Saturday, March 18, 2017

The ABCs of Book Writing: B is for BLOCK, writer's . . .

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 . . . and BEATING it.

Writer's block is the fear of almost every writer and, from time to time, the all-too-real predicament of many. When you find yourself paralyzed by a block, it is arguably one of the most miserable of psychological states that any creative person can encounter. It might be some consolation to hear that such prolific writers as Joseph Conrad, Charles Dickens, Graham Greene, Ernest Hemingway, Leo Tolstoy, and Virginia Woolf also, on occasion, suffered from writer's block (though they might not have used those exact words to describe the affliction). But knowing that your pain is hardly unique does nothing to relieve your immediate discomfort.

Writing is in many ways a highly individualized act of creativity. At the same time, there can be commonalities that we all share. Here, then, is what I know, and have experienced firsthand, when it comes to writer's block and how to beat it. My solutions may not be the complete or ultimate ones for you, but I promise that they will help and give you enough relief that the block won't beat you and pummel your writing career into the ground.

I have found that there are two main kinds of writer's block:

1. Basic writer's block

This kind of block has two variations. The first is a scenario something like this: You have been writing, it has been going well, and with some number of words or scenes or even chapters now written, you feel pretty good and decide to take a break. But not just any break—your plan is to reread all or some of what you have written, in order to pat yourself on the back for a job well done and fuel your fire to keep on writing. That's when the unforeseen happens: You hate what you've written. The thoughts might be fine but the wording is terrible. This isn't your annoying inner critic speaking but your actual professional instincts signalling the truth. This writing will not play in Peoria, let alone engage readers or publishers.

So you dig in and start some revision work, but this does not produce the desired result—the words are flopping like dying fish on the page or screen. So you try again . . . and again . . . until you are blocked.

There are three typical ways to resolve this unhappy situation:

  • Walk away for a while; have lunch; vacuum something; go outside and rake leaves; or, if it's getting late at night, go to bed. As the biographer Elizabeth Longford observed in her memoir, The Pebbled Shore, "Writing . . . problems that have appeared insoluble at midnight have a way of smoothly solving themselves at midday."

  • Leave the problem passage as is, carry on with the book, and fix the trouble spots during later revisions. When you have a first draft completed, you will benefit from a broader perspective on the whole book than what you had earlier. Now that it is time for revisions, you will usually find that fixing once-recalcitrant writing is straightforward. What was all the fuss about? you now wonder.

  • Hire an editor. A good editor can work wonders of clarity and rewording. But consider this a last resort—you will be a better writer if you master self-editing.

For some other ideas on addressing the basic block, see

A variation on this sort of block is one that I have often experienced, and it typically involves short passages, such as a sentence or two, or at most an entire paragraph. It happens like this: You're writing; it's going well; and now you have reached a point where you know exactly what sentence or paragraph you need to write next. You write it and it either seems not to make sense or just sounds bad. So you tinker a bit and it's still not working. Following Einstein's theory of insanity, you keep fiddling—for hours, maybe the rest of the day and on into the next . . .

Occasionally, after much obsessive rewriting, I have gotten such a passage right, but here's what I have found to be true nine times out of ten: If it's that hard to write, it doesn't need to be there. Throw it out! You'll find yourself able to carry on without headaches or harm to your overall story or argument. If you can't bear to delete such misfit passages, then save them in a separate computer file, just in case you find a place for them later. You probably won't, but whatever makes you feel better . . .

2. Big, bad writer's block

This truly worst kind of block typically happens when you start writing your book or when you are not far into it. Occasionally, it might also occur after you have written a significant amount but have, for some reason, been away from the project for a lengthy period of time.

You are at your desk or whatever is your preferred writing space. You have made time to write. The world is quiet around you. Your pen is poised over paper, or your fingers over keyboard. And then you can't write—you simply don't know what to write. You thought you did but now, at the moment of truth, words fail. You get up and pace, get a glass of water, and sit back down to try again. Same result. Z is for ZERO.

If you are writing nonfiction, this kind of block is sometimes due to a lack of information about some part of your subject. The usual solution is to do a little more research, or even merely to look something up in a reference book or online source, and with the gap in your knowledge filled, you are now able to write. In fiction writing, the comparable problem can be the result of a previously unrecognized missing piece, or wrong turn, in your plot. The best solution is to stop and think it through, discover the missing piece, or find a new turn in this part of your story line.

Writer's block is often the result of too much, rather than
too little—so many notes and ideas that when it's
time to write, you're overwhelmed and get blocked.
In my experience working with new authors, the more common cause of the big, bad block is not a shortage of ideas, but too many of them. In fact, your head is spinning with ideas but not a one wants to spin into anything resembling a coherent sentence. Fortunately, this kind of block only happened once to me, and I learned a lot from it.

I was about to start writing my master's thesis. I had already published shorter pieces, such as journal and magazine articles. But this had to be longer—at least fifty pages divided into five or six chapters, and it had to coherently present a lot of complex research. I kept trying to write and, except for a few words and sentence fragments, was getting nowhere. After some painful hours, I had one epiphany. A vague idea formed and I realized that if I started in one particular way, this might lead on to writing more. With that, I wrote some semblance of an opening sentence. And I now knew generally what I had to say next, but I just needed to consult some of my research notes in order to be accurate. I pulled out my three notebooks, where I had recorded research, sources, and ideas.

My three fat, full notebooks. With notes, sources, and ideas following the chronology of my research—a chronology that had nothing to do with the ordering of the thesis.

Hours later, I found what I needed in order to write the first page or two. Exhausted, I finally knew what I had to do. I cut the notebooks into scraps, one or two points per scrap, and sorted these by main themes and related topics. The result was several piles of ragged scraps. When I rearranged these piles into a logical order of presentation and argument, there it was: the structure of my thesis. I wrote it in a couple of weeks.

From this I learned two big lessons:

  • Know where to start.

  • Be aware that ideas do not necessarily come in the order in which they must be written.

The upshot of these lessons was the rather pedestrian, but crucial, realization that writing a thesis, book, or other lengthy project depends as much on a filing system as it does on creative thinking. I never had writer's block again. For every subsequent project of any length—major essays, PhD dissertation, and books—I avoided notebooks and used something physically or digitally movable and sortable: small-sized notepaper, index cards, file folders, and/or computer files so that I could always organize—and, as needed, reorganize—my information and ideas according to the ordering of the book rather than to my personal history of getting bright ideas.

Don't confuse chaos with creativity

There are a few strategies that will let your creative ideas flow freely while, at the same time, preserving, or creating, your book's structure. These will help you beat the big, bad block if you find yourself facing it. To maximize your chances of avoiding it altogether, follow these tips before you start writing:

  • Define your scope and purpose.

  • Develop a clear working idea about where to start: an opening hook, quote, question, anecdote, example, character problem, or seemingly unsolvable conflict.

  • Narrow your nonfiction topic.

  • Know where your novel is going; figure out the ending (or possible endings) before you begin; if you have already begun, stop now and figure out where and how to end.

  • Concentrate on main themes and events; don't bog down in trivial detail.

  • Devise a filing system in order to sort notes, ideas, etc., by any or all of book chronology, theme, event, section/scene, or chapter. I favor organizing and filing by chapters and will be saying more about this in my next blog.

For now, suffice it to say that focus and filing beat block.

Coming next week . . . "C is for CHAPTERS"

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