Dragonlords of Dumnonia

Scriptorium

Writer's Block

(Revised 8/18/99)

This essay is devoted to something that plagues most writers from time to time: block. A lot of writers talk about block, but many times they are actually referring to another problem entirely. True block is not when you sit down to write but the computer screen remains blank. True block is when you are playing your fiftieth game of Civilization at Emperor level or cleaning your refrigerator for the eighth time today or doing absolutely everything except sitting down to write.

There are essentially two situations in which a writer can develop block:

  1. when you are writing on your own schedule and
  2. when you are writing "live" or against an immovable deadline.

When you are writing on your own schedule, there are certain things you can do to prevent block from developing.

  1. Establish a place that you write. I can write anywhere when I have to. (In fact, I frequently carry notepads with me in case I find myself waiting for a meeting or a meal to be served in a restaurant or in some other situation where I'd rather be writing than doing nothing.) But I also have a specific space in my den where I go to write. The place is connected in my head with writing. While I know it's generally impossible to devote a space exclusively to writing, I try to take non-writing projects away from my desk, such as to my dining room table or outside on my patio. If I'm doing something else when I'm sitting at my desk, I have a little voice in my head that says "You really shouldn't be doing this here; this is your writing place." When I was at college, I had three places I associated with writing:
    1. my desk in my dorm room,
    2. the computer room in the library (I knew it was impossible to get the same terminal every time, so I linked the whole room to my idea of a place to write.) and
    3. a certain "coffee shop"-type snack bar (I absolutely never allowed myself to go there just to eat; I had to eat and write or eat and talk about writing.).
  2. Establish a writing schedule. This can be a set amount of time you write each day or a set number of pages you must turn out each day or whatever other daily goal you think is reasonable. Different goals work for different writers. But, I can assure you, all pros have some sort of schedule. I've had students tell me that setting a schedule "blocks" them. That's really not the case. Something else is doing the blocking. (I'll discuss a couple of examples in a bit.) Try thinking of your schedule as the time you "get" to write rather than the time you "have" to write. If you are truly a writer and love writing, I promise, this will work for you.
  3. Work on several projects at once. If you have thirty different projects going, it's almost impossible to get stuck on all of them at the same time. Also, "The Great American Novel" or whatever project is your pet, should not be the only thing that you count as writing. Answering e-mail requires you to write. Sending out marketing letters to sell your work requires you to write. Designing characters and outlining plots and other such things require you to write. The point is that in your writing place and during the time that you've set aside to write, you should be doing something that involves perfecting your ability to communicate whatever is in your head to other people through the medium of writing.
  4. Don't forget you can edit. Most writing is editing. Beginning writers often think that what they put down needs to be perfect the first time out and that, consequently, whatever they put down must be perfect. Hogwash. I have yet to see anything that was so good the first time out that it required no editing. I grow extremely leery of any editor who tells me my writing is publishable "as is." An editor's job is to keep you from looking stupid <g>. Your editor should be your absolutely best friend in the universe, looking out for your back every inch of the way while you are in the editing process. While you are in the early stages of preparing a manuscript, that editor is often you. You have to learn to split yourself, to separate yourself from your "baby" and look at what you wrote with a critical eye. What would you think if someone else had written this? If you can enlist someone outside yourself to read the MS (manuscript) aloud to you, so much the better. You can often hear things that you can't see. True friends don't tell you that what you put down is great. They tell you that you are missing a comma or that you used the wrong word or that your character would never say such a thing or that you've used the same noun, verb or adjective five times in one paragraph and twice in once sentence, or something else that's useful. Last I checked, the number of infallible deities walking around on this planet was extremely small, which makes it very unlikely that you were one of them <G>.

So what do you do when you are writing under a deadline you can't move for whatever reason, you simply can't get block if you wish to be rehired?

  1. Settle for good rather than expecting to be great. Practice, practice, practice, and then go practice some more so that you know how to be technically proficient at expressing your ideas under pressure. Someone who is consistent will get many more jobs than someone who turns out a lot of junk with flashes of brilliance.
  2. Know what you are writing about. If you go into a situation well informed, you have a much better chance of being able to write something coherent than if you are completely unprepared. This is what's going to save your backside if you are a lawyer in court who needs to pass a question to a partner to ask a witness on the stand and you have once chance to get the question right. The more you know, the more prepared you will be.
  3. Don't be afraid to let the person who is forcing the deadline on you do the editing. Producers love to put in their two cents. So do actors. So does every editor I've ever worked with. Give them something decent to work with. (It does occasionally work to put down something completely stupid that you can then talk about, but generally you want to provide something that is closer to the mark for the finished product.)

Now, I promised that I'd talk about the cases that are not truly block, and this is that point.

  1. Writing has to be what you really want to do. If you don't want to write, you will find every excuse in the world not to do it. Professional writing is not easy, seldom fun, and often a literal physical pain in the back. To write professionally, you have to want to do it more than you want to do anything else in the universe. If you are cleaning your refrigerator or playing AD&D or doing something else during your writing time or in preference to writing, then writing isn't really what you want to do. Sit down and figure out your priorities. For me, I'm getting a whole lot less writing done since my son was born because he is more important to me than writing. TV went away; I almost never watch it. Pleasure reading is drastically reduced. Game playing, though I love it dearly, is confined to specific times each week. What time I have that I'm not working to maintain my family and my house and to support my religious beliefs is devoted exclusively to writing. Maybe that makes me boring, but if I were a banker, I'd be devoting at least two-thirds as much time to something that I probably didn't care about. As it stands, when I write, I'm doing something I love because I love it, and, miracle of miracles, there are some people out there who will actually pay me for doing what I love.
  2. Know what you are writing about. Yes, I know I mentioned this before. But this is the number one "real" reason behind "writer's block." If you don't know what you are talking about, you are reluctant to commit your thoughts to writing. For nonfiction writers, research a topic up one side and down the other and then pretend that you are explaining that research to someone who knows zipdiddly about the topic. For fiction writers, know your character. Be able to get inside the character's head and be prepared for the character to pick up the story and take it somewhere you weren't expecting. If you know your character well, you should never have block. You should be able to write what he would do, say, etc. in any situation anyone could throw at him. Do not under any circumstances be a slave to your plot. Be a slave to your character. Plot comes from character. Anyone who says that character comes from plot is feeding you a line. If you want a certain plot, then design a character who will generate that plot. Anything else is going to sound fake and discourage you from writing.
  3. Allow yourself to be human. To borrow from The Magic School Bus, "Take chances! Get Messy! Make Mistakes!" If you are human, you are going to screw up from time to time. Give yourself permission to screw up. The world is honestly not going to come to an end if you fail to get a piece of dialog just right or if you don't ask the exact right question in court the first time out. Making the mistake may inspire the right written expression. At the very least you will have identified one of the many wrong written expressions. One less to sort through before you get to the right one!

For Dragonlords in specific, I get very tired hearing that people don't write fanfiction or attend RPs because they don't completely understand the world. Heck, I don't completely understand the world. I doubt I ever will. I've been involved in other fandoms for several years now. Few fanfiction pieces are perfect Misty stories or McCaffrey stories or ElfQuest stories or whatever else it is you are trying to write. Very few Dragonlords members have requested and read my extant novels. Fewer still have read all the character sheets and logs. Only a couple have toured the almost 1000 pages of the main site, never mind the materials that Dragonlords makes available to its members. That's part of why I keep such close tabs on the fanclubs. For RPs, I edit all the logs to make sure that they are consistent with the stories that I've written (I'll even prompt you during an RP if I spot something that is amiss.). For the 'zine, I edit all the stories that come through to make sure they are consistent with my world. I'll get back to you if something needs to be fixed. Don't fret about it! Centuria is my world. I'm not going to let anything happen there that I don't want to happen, and I'm going to work with you to make what you want your character doing fit my world. If you don't try, sure, you can't fail. But you can never succeed either. So if you want to write, then write. Attend an RP. Submit to the 'zine. Sure, you might fail. Then again, you might surprise yourself and do just fine. But I can guarantee that you will never know which will happen unless you try.

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