Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Writer's Block

I’m going to make a pretty bold statement in this post.  I’m going to write about “writer’s block”, that terrible and frightening monster that savages every writer without warning or scrutiny.  Yes, we’ve all succumbed to its evil grasp and found ourselves hopelessly stuck at some point or another, simply unable to write no matter how hard we try.  It’s a terrible thing, this monster, and I am telling you right now that I think it’s a figment of our imagination.

        Writer’s block isn’t real.  There, I said it.  It is not a real thing—or at the very least we shouldn’t treat it like it is.  People refer to writer’s block as though it’s an actual affliction—that the relays and processes in their brain that make words happen have simply stopped functioning properly.  They talk about it as though they were just unfortunate enough to be in the wrong place at the wrong time under the wrong conditions and contracted it as one might catch a true sickness.  They think that the only thing they can do to get through it is to wait for it to pass, possibly whilst banging their heads repeatedly upon their unfinished manuscript.
         But if writer’s block were anything like a real sickness, it would be a symptom rather than the actual disease itself.  Writer’s block as a whole can’t be attributed to one single cause.  If there was a primary one however, it would be “just not knowing what should happen in your story”.

        It’s far too easy to get stuck in your story and call it writer’s block.  The problem is obviously in your mind, yet somehow it takes some of the blame off of you when you give it a name.  Suddenly your writing skills aren’t in question; you’ve simply come down with a bad case of the writer’s block, like anyone can.  But you know what?  There is absolutely nothing between you and figuring out your story other than figuring out your story.  Writing plot is something that you just have to do, and if every time you get stuck you claim you’ve got a problem, then, well… you do have a problem, though it’s not the one you think you’ve got!  Your story could probably use all of that energy you’re spending on brooding over the fact that you’re stuck.
Don't be like Emo Writer.

        Writer’s block isn’t just about story, though.  Some people find themselves suddenly unable to come up with any story or write anything.  And again I say that if this happens the problem lies purely within you.  It may seem like there’s an actual wall blocking your progress—hoo boy, does it ever feel like that sometimes—but there simply isn’t.  People just get in certain frames of mind and can’t seem to escape, and the trick is usually just to break the whole thing by force.  Are you stuck staring at your computer screen for hours on end?  Then go take a walk.  You’ve walked so much that you probably could have gotten across the country if you had stayed in a straight line?  Then you’ve got two options: squeeze out some really bad writing, or move onto something else for a while.

        When you’re stuck it really just comes down to the basic rules for getting a lot of writing done.  If your problem is that you feel like everything is coming out smelling like garbage, then just back up the dumpster and go for it.  If you can’t figure out your story, then you’ve just got to put some serious thinking into it and wait for the right idea to hit you, possibly writing something else to keep your momentum going.  And if you can’t seem to get any words on paper for no discernable reason, then buddy, you’ve just got to slap yourself in the face and write about what you ate for breakfast.  Sometimes stagnation can just cause our minds to clog up with muck (insecurities, stress, repeated thought processes) and we’ve got to flush it out, whether that means changing our surroundings or writing about something that doesn’t matter, just to get the pipes flowing again.

        The point is, when you give writer’s block a name and treat it like an affliction you victimize yourself, ultimately lending it the power it needs to ruin your life.  It’s like a magical monster in a kid’s movie; it only exists if you believe it does.  You have to remember that the words come from your mind and hit the page, and there is nothing in between.  Certain influences can make that more difficult, but in the end you are completely in control.  So much of how our brains work boils down to our frames of mind.  If you think you’re going to be unsuccessful, you probably are.  If you think you’re a bright and pleasant person, you probably are.  If you think you’ve got a problem and that something is stunting your writing ability, well… you get the point.  

I gotta say, I'm liking this whole cartoon thing.

        So forget about writer’s block.  It’s not real.  It’s just you and the pen, and no amount of adversity can change that.    

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Don't Sweat the Small Stuff

Not quite yet... but someday.
So I’ve lectured you on the importance of writing a whole lot, all the time, and pretty much expressed that there’s no way to accomplish that other than buckling down and getting it done—that there’s no better way to do it than to do it.  And while there is no magical formula to getting a lot of writing on the page, there is a mindset you can put yourself in that will make it considerably easier.  For me, the only way that I can get a good amount of work done is to both come to terms with the fact that my first draft is going to be a piece of garbage and not allow myself to get hung up on the small details.

I am not exaggerating when I say that this is one of the most important things that you can do as a writer, right there next to “knowing the written language”.  I probably can’t speak for everyone in the world, but when the average person has a story in their head—knows exactly what’s going to happen and when and with what characters—yet they find themselves stuck after a paragraph, it’s probably because they feel like they’re having a hard time putting what’s in their mind onto the page, or some small sentence or paragraph is tripping them up.

This was my main problem starting out.  I would be trying to describe, let’s say, how red a fire truck was, and having problems with the simple sentence structure.  I would have two thoughts that weren’t complete enough on their own but didn’t sound good stuck together with a semicolon.  I would be trying to explain just how red each part of the truck was, but finding the repeated word redundant and rapidly running out of words like “ruby” and “crimson”.  I would know where I needed to place certain thoughts in order to achieve the proper pacing but have trouble making the whole thing flow.  I would get hung up on this one stupid passage forever, and eventually get discouraged and just leave the computer and go do something else.  Apart from figuring out story details, this was my number one problem in writing; I would come upon a stumbling block and simply not know how to get around it.

Little did I know, there was a very easy solution to this problem.  I remember the very first time I came upon it…

I was going to put a picture of someone tearing
their hair out or something, but this is a lot funnier.
It was a few years ago, and I was working on the book that I am in fact working on right now.  (I don’t suggest leaving a book alone for that long without finishing it, but hey…  It happens.)  It was the first piece of work I had ever turned out that was more than a dozen or so pages long, and the journey so far had been a very rough one.  I had failed two NaNoWriMos with this one book alone and still hadn’t reached the fifty thousand word mark.  And on this particular night I was having one heck of a time with a particular sentence.  I was trying, quite simply, to say that my character went to sleep.  For some reason or another (to this day I’m still not sure why I was having so much trouble) I just couldn’t seem to get it right.  There was just a particular way I wanted it to sound, and I was trying to get some specific idea across.  I struggled with it for what must have been at least fifteen minutes.  I had been on a roll up to that point, and now I was frustrated beyond belief and wanting more than anything to just stop writing and forget about it.

Finally, when it became too much to handle, I stopped.  I didn’t stop writing however, and instead surprised myself with the following sentence:

“He might have said "goodnight" or something like it to Bremin, but the man seemed to have walked off somewhere and soon he WENT SLEEPT.”

I sat back and looked at my funny little sentence.  It wasn’t what I was trying to say, and was a lame bandage to say the least, but in one glorious moment I realized that it didn’t matter in the slightest.  I had been so hung up on this one little detail that I wasted fifteen minutes of good time.  I realized that I had been writing as though someone were going to read it when I was done. 

But you know what?  They’re not!
Original art courtesy of Jack Thomas

When you first write something, it’s what I cleverly like to call a first draft.  It’s so easy to get tripped up while writing your first draft because you want it to be as good a product as you see in your mind, but this is an evil and unhelpful habit that you absolutely have to break if you hope to get anything done.  This of course all stems from that nasty little thing called perfectionism, which is certainly not your friend.

In the words of Anne Lamott:

“Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a [expletive deleted] first draft.”

In Ms. Lamott’s book, “Bird By Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life”, she goes into great detail about the importance of what I’ll call a “crappy first draft”.  In fact, she references that first draft for the better part of the book.  And I couldn’t possibly agree with her more.

On the first draft you should focus on just getting the work out there; you can set up the scenes, churn out the majority of the dialogue, establish the pacing, and just generally get the bulk of it onto the page.  But when it comes down to minor details, I implore you, just forget about them and move on.  If you’re stuck on a sentence for more than a minute, I suggest simply writing down a soulless description of what was supposed to happen and keep on going.  Can’t think of a way to move the action without sounding redundant?  Doesn’t matter; move on.  Can’t think of a proper way to describe the setting?  Who cares.  Can’t think of exactly how a certain character is supposed to look at the moment?  Fuhgeddaboudit!!!  When you reach the end of your story, you’re going to find yourself with a heaping pile of stinky pages that are going to need a whole lot of revising.  But you know what?  That stinky pile is there!  Tell me that you felt better about yourself when you hadn’t written it at all.

I will end this post with two analogies:

A very clear parallel to the art of writing.
 Firstly, writing is like cleaning someone off who’s been covered in mud.  They’re a sopping mess, positively slathered in an inch-thick layer of muck from head to toe.  The thought of getting them completely clean is daunting, but you’ve got to do it.  So how do you start the process?  Do you get behind their ears with Q-tips?  Do you scrape the dirt from under their fingernails?  No!  You get a hose and you spray the crap out of them!  You don’t worry about the finer details until you’ve gotten the bulk of the mud off.  Only then do you get a sponge and start getting the stuff that didn’t come off with the hose, and at the very end you go over the little finishing touches.  (Then you question them about how they got you to clean them off, when they could have done it themselves.)

My second analogy is that writing is a bit like sculpting.  You’re in the ceramics classroom and the teacher has set out big boxes of clay on the table at the center of the room.  To me, trying to write perfectly on the first draft is a bit like if you were to grab all the clay you needed and attempt to sculpt your entire art piece, right there in your hands, before you even put it on your table.  You would fumble with the whole thing, having a hard time nailing the details when you didn’t even have the basic shape down yet.  This is not how you sculpt something.  Instead, you plop all the clay you need down in your workspace and get to molding it vaguely into what you’re trying to achieve.  Then, when it’s finally starting to come together, your hands are free to shape each part slowly and eventually get to work on the little details.

Believe me, the second you allow yourself to say something like “WENT SLEEPT” will be the second you multiply your writing output by a factor of about a million.  And you know what?  Chances are, when you come back to that passage later with a refreshed and practiced mind, you’ll be able to much better articulate what you were originally trying to say.  And if you’re like me, you might even realize that what you were trying to say wasn’t that important at all, and you’ll end up coming up with something even better! 

So just try it.  If you do and you regret the early manuscript you’ve got in front of you, I’ll buy you some fries.

And for anyone looking for a book on writing that will inspire you, I haven’t found a book as wonderful as Bird By Bird.  Anyone who’s ever considered writing about anything on any subject should give this book a read.    

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

He Said She Said

Now that I’ve adequately lectured you on the importance of writing frequently, it’s time for some more practical advice.  This one falls under the “oh my gosh this is so simple and makes my writing sound thirty percent better and why didn’t I ever think of it myself” category.  It’s another one of those things that would go up on the huge “HOW TO WRITE” chart that should be on the wall above my monitor.  But alas, it only just recently came to me.

Yes, it is a book, and yes, you should give in to
my shameless plug and check it out.

I was doing one last edit of The Color of Night.  It was the fourth or fifth time I had read through it for the sole purpose of fixing it up as I go along.  You know, shooting down typos and awkward sentences and the like.  I was having a particularly difficult time with a scene in which Patrick, the main character, was performing a lot of consecutive actions and making a lot of observations, all by himself and therefore without any dialogue.  Now, I’ve always had problems with scenes like this, if only because I end up starting 80% of the sentences with the word “he”, trying to fit in the character’s name wherever it seemed appropriate, just to lighten the load a bit. 

He went over here and picked up the thing.  He looked at it, thinking that it was whatever, then he walked over to the door.  He opened it, and he saw a something.  He stared at it, then he ran over to the such and such.  (Not an exact quote, but it’s basically what it sounded like.)

Do you see how that can be annoying?  But I’ll be darned if sometimes you just can’t seem to get around it!  I was combing through these passages, trying desperately to trim the “he”s wherever I could.  I reshaped sentences and combined others, but in the end I just couldn’t seem to get it to a comfortable level.  Flustered, I turned to the internet.  (Something which I suggest you do often, though that is a subject for another day.)

I don’t remember exactly what I entered into Google, but it was something with the words “writing” and “he”.  A random mess of words, just to see what came up.  And what I found was an article from Fiction Factor, a very neat online writing magazine.  The article is technically about writing in the first person, but its lesson can be applied to third person as well, as in a way, the narrator is still following the thoughts and actions of one person at a time.  The article, titled “Me, Myself and I: Writing First Person Point of View,” gave me some very valuable (and very forehead-slappingly simple) insight regarding my scene:

The scene is from Patrick’s point of view.  If the narrator mentions that something is there, it means that Patrick has seen it.  If it brings up an abstract thought or observation, Patrick is thinking it.

I looked at the scene and realized that a large percentage of my “he”s was coming from “he thought”s and “he saw”s.  And suddenly it was all so clear!  If it’s happening on the page, we don’t always need to know that Patrick is experiencing it, because he very obviously is.  I seized this new knowledge and started blowing away “he”s left and right.  But this came with a very happy side-effect, as well:  Not only did the scene move much more smoothly without the repeated word, but it altogether just felt like a better piece of writing.  I hadn’t even realized just how lame my book had read until I control+f'd my way through all instances of “he thought”, etc.  It added a level of quality and fluidity to my work that I hadn’t even realized was hiding just behind a few words.

My two very best friends.
 Let’s go through some examples, just to drive the point home:

He thought the dog looked very old.


The dog looked very old.

Extraordinarily simple, right?  Yet it’s so very easy to miss, and makes all the difference.  We don’t need to know that he thought this thing; he obviously did, or we wouldn’t be reading it!  Another one:    

He saw that the door was open.


The door was open.

Same thing.  This is so much less cumbersome, and potentially more intense, if that’s what you’re going for.

Now, there are two things to remember when applying this tip.  Firstly, this will probably not be the perfect solution to all of your “he”s and “she”s and “I”s, but it will certainly help.  I will admit to you right now that my book’s still got far too many “he”s for my liking, but it’s much better than it was before.  Eliminating redundancy is something that takes careful planning and crafting of a passage, which itself probably takes years of practice.  The second thing to remember is that not all instances of “he thought” and “he saw” are bad.  Sometimes it’s necessary, depending on what’s going on with the character.  Here are a few examples of appropriate times:

He thought he saw movement, but it was only the shadows playing tricks with his eyes.

This is perfectly fine.  We are trying to convey that the character was under the impression that he saw movement, when in fact he did not. 

He saw something at the end of the hall that sent a chill down his spine.

The first result  when I search Google Images
for "tension", so... there you go.

We could have just as easily said, There was a mega-giant Jerusalem cricket at the end of the hall, and it sent a chill down his spine, but that would have been too straightforward.  By telling the reader that the character saw something shocking before even telling them what it was, we create tension.  For the length of time it takes the reader to get through the sentence, they’re wondering just what it is at the end of the hall.  They’re curious, they’re waiting with bated breath!  The words you write are a linear stream of information, and just as with a movie, we choose what the audience sees and when, creating tension and emotion as it pleases us.

You very easily could have known all of this already, but if you’re like me, this is mind-blowing stuff.  There are so many things to keep in mind that being a new writer is a tough job.  But keep pressing on and learning new things, and slowly it will all come together.

(And please, please, never write a book about a mega-giant Jerusalem cricket, for it would be much, much too horrifying).

Often called the "potato bug", the Jerusalem cricket is the only insect in the genus
Stenopalmatus that can make you pee yourself in utter revulsion and horror.