Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Writer's Block

I don't believe in muses.

Do plumbers need to get inspired? Do bartenders ever become blocked and unable to mix drinks? Can mechanical engineers only design a linkage when in the proper mindset?

I feel the same about writers.

Many disagree with me, including several peers of mine who have been blocked. They use words like art and creativity and magic while they mope around in a funk---sometimes lasting for months---until the magic magically returns.

I think they're crazy. Writing doesn't involve magic. It involves putting words down on paper, something most of us have been doing since we were five years old.

But surely creating a story from scratch requires more creativity and inspiration than painting a fence or hosting a talkshow?

Actually, writing a story requires exactly the same skills as hosting a talk show. And thinking that way is a helpful cure for writer's block.

Let's say you're Jerry Springer. You've got a topic like "Which of my Cousins Fathered my Baby?" Plenty of conflict inherent in that premise. As guests, you've got Holly, a cute 17-year-old fifth grade drop out and the mamma to be. Her cousin Elmer, a bad boy who races lawnmowers. Her cousin Zeke, who has loved Holly since puberty, but also has loved Holly's sister, Georgia. Let's also include Georgia on the show, a beautiful southern belle with an eating disorder, and the girl's mother, who is only eleven years older than Holly, and who has also slept with Elmer.

What is Jerry's job? He has to:
  1. Make sure the premise is intriguing.
  2. Make sure the guests have a chance to tell their sides of the story.
  3. Stir up conflict to keep things interesting.
  4. Try to come to some kind of resolution by the show's end.

Coincidentally, that's what writers need to do.

Jerry doesn't need to put words in the mouths of his guests, or put his hands on them to get them to attack each other.

He simply has to sit back and direct the action. And it works. Conflict ensues. Sparks fly. Secrets are revealed. Chairs are thrown.

Instead of thinking of yourself as a magician, waiting for inspiration to allow you the power to write a story, you should think of yourself as a director, watching the action, steering it into the directions you want it to go.

You aren't speaking for the characters. The characters are speaking for themselves. You aren't forcing the conflict. The conflict is happening all on its own.

The writer is simply the conduit for the story. Let the characters write it for you.

Jerry Springer isn't scripted. He has a few vague ideas of what he wants to see, and then runs with it.

Writing should be the same way. Don't worry about making it perfect. Don't fret over every single word. Let the characters speak for themselves, and let the story go wherever it wants to go.

Don't tie your own hands. Instead, ask your characters how they're feeling, what they want, and what they should do next.

If you relax and let things happen, you won't be blocked. In fact, you'll be excited and curious about where your story is heading.

And best of all, it's a helluva lot easier than plumbing.

25 comments:

Anonymous said...

Joe, a month ago I would've agreed with this 100%. Now I only agree with it 92.7%. The reason for the drastic drop? I just wrote my first Mystery story.

The story took a lot more effort on my part to make sure the events and turns lined up and made sense than any story I'd written before. I guess the idea of just running with a vague idea and letting the characters tell the story seems more difficult in this genre.

I know you'll probably disagree with me, and I hope you do. I'd like to hear your thoughts about the difference between writing in a genre that requires a tighter plot as opposed to... say... a Horror story about zombies.

BTW, FMAM took my Mystery story.

guyot said...

I believe in muses.

I don't believe in writer's block.

Most writers I know who write like plumbers (or Jerry Springer) work, well, it shows in their writing.

You can do your job and be a craftsman, and STILL have art and creativity and magic - without wandering in a "blocked" fog, or waiting and waiting until it comes to you.

JA Konrath said...

Congrats on FMAM.

Almost everything I write involves thought and pre-planning. I outline my novels. I plot out mysteries before I begin. Most of the twists and turns were known by me before I put pen to paper.

But my blog post is about writer's block, and how to beat it.

To do that, just let the characters tell you what to do next. You can add complexity while editing, or do more serious structure planning once the dam is broken.

When people write about whatever strikes their fancy, the story is usually crap.

But when you're constipated, crap is welcome.

jamieford said...

I don't believe in writer's block per se, but I do believe in distractions. And stress. And anxiety, and other things that can lead to mental constipation.

I came from a design background, and the same thing applies.

But as a mysterious muse-repellant thing that rolls in and prevents you from working, I think that's an excuse.

E.C. Morgan said...

Years ago as a young reporter who'd been at work a couple weeks I overhead a conversation between another new reporter and the editor.

It went something like this.

Editor: "Where's the story?"
New guy: "I'm trying. I have a little writer's block."
Editor: "Would you like to lose your job?"

Since overhearing that, writer's block hasn't been an issue with me.

Jude Hardin said...

So who was Holly's baby's daddy?

JA Konrath said...

"So who was Holly's baby's daddy?"

Her father, Jeb.

Rob Gregory Browne said...

I have to agree with you, Joe. I've never believed in writer's block.

There have been times, yes, that I'm stuck on a story point, not knowing how to get out of it or which way to turn, but that isn't blockage. It's just process.

Being unable to write for months on end seems to me to be -- shall I say it? -- laziness.

I always tell writers who don't know how to get past their "block" to simply start putting words on paper. They don't have to make sense. Just write whatever comes into your brain.

Sooner or later it will start to come together and, guess what? You'll be writing again.

JD Rhoades said...

Sit down and write. Inspiration will come. If not, well, you can at least look your Significant Other in the eye and say "I worked today."

Mark Terry said...

Well, okay, Joe. I don't, well, I do, well, okay, maybe I kinda, sometimes, maybe agree with you, well, maybe not...

Okay. Truth. I didn't use to believe in writer's block. Do I now? Well, here's what it is for me. My problem comes down to: this is a stupid, noncommercial idea that will never sell, I can't convince myself to continue on. Try this idea, try this idea, try this idea, try this idea...

It didn't use to be that way. Now that I'm getting published, it is. Is that writer's block? Yeah, sort of.

Do I have writer's block where I don't/can't write?

Nope. Stephen King made a comment about writer's block not being unable to write, but perhaps writing crap for a year. Yeah, I can see that.

Also, I think, for me anyway, what I might call writer's block has to do with indecision about how to approach the work. For more on that, go back to my blog and read some of the topics like "I'm not crazy..." where I've beat myself up over point-of-view. In other words, I went with a certain approach to the story and found after about 160 pages that it didn't work the way I wanted it to, so I had to make changes.

Is that writer's block? Well, no, not really. That's just writing.

I agree with Guyot, by the way, more or less. There's craft and there's art and magic, etc. As for my nonfiction, any version of writer's block tends to get solved by deadlines, which I refuse to miss.

Story: Mickey Spillane said he was living on an island somewhere and thought it might be fun to write a story, but every time he tried, he got nowhere. Writer's block. Then his accountant called him and told him the money was getting low. Bingo! All sorts of story ideas and he got right to work.

Problem is, that can work against authors, too, getting paralyzed by the fear of failure. We are, after all, creating something from nothing. We're not machines. Brains don't always function the way we want them toooooooooo......

Best,
Mark Terry

Doolols said...

Writer's block is just an excuse. Yes, Rob, laziness. Distractions. Loss of concentration. Spending too much time reading people's blogs instead of writing, even. This is from people who WANT to write, but can't be arsed.

When I hit a stumbling block in a longer work, I write some very short fiction. A prompted 100 word-er or two gets the juices flowing. We did a sponsored charity flash writing challenge last year. 24 hours. As many works of 250 words (or less). Money for each story we wrote. I wrote 15, and got some great story ideas came out of the single word or phrase prompts.

Nah - writer's block? Poppycock.

HawkOwl said...

Dude, I'm stealing this plot line and writing a novel about it. Just as soon as my muse returns from vacation and the magic goes out of my welding work (ok, welder's assistant) and I develop welder's block.

Except that in my novel, Holly is actually pregnant by fraternal twins. One is her father's baby, the other is her father's gay lover's baby. It later turns out that the father and his boyfriend have the same father.

To guyot: craftsmanship is much more important than art, whether in plumbing or writing.

Barbara W. Klaser said...

I believe in muses.

I believe in writer's block.

I believe in writing through it, or at least doing something else useful while writer's block lasts. I never cease to be amazed at how cleaning the bathroom makes me want to get back to writing as soon as possible.

chefchil said...

I used to be a pipe fitter. Nukes, chemical and oil refineries.
We used to say you only need to know two things to be a plumber:
Shit rolls down hill, and payday's on Friday.
I quit writing for three days earlier this month because I just couldn't seem to make anything work.
Then, I got a rejection for a story I wrote called "No Joy". About some construction hands finding a skull in a trench where they were laying pipe. And how that skull represented something different for each one of them. The editor actually gave me some great comments on my story. Told me he'd like to see a rewrite, and other stories I had.
Changed my world. It's all good again. What does this all mean? Hell if I know. I'm waiting for payday.

Millenia Black said...

I believe in writer's block, even smack-dab in the middle of a story - you simply write through it. Write. Write anything. Write about something you heard on TV, Write about a current event. Just write. Then * poof * the block is written away - hello muse. That's my take.

Dana Y. T. Lin said...

I don't believe in writer's block. I believe that sometimes your characters do something you haven't plotted or outlined so that you're stuck trying to get out of the mess your character put you in. But that isn't writer's block, that's just part of the process.

Jude Hardin said...

Jeb! That son of a bitch owes me money!

Rob said...

I was going to write a response to this post but I have writer's block. Give me a couple months.

Daniel Hatadi said...

Writing is a muscle that needs constant exercise, so that when the muse strikes, the writer is ready to punch her back.

Or something.

Justin R. Buchbinder said...

Joe,

Two things: One... please continue posting on a daily basis! I love your posts, they're beyond fandango.

TWO:
A playwriting teacher of mine from many years back said one thing I haven't forgotten to this day (it was that good) he said (and i quote):

"Writer's Block is complete bullshit. If I slammed a bag with a dollar sign on it, filled with 10 million dollars, in the center of this table and said 'first to write a story gets this money' I bet NONE of you would have writer's block."

And he was right. Needless to say, whenever I feel the whiny "artiste" in me start to kvetch, that 10 million dollar sack comes flying from the heavens, barely missing my keyboard. And, oh, how the words fly out then.

tambo said...

I believe that writer's block is of our own making, in my case from being overwhelmed with shit life keeps throwing - can't deal with the book, have to deal with this - and fear.

But Joe's absolutely right. Throw the tangles on stage and let them fight it out.

The words will come.

Kim H said...

I agree with Rob that what a lot of people call writer's block is really just laziness. But it can also be fear.

I've found that when I stop worrying about whether or not I'm writing crap and I just write, that's when the muse is at her best.

Stacey Cochran said...

Until the last six months, I would have said that Writer's Block simply did not exist to me.

But after eight novels, I've run into the brick wall called: Nothing Gets Published.

Because I write nearly all day every day, my mind has gone through a bizarre kind of depression/hell the past few months.

This was the first time in fifteen years I've ever really felt like giving up. I mean I'm thirty-two years old, I've been a full-time writer most of my adult life, and yet I haven't managed to sell anything professionally.

You really do reach a point where you say "Should I just throw in the towel? Nobody gives a shit about me anyways, and no one will ever publish anything I write."

But if you plant your ass in your chair every day, you manage through. You just have to have self-discipline.

Stacey
www.staceycochran.com

David J. Montgomery said...

Not everyone who writes is good enough to be published. On the other hand, no matter how bad you are, chances are that there is someone even worse who's gotten published.

Ultimately, I think it comes down to how much you want it, and how much you like/dislike the process. If you still find it fulfilling, it's worth persisting. If it makes you miserable, though, you're probably better off trying something else.

Kirkus MacGowan said...

Hey there Joe! Just wanted to say thanks for this post. It is an oldie but a goodie.

I only started writing six months ago but I was paranoid I would develop writer's block at some point. I was a waiter/bartender for about ten years and this post really hit home. I don't know how many times I went to work dreading talking to the guests. I would put on my best smile and pretend I was having the time of my life.

I have already been able to put this attitude into my writing and part of that is due to this post.

I am writing a post today on my blog about writer's block, and I'm linking to this one.

Thanks again!