I promised myself this book wouldn’t be about busting writing myths. I figured all would be good if I could get people to understand critical voice, fear, and creative voice. But there’s a lot of myths out there about writers and the writing process, many of which are ugly and in fact are deeply held beliefs by many people. I wanted Writing Is Not Work to be helpful to the beginning fiction writer.
Busting myths and breaking apart belief systems, no matter the intentions, is rarely conducive to learning in the early days. I feel it’s enough to get the basics here.
However, there is one particularly deadly myth I need to bust, because everyone going through NaNo will experience this in one form or another.
Before I go further, if you are having difficulty getting to the writing chair, I highly recommend Break Writer’s Block Now! by Jerrold Mundis. It’s a quick read, you can through it with all the writing assignments in an afternoon or two. And you’ll learn a lot of things I’m only scratching the surface of here.
Dealing with writer’s block is another attitude shift, one that everyone can accomplish. By the time you’ve learned this new attitude and made it your own, you’ll no longer need the term writer’s block. Banish the concept from your mind. Give it no power over your art.
Writer’s block is a myth, plain and simple. Like the “men in black” conspiracies, writer’s block has sunk so deep into popular culture nobody gets the joke anymore. If there ever was a joke. Professional writers have no need for writer’s block.
Imagine having “job block”. Oh darn, I can’t come in today boss, I have job block! How would that go over? Same thing with professional writers and storytellers. When your career, your bread and butter, is writing then you have no time or energy for writer’s block.
Don’t Believe Me?
I understand if you don’t believe me. Really, I do. Writing can be so very hard at times. Painful even.
But there’s nothing wrong with your ability to write. Are you having trouble getting started on your writing? Is it writer’s block?
Try this: Get out a piece of paper. Write on the top line I woke up in the middle of the night. Set a timer for fifteen minutes. Now write about what happened when you woke up. Doesn’t matter what you write, if it’s true or not, or even believable. No one is going to read this. Doesn’t need to be good or bad or indifferent. Just write.
I’ll wait while you do this exercise…
Done? Okay. Most people can get 200 to 300 words in fifteen minutes. Some write slower, others faster. Doesn’t matter, because you wrote.
I just proved you didn’t have writer’s block. There’s nothing wrong with your brain’s ability to put words on paper. No mental defect or physiological reason for your previous difficulty with writing. No writer’s block.
There are some afflictions that make writing harder. Depression, anxiety, and addiction come to mind. Mental illness is hell, and if you suffer from a psychological disease, please seek help. Get therapy.
Writer’s block—the inability to write—is not a disease, and only has power if you believe in it. Easier said than done, I know. Especially when there’s also project block.
What Is Project Block?
Something that happens to all writers at some point or another is project block. This is when a project—be it novel or short story—comes to a grinding halt. Many reasons for a project to suddenly slam the brakes, none of them have to do with the mythical writer’s block. Remember that. Nothing is wrong with your ability to produce words.
But it’s okay for a project to be blocked. It happens to all of us. And there’s ways of beating project block, which I’ll discuss. First, what are some causes of this type of block?
Commonly, writers during NaNo will get stuck around the second week. This is a time when word counts commonly are forgotten until the November 20th or so, and sadly many writers give up and drop out altogether. Why the second week?
If you’re hitting the 1,667 daily words goal, around the middle or so of week two is when you’re hitting the one-third area of your book. The so-called “middle” of the novel. This is a very tricky place to be when writing a novel, but not because of any craft or storytelling related issues. I can’t give a satisfying reason for this, but after the first third, all novels lose their energy and freshness for the writer.
Again, this happens to everyone. No one is immune to the one-third spot deathtrap. So don’t feel alone. The characters won’t feel as special and unique, and the story starts feeling slow and dull. I’ll discuss a real simple technique to get past this below.
It’s also possible you’re not ready to write the novel. You might be going along and happy with your progress when suddenly your subconscious says, “Nope. Not happening.”
Only you can figure out if this is the case. I’ve had this issue with my Spare Parts universe, because the relationship between Geraldine Montess and Mortimer Leblanc grew complex… and rather personal. I’ve yet to finish a story with Geri and Mort working together as a team, like they should, solving necromantic crimes. Hasn’t happened because for a long time I wasn’t ready to write about their odd-couple relationship.
Maybe you took a wrong turn in your story. Whether you outline or write into the dark, it’s always possible to head in a wrong direction. Every time this happens, your subconscious will rebel and pout like a two year old. This is tough to recognize when you’re a beginner, because you don’t know what you’re doing wrong (or right, for that matter).
Fear can also a cause of project block. Fear of finishing a story. Of letting other people read a story. Any number of highly personal fears can sneak in and strangle a project.
Those are the top four causes: the one-third point, not ready to write on a given subject, taking a wrong turn in the story, and fear. Now, what do to do about project block?
Tricks for Getting Back to Writing
Here are some hardcore techniques for overcoming project block. I’ll start with the one everybody is going to like.
Take a nap. Sleep on it. But there’s a trick to this. As you fall asleep, tell yourself you’ll figure out the story when you wake up. As you sleep, your subconscious will do the work for you and you’ll be able to approach the novel with a fresh eye.
Write the next sentence. The key to writing a novel is to keep writing the next sentence. What happens next? Write it down. Then write another sentence. Keep doing that until you reach the end. Easier said than done. Trust your voice. Trust the subconscious. And write one more sentence. One after another.
Go back three chapters, or whenever you feel you started grinding to a halt, and delete. This will annoy the NaNo purists, but I don’t care, because it works miracles to free up your mind to play. Cut the last three (or more, if necessary!) chapters of your novel and go in a different direction. Save the cut material in a trash file so you still have the “word count”, but consider it no longer part of the story. Finding a fresh angle will keep the tale from feeling bland and predictable to you.
Get a prompt. Remember what I did in the chapter on barns words? Flip through a dictionary to find a random word, and make that the setting for your next scene. Or use a random story generator to give you ideas. Lots of online generators, as well as dice games and such out there.
Set a timer. Besides nap time, having a timer has probably worked the best for me productivity wise. Set the timer for fifteen minutes or half an hour (or a full hour, but I have a hard sitting still for that long). You can do nothing but write during that time. No checking email, no “research”, no texting, no phone calls. Only writing. Eventually your mind will get so bored, you’ll start making up stories to entertain yourself.
Once the timer is up, take a break. Come back later and set the timer again. Keep repeating until you get to your goal.
Switch projects. Here I go, angering the purists again, but darn it if this doesn’t work. I’m not the typical wrimo, if you haven’t noticed by this point.
Supposedly, Isaac Asimov had multiple typewriters, each set up with a different project. When he got stuck with one book, he’d move to the next typewriter and keep writing. I’ve never been able to confirm this story, to be honest, so I might be confusing Asimov with somebody else. But I like the image.
Asimov knew the most important thing he could do was keep writing. He was among the most prolific authors of the pulp era for a reason.
Be like Asimov! Switching projects is especially important when you’re not ready to write a certain book. I’m known for writing short stories during NaNo. When I do so, I’m often stuck on my novel.
The trick here is to write something completely unrelated to your novel. if you’re writing an epic fantasy, go kick off a mystery short story. Write a different genre, with new characters, a fresh setting, a very different plot problem. Give your mind a break from the project that’s kicking your butt. But keep moving forward. After all, every word counts during November, whether from a novel or whatever.
Remember: writer’s block can’t exist for you. Give the myth no power by changing your attitude. You can have project block. But keep writing.
One more thing, a word of warning. When in a workshop, a write-in, or any gathering of beginner writers, never say aloud that writer’s block is a myth. You won’t make any friends that way, and may end up making enemies. Trust me on that.
But you can subtly correct people. “No, I’m not having writer’s block. My project is blocked though…”
Good luck. And have fun with your storytelling.
Copyright 2015 David Anthony Brown
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