.  Almost 83% on average end up...
            Okay, that’s not true.
            None of it.
            I’ve got to be honest. I fall into the same camp as Isaac Asimov and Piers Anthony.  I just don’t believe in writer’s block.  Sorry.
            Now, let me be clear.  Yeah, there are days that I hate writing.  Of course there are.  This is a full time job for me, and guess what—like everyone else on Earth, there are days I hate my job. 
            Don’t get me wrong.  It’s a fantastic job, it’s the job I’ve wanted pretty much my whole life (aside from brief dabblings with “astronaut” and “giant robot pilot”)... but there are days it frustrates me. There are days I pull my hair out. There are days I still worry if I’m good enough, days I fret about my future, and days I wonder if I should’ve just sucked it up and found another job as a prop master.
            But... I never have writer’s block.
            There’s always something I want to write.  I never have a shortage of words or ideas.  I never stare at the screen and can’t come up with anything.
            I think--and this is all just my opinion, so YMMV—that writer’s block is kind of a made up thing, like the muse.  It’s an easy excuse not to write.  When I see people online talking about being blocked for months or years... I have to be honest, I just don’t buy it.
            I think writer’s block tends to boil down to three very real, very relatable things...
            First is a voice issue.  Or maybe an empathy issue.  Kinda the same thing, for our purposes here.
            Let me explain.
            A few weeks ago at the Writers Coffeehouse, we talked a bit about voice.  I think—especially when we start out—a lot of us tend to write the way we speak.  Maybe a little cleaner or clearer, but it’s not that odd for writing patterns to match up with speech patterns.  Our narrative voice uses all the same words and phrases and metaphors that we do in our day to day life, because that comes naturally.  Makes sense, right?
            Thing is, when we go to write... things stop matching up.  If we’re any good at this writing thing, we recognize that high elf ladies probably don’t talk like office drones from Dallas or check out clerks from Portland.  They’re going to have different vocabularies and cadences.  They’re not going to sound like me.
            Suddenly I’m not writing “naturally” anymore.  This takes effort!  It’s work.  It means I need to put myself in a different headspace and look at the world—even my fictional world—in different ways.
            I think this particular form of writer’s block eliminates a lot of folks from the pool, one way or another. Either they keep going, writing dozens of different characters that all sound pretty much the same... or they give up because they can’t make them sound different.  And those folks will talk about being blocked. How they couldn’t get the ideas to flow or the characters didn’t want to come out or something like that...
            The second thing behind writer’s block is fear.  Plain old-fashioned fear. 
            I’ve talked about this before.  I think a lot of times when people say they can’t write, it’s more that they’re worried the stuff they are writing isn’t good enough.  Is this page, this paragraph, this sentence as good as it could be?  Have I used the best words?  The best description?  Is this the best way to phrase this?  Will this win me a Pulitzer or get me mocked on GoodReads?
            I think most of us go through this phase at one point or another.  We start over-analyzing our work and second-guessing everything we put down.  I’ve mentioned the term paralysis by analysis before, which I think sums this up perfectly.  We get so scared at the thought of doing something wrong—something that isn’t perfect—that we don’t do anything.  We freeze up.  We get... blocked.
            But we already know the solution to this one, too.  It’s just admitting that my work isn’t going to be perfect the first time out.  Perhaps not the second, either. It’s going to need editing.  Second and third and fourth drafts.  Maybe even full rewrites.  That’s just the way writing goes. And once I realize this—once I can really admit it to myself—I can get past that fear and my productivity will go through the roof.
            And this brings us to the third thing behind writer’s block. And this is the tough one. The hardest one to deal with.
            Sometimes people have writer’s block because they don’t have anything to write.
            There’s a lot of reasons people sit down and try to write.  Sometimes they think it’s easy.  Often they have a clever idea, but no real story.  Maybe they want the adoration for a finished work more than they want to... well, finish something.
            This sounds harsh, I know, but I think most of us know someone like this.  Someone who isn’t suffering from writers block, they just like the idea of being a writer more than the reality of being a writer.  Because the reality is that this isn’t easy—it’s a lot of work.  Some people just aren’t cut out for it.
            And look, if that’s you... this is a good thing.  Personally, if this isn’t what I’m made for, I’d rather know sooner than later.  Maybe I love writing as a recreational thing, but I’m just not geared to do it professionally.  That’s how I am with cooking.  And drawing.  And cosplay.  And running.  I like it, I have some rough talent for it, but I freely admit I’m not mentally wired to do it as more than a pastime.  If I hit a rough patch... well, I just shift to something else.
            Like some folks do with writing.
            Y’see, Timmy, if you ask me, writer’s block is really just a big, catch-all name we throw over other problems.  Inexperience.  Fear.  Lack of interest. It’s intimidating when it’s a vague concept, but once we break it down into an actual issue, we can address it and deal with it.
            And beat it.
            Next time, I’d like to talk about the type of story I’m working on.
            Until then... go write.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

My Latest Brilliant Idea

            So, a few weeks ago I got to witness an all-too common event.  The person whining about how “they stole my idea!”  Who they were isn’t important.  Sad truth is, it was a nonsense claim, one we’ve all seen more than a few times.
            Here’s an ugly truth that all half-decent writers know.  Ideas are cheap.  They’re cheap, borderline worthless, because they’re common.  Ridiculously common.  I can say with absolute certainty that I have more ideas for books than I am ever going to be able to write.  Seriously, even if I live to be a hundred, I’m pretty full up.  And know what? I’m going to have more ideas tomorrow. And the day after that.
            Not only that, but a lot of time my ideas will line up with the ideas other people have.  This is called parallel creation, and it happens a lot.  Especially when you consider how many folks come up with ideas they never do anything with.
            Here’s an absolutely true story.  Throughout 2008 and 2009, I placed in a few screenplay contests with a script I wrote called Reality Check.  It was about the crew of a retro-style spaceship who slowly come to realize they’re actually characters in a 1950s serial. Eventually, they figure out how to escape into the real world—which turns out to be a far more terrifying and dangerous place than they’re prepared to deal with. Especially when one of their mortal enemies follows them through.
            If this sounds vaguely familiar, it should.  It’s got a lot of the same elements as John Scalzi’s Redshirts, a ridiculously fun book that came out about two years after I won my last contest with Reality Check (if memory serves, I got a free copy of Final Draft for that one). 
            Now, I’m sure some people would go nuts and start shrieking about plagiarism and lawsuits.  Heck, I was dragged into a court case a few years back which was pretty clearly just weak parallel creation, but someone decided to sue over it anyway.  And lost.
            Simple truth is, Scalzi and I have never met (I think we were rushed past each other once at NYCC, but I’m not even sure of that). To the best of my knowledge he’s never been a judge or reader for a screenwriting contest.  I have absolutely no reason to think he ever saw my story.  We’re just two guys about the same age with similar educations, backgrounds, and interests who happened to look at something the same way and both decided to do something with it.  I wrote a screenplay, he wrote a novel.  That’s parallel creation.
            There’s also a funny rule of thumb I heard a while back that I think is, alas, horribly true.  The level of worry someone has about their idea being stolen is usually an inverse ratio to how good that idea actually is.  In other words, people tend to get really paranoid about their bad clichés and tropes being stolen.  That court case I mentioned before?  It was based off some ridiculously common clichés.  I mean, embarrassingly common.  I actually laughed out loud when the lawyer told me they were part of the core basis of the lawsuit.
            Y’see, Timmy, we all have ideas.  And the simple truth is, there’s somebody out there with the same influences, the same education, the same resources as me who’s having the same idea.  Maybe even ten or twenty people.
            Now, let me bring up a related point to keep in mind about ideas. In fact, here’s another story.  Genders, genres, and other facts have been changed (or maybe not) to protect the semi-innocent...
            I was at a convention a while back and one of the other attending authors offered me a copy of her book.  My to-read list is so huge I generally don’t accept such offers, but she was insistent so I said sure.  And then it slowly worked its way through my to-read pile until it was at the top.
            Said book was a fantasy novel that was aiming for a Game of Thrones-type feel.  It was very big on swordfighting.  Sword vs. sword, sword vs. axe,  sword vs. two swords, sword vs. sword and a dagger... 
            It just went on and on like this.  Every fifth or sixth page had a sword fight. Or a flashback to a sword fight.  Or someone talking about what they were going to do to someone else in an upcoming sword fight.
            And every battle ended bloody.  No mercy in this world.  Everyone either loses a head or an arm or gets impaled.  Sometimes all three.  Blood and guts sprayed everywhere and got on everyone.  House of a 1000 Corpses looked clean and sanitized compared to this book.
            Needless to say... it wasn’t that good.  There were several places where the book bordered on awful.  I read about fifty pages and skimmed the rest.  More sword fights.  More blood.  A few beatings.  The non-stop action wasn’t the only issue, alas, but it was the one that matters for today.
            Y’see, some of these battles were actually kind of clever.  They did things I hadn’t seen before in books or on screen. The way they approached a character or their training.  Some of the ways the fights went.  How some of them were described.
            But it’s not enough just to be original.  My book needs to be coherent, both in plot and in structure.  It needs to have flow.  These are the things that tie my ideas together and turn them into a story.
            I’ve mentioned before that ideas are rarely more than plot points, and a pile of plot points is not the same thing as a plot.  No matter how clever my idea is, it’s not going to automatically make my story into a good story.  Especially if... well, I don’t have a story.  And an idea without a story is...
            Well, it’s borderline worthless.
            Next time, I’d like to put a few thoughts on the block.
            Until then... go write.