Tuesday, 29 April 2014

On Writer's Block; Or, Why Write One When You Can Write Three?

One of the questions writers apparently get asked a lot (though I've only personally been asked it the once, more's the pity) is how they deal with Writer's Block.

The reason I wish I got asked it more is that I'm hugely cynical about the whole phenomenon, and would like to get to air that cynicism in public more.  I've long suspected that its main victims are those novelists in crappy movies who've written one book and have no idea how to start another, because the first one was a verbatim retelling of their disastrous marriage break-up or the time they got kidnapped by were-ferrets or something, and who do all their work (or lack thereof) on decrepit manual typewriters, and probably end up investigating a murder that then becomes the material for that difficult second novel, because god forbid they go through the indignity of actually inventing something.

Man, I really hate those guys.

Still - while I basically believe that Writer's Block should be renamed Writer's Slacking, or Ill-Conceived Movie Character's Block, or given its main symptom, maybe just Non-Writer's Block - I would concede, if pressed, that it's possible and even sometimes quite easy to run up against brick walls in this line of work.  And sometimes it can be genuinely tricky to maneuver past those walls, to the extent that there will be occasions when you're writing and can feel somewhat, you know, blocked.

Tricky, but by no means impossible, and definitely not worth naming an entire condition for.  So in honour of Hollywood teaching us that all writers are fundamentally lazy, I shall now quote from the answer I gave on this very subject in an interview a couple of years back over at Sci-Fi Fan Letter:

If you get really stuck, move on to something else.  If a line or a story or an idea isn't working, let yourself back off from it and concentrate your efforts elsewhere.  If you can't write the start of a story, skip on to a scene you feel more comfortable with and write that instead.  Meanwhile, keep a little bit of your subconscious busy chipping away at that wall you've hit and come back when you're ready.

Good advice, if I do say so, and I stick by it.  In fact I stick by it so hard that, although it's always been the basis for how I tried to work, for the first time in my life I'm getting to really put it into practice.  As of the beginning of this month, I've been writing two novels simultaneously, as well as a short story, and I'm also writing all three projects non-linearly, with three or more sections in each on the go at once, something that's probably only possible because I've had a lot more time than previously to produce solid plans.  It's the way I've always wanted to work and never been able to, basically, and it's heartening to discover that so far it's absolutely doing the job.

Facetiousness aside, while I realise not everyone has the time to work on multiple projects at once,  I earnestly believe that working on multiple points within a story, or if possible at least a couple of things at a time, is the best way to keep your creative brain in sound running order.  That said, I've come across very few other writers who actually do work remotely the work I do, so I suppose there's a chance that it's just me.  Thoughts welcome!


  1. One downside of skipping a problem and moving on to a later part of the story -- sometimes it means you have to do extra revising, because fixing the problem changes things. (Of course, this may only be an issue for pantsters like me who discover the story as they go and then have to sort out the whole mess in later drafts.)

    1. A fair point, Cheryl. Back in the day I used to write much more loosely and it was only having to write the second two Damasco books to deadline that made a planner out of me. Though I still worked this way back then I've definitely found that the more I plan the less linearly I write.

      I still think the non-linear approach can be valuable, however, whatever your style. Sometimes it's enough to jump ahead to the end of a paragraph, or skip a few lines of dialogue, or even just move on to a different line. Another similar approach I use when I'm stuck is to do a swift copy edit of a preceding paragraph or two; often simply arriving back at the blockage point with a better understanding of what's led up to it will shake things loose. The important thing is to give your brain a few simple, low-pressure problems to fix so that it can work on the bigger issues in its own time.