Again, when I go to a place where I meet a lot of young writers I’m reminded of some of my past challenges and, heck, some of my present challenges.
I spent the weekend at Anomaly Con in Denver. Yes, that’s why you didn’t have posts over the weekend, though truly I left them keyed and ready to go. But they didn’t go and at this point it’s useless to put them up, because they were about how I was going to Anomaly, a steampunk con in Denver, and how it was my first steampunk con, etc. For the record it was lots of fun and possibly the first time in recorded history that the Hoyt Four were all in costume. Might not be the last. The boys seem to have a acquired a taste for cosplay, at least the younger one.
So I spoke on a panel on overcoming the block. First I want to apologize to all my co-panelists. I normally TRY not to walk all over other people. It’s just that sometimes a combination of topic and my mood make it impossible. In this case, it was the topic. I was on that panel with some wonderful writers, but I think I’ve been writing for twice as long as even the “oldest” of them. (Yes, of course, this means I started trying to write for publication in the cradle.) And I’m made of utter dumb. Or at least utter stubborn. Which means I made EVERY possible mistake before I got hit hard enough by the clue by four – the one with nails in it – to stop. So I know every possible pitfall, including some impossible ones I bent reality in order to fall into.
Anyway, on this panel on the block, I realized suddenly when people say “I’ve been blocked” it can mean several things. First, there is the classical block. You sit for hours and hours in front of the computer and can’t do more than type one sentence or so. Maybe edit that sentence a few hundred times.
This, if you’re anywhere but at the very beginning of a novel (sometimes the search for the voice resembles this) means something has gone seriously wrong with the novel and your choices are to a) put it down, work on something else for a while and come back to it afterwards or b) go back to the beginning and analyze it and/or ask someone you trust to do so for you, then fix what’s wrong and power forward past the block.
But there’s something else people call block… or sometimes call “being too busy to write” which I’d define as “being insufficiently attached to the work.” The symptoms of this are that you find yourself cleaning the house, “rotating the cat” or starting other stories.
Depending on what you’re doing to avoid working on the book, the level of “insufficiently attached” needs to be qualified. It also must be qualified for how BUSY you really are. For instance, for me every minute I’m sitting down at the keyboard I should be doing something else, ranging from house cleaning/repairs, to shopping, to checking on appointments for the kids, to a hundred other things. I do manage to write most of the time, and projects get postponed seemingly ad-infinitum, like… my bathroom painting (which was really needed. I mean the people who lived here before appear to have attached the wall paper to the wall with paper glue. it was peeling off in strips) got postponed three years, until I couldn’t CLEAN the bathroom without dealing with the wallpaper mess.
There are pants that need one button that my sons have probably outgrown (or in case of Robert got too small for) years ago.
You see what I mean, if every minute in front of the computer is stolen from elsewhere, you start feeling guilty and when the going gets tough – it does in every novel in the middle. Just like the last quarter of a novel is always wonderful and almost addiction-inducing – it’s easy for guilt to overwhelm you.
The cure for this, of course, is to think of it as a job or (if not published yet) apprenticeship for a job. Set hours and for those hours work on the book and nothing else. After those hours, try to catch up with your other duties. Think of it this way, if you were going to school and/or had a full time job, you’d have to make time for it. This is no different, and you’re not being irresponsible. This needs doing too. And like most jobs, it can pay a living wage. But unlike most jobs it also can make you suddenly very rich. It’s worth investing in.
The other level of insufficiently attached manifests as your “discovering” things that need to be done or simply deciding you don’t like the book and starting another.
Though these two come from different points – the discovering things to do might just mean you are busy, you just don’t feel overwhelming guilt about ignoring them, but still, they’re there, and they need doing and maybe this book isn’t interesting enough to hold you; starting new books is just usually “the book has got difficult” – the cure is the same.
You must stick to it.
Every book dies halfway through. EVERY book. This is because all of a sudden your subconscious realizes it can’t do what it set out to do. The idea for a novel is always multi-dimensional and much bigger than what even the most gifted writer can pin on the paper. When your subconscious figures it out, it gets upset (okay, yes, I do personify my subconscious. I call him Bob. He wears glasses and looks peevish.) And then you feel you need to start something else, which also dies halfway through.
Stick with it. Push on for another quarter of your projected word count, and my guess is you’ll find the writing is easy again and that in the end the book will not show a mark of where you bogged down.
Another problem could be that you’ve hit a point that scares you. You’re coming to close to something that’s intensely personal or that you never meant to put in a novel. In that case, in addition to gluing your butt on the chair with writing superglue (TM) you must ALSO make sure you don’t run away from the topic/plot/intensity while you do so. Because I know in similar situations I’m perfectly capable of going, “No, strangely they’re not going to rape her. They’re going to give her a lollipop and send her on her way.” Usually you know you’re “running away” because the “deviated plot” is just that silly and often funny or you think it’s funny. (More on writing humor in another post.)
So, that’s basically it. Actually now I think about it, the cure is pretty much the same, though in some cases you might need to do some analysis first: acquire some superglue, glue butt to chair, and work through the block.