One of the best and the worst things about writing is that you technically can write at any time and from anywhere. It creates both freedom (“I could work from the beach!”) and a prison (“Even at the beach, I should be working”).
It really reminds me of being in school when you had homework. Even when you weren’t in class or working on a specific assignment, there was always more that you could be doing. You could be studying. You could be reviewing your notes or working ahead. It was hard to walk away from it all. It was hard to relax.
I’ve encountered the same situation while writing. If I have free time, I feel like I should be writing. It is hard to walk away from a manuscript. Especially if you are working another job while writing your book, your free time is precious. It is very limited. And the thought of doing something other than writing during your free time feels treasonous. I have an hour or two free. How could I do something else besides write? Do I not care enough about my book? If I don’t care, will anyone else?
But you have to be able to relax sometimes. With a creative endeavor like writing a book, it doesn’t help to become so fixated on writing that you produce words but not a quality story. There are times when you are burned out and simply need to recharge. There are times when you can either take a break and come back strong the next day or force yourself to work and ultimately produce garbage that you will have to delete.
I have found that it is helpful to have friends in this situation. They tend to be able to tell when you simply need to put down the computer and blow off steam. In the film, A Beautiful Mind, John Nash, a brilliant mathematician, has been camped out in a university library for days. He refuses to take a break. His friend, Charles, comes along and points out how ridiculous he is being and convinces Nash to get a pizza and some beer with him.
When I’m bleary-eyed and my thoughts no longer make sense in my head, it is helpful to have a friend close by that will force me to relax. At some point, accept that you will not be able to write anything worthwhile until you take a break. At some point, you will have to shout out: “I have respect for beer!”
I’m in the process of editing one novel while writing a second. Editing has been a very odd process. I left the first book long enough that, as I’m editing it, I’m also reading it with a fresh set of eyes. Of course I know what’s going to happen. But I’ve been able to get some distance from the work. And it’s left me wondering something that I’m sure plagues authors with every story: how can you tell if a story has legs? How can you tell if it’s going to go the distance? Essentially, how can you tell if it’s any good?
After I finished writing the first book, I put it aside and didn’t want to look at it. I loved my characters. I was happy with the story when I first outlined it. But as I finished it, I was convinced it was drivel. I had spent countless hours creating something that no one should ever read. I started on my second novel with fresh enthusiasm. That one was going to be the work that broke out. I was convinced. Now as I’m closing in on the end of the first draft of the second novel, I’m feeling that same discouragement.
This time, though, I’m also reading the first novel with a fresh set of eyes. I haven’t exhausted myself with the story. And I’m really enjoying it. It gives me hope that I’ll come back around on my second novel too after I’ve had some space.
But it makes me wonder how anyone knows whether they’re writing something that other people will enjoy. Do authors write a book and, as they’re writing, just know that it’s going to be a hit? Or do even successful authors write works that, as they’re writing, they’re convinced no one will want to read?
I’m excited to get the first novel published and get some feedback on it. I think I’m a solid writer. But until other people have actually read over my work, too, I’m operating without benchmarks. I’m writing to give myself something to read (which seems pretty pointless – I already know how the story ends). If I ever get a chance to talk with any of my favorite authors, I need to ask them if they know what they’re writing will be enjoyed or not.
I think that this first novel of mine can go the distance. But we’ll have to wait and see what happens. How do you know if a story has legs?
“Reading is also my mental comfort food. When I’m anxious or unhappy, I re-read my favorite children’s books — and the more upset I am, the further back I go. It’s my ‘tell’ (a term from gambling). If I catch myself reading The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, I know I’ve got a lot on my mind.”
I love this passage by Gretchen Rubin. I must admit that I’m not familiar with her work in general. But the title of her post (What Inspires Me: Reading) is what caught my attention.
Reading also inspires me. That revelation is probably not very shocking given the fact that I’m an aspiring novelist. But the mental comfort food aspect is also incredibly accurate for me. When I’m in the middle of something that is stressful, I turn to Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels. They are light, fun reads. And that is exactly why I turn to them when I am anxious. I am not a big fan of the Bond movies. But that is mostly because I don’t believe they do the books justice (but what movies do?).
I also find myself writing more when I am stressed or anxious. I think it serves the same purpose as reading; it provides an escape for me. Some people like to watch TV or movies; lose themselves in the screen for a while. Some people prefer to go out partying with friends. I escape into books. And ever since I started writing them, I enjoy escaping into worlds that I can make up as I write.
Hopefully people will purchase my novels when I get them published. But even if I knew the books wouldn’t sell, I think I would still write them. I enjoy the escape.
Whether or not you’re a writer, everyone has faced writer’s block. I may be mildly paranoid. But when it is really bad for me, I feel like the cursor is taunting me. I need to figure out if I can set Word not to have a blinking cursor. Something about the blinking makes the writer’s block so much worse. The blinking highlights the fact that I’m writing nothing. It keeps drawing my eye back to the same point on the screen (and the fact that the point on the screen hasn’t changed).
I’ve come to the realization that I experience two, distinct types of writer’s block. First, I have days when I am just not in the mood to write. Period. There is no getting around it. I am either burned out or distracted by other things. I can force myself to sit in front of a screen for hours. But I won’t produce anything. These days are the most frustrating because I haven’t found much that gets over this inability besides time. If I can recognize this type of writer’s block, my best solution is often to deal with other things in my life that day and come back to my story the next. There are some helpful non-writing tasks you can accomplish on days where it just won’t work. You can do research for your book. One suggestion I really liked (that I think was from K. M. Weiland’s Outlining Your Novel) was to go online and look for images that fit your novel. You can find pictures similar to settings or characters in your novel and build up ammunition for the next time you sit down to write. You can also work on marketing or editing your book (basically all the stuff that is not as fun as actually writing but has to be done at some point). While you may not be able to get any substantive writing done on these days, my experience is that this type of writer’s block really doesn’t occur that often.
There is a second type of writer’s block that I think is a serious problem, though. I’ve stared at a blank page without being able to put anything down. I’ve been about to give up for the day. And then I’ve realized that I simply haven’t thought through the scene enough. It is not that I cannot write. I just don’t know what my characters are about to do. I haven’t done my homework. I’m always tempted on these days to decide it is the first type of writer’s block and the day is lost. I can go be lazy! But when I sit down the next day, I’m confronted with the same problem. I’m facing the same challenge because I still haven’t done my homework and mentally worked through the scene. This type of writer’s block won’t simply go away with time. I will often force myself to sit down and write an entire scene. Even if I don’t like it the next day, I’ve at least worked through the entire thing. After I’m finished writing, my mind will go back through the scene and identify the parts I don’t like. Even if I’m not consciously aware of it, the back of my mind will be figuring out the issues with the scene. When I sit down the next day, I will have a host of ideas for how to fix the scene I wrote the day before (instead of having no idea what to do again).
The simplest solution would be to fully outline the scene rather than force myself to write it and then change it. But usually I know what I want to have happen at the end of the scene. I just need to figure out how my characters will accomplish it. So writing through the scene forces me to identify what works and what doesn’t work with my plans. I must go through the act of trudging through the scene to understand why my mind was struggling with it in the first place.
The overall message is don’t mistake a lack of preparation for writer’s block!
And on a random note, does anyone else think ‘Battling the Blinking Cursor’ would be a cool band name?
When I was getting close to graduating college, I decided to get a minor. That decision kept me from graduating with my friends. I posted congratulations on their Facebook pages. I attended graduation and was all smiles and cheer. I clapped and shouted as my friends joyously walked across that stage. I was the picture of a proud, good friend. But really? I kind of hated them. I desperately wanted to be them. I wanted to be done and into the world. They were leaving. I was not. I felt horribly guilty, and I knew I was just jealous. But that didn’t change anything.
Ever since I started the monumental task of actually writing (and attempting to publish) a book, I’ve felt the same way about the books I now read. I analyze them and try to learn from them (just like everyone says to do). But I still feel a surprising jealousy towards the writers that I never felt before I started writing myself. Every time some sentence is perfectly crafted, I can just see my friends crossing that stage without me.
I also know that I shouldn’t compare myself to others. I’m writing my first draft while the books I’m reading have gone through multiple edits. I’m writing what is now my second manuscript and editing my first while I’m reading authors that have spent a lifetime crafting words. I’m simply a different author. I have a different voice and a different style that I’ll have to develop. I know all of these things. I repeat them in my head. And yet when I read books now, I feel that unreasonable, petty jealously rear up all the same. I wish I could write like them!
So I’ve come up with an excellent solution. Everyone just needs to stop writing for many years to come and let me grow as a writer. Then everyone can start writing again when I’m the old pro with a thing or two to teach to the youngsters. Although if anyone actually followed my advice, I would be incredibly depressed when I didn’t have anything great and wonderful to read (and learn from).
Instead, I will just keep pretending not to be petty and jealous when I read authors’ works that are incredible. When I meet you in person, I’ll hide the jealousy behind smiles and friendly greetings. But just know that I’m picturing you as my friends walking across that stage without me. And I want to be you!