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Immutable Laws of Writing #3: Writer’s Block Does Not Exist

Writer’s block does not exist.

That might seem harsh, especially if you’ve experienced writer’s block. Let me clarify: I acknowledge that we can feel blocked, and that many writers call this feeling “writer’s block.” Immutable Law of Writing #3 contends that there is no ailment, no virus, no universal diagnosable condition called writer’s block. “Writer’s block” is a bogeyman. When we’re blocked, it’s something specific masquerading as a force we can’t control.

So, what does block us? And what can we do about it?

1. You’re blocked because the writing feels hard.

Can’t sugarcoat this: writing is hard, or can be. Just because the words sometimes (or even usually) flow freely doesn’t mean you should expect that all the time. It’s a craft, not magic. If you’re blocked, ask: is it just that the writing is hard, and I’m avoiding it because it’s hard?

One solution: give yourself a small quota—say, 250 words—and write until you get there. Remind yourself, say it out loud: writing is hard some days. If you don’t write on those days, you soon won’t be a writer at all.

Another solution: write something else. Write something you want to write. If there’s something nagging at you, a story that won’t stay out of your head, work on that. Come back later to the work that got you stuck, when you’re refreshed.

2. You’re blocked because you don’t know what’s next.

The question here is: Why don’t I know what’s next?

It could be that you’re a pantser—a seat-of-the-pants writer, as dubbed by Larry Brooks—who lets the story emerge organically. One solution is to try some pre-planning. You don’t need to become a full-out outliner, but do spend some time imagining the story forward. At the very least, if writing a novel especially, identify the primary substructure. Most use this one:

  • The Setup (establishing the stakes)
  • The Inciting Incident (sets the story in motion)
  • Plot Point 1 (the story direction changes)
  • Midpoint (something important happens)
  • Plot Point 2 (a twist that sends the story toward its conclusion)
  • Resolution (how it all works out)

Once you have a general destination, you’ll get moving again. They don’t have to be good words. As a devoted pantser, you already know that most your words are going to get edited or edited out.

3. You’re blocked because you are out of ideas.

Just as I don’t believe in writer’s block, I don’t believe that writers ever run out of ideas.

Generally the opposite is true: we have so many story ideas that the trouble is deciding which one to work on. If that’s the case, try this: make a list of your current story ideas. For each, write a descriptive paragraph explaining what it’s about. (Alternately, do this out loud.) The one you wrote or spoke the most about is likely the one you have the most energy for. Follow the energy.

But let’s say it is possible to be out of ideas. Then what?

In a story-in-progress, add a new and unexpected character, or introduce some kind of trouble, and see how your characters respond.

If starting a new story and not knowing where to begin, start with the universal story frame:

  • Someone
  • Wants something badly
  • But there are obstacles
  • Which are overcome, or not
  • And someone is changed, or not

Identify a someone, something they want, and why they can’t have it. Try making lists on paper or using a mind map. Select one and start telling their story.

If you are writing a short story, use this basic setup: create two damaged people and bang them together. That is, name and describe them, then put them in a situation where something has changed (often phrased as: what’s different about today?).

4. You’re blocked because you’re not inspired.

Your muse, for reasons unexplained—the muse never explains—has vanished. Let you down. Gone on vacation. Or worse: is visiting the rival writer down the street! Oh, disloyal muse!

Seriously: you’ll wait a long time waiting for inspiration to arrive. Go and seek it out. Walk in the woods. Go to a movie. Read your favorite book, or a new one. Take a writing class. All of these can help. But the best solution is to put your behind in your writing chair. If you sit down to write every day between 9 and 11 a.m, say, you’ll find that that’s when the muse tends to appear.

5. You’re blocked but you don’t know why. It’s any and all of these or something else.

The one final fool-proof method is to lower your standards.

Immutable Law #1 says the words aren’t going to write themselves. You have to write them. It doesn’t matter if they’re any good. We have to edit later anyway. So give yourself permission to write badly. You can even choose it: “I’m going to write badly today!” Write terrible words that you will be ashamed of later. It’s liberating, really.

And once you start writing, Immutable Law #2 kicks in: objects in motion tend to stay in motion.

In the end, blockages happen to all of us. Sometimes, your fingers hover over the keys and nothing happens. How easy it is, when that happens, to get up and say, “I have writer’s block.” How easy it is to blame the universe and the muses. Next time, see if you can identify why you’re blocked, and then you’ll know what to do.

And you can stop believing in writer’s block. For good.

Immutable Laws of Writing #2: An object in motion stays in motion

An object in motion stays in motion (and an object at rest stays at rest).

Sir Isaac Newton said this first, and not about writing. Still, writing is a natural act, possibly a force of nature, and is just as subject to physics as everything else. Applied to your writing, the “object” in question is the work you are producing. (Be it understood that we’re not talking here about writing as the mere act of putting words on paper; rather, we’re talking about writing that is becoming a finished work.) Applied to a work in progress, then: your writing both requires and benefits from momentum. Let’s break out those two key bits.

Requires momentum. Any piece of writing of any substantive length—short story, novella, novel, screenplay, stage play, epic poem, etc.—cannot continue forward unless you work on it regularly. Long works have many threads and themes, schemes and schemas, and other moving parts that need to be fresh in mind while writing. This is not to say you can’t take a break from a work; breaks can be good for your writing. But just try to finish a novel that you write in fits and starts, or even one that you write regularly but overly-spaced, such as writing it only on the weekends. It’s hard enough without adding that complexity.

Benefits from momentum. When you are working on a project regularly and with momentum on your side, your writing is likely to be more efficient and perhaps also better. Consider: the longer it has been since you last worked on your project, the longer it will take to: a) bring all the components back into your head; b) have a good sense of what to write next; and c) maintain all the voices: yours, and those of your characters. When your work has momentum, you slip easily between characters, you have your story threads and themes in mind, you know what has and has not transpired, and you know—this is important—what to write next.

Robert Heinlein provided these and some other rules of writing. The emphases are his:

1. You must write.
2. You must finish what you start.

My Immutable Law of Writing #1 (“the words aren’t going to write themselves”) echoes RH’s first rule. My second supports his second: if you mean to finish, you must finish. And you do this by respecting (or, if you prefer, taking advantage of) the laws of physics.

Here are three pieces of practical advice for keeping momentum.

1. Write something you love. 

Don’t select a writing project because you think it’s trendy or easy to get published or will make you tons of cash. Write a story that you truly want to tell. That love will feed your momentum. You will write because you have to see how it comes out. (This will also sustain you later when you are in the eighth round of revisions and you hate the book more than you have ever hated anything.)

2. Make the forces (even the negative ones) work for you.

Fully expressed, Newton’s First Law is: “An object at rest stays at rest and an object in motion stays in motion with the same speed and in the same direction unless acted upon by an unbalanced force” (italics mine).* There are throughout your non-writing world “unbalanced forces” that conspire against you and your writing, even if (usually) unintentionally, almost all of which come down to commitments that require your time: jobs, partners, children, sleep, lawns that insist on growing, and so on. How might you make these forces work in support of your writing?

Perhaps: Use lawn mowing time as thinking time, for working out plot points and other story details; car pool to work so that you can write while someone else drives; enlist your family members as co-conspirators, to help by doing research or editing; establish family creative time: while you write, others practice their instruments, or blog, or fold origami, or what have you; get up 30 minutes earlier (you won’t miss it) and write 500 words while there are no distractions; or quit something that you’ve been meaning to quit, something that takes up your time, transferring that time to your writing.

3. Allow your self occasional breaks from the project. 

Short ones. Take Sunday off, maybe, but then back to it on Monday. Can’t fight physics, might as well make it work on your behalf.

——

http://www.physicsclassroom.com/class/newtlaws/Lesson-1/Newton-s-First-Law

Immutable Laws of Writing #1: The words will not write themselves

The words are not going to write themselves.

This seems obvious, no? Seems as if it doesn’t need to be said, yes? And yet, here it is, for your consumption, taking a prominent place as Immutable Law of Writing #1. Here’s the full story.

I know many writers who do not write. I think what those people mean when they say they are writers is they like to write, enjoy writing, or maybe like to think of themselves as writers. Still, they do not write.

I know many people who say they want to write a book, but they are not writing a book, and make no attempt to write a book. I think what they mean is they want to have written a book. What they don’t mean is they want the experience of writing a book. What they don’t mean is they want to do the work of writing a book. They want to be authors. This is not the same—this is not remotely the same—as wanting to do the actual work of writing.

Immutable Law of Writing #1 says the words are not going to write themselves. What, then, is the solution? The glib answer is: if you want to be a writer you must write. But here is some more practical advice: if you want to write, you must write every day.

The question that follows is how to do that: how does a busy person find the time to write every day? Here are three pieces of practical advice for finding the time to write every day.

One: Decide whether you mean it. 

Decide, once and for all, if writing is a priority for you. If it is, you will find a way to do it. I don’t mean to be simplistic about this, but it’s a simple matter: we do what we think is important. (The time won’t fall from the sky, however; you have to go and find it. See tip number two, below.)

It is vital here to know what you are writing. If it’s a novel, name it and outine it (at least roughly). If it’s a blog, decide what the blog is about and who it’s for, and keep a running idea list of things to write about. If it’s a business book, name it, define the audience, and outline its chapters. And so on. None of this is writing, by the way, but it helps you know what to write when it comes time to write.

Two: Once you have decided you will write, give something up and replace that time with writing. 

If your days are full, it will be easier to find time within the day than to figure out the physics of making the day longer than 24 hours. And the easiest way to do that is to stop doing something that takes up your precious, precious time.

Perhaps the first thing to do is to consider time as precious.

Then, look at what you do and decide what not to do so that you can write. Let’s say you need a half-hour to write each day (see tip number three, below). How might you find 30 minutes a day? Could you give up 30 minutes of sleep, Facebook, Candy Crush, or television? (On your deathbed, will you wish you had played more Candy Crush?)

If you are a writer, you are a creative thinker, so you can apply your creativity to this. Could you do the 60-minute yoga class instead of the 90-minute? Could you work from home one day a week and save the commute time? Do you have the resources to hire out a household chore, such as cutting the lawn, or have a family member do it? Could you have a child or spouse cook dinner an extra day each week? Could you take a 30-minute lunch instead of 60? Could you resign from that club you’ve belonged to for years but doesn’t really provide you any real benefit these days? Can you say “no” to something that you’ve been asked to do? The possibilities are nearly endless.

Three: When you have found your writing time, set a can’t-miss daily production goal. 

How about just 500 new words per day?

For most people, that’s about 30 minutes. How much is 500 words? It’s not much. This post, for instance, is 800 words. If you could write 500 new words per day—say, by getting up 30 minutes earlier, or forgoing one television show in the evening—you will have written a draft of a 90,000 word novel in just six months. That’s it! That’s all it takes. First thing in the morning, before everyone else has gotten up (or whenever), write a minimum of 500 new words, and do it every day.

Because, you know, the words aren’t going to write themselves.

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