Literary Corner Cafe

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Writing Tips - Overcoming Writer's Block

Personally, I don’t know one writer, amateur or professional, who doesn’t fear writer’s block, or who doesn’t suffer from it from time to time, to one degree or another. For most of us, it’s just a very normal part of the writing life.

Joyce Carol Oates says she knows the cure for writer's block, and given her prolific output, I guess we need to believe her.

For many writers, especially beginning writers, writer’s block is a mystery. It’s especially mysterious to those writers who plan and outline their stories and novels well ahead of the actual writing. You know where you want to go, so why can’t you get there?

As an editor, I’ve found that writer’s block often stems from two very sources: fear of failure and fear of success.

Some writers make their current writing project their whole world. They worry excessively about a big advance, making the bestseller list, writing subsequent books. No one should do this. Very, very few of the books published, especially from new authors, will garner a large advance or see bestsellerdom. And this shouldn’t be your goal when writing anyway.

People should write because they love writing. They should write because they need to write as much as they need to eat. The journey should be more important than the destination, and as long as the finished product pleases you, and is truly well written, it shouldn’t matter if it pleases anyone else.

Yes, it’s terrific to be recognized for your work, and it’s terrific to be paid well for a job well done, but sadly, in publishing this isn’t the norm. Too many writers identify themselves far too closely with their work. If the manuscript or book fails, they feel they’ve failed. And this isn’t the case. A well written manuscript may fail to become a book for a great number of reasons, some of them being: the publishing house already has something similar scheduled for publication; the work is too long and therefore too costly for the publishing house to take on at the present time; no one is buying that particular genre right now (try selling a comic crime caper if you’re not an established author).

Conversely, I know authors who fear success. They’re actually afraid their book will be wildly successful and they’ll be thrust into the spotlight and not know what to do. They worry about the pressure of having to live up to their current masterpiece. This could happen, but it’s so rare, it’s irrational for anyone to worry about. Sure, it’s great to dream, but the work has to come before the dreams even have a chance to come true.

Some writers think the words should flow naturally. And once in awhile, they do. But more often than not, it’s difficult to translate what’s in your imagination to words on a page. Writing, more than anything else, is hard, hard work. Mind numbing work. Writers who “wait on the muse,” might just end up waiting forever.

There are some authors, and Dick Francis is one, who say they only write only one draft of their manuscript, but most writers write at least three, and some as many as ten or twelve. Even the most moving and beautiful books and stories often start out “not very good.” First drafts of Pulitzer and Booker winners are often horrendous, at least to their authors. Good writing is almost always rewriting, and then, rewriting yet again.

I’ve known many writers who write excellent first acts only to have their manuscript fall apart in the middle, trailing off into meaningless subplots with little or no focus. Much of the time, when this happens, they simply give up. I think this happens because the writer didn’t plan his work. I have to admit, I’m a great advocate of outlines. I don’t think many books ever make the bestseller list, or even see publication, unless the author makes an outline. How can you get somewhere if you don’t know where you want/need to go?

Now, just because I’m a proponent of outlines doesn’t mean I advocate following them slavishly. I don’t. Many things will change during the actual writing process, usually for the better, and writers have to realize that and remain flexible and open.

While I see far, far more sloppy manuscripts than well written ones, I have known some writers, and I am one, who agonize over every word, every comma, every paragraph they write. It’s not that we think we’re brilliant; it’s just that we know we can do better. Still, the brilliance, if there is to be brilliance, almost always comes during revision, not the first draft. People need to give themselves permission to “just write,” knowing they will clean up any mistakes later. After all, until you have a completed first draft, you can’t go about making it better.

Just as there are some writers who are never satisfied with their work, there are other writers who fall deeply in love with everything they’ve written. These are the writers who rebel against throwing out the many pages of inferior writing that really need to be thrown out if they’re to achieve success. They’re the writers who brush aside the suggestions of an agent or editor, or worse yet, become angry and defensive. When we criticize your work, we’re not criticizing you.

It may be hard to accept, but really, not everyone can write. Oh, anyone can learn to write passably and fairly well, but not everyone can write short stories or novels that are deeply moving and extremely well structured. Not everyone can “capture the moment,” or successfully manage an entire cast of characters and subplots. The ability to write is a talent, but it’s a talent that won’t do anyone much good unless it’s tempered by a mastery of craft.

If you’re a writer, or if you want to write, then “just do it.” Don’t fall in love with your work, but don’t fear making mistakes, either. You don’t have to show anyone the finished product until you’ve written it to your satisfaction. Learn to visualize your scenes. If you can see it, chances are, you can write it.

There’s really nothing mysterious about writer’s block. I think it’s just a fancy name for hard work. It’s hard to string words together so they’re compelling, so people will want to read them, so they’ll go out and pay twenty-five or thirty dollars just for the chance to get lost in the world a stranger’s created. But it does happen. Accept the fact that writing isn’t the glamorous profession you might have thought it to be, but one filled with blood, sweat, tears, and toil. If you do, writer’s block will likely become, if not exactly a thing of the past, then at least something that is much more manageable.


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sevnetus said...

Sounds like you know what you're talking about. Maybe I cannot write a novel, but my friend can. I can "let loose." And I can write about something of the moment. I can write a blog; see mine.