Thursday, May 7, 2009

A Few Times Around the Block

This week, I wanted to discuss something I’m sure nobody wants to hear about. No, not about the test results or that it looks like Chuck is being cancelled by those idiots at NBC. What I wanted to talk about is an affliction more deadly than Ebola and swine flu combined.

Well... sort of. Not really. It just feels that way a lot of the time.

I have to be honest. I don’t really believe in writer’s block. Oh, I believe someone can have trouble finding the right words and phrasing and it can trip them up for a minute. Or that they found too many good sentences and have written themselves into a corner. That happens. It’s happened to me several times.

But, really... that someone could get so stuck that they can’t write anything? Nothing at all? Any writer who comes to an honest-to-God dead halt when they hit a problem is a bit more of a poser than they’d probably like to admit.

Sci-fi legend Isaac Asimov never suffered from writer’s block. Neither has prolific author Piers Anthony. Stephen King got hit by a high-speed van, hovered near death for a few days, and a few weeks after he could move had his wife set up a desk and his laptop computer for him. The screenwriting team of Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman have three movies coming out this summer, right after their new series Fringe. Almost all of them were written in one six month period.

Y’see, Timmy, one of the biggest things that stops folks from writing, in my opinion, is just fear. Plain old fear. To be honest, I think it’s the only reason someone can’t pick up a pen or set their hands to the keyboard and put out something.

Now, a lot of folks like to toss around terms like inspiration, craft, and my all-time favorite, ART, as reasons they can’t write. And in all fairness, there does need to be an idea that’s compelling you. There is more to writing than banging your fingers on the keyboard to form phonetically-spelled words. And even I’ll admit to there being a chance that your writing could be labeled art by the high-fallutin’ folks at the New Yorker. But none of these should have any bearing on your ability to write.

As a writer, you are your own boss (unless you’re working on a television series in a writer’s room). Can you imagine walking into your day job and telling your supervisor “Actually, Dot, I’m not sure I’m ready to work today. It’s just... it’s not there for me, y’know?” It wouldn’t fly at the Buy More, so why should it at your desk?

Now, this is going to be one of those tips that sounds incredibly stupid, but that’s because it’s so simple and straightforward most people don’t see the forest for the trees, so to speak.

The easiest way to never get writer’s block?

Don’t stop writing.

Told you it’d sound stupid. But it’s true. You can’t have writer’s block if you’ve always got words pouring out of you. It isn’t something that happens when you’re writing, it’s something that happens when you’ve stopped writing.

So, with that in mind, here’s a few ways you can keep the words flowing and never stop writing.

Why so serious? One thing I know can make people freeze is the sheer thought that they are writing. This is that big fear I was just talking about. They are partaking in the same art as Shakespeare and Dickens, Steinbeck and Hemingway, Hitchcock and Serling.. How could someone not approach this with the gravity it truly deserves? How could they risk putting down a single word that isn’t gold-gilt and ready to head off to the publisher so it can change the lives of millions?

Easy. Just remember most of them aren’t. We all get a first draft, and often a second and third, too. Way back at the dawn of the ranty blog, I talked about finding a place or a format you can write in that takes all the pressure off you. For some folks it’s writing in longhand. Some use a different word processing program—or a different computer altogether. Just remember, the majority of the words you write will never see print, so don’t stress that they’re not flawless.

Move on. This is another suggestion you’ve probably heard before. Have more than one project going at a time. It also helps if they’re all a bit different, in terms of genre, format, and so on. If you get stuck on script A, you can switch over to short story B or tell-all book C. At any given time I’m juggling screenwriter interviews and articles for the magazine, the ranty blog here, and whatever fiction projects of my own I’m working on.

Prime the pump. If you need to start writing, just start. Write anything. Type out a list of your pets. Favorite books. Favorite Christmas presents. People you’ve slept with. People you wish you’d slept with. Just get the words flowing, and then start tossing in some verbs and adjectives. Go with stream of consciousness or random fragments or quotes you’ve been meaning to jot down for other projects.

After fifteen or twenty minutes of this, you’ll probably find you’re writing coherent, consecutive sentences. Even if they don’t have anything to do with your current project—or any of your side projects—they’ve still gotten that part of your brain up and running for the real work of the day.

Reload! Sometimes the reason you’re not moving forward is because you’re out of gas. Read a book or watch a movie. Not one of your favorites, but something new. Get some fresh words and ideas and images into your head. Once they start swirling around in there, they might find that starting point you were looking for—or maybe even an all-new one.

Quit while you’re ahead. No, it’s not as harsh as it sounds. Simply put, if you feel like you’ve five or six pages of writing to get out today, only do four. If you know where the rest of this page is going, stop after the first paragraph.

What you’re doing is giving yourself an easy starting place tomorrow. There are few things more intimidating than sitting down with no idea what to write, so this way you’ve got that last page or so from last night to start with. Like the tip above, once you’re going it’s a lot easier to keep going.

And that’s that. Five ways to keep writing.

Do they all work for me? Nope. To be honest, one of these methods I’ve had spotty luck with and another has never worked for me at all, but I know folks who get by fine with it. That’s the whole point of the ranty blog’s golden rule. Please feel free to toss out any of your own, as well. I know I’m always happy to have a few spares on hand.

On which note, we should all get back to writing. Next week I want to go back to my roots and talk about some sci-fi/ fantasy stuff. We’re long overdue for some hardcore geekery here.

But until then, go write.


7 comments:

  1. I hope you don't mind me becoming a regular around here. I find your thoughts helpful.

    Sometimes I feel like there might be something to add.

    Perhaps we should be afraid. Very afraid. Not of sharing the stage with Shakespeare, but of being naked. A body of work is a body, after all. Got writer's block? Maybe you are afraid of being seen. Because if you expect to publish your very best (And why would you ever want to do less than that?) you better be ready to show everyone your heart and your soul and the quality of your mind.

    Don't want to do that? Then keep your writing to yourself. Or find some other hobby. If you really have entertainments for the masses or wisdom for the ages, you won't be blocked.

    In my opinion.

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  2. The biggie that I struggle with (in addition to your list): the sensations of blood draining from skull and stomach knotting because I just became deathly afraid (justified or not) that my story isn't going anywhere and it's just a bunch of people running around doing things.

    The only remedies I've found are to review/tweak my outline, or slip into denial and assure myself that I'll fix it in D2.

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  3. Noting that fear is the biggest damnation of a writer is correct, at least in my unhumble opinion. Fear of failure can make anyone twitch, or the fear of looking stupid, fear of being laughed at, or fear that none of it matters. You bleed everything you got on the pages and no one cares. That's hard to not be frustrated about, and it's very difficult to think about that and still be motivated to make the words.

    If I worry about that, my writing becomes much less fun and interesting, especially to me. And I've learned that if it isn't entertaining me as the writer, it's not going to entertain anyone else either!

    Many thanks for reaffirming what I've been trying to logic out when it comes to beating the block. No worries; let's write!

    Btw, an old friend of yours directed me to your blog because I was having block problems a month or two ago. I'm happy she did and hope you don't mind my commenting!

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  4. Frank--a very valid point. Most of the ranty blog is me making the assumption that if someone's here they're at least 3/4-serious about writing, but there's probably a post somewhere about the folks who only want to succeed on their terms and nothing else.

    Jeremy-- heck, that kind of fear's normal. Plus, even if your characters are "just" running around doing things, that's still more than half the stories I see on a regular basis...

    Chanpuppy-- if I didn't want comments they'd be shut off. Thanks for bumping the readership up to nine people. ;)

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  5. Virtual,

    Doesn't this post, emphasizing quantity of writing, perhaps even over quality, conflict with your criticism about the folks who "finish" one piece and then move on to another? Isn't "moving on" or "priming the pump" the working equivalent of submitting 12screenplays to the same contest?

    I know writing is a complicated thing. Sometimes it doesn't all add up. But these seem in conflict to me. Thanks.

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  6. Hullo, Anon. Just happened to glance back and see your comment here...

    Actually, there isn't a conflict at all. The point of these various tips/exercises is not to produce gold, it's to keep you writing and avoid getting blocked. Huge difference.

    If I'm stuck on A, I "move on" to B. I don't give up on A, because I have editors who will get mad at me and give that nice paying assignment to other writers. But switching to B keeps me writing so I don't stare at A for minutes/ hours/ days wondering how to solve this particular knot. It's a gross analogy, but it's like keeping a child distracted so they don't pick at a scab and make the healing process take thrice as long.

    The same thing holds for "priming the pump." If you look at the examples I gave, I don't think anyone's assuming you should write out that list of favorite Christmas presents or people you've slept with and then send it off the The New Yorker (well, unless maybe you've slept with a lot of really famous people). It's just a method for warming up the writing muscles, so to speak.

    As the very first tip says, any writer worth their salt is going to put out a lot of stuff that is never, ever going to be seen by anyone. First drafts, random thoughts and phrases, rough character sketches or story ideas-- and stuff they did just so they didn't stare at a blank page. It's only the rookies who assume every single word they set down should be sent off to a publisher, producer, or contest.

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  7. I've been reading through your archives, and while I love them, this is the first time I've felt compelled to comment.

    I'm with you 100%, Stranger. I don't see any conflict whatsoever. At my most ridiculous, I may have 3-5 projects going simultaneously, and whichever one wants to be written is the one that gets worked on. Once I feel I've gotten it to a "finished draft" stage, however, it tends to get more special attention.

    Also wanted to say thank you for all of the tips. I had been stuck for a long time by a variety of situations in life, and hadn't found the time to do any work for much longer than I was happy with. When I finally DID sit down to pick it back up, I was frozen.

    I happened to have found your blog, at that point, and the tip about the legal pad and blue ink did it for me. Not "finding my safe zone", literally a yellow legal pad and a blue pen. I just started writing stream of consciousness crap on one pad, and before I knew it, I had switched to another pad and knocked out 9 full pages of a story draft. Thank you so much!

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