Writer’s Block: The Brutal Truth

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Every single writer who has been working for longer than a year or two has hit a wall. It’ll often happen at the absolute worst time, too. And there is absolutely nothing I or anyone else can say that will save you from it.

Sure, there are articles scattered across the Tubes of the Internet Machine, books filling half of the self-help section of Barnes and Noble, and everyone from psychics to motivational speakers all insisting that there is a silver bullet for Writer’s Block. The only trouble is that they’re full of crap.

I can’t blame those charlatans for hawking their never-fail cure-all, because that’s what snake oil salesmen do. Their job is to convince you that if you just follow these three easy steps your creative problems will all be solved, and if you have to fork over $29.95, well, that’s a bargain isn’t it?

It’s the same bogus concept that Writing Prompts work with. Apparently, there are thousands of writers out there, all desperately clamoring for ideas and inspiration. Well, truth be told, I don’t think of them as writers in that case. If you need a prompt, if you don’t have what it takes to sit down and put together a story from scratch, then you might as well be filling out Mad Libs.

That isn’t to say that writing prompts don’t have any purpose at all; they can be a fun distraction or exercise. It never hurts to get a little out of your comfort zone and write something that’s totally different for a change. But if you rely on outside sources to get your story ideas… well, you should probably think of a new line of work.

Back on topic.

The truth of the matter is that Writer’s Block doesn’t have a cure, for the same reason that the common cold doesn’tthere are too many different strains to vaccinate against. 

I separate them into three basic types:

1. I have no idea what to write.

This is when you know you need to write something, but you simply cannot come up with an idea that doesn’t put you to sleep or personally offend you. Symptoms include writing several paragraphs and deleting them multiple times, staring at an empty word document for hours, frustrated pacing and hurling of desktop objects, waspish behavior, and crippling self-doubt.

Either you’ve burned through all of your current stock of ideas, or you have so many that you can’t decide on one you’re willing to commit to. As I said in an earlier post, nobody can make an idea for you, so you’re pretty much on your own. My best advice is to step back for a couple of hours and do a repetitive task that doesn’t require your full attention– taking a shower, mowing the lawn, stuffing envelopes, that sort of thing– and hope you get an idea. If you don’t, sorry, but you’re out of luck until you’ve figured out how to fix the problem yourself.

2. I made a huge mistake, and I’m too far in to figure out how to fix it.

Starting to regret having Will murder Mister Treacher a hundred pages ago, aren’t you? It’s hard to let go of a hundred (or twenty, or fifty) pages worth of quality prose and plot development. But how on earth are you going to get to the ending you have planned without Mister Treacher?

But… if you do scrap the hundred pages, what are you going to write to replace them? They had been full of the other characters figuring out that Mister Treacher was murdered by Will! And there was all of that character development that took place around him…

It’s a problem. You’re in a situation where you’re screwed either by letting go of a lot of hard work or shoehorning a crappy exposition dump into the lead-up to the climax.

I have a few pieces of advice here: First, do not resort to a Deux Ex Machina resurrection.  It never works. Ever. It’s lame and trite and your story will suffer for it.

Second, don’t be afraid to be ruthless with yourself. If your story is better served by cutting the pages, then cut the pages.

I once ditched a heart-wrenching hundred and fifty page section from Catalya. It was like lopping off my left hand. But I did it, and the rewrites led to a much better finished product.

Beyond that, there is little I can do for you. I can’t tell you if you should keep the dude dead or if you should rewrite. That’s not up to me. But you need to figure out how to deal with the problem regardless.

3. What the hell happens next?

Probably the worst on this list, at least for me. This is, as you might guess, when you have broken from your outline (or never used one to begin with) and have forged ahead into the creative unknown so far that you can no longer see the shore.

This usually happens when you’ve got a head full of steam one day, when you’ve got a burning idea that must get out. For me, that used to involve pacing around my backyard talking to myself while chain smoking, occasionally dashing back to the laptop on the deck table to tap out a quick few hundred words before resuming my frantic march across the grass. That hasn’t happened to me in a while, and I quit smoking a few years ago, but I’ll be damned if those kinds of days weren’t some of my favorites on this planet.

What I dreaded was what came the day after.

Those creative bursts were wonderful and I wouldn’t trade them for a date with Tiffani Amber Theisson (actually yes I totally would please call me Tiffani), but they inevitably peter out. The downswing was always harsh, for me at least, and the day after the wind was knocked out of my sails was horrendously difficult.

The clarity of vision that comes with a burst of genuine inspiration is difficult to maintain, and eventually I would be faced with half of a brilliant story that I wasn’t sure how to finish. One of the reasons I grab hold of an idea and force it out as quickly as possible is to use as much of that initial burst of inspiration as I can before it’s gone.

Or maybe you just went off your outline too much, or you aren’t sure how to bring two characters or plot points together, or you just don’t know what comes next. 

The first draft of Catalya was a tumultuous attempt for me. It was the first time I had ever tried to do anything like it. I was working full time and going to school full time during the first six months of my work on the manuscript, so I had to make do with writing whenever I had a few minutes to spare. The following May (I began it in November of 2010), events transpired that pushed me to quit my job, and I spent the following six weeks writing more than I ever had in my life. All told, I wrote just under a hundred thousand words between June and half of July, and while they weren’t the best (I made many, many revisions and rewrites), I’ll be damned if they weren’t mine.

But the last two weeks of June were tough for me, because I had this third type of Writer’s Block. I knew it was coming, and I did my best to avoid it, but it came all the same. I knew that a particular character had to die, but, for the life of me, I couldn’t figure out how to do it. The way the character died was important for plot reasons, and before I knew it, I was stuck.

And here is where I tried everything. I found every single piece of Writer’s Block advice that I could track down, and devoured it. I tried to write through it, I tried to leave it alone, I tried to meditate on it, I tried researching different (publicly available and legal to read) M.E. reports to come up with something, anything to kill this character. I bought one of the books for $29.95, which is why I can tell you that they’re full of crap. I followed the steps, and, lo and behold, found no inspiration, no solution to my problem. I read other writers who had always influenced me, Terry Brooks and Terry Goodkind, Stephen King, Poe, hell, I even read some R.A. Salvatore.

Nothing helped.

Finally, after over ten days without writing a thing, I called up a couple of friends, Desirae and Ashley, and asked if they wanted to drive out to Montauk with me to see the Lighthouse. I was ironing a shirt, because apparently that’s the kind of person I was at the time, when I got the idea to go, and it took enough of a hold in me that I thought it was the right call.

So we went on a little adventure, and I told them about my problem (Ashley had helped me immeasurably during the first few months of writing Catalya, and had some background information, so I was especially keen to get her input). They had a couple of ideas here and there, involving everything from a simple car accident to cleaning supply-induced asphyxiation. None of them seemed to fit the situation, and, determined to at least have a good time, I changed the topic of conversation.

If you’ve never been to Montauk Point, I can’t recommend it enough. I’ve been there more times than I can count over the years, and it’s been a recurring source of inspiration for me. It didn’t fail me that day, either.

As you approach the beach from the regular parking lot, there is a set of asphalt stairs leading down to a warren of reedy trails, each set for the shoreline. Right before you enter the mix of trees and high grasses that block the Lighthouse from view, there is an old wooden swinging bench just off to the side. Somewhere around twilight, the three of us ended up there.

The Lighthouse loomed in the distance. The girls sat on the bench, swinging as we talked, and I stood near the trail, facing the swing. The conversation had turned back to ways for my character to die, but I was only listening with half an ear. I had noticed something interesting from where I stood. A tall supporting beam for the swing was planted firmly in the ground, and if I tilted my head one way, I could see the Lighthouse. If I tilted slightly toward the other, the beam obstructed my view. And a crazy thought popped into my head, a really interesting one: what if a Lighthouse could appear and disappear? I couldn’t shake the idea, because I thought it was a good one, but it wasn’t what I needed. One of us, I can’t remember who, mentioned the stairs leading down to the trail, and how badly you would be hurt if you fell all the way to the bottom. My mind somewhere else, I picked up two small stones, stuck them in my pocket, and we left.

I was distracted for the rest of the day, enough that I was speeding through the village on the way back and got pulled over, but that’s a story for another time.

When I got home that day, the idea of the Lighthouse had marinated enough to become a full sentence: There are many different versions of the story, but they all begin the same way: sometimes the Lighthouse is there, and sometimes it isn’t. I sat down at my computer and wrote a prologue for Specter, which I’ve recently dusted off and begun working on again. When I finished the prologue, I was faced with a choice: I could keep writing Catalya, or I could switch to Specter— but I would not write both at the same time. My mind does not work well when I’m maintaining multiple projects of that kind of length.

But then I realized that I had my answer for Catalya, the solution to the Problem of Death: stairs. I just needed a flight of stairs. So I got back to work.

The point of all of this is that the answer to a problem like Writer’s Block won’t always come just because you’re looking for it. For me, it came when I was thinking about a totally different idea, when I was struck by a different kind of inspiration, when I was talking to two good friends and distracted by a quirk of optical perspective. Not only did it give me the answer I was looking for when I wasn’t actively looking for it, it gave me the catalyst for a whole ‘nother thing, a book which will see the light of day if I have anything to say about it.

 

I don’t know what it’ll be for you that solves your problem. It could be a passing comment from a friend, a random thought that pops into your head, or a sudden shift of perspective. There is no silver bullet for Writer’s Block, no formula for inspiration, and no chance of Tiffani Theisson calling me tomorrow night. The only advice I can really give you is to stick with it, and keep your head open enough to recognize the answer when it shows itself, because it will. What separates writers from amateurs is learning to seize the solution that’s given rather than seek the one that isn’t even there.

 

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