Tag Archives: writer’s block

Three Posts, Four Days, and Infinite Doubt

When I reopened this blog, so to speak, I made a decision that I would post four times a month, no matter what. If I could, I would post more, but this would be my minimal goal. I’ve stuck to that pretty well… up until this month. September has been rough. After a two week break I’m back working at my school, and the county’s hours have shifted so I have even less time home in the evenings. I also have had trips and visits I couldn’t put off so many weekends, and my writing time has mostly been focused on my current project. Somehow it’s almost October and I’ve only written one post.

Fear ambushed me, and I tried to outrun it.

No worries, I thought. I always have four or five ongoing drafts. Usually I have more post ideas than I have time to write, so I’ll just polish three of them up and loose them out into the world.

No good. I have already posted all but my most difficult ones; the ones where I have something I really want to say, but am struggling to make it come out right. The gap between what they were and what I wanted them to be was too great for a single week.

I thought I’d watch another episode of Veggie Tales and do a quick review. Next on the list is Esther. Perfect, I thought. A few days later, I’m almost a thousand words in and nowhere close to done. This may be a two-parter. Not in a good sense, as in “yay I have two pieces to write!” In a bad “this will take many drafts and days to get right” sense. Two parters often take two or three times as long as writing two separate posts.

Also, as I’m thinking through these strategies, I realize that I now have less than a week, because this weekend includes a trip to visit my brother who, well, I think the word “estranged” was invented for cases like these. Hopefully it will end in happy connection and reconciliation… I’m not getting my hopes up. My brother is far too good at being the superficial gentleman and then disappearing. In any case, I don’t anticipate having any stress-free time for focused, quality writing over the weekend, which leaves me with four days to meet my goal.

Why does it matter? Can I say “Oh well, this was a weird month,” and let myself go?

My answer is no, because I’m serious about this. Some people work well with flexibility, I work best with concrete goals and plans. We often think that our emotions guide our actions, but just as often it is the other way around. I believe that this blog will help my writing career take off, if I am persistent with it. If I stick to my goals, I will be able to maintain my persistence and focus, but if I abandon my goals, that focus will fade away. If excuses are all right now they will be all right next month, and the next. This month feels like the beginning of losing everything I want for myself.

The other reason is that I have something to prove to myself. I’ve hinted a few times at a big project I have been working on. I’ve written ten short stories, which I am currently polishing, and collectively they will make one long story. I’m going to publish them serially, for free, once a week like a television show. Then I’ll take a break but come back soon with the next “season.” My big fear with this is the worry that, once I start, I won’t be able to keep it up. As with this blog, I know the key to success in this project will be persistence.

Everyone struggles with doubts in who they are and what they can do. We can give ourselves all the pep talks we want, but doubt is liquid. It finds the smallest cracks to slip through, and once inside, it takes the shape of its container. Whatever you care about, doubt will find a way to fill it up, because it’s not the amount of confidence or preparation or skill you have. It’s that doubt is a part of our nature, perhaps a part of our common sense; our awareness of how little is actually in our control and how limited our perceptions really are. The only defenses against doubt, I’ve found, are temporary talismans. This is one of mine; hitting the big blue publish button, ignoring the little voices that ask me if a post is really good enough. As long as I do this, the doubts will not come true. I will be a paid, self-supporting author someday, so long as I do this.

Well, one of the perks of being a writer is that any unpleasant moment can be turned into fodder for a new piece of writing.

There. Now it’s just two more posts. Let’s see if I can do this.

Balancing Writing, Criticism and Social Responsibility

I’m still working on the next part of the Stockholm Syndrome series, but I’ve had something of a rough week and that series is too important to me to do half assed. So here are some rambling thoughts on one of my favorite issues.

Recently I was reading a very vitriolic criticism of a popular author, who I personally like. Now, I’m not writing this to defend him. In fact, I will not name him, because I don’t want to distract myself from the point that I am about to make. I’m mentioning this because the criticisms were mostly of the fact that his female characters suffered. The assumption was that if they suffered, it was because he was misogynist. I couldn’t agree with that. If a trope such as Women in Refrigerators had been in effect, or they had suffered primarily so a man could rescue them, I would see the critic’s point, but neither applied. In fact, one of the things I appreciate about the writer is how his female characters usually suffer as part of an arc where they take action to regain their own agency.

The critic didn’t seem to realize that part of good characterization is letting your characters suffer. Suffering drives character arcs. It can add depth and reader sympathy. In fact, if I don’t make my characters suffer, its a good sign that I’m not actually very invested in them.

This lead me to thinking about an issue that I think is common to writers who want to do a better job writing diversity, or even addressing social issues in any form. On the one hand, you want to listen to criticism in order to do this properly. There are actions that seem like good ideas until you look closely at them (see the entire Magical Negro trope). Often pride will blind writers from taking an honest look at their work.

On the other hand, sometimes the critics haven’t thought hard enough about their own criticisms. I remember a conversation I had with my ex when he flat out admitted that for  him, finding the problematic element of a story and ranting about it on Tumblr was a game for him. It was about being able to hold that problematic element over his head and declare that he had won, which made me very angry. Criticism shouldn’t be about an ego trip. It should be productive and of benefit to both fans and writers.

So how do you know whether you need to listen to a criticism or not? How do you know whether you need to call someone out on a something or not? I’ve thought about this issue for a long time, and the only conclusion that I’ve come to is that you can’t. Not with absolute certainty. You might ignore somebody who has a good point. You might bend over backwards to change for somebody who is wrong. I myself could be completely wrong in my criticism of that critic’s criticism. I am not, last I checked, infallible.

There are a few things I think can be done to improve your chances of being productive. First, you can check your ego. Don’t write for praise, don’t tear somebody else down to elevate your own standing, and don’t let yourself forget that you are a constant work in progress. If you can’t separate your writing from yourself, it increases the odds that you will either ignore criticism because it is uncomfortable, or accept it too readily because you want everyone’s pat on the back. Second, you can make it a point to expose yourself to multiple points of view, even ones you think you already disagree with. If you get comfortable listening to people with wildly different perspectives, you can make yourself less likely to reject a valid point just because it comes from a field you don’t like, or accept a poor one just because it comes from someone you like to think of as “one of my people.” Third, you can study critical thinking in general. Take a class, read a book on logic and rhetoric, practice taking off your emotional glasses and just thinking objectively.

If I may be tautological, I think the best you can do is to do your best. Odds are, you will not create the unimpeachable work, free of problematic tropes and destined to end racism, sexism and all the isms. As my boyfriend likes to say, don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Write what’s in your heart, think long and hard about whether what you’re saying is really what you want to say, and be ready for the possibility that someday you will look back, smack your forehead and say “what was I thinking?” It happens to everybody.

Novel-vember; Making Your Own Clay

Happy November, writers, aspiring writers, and particularly participants of NaNoWriMo. For those who haven’t heard of it, NaNo is a month-long challenge to write 50,000 words in a month. Technically, the challenge is to write a novel, but people use it for plays, scripts, short story collections, non-fiction, therapeutic journaling and any other sort of writing imaginable. It’s often called a competition, but it’s really only a competition with yourself. Everyone who successfully writes 50,000 words wins.

There is some controversy over whether or not NaNo is a good thing, as some people think that training people to write quickly takes away from their ability to write well. I don’t agree at all.  Most writers work in three steps; pre-writing, drafting, and editing. For some, pre-writing or editing are abbreviated steps, but no writer can avoid the drafting stage. If somebody had figured out a way to do it, we all would, because drafting is terrifying. It is the moment when the perfect, beautiful message you had in your head turns into reality, and that reality is never, ever as good as you thought it would be. Which is entirely all right, because the draft isn’t the book.

All art comes in three steps. First, the artist comes up with some idea, a message or aesthetic experience that they want to convey to an audience, along with a sense of how they will achieve that in a unique or interesting way. Second, they procure unformed materials that they can turn into their work of art. Third, they make the materials into the art. Now, for most artists, the second step is the easiest. Dancers are born with their bodies. Singers have their voices. Musicians have their instruments. Paint, canvas, clay, wood, yarn, fabric, beads, and most other supplies can be bought at a craft store. Writers don’t start with any materials, just blank screen, or blank paper, and a conspicuous absence of art. They have to do the bulk of their work in step two, creating their medium from nothing.

They shouldn’t be frustrated, any more than a sculptor is frustrated when they come home from the store and see that all they have to show for the trip is a lump of formless clay. On the other hand, the sculptor only had to take a trip to a store. They can get right to the fun process of editing the clay into what they want. By the time a writer has gotten to the point where they can even begin editing, they have worked for months, sometimes even years. To go through that much work, and only have formless clay to show for it, leaves the writer feeling like they might not have accomplished anything at all.

NaNoWriMo works well for me because it reminds me that a high word count is, in and of itself, an accomplishment. It also helped me get into the habit of writing large chunks every day. Every year I have done it, for several months afterwards I have felt the itch to keep producing words at that level. It was after I started NaNo that I began finishing first drafts of novels and novellas, and not only during November. I stopped giving up on projects halfway through.

So, as is fairly apparent from this post, I’m doing NaNo again this year. I didn’t want to get behind on this blog, though, so I’ve pre-written some posts, all on the theme of writers and the writing process. I’m calling them the Novel-vember posts, because I am a dork.

Best of luck to any fellow NaNo-ers out there. Have fun building your own lump of clay!

Three Types of Writer’s Block

One of my goals is to write a lot, every day. There are many different types of writing that I do; emailing ideas to my friends and my sister, posting on this blog, work on stories I’m drafting, scribbling out ideas I want to shape into stories, and so on. An advantage to this is that when I have a type of writing I don’t want to do, I can shift over to a type of writing I’m more into right now.

A disadvantage is that when I have a type of writing I don’t want to do, it’s really easy to ignore it in favor of a type of writing I’m more into right now.

I’m a big believer in noticing the reasons why I fail to do something I want to do. If I can take care of the root cause of my failings, it seems reasonable to assume I’ll start doing better at the thing itself. In the case of writer’s block, I’ve heard of a lot of advice, which seem to be either helpful or utterly counterproductive, and not in a friendly consistent way. Advice A on Tuesday works like a charm, and then completely falls flat on Thursday. Advice B, which wasn’t cutting it on Monday, is exactly what was needed on Wednesday. Very recently, I came up with a theory that the reason one type of advice might work one day and fail another is that there are three types of writer’s block.

Type one is when you’ve got another thought burning in your head, and when you sit down to write something else that really needs to be finished right now, it’s like trying to talk to a friend across the table in a club where the music has been turned up way too loud. You can’t catch the words that make up your “need to write now” idea. The “want to write now” idea is drowning them out.

It can sometimes help to promise yourself you can write the fun idea once you finish the other work. This is especially effective if you can set a time or word count limit. If you’re really lucky, you can combine the two. My sister used to find connections between the papers she needed to write for college and the topics she was interested in now, so she could slip the writing she wanted to do into the writing she needed to do. However, sometimes the urge to write your fun idea is too much. You might as well try to write while you need to pee. If both of those tactics fail, just indulge yourself. Get the fun words out. At least it’s still practicing your craft, and maybe the words burning in your brain will take you somewhere good.

Type two is when your internal editor won’t shut up. There is something wrong with the words that are coming out the ends of your fingers, and the part of you that knows something is wrong wants you to stop before you completely waste your time on this shit. A lot of writing teachers will tell you that you need to ignore your internal editor, and keep going until you’re ready for the editing process. This is good advice, some of the time. Other times, fixing a problem now, before it grows, will keep the writing fun in the long run.

The trouble with being a writer is that when you start working, you don’t have a clear medium to work with. A painter has a blank surface, and a palette of colors. A sculptor has a lump of clay, or piece of rock or wood. They both know that, at that blank canvas/misshapen lump stage, they don’t have what they want, but that’s okay. They have a crude form they can shape into what they want, and they know the rough parameters they have to work with; whether it’s five square feet of canvas or a whole wall in a cathedral, whether there’s already a sticky out bit of branch that can be carved into an arm or whether they have to whittle the whole thing down before they get a nice arm going. There is a shape they can project their ideas of their final idea onto.

Writers, on the other hand, have the inner idea of what their finished work could be, but nothing to project that idea onto. They won’t have anything like that until after they have hammered out either a first draft, or a very detailed outline. They can discover halfway through writing a short story that the scope of their idea demands, at minimum, a longish novella, or that they are trying to mash two short stories into a three novel trilogy. Before they can create their finished project, they must conjure up their medium from scratch.

Sometimes the internal editor is objecting to a perfectly moldable lump of clay. It sucks, but it’s supposed to suck right now. Other times, it’s trying to tell you that you’re making more work for yourself later. You’re making a little canvas when you need a big canvas. That pointy bit on the wood needs to be longer, or you won’t be able to carve it into a well proportioned arm and your Grecian goddess will look like she has phocomelia. (note to self; write about a diety with phocomelia… maybe based on Hephaestus…) The trick here is not to ignore your internal editor, but to train it. Teach it to recognize when to shut up and when to pipe up. There is no shortcut to doing this. It’s a lifelong process that is the essence of the craft of writing. It’s the reason for writer’s workshops and books on the craft, the purpose of alpha readers and writing groups. Try listening to it one day and see how it goes, try ignoring it the next and see if that works out better. If this was easy, it wouldn’t be nearly as worth doing.

Type three is nearly the inverse of type two. It’s the type that kills you before you even get started. It comes from knowing ahead of time that the gap between your lump of clay and the masterpiece in your head will be massive. It comes from knowing that the world is full of aspiring authors, and many of them are crap. Most of them, in fact, are crap, and who are you to think you’re going to be successful when so many other people are failing?

Well, when you ignore this fear, sit down and write something, you’ve become someone who practiced their craft instead of talking about doing it, so that’s pretty awesome. If you’ve read Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, you know the difference between the masters and the novices is 10,000 hours of practice, so if you’ve been working on your writing for a thousand hours, you’re a whole tenth of the way closer to that than anyone who has only been talking about writing for a thousand hours. So the way to beat this type of writer’s block is do whatever you have to do to sit down and write. Go to a place that puts you in a better writing mood. Tell yourself that after you hit 600 words, you can have cake. Get one of those standing treadmill desks and combine your writing time with your exercise time. Tell this type of writer’s block it is bad, naughty writer’s block, and it will have no fudge today.

On that note, I’m going to go watch some old How I Met Your Mother episodes, as that was my designated reward for ignoring Type Three and finishing this post. Yay me!