I feel like I’m still recovering after Superstars Writing Conference. It’s a lot of input, and from writers who have done it long enough to know what they’re talking about. But the biggest draw is the sense of tribe, which I’ve never seen anywhere else. Next year, they’re capping the number of attendees–the last two years, the conference has really grown. I thought that was a good idea because too big and the feeling of tribe disappears.
This week, I’m tackling a topic that commonly gets two extremes: Memes of pain and suffering and dismissal that it exists.
Hollywood’s behind a lot of the bad image of writer’s block. It amazes me that the stories depicting it are written by, well, writers, who should know better.
The image is this:
A writer, like Magee from NCIS, is trying to write a novel. He uses an old manual Royal Typewriter (which never made sense to me for the character. A tech nerd like that? He’d use the latest technology, not an antique that you can’t get even the ribbons for anymore).
So Magee, or any other fictional film writer, sits at his antique typewriter and cranks the paper into the roller. He types one or two words.
Stops. Looks at what he’s written.
Rips the paper out. Crumples the paper into a ball and hurls it into a trashcan. The trashcan is already full of crumpled paper balls, and there’s more on the carpet.
Then he repeats everything, including the same words he typed in.
Since Hollywood is such a visual medium and looking at a writer writing is well, rather dull, the above image makes it more exciting. The manual typewriter makes noise, from the clack of the keys, to the crank of the carriage return handle, and even the crumpling up of paper. And a trashcan full of crumpled paper? It makes the audience chuckle.
But the images sticks with us as writer’s block. Somehow, it turns into a failed writer who can’t get off page one and finish a book. While there are plenty of people who never finish books, it shows up in a variety of ways:
- They always say they want to write a book but never have time to do it. Writing isn’t that important to them; it’s more about the image.
- They write about three chapters and then lose interest in the story. Critical voice wanders in for this one. Again, not writer’s block. In a past writing group, a man would bring his three chapters in. We’d critique, and be pretty encouraging about seeing more. But if anyone said even the slightest negative comment, like adding more description, he’d toss the three chapters and go on to another story. He was constantly looking for a story that wouldn’t waste his time and wasted plenty of time doing it! Kris Rusch recently talked about people like this: Business Musings: How Writers Fail Part 11: They Want To – Kristine Kathryn Rusch (kriswrites.com)
- The writer gets about halfway, where the story hits the middle. You’ve been in the story for a long time and it stops looking shiny and exciting. New idea for a book comes along, and you abandon the existing one for the now shiny idea. Again, not writer’s block.
The actual Magee image of writer’s block doesn’t exist.
But it’s a fanciful notion because it makes us smile. It also lends itself to some writers imperiously declaring, “There’s no such thing as writer’s block” or “I don’t believe in writer’s block.”
And, effectively dismissing a writer who is legitimately stuck.
There are lots of ways you can be stuck in a writing project. It can include fear (again, read Kris’s blog above on that) and critical voice issues. But I’m going to hit on one that no one talks about.
Just go anywhere and you will tons of writing advice, even from pros. Last year, when I attended Superstars, I sat in on a class on pacing from Jonathan Maberry. He’s a best-selling writer. He also outlines and encouraged the writers attending to outline.
Whereas, Dean Wesley Smith offered his Writing into the Dark class at this year’s Superstars, encouraging writers to not outline.
This is not a soapbox example; I picked it because it’s one every writer has heard of and had experience with. I don’t care if you need to outline or if you’re more like me, where you can’t know anything at all, or if you’re somewhere in the middle. Doesn’t matter. How you get there is your business.
Unless you get stuck.
Being stuck is a common form of writer’s block. Figuring out why can be challenging. Because of the image Hollywood gives us and writers telling us “I don’t believe in writer’s block,” we think there’s something wrong with us.
For me, I thought it was my process. At one point, it was messy and chaotic, and frankly, frustrating. I got stuck, daily, sometimes hourly, and assumed it was a problem in a story.
It was the writing advice. Particularly the pantsing vs. outlining.
If you search for “Pantsing,” you’ll find hundreds of blogs on “pantsing vs. outlining.” They’re always written by an outliner, and probably not one who’s finished a book. They scratch their head in puzzlement over the pantsing, then explain how it works, having never done it themselves. It’s clear they disapprove of the method and then launch into explaining how they outline.
If you’re on message boards, other writers will lecture you to do an outline. It’s wrapped up in a lot of workshops, largely because the teacher is an outliner and doesn’t know how to teach the craft to the pantsers.
This is neither good nor bad. It’s something that simply is.
Where the problem comes in, and why we get stuck, is that we don’t always know what we need to write.
We also think “It works for me, so it’ll work for everyone else”—without understanding the mechanics of why it works for you.
This thinking is common in everything. Over on Asian Efficiency, the men discuss a cluttering trend emerging. Their discussion concludes they find an uncluttered environment works better because it is calming for them. Whereas, being a high-input person, I collect things. Collecting means some form of clutter, because, realistically, it will not look like an Instagram photo of the perfect room.
It’s very stressful for me to be completely decluttered. It’s more calming to have some clutter. (They reason that once you declutter, you’ll see the truth of it. That’s a lot like what outliners tell pantsers).
Everyone is different in how they approach writing.
Take outlining. One person might need to do a deep, 100-page outline. Another writer might do a broad sweep on one page. Still another needs the visual of a storyboard.
Even pantsing isn’t uniform across the board. Some need to know the ending. Others need a few plot points along the way. Some, like me, can’t know anything about the story at all.
These are all different ways we process how to write. But they’re often presented as the “wrong” way to write, depending on who you talk to.
I’ve tried outlining. I succumbed to the pressures of the message boards and dived in. But part of my processing is that I have to puzzle out the story. If I do that in an outline, I’ll never write the story. And I’ve been told by outliners, “No, that’s not true. It doesn’t work that.”
For them. Not for me.
One piece of my process is that I need to think about the next scene or two (especially if they connect). The thinking can be in my head or on the screen (I’ve been using Plottr’s notes feature for that). I may or may not use what I come up with. It’s just the path to get to the written word.
When I tried the “prescribed” way of Writing in the Dark, which was to just start writing, I got stuck. A lot. Writer’s block.
I wrote a short story a week for an entire year. The first six stories worked great because I took some shortcuts to get me over the hump of getting started: I used existing ideas that had been bubbling around in my head or redrafted an existing story. I’m pretty sure the first story I wrote had quite a bit of thinking time on it.
Getting stuck started on the seventh story. No more shortcuts. It was a new story every week. For every story, I redrafted that first scene over and over until something clicked. In hindsight, I was using redrafting to think my way into the story. I always felt like I needed two weeks to write the stories, and if I’d said this, I would have been sneered at by other writers for taking too long.
If you are getting stuck a lot, put your critical voice to work to find the thing that is causing it. Doesn’t have to be a big thing, like creating an outline when you want to just start the story. It can be something small and simple that’s going against how you need to work.
If you’ve discovered anything that everyone recommends that doesn’t work for you, hit reply and post your story about the discovery here.
I love the photo! (I mostly outline non-fiction.)
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Character sketches. I don’t get those at all. Why do I need to know what the name of the character’s first pet was, if that’s not germane to the story?
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H, Peggy. I totally agree. Why waste time on things I will never use?