How to Break Writer's Block

#18 of 30 in 30 Days

#18 of my 30 Hubs in 30 Days challenge, I started on July 25th so I've got 12 more now before the end of August 24th.
#18 of my 30 Hubs in 30 Days challenge, I started on July 25th so I've got 12 more now before the end of August 24th.

Writers' Block has So Many Varieties!

My series focuses on novel writing more than anything else but writers' block affects anyone trying to write anything. So this article is a little more general. Writers' block is a painful, soul-sucking, miserable, rotten experience that can only be compared to being really sick. You can make yourself physically ill with it if you happen to have a stress induced medical condition, like say, fibromyalgia.

Worse, there are a variety of reasons for it and types of writing block. Identifying what's going on is a good way to understand and decide what to do about it. I'll start with the happiest, the most positive, the one that you really don't want to break.

Rumination.

You can tell if you're really procrastinating on the project or just ruminating, immersed in preparing mentally to do it and getting ready to let it flow like a breaking dam when you do sit down to write, in one way. You can be dead certain it was Rumination if after the rest, you write faster, easier and better than you've ever done before. 

If you'd like to be aware of it before that point so that you can quit beating yourself (and causing a fibro flare if you share my chronic illness), then pay attention to whether you thought about the project. Seriously. If you keep staring out the window, playing Solitaire or other familiar computer games and doing things that take very little attention but your mind is racing on the project while you do, then you are Ruminating.

Don't worry about that. Ruminating is a necessary rest. Rumination is a positive thing. It's when you shove the project off the front page of the conscious mind to let the unconscious work on it spontaneously. Doing somethnig left brained like folding laundry or sorting your finances is a good way to let the novel grow uninterrupted. Inspiration will usually hit like a sledge hammer as soon as you actually have time to write -- which is why good rumination activities involve clearing up crud you have to do anyway to make time to write.

Another way to tell is to try Freewriting.

This is when you sit down, create a text file or grab a notebook depending on your preference for generating first drafts, and just write the first thing that comes into your head. Write about the block. Write down all your reasons for it and every stupid excuse that comes to mind. Some of them may not be that stupid.

You might know, for example, that you are going to have the weekend free for writing but that you only have half an hour before someone comes home expecting your attention. Working on the novel for half an hour may not get you anywhere but working on something about it might, like developing a character description or a bit of backstory. You might have other worries getting on your mind.

I know that for me, one type of block happens when I know I won't have time to finish before another major project comes up. I wind up shutting down completely. I hate doing unfinished novels. Granted, if I have three or four days before the interruption I can decide to treat it like a Three Day Novel and just get it out there, but I need to know I have those days or I'll wind up doing something else. 

Preferably something writing related, like editing finished novel rough drafts or working on finding markets and so on. These things do need to be done. Your mileage may vary, my novel writing method depends on having total concentration during the days I'm doing the rough draft because I don't jot many notes or use an outline. I keep it all in my head, so while it's in rough draft I need to keep my mind on it and shove everything else in life to back burner.

Others who work in different methods don't have this problem and can write in half hour spurts when life hands off these little opportunities.

Freewriting is the best way to deal with any of the numerous varieties of block. If you write about the block, chances are you'll find out what it is among all the possibilities of what it is.

Some types of block can be ended, forever, for good. Get them right out of your head and keep them out. Many times these got started by bad teachers in grade school and high school, family members who may have had some personal reason for you not to throw over their ideas for your career plans in favor of becoming A Writer, people who were jealous, the number of reasons people discourage writers are legion -- and at least half of those people honestly believe they are Well Meant no matter how much harm it does you.

Your block may be a reaction to discouragement. 

Discouragement is so commonplace I have never met any writer who didn't face it. No, I am not kidding. It's part of American culture to discourage anything creative. Becoming a writer is right up there with becoming a movie star for things people laugh at -- even if you have the talent, the personality, the skills and life choices that would make it your best shot in life.

The fear of social rejection is the biggest, most common type of block because a lot of these discouraging people do mean well in their own terms. They may, like my blue-collar grandparents, just believe that books and reading are a stupid waste of time. They kept trying to steer me to write magazine articles for Popular Mechanics, Readers' Digest and Woman's Day, you can make some good money writing for those magazines. Or do a nice romance or mystery, those sell well. Nobody reads science fiction and fantasy.

Oh really? That's why every year's top movies include SF or fantasy, that's why it gets on the bestseller lists all the time, that's why everyone in America know knows what a ninja is or a samurai or a wizard's staff... riiiight. Maybe in their time. Besides, I write good art instruction when I want to do nonfiction for cash. I'm better off doing that in my hobbies than yours, plenty of readers would prefer to paint than bake cakes or work on home improvements and I'm actually good at painting rather than the aforementioned.

Write rebuttlals  I just put mine in bold as an example. Keep in mind that one of the worst types of nay-sayers are English teachers who try to tone down your prose. They can beat it into something academic and ponderous sometimes, trying to push you toward their conception of a literary genre without necessarily understanding the need for popular style. Grammatical perfection does not make a good story all the time.

They also may have a social or political axe to grind if they didn't like your views on life, the universe, religion or anything else. If they don't like your genre, they will distort anything they critique or outright reject it. I've heard too many horror stories of the only copy of a good story torn up in front of a young author because the English teacher would not read Science Fiction. Moral of that horror story -- if you are underage doing school assignments, don't take school seriously as training for doing the fiction you want to. 

That'd be like sending your science fiction to Popular Mechanics.

It won't sell and you'll annoy the editor for being off topic. Identifying that block helps a lot, especially if it happened long ago -- you no longer have to deal with that teacher. If you want to write gothic romantica, the gothic romantica editors are drooling after your flavor of choice. Don't mistake personal taste or political disagreement for anything other than what it is. Some people will hate what you do best, because it says something they don't want to hear better than they could state their case. Or they want to "guide" (control) your talent and turn you into the writer they want to read, change your tastes.

If you are still in school, don't ever turn in the only copy of any story. Helps to do it on the computer and just turn in a printout. Save your work. Keep your backups in your email so that any sibling interference on things like backup CDs and so on don't stop you from access to your work. If it is a completed story or novel section it's worth keeping even if it reads like crud in rough draft. Also, if you want the grade, write to the market.

Most teachers can be appeased with lyrical descriptions of nature and other safe topics, even if you have severe differences in worldview. 

My grade school teachers were nuns. I was a non-Catholic kid incarcerated in a Catholic school and burning with a passionate fire of truth every time I picked up a pen. Inevitably those nuns destroyed any piece of my writing that fell into their hands because I was resting all of my slant on Protestant heresies they were determined to stamp out. Worse, I was telling other kids about them and giving them a broader view of religion. You'd be surprised how many topics a religious dogma can affect.

Mysteriously, when I went to public school, I went from all the English teachers hating me and everything I wrote to all the English teachers loving me and everything I wrote. Go fig. Most of them grew up on Protestant heresies.

So understanding Nun-Generated Block was important in my journey to confidence. I had to stop and sort through just why all those different people rejected my writing. The ones who rejected the idea of my being a writer would no matter what it was. The ones who rejected it in painful detail and tore my themes apart, making changes that completely altered what I was saying in the story, those were a vicious level of past problems to overcome because they were adults and I was a kid.

They knew what they were doing. They did it deliberately. They also, like the grandparents, did it in the belief that they were doing the right thing. Never hang onto a conflict with someone who believes they're doing the right thing, because that will go on forever or at least until you disengage. So don't let them win if you're running into something like that.

One of the biggest weapons past teachers have is the withering scorn and public humiliation accompanying any technical error. Spelling errors, grammar and punctuation errors, sentence structure all get treated as if you farted in class or worse. You get laughed at for them. Teachers pull this stuff all the time. It has to be very common in schools because it hits so many writers.

The truth, the fact of the matter is that even if you are completely dyslexic, you can write a good story, use the spell check carefully and use Word's grammar checker to get around those technical problems. Even if you have a disability interfering with it, those are copy editing problems. They have nothing to do with whether your story is a good story or not.

Getting emotionally blocked because you don't wind up typing perfect sentences on the first go is a common, foolish, horribly endemic problem. So is getting discouraged when a helpful friend goes through your manuscript and marks off every one of these technical problems. The friend really is being helpful and means you to send the story to an editor and shine and thank them. Give a thank you and reciprocate on their story.

Believing that takes a lot of practice and a lot of affirmations.

Copy editing problems can be solved by using any good style book like the Chicago Manual of Style or Strunk & White's Elements of Style. Use those things in the editing process.

The myth that you or anyone can generate absolute perfection on the rough draft of any piece of writing is probably the single greatest cause of writer's block there is. No one does. That's not how it works. Stephen King writes a whole draft of his novels to find out what happens and then starts the real version of the book. Most of his process is editing.

But that myth gets passed on somewhere. It comes from the difference between Backstage and Onstage. Backstage is all the work running the spell checker. Onstage, what people read is professional fiction crafted by experts who have been writing stories for years and may be taking shortcuts because they're already used to the process. Do it for enough years and you don't need to check the style book on every piece. Just read it over, look for a problem, fix it and send it off.

Practice matters on this. 

The problem is that with visual art, it takes ten seconds for a friend or acquaintance to look and go "That's really cool, I like the colors." With a story, they have to stop and read for twenty minutes while sweating about how to tell you that they don't like it. They're scared, for good reason. It would hurt if they told you that.

You also served them sometihng like a pot of uncooked bread dough and only a chef can tell if that's going to be a good loaf. The only friends that can tell you it's got potential are other writers who like your genre and read it. Leave the civilians out of it. They're audience. They shouldn't get to see it till it's entirely done and finished and a real editor gets hold of it to do the final professional tweaks. Editors are actually better at editing than you are, even if you're a good writer. It's what they get paid for.

So keep that logistic in mind and practice the art of blurbing. If you can craft a good pitch, a hook sentence about the plot, you can get that level of ten-second attention and cheering from nonwriters. Don't actually expect them to read it. But if they love fantasy fiction and you say you're doing a novel about a twelve year old ex-slave dragonrider, they will go "Wow that sounds good" -- and then reasonably expect you to write one.

Where you can find that kind of support is NaNoWriMo. I'm writing this is mid-August -- it's not too soon to start thinking about your Nanowrimo novel. Nanowrimo is an annual event where over 50,000 people, beginners and experts, get together online to try to write a 50,000 word novel within the month of November. 

This event is an enormous Block Buster in itself. Years when I didn't manage to do anything else, the social support of the NaNoWriMo crowd carried me through all those bad memories of people discouraging me and I'd look at my rough draft -- sometimes more than one novel -- to realize it came out better than I feared.

The very best rough draft is the one that's finished. It has a beginning, a middle, an end. It has 50,000 words that can be edited. You can use Word to clean it up. You can read it over, discover that you polished off the grand scene where the lovers finally got it on in 200 words and then spent 1200 words describing their getting dressed afterward and reverse those proportions. You can fix any given problem in your novel.

The great bugaboo fear of new novelists is that you'll spot a problem you can't fix.

Relax. 

That's what Cut, Copy and Paste is for. There is no problem in a story that can't be fixed by the rewriting process. Break down the overwhelming rewrite process into a lot of separate tasks, from checking the spelling to looking at the plot, the dialogue, the characters separately and go over it more than once. It takes longer to do your first good novel than it will any other novel.

But once you've finished one, the fact that you have done it is a bigger block-buster than anything else ever could be. You have proof you weren't just a Wannabe Writer. You are actually learning to become a good professional writer. The difference is learning a lot of writing skills and then applying them. Past a certain point of competence, no one will put you down.

Except that they will if you're not writing their genre.

Social rejection and social pressures apply even to the top. Critics flame Stephen King and call his work trash or shlock, they want more Meaningful novels or something, which means they disagree with his themes and they're suspicious of the fact that people without degrees enjoy the books. 

You can't trust that getting paid is proof of anything, because shlock does get in print. It's a baseline though -- it means your work is above the minimum standard for publication and you're no longer a student. What's popular is going to come and go like any fads. Tell a story well and it will find its audience, large or small.

What is essential is building the confidence to just do the work, both drafting and editing. For me, that confidence is based on having finished a lot of novels and putting one out in print on demand to a stellar financial success -- it paid out six times over what I spent to print it, so it was an enormous success by POD standards. Rewriting it for pro publication is one of the things on my To Do list someday because I know that it would sell if I did. I know how much better my current novels are.

English teachers will go on about poetry and certain literary forms, getting obscure and precious. They may wind up fussing over every sentence and wind up teaching bad attitude about hanging onto the perfect sentence. It might be. But if it breaks up the plot and slows it down, if it doesn't fit in the book, the perfect sentence is a cool little sketch to set aside and maybe base another book on later. They're teaching the process, the part of it that's about doing a perfect, memorable sentence.

Try using it for an opening sentence when you come up with one of those beauties. Many writers advise that you kill your darlings, cut out any part of the prose you love that much for itself because it's fancywork that'll distract from the point of the whole -- distract from the story. Nah. You want a very grabby sentence for an opener, so if you have to kill your darlings, put them on the side in a special file for starting points. If it's occupying one of those points of emphasis like the beginning, the end or the climax, then it's serving the purpose of a perfect sentence: gluing the reader's attention to what's going on.

Freewriting works to break blocks based on social anxiety because it lets you write crap. You can write down everything all at once and find the good stuff in it. Very often I find that freewriting on a topic will wind up creating the thing I was trying to write in the first place. I'll get a few paragraphs into Terror at 20,000 Words and suddenly the next chapter is there, flowing and beautiful. Since it's Nanowrimo, I leave in the junk and don't cut it till the editing stage -- word count as a measure of success is wonderful as a block-killer.

Reporting word count is also a great way to get ten-second support from people who honestly don't have the time to stop and read a whole book to tell you they like it. Some don't even read for pleasure -- but they like you and they're happy you're succeeding in something you're doing. The same way they'd congratulate you on losing five pounds or winning a race or getting a bowling award. Your friends do like you.

Someday, some of your friends will also like your books. Distinguishing them from the people who like your books but would like to take over your life and make you do them their way is something completely different -- your fans aren't necessarily your friends. All you know about them is that they liked one of your books. They might love it because your villain was someone they'd love to grow up to be... and be as hard to hang out with as that villain would be if he was real. They're all fans. They will put their beer money in your pocket.

That becomes something just like anyone else's life -- people you met through your job that later become your friends are just that, same as if you were their plumber or accountant. You will meet some and they will be cool, not all fans are Annie Wilkes. The validation of fan letters is something worthwhile though.

That bit of something to look forward to is real. I got some on Raven Dance and it reduced the total amount of block that I've experienced by a huge amount -- it was social acceptance to counter the social rejection. Somewhere in South Africa there is a man who loved my book so much that he went back to the office to retrieve it because he was afraid someone would steal it through the window. I'm writing for him and all the rest of them.

We write to reach people -- and we will reach people with our words.

So the one great cure to block of any kind is to freewrite till you know what the block is. Write about the block itself and how you feel till you understand it and it starts flowing in the direction of the project. I've sorted out thousands of individual blocks and discovered it was because I knew I couldn't finish before a scheduled move, or couldn't finish because I knew I wanted to do something different, or couldn't finish because I needed to solve what went on with the villlain. This is all technical stuff too.

Discovering that a good idea for a book is going to take a lot of research raises the question "Do I want to write this one now or shelve it till I can afford some research books and keep reading up on it till I'm ready?" I have several ideas on the back burner waiting for money and inclination to research. I can trust myself to do them because I do get to those eventually. I have with one. Good ideas don't go away.

For me, logistic problems cause block till I know what it is, then either I decide to figure a way around it or put it off till I have the resources -- be that time, money, whatever. 

Most of all though, confidence is built by doing it. Sometimes I have put off projects because I understood I needed certain skills before I could do it justice. They came back, felt fresh and new, even more exciting, as soon as I had those skills. There are two kinds of perfectionism.

Two Kinds of Perfectionism

There are two kinds of perfectionism: Craft Perfectionism and Toxic Perfectionism.

Craft perfectionism is the type of attitude that anyone who gets good at things may start to experience. It's the driving urge to sand it three more times till it's smooth enough to pass muster. Or put that last coat of polyurethane on. It's the need to use the good materials, measure twice and cut once. I believe this is human nature. 

Craft perfectionism may well be an instinct for a tool-using creature. If you are careful with your tools and careful in what you're doing, then it works better. You might be able to use the tool longer if you don't bust it. You might get better results if you create something lasting and beautiful. The satisfaction of any task done that well and carefully is deep, real and human.

So that leads to another block-buster -- if freewriting doesn't do it, give yourself a dose of success by doing the dishes or laundry. Get up and do something simple, physical and unrelated so that you can continue to ruminate on the writing project. Often the block goes down in the middle of the cleaning-up or closet-sorting, it'll make sense and you'll also have the cleaning-up done.

I didn't believe that would work, but David Gerrold suggested it at a writing workshop in 1984 and I've used it ever since. So it's not a stupid idea to rearrange your desk drawer or alphabetize your books when you're stuck. It's a natural process that can give you room to ruminate while keeping your organized left brain from interfering with the creative function flowing from the right, artistic side.

Your organized left brain is the one that's going to be checking spelling, grammar, style and whether the pages are numbered correctly anyway, so it's just as important in writing. Satisfy it with all those rote tasks that take concentration and care. This is why editing can actually be pleasant too -- if you break it into multiple simple tasks.

It's only overwhelming if you face all the problems at the same time and don't know how to fix half of them. Get the easy ones out of the way first. Start with spelling and use a dictionary if you have to. Or start with dialogue and read it out loud to see if it sounds like the characters and sounds good. Whatever you find easiest, do that editing task first and then work through the rest till you get to the hard ones. The momentum of having gotten that far on the project helps push through the really hard ones.

Meanwhile, if you know which editing tasks are hard, read up on them. Get writing books, read online articles, look for something that'll give the insight into how to handle weak endings or sex scenes or pacing the plot or whatever is your biggest problem. You may find it in a different source than I did, but all the information on the craft is out there.

Craft perfectionism is a wonderful thing. Every brilliant writer, artist, dancer, creative person of any kind has this at some level -- that sense of needing to get it absolutely right and practicing until you do. The more you do, the happier it becomes. Craft perfectionism is also the source of an enormous joy in life that many people don't get in their jobs.

Toxic perfectionism comes from those social forces I talked about earlier.

It's an unreasonable amount of pressure setting up an unrealistic goal. You're supposed to write something that will stand throughout the ages for the 3 Day Novel Contest when you've never even finished a novel before. For a few people, the shock of the horribly tight deadline of the Three Day Novel may blow past all fears, end procrastination and result in a good first novel. The only way to complete a 3 Day Novel is by not stopping, just write solidly through the weekend without stopping and you will have an entry within that time.

It will probably not be Shakespeare and it won't be the size of a Stephen King book either. Most of those are around 100 to 150 pages long on average. So if you have an idea the scale of the Dark Tower series and it'd take seven volumes to tell the whole story, don't use that idea for a Three Day Novel entry. For most beginners I would recommend doing a Nanowrimo before even tackling the 3 Day Novel Contest.

If you finish your Wrimo before the month is out, you might want to look into it though. It's a lot of fun for those who type fast and like making up stories without stopping. I do one every year now, it's one of the times I can count on setting aside for novel writing rather than getting sick or anything else I do. A nice break from novel editing.

Yes, for those who know me, I did send in the Entry Fee this year and will send the manuscript for judging. I've been chicken on submissions for a long time, partly due to inconveniences like life-threatening tumors, surgery, surgical recovery, assorted disabilities, relative homelessness at times and other interferences. This year I'm pretty much done recuperating and getting going on my career again. It was going swimmingly before I got that sick.

Toxic Perfectionism is setting impossible Catch-22 goals for yourself -- or believing them when other people spout the nonsense because "everybody knows." American culture does not respect the arts. This is an observation I've heard from people within it and outside it.

One of the ugliest ways it doesn't respect the arts is that anyone who succeeds in any artistic career has to be "Talented." Talent can only be proven by huge commercial success. In the history of interesting complex things human beings do, huge commercial success rarely lands on beginners. They need to learn how to do the interesting complex task before they can shine and get really good at it, then beat through all the opposition to get to the starting line.

When it happens, it's a tragedy because the public naturally expects consistent professional craft and the poor beginner who got it right by luck doesn't understand how -- so the next one is likely to read like a beginner did it. And flop, falling out of the All-or-Nothing Viewpoint that's so devastating to alcoholics and anyone else who believes it. Oddly enough, every brilliant writer throughout history has had commercial flops.

Sometimes they turn out later to have been their greatest works, anyway. They just weren't quite in tune with the times and the fads and what readers wanted that year. Or they set out to do a great literary masterpiece writing for the pundits, weren't going from the gut, wound up gutting what they did because the story wasn't true from the heart and it was the cheap commercial success that got worshiped a century later as the greatest thing since Shakespeare.

You can't know what's going to be popular.

You can't second guess that. The only thing you can do is write novels and craft them to the best of your ability, keep learning new techniques and methods until you've mastered craft, then keep learning because all masters of any art do as long as they live. Every great master is forever a student. That bit of Zen has proven true across all the arts. It keeps you young. It makes you happy. It opens new areas of exploration and keeps the work from getting dull.

But American culture has got no social role for the Student Novelist. You can be an art student. Go to art school, carry around a red wallet portfolio with art that looks better than a third grader's and you are an Art Student. People expect great things and call you Talented because you have a paint stained shirt and a red wallet portfolio and know enough art blather to show off a few smears and talk about Color Theory knowledgeably.

That's all presentation. An equally great artist may be stuttering and inarticulate while doing gloppy figures that don't look right, because that one's just not verbal or good at presenting himself -- and turn out later on to be the next Norman Rockwell because he stuck to it till his figures looked like who he wanted to draw. 

This is where Soft Markets and Print On Demand may help in reworking your self image. It helps to have a finished book in your hands. It helps to have something to show your family that yes, you are a Novelist. See Nanowrimo. The POD companies have special deals for Nanowrimo winners because they know every year thousands of them will actually have finished books and not want to look at over a year of waiting to find out whether a publisher wanted it. 

When you have something finished, send it out. Start with the highest paying markets. Work down to the middle paying ones. Work down to the cheaper paying not-pro but do pay some cash markets. The validation of getting paid does a lot to push past Toxic Perfectionism. 

It doesn't hurt to do a lot of Hubs and other topical nonfiction. I wouldn't have said this before -- but looking at my offline novelwriting, my prose has improved. By writing for an online audience I've learned to write more concisely. I tighten my sentences. I shorten my paragraphs -- it was a big problem for me running on and on and on without paragraphing.

When I edit, I've begun tightening further than I did before I did all these Hubs. So don't short the online markets. They also bring in some real cash on the side while you still have a day job doing something else. Mine happens to be "cripple" but it still eats way too many days and weeks of my time if the weather goes nasty and my arthritis flares, or stressful things happen and my fibromyalgia flares.

Toxic Perfectionism is a total freeze.

You have to count your successes to get past it. People lose weight by checking the scale every morning while sticking to diets. Checking the word count every day and seeing it rise is a good way to get past it -- because instead of just wishing you were a novelist, you're writing a novel. When it reaches The End, the most poisonous accusation blows into smithereens.

No one can say I'm just a wannabe writer, or that I want to talk about writing but never do it. The fact is that I have written novels. One of them is sitting in covers on my shelf and it earned money. It was profitable. That is success. Proof breaks up Toxic Perfectionism.

Before you get that, load everything in your favor and choose sub-goals as successes. Make your goals reasonable. Organize your ilfe to make them possible. Look at external impediments as real instead of treating any reason for not doing it by a self-set unreasonable deadline as a Total Failure.

Trial and error means that some trials fail. You could be trying to write novels using a method that doesn't work for you. I don't do as well with it when I write outlines, it feels finished when the outline's done and I never go back to it. I managed to do that once because of a class but found out that it was cumbersome and took more work to get the same results. You could be the opposite, some people can't write a novel without an outline. 

Don't expect to stick to the outline though, none of the outliners I know do. It's just a general idea of where you're going that can be continually updated as you get to where it turned out to be different. 

What popular attitudes state is that you should come out with a perfect final draft after a burst of inspiration, type it up fast, ship it off to where the right editor gets it on the first look, buys it, puts it in print and you on the NYT top bestseller list within a week of publication. This rarely happens. As mentioned before, it's a tragedy when it does because that writer does not know how to do a sequel or another book and the editor might have compensated for some serious gaps in skill.

Craft perfectionism can be trusted.

Toxic perfectionism needs to be recognized as bad attitude and rejected. If it comes up in your freewriting, label it. Call it stupid. Mock it. Laugh at how stupid it is. 

Compare your career to learning how to be a plumber or some other craft. Then ask whether people would really expect you to fix a problem with the pipes on no other basis than that you used sinks and toilets all your life. If that were the case, no one would ever call a plumber.

Novel writing is a complex task with many skills and aspects. People who learn all of them and enjoy doing it are Talented Writers. In that long-ago writing workshop, David Gerrold came up with the perfect definition of Talent: Talent is Enthusiasm.

If you want to write novels so much that you're willing to learn how and endlessly correct your first one till it's a good novel, then you are a Talented Writer. If you want it enough that you're enjoying every moment that the process goes well, getting that internal reward of Craft Perfectionism, then you're a Very Talented Writer. Because craft perfectionism comes at the point any component skill is mastered.

You stop thinking about how to type. You just type. Your hands do it, you're not thinking about the process of typing but only the cool words coming up on the screen.

That's how all these skills feel after you learn them.

They get to where they're all easy and invisible. At that point you're professional and don't doubt that you can do a day's work any more than you doubt that you could drive your car or do the laundry. You probably still look forward to it because craft perfectionism gets more satisfying the more complex and interesting the task is. You're more thinking about what goes on in the story than the process of how to tell it.

That's the heart of every good novel -- what happens in the story. 

So eliminate Toxic Perfectionism from your attitudes in life -- if it comes up about other things like music or cooking or whatever, stop and recognize what's really going on. "I can't cook" really boils down to "I hate cooking" for me. I hate staying on my feet that long and don't like paying that much attention to food. So I will probably never be a real chef, will most likely stick to the few recipes that I tailored to my own tastes and not get a huge kick out of cooking for other people. Big deal, the world is full of noncooks. 

"I'm not interested in doing that" is a valid answer, especially when it's something you're not going to do for a living without learning how to do it well at a professional level. It's more self honest than "I can't do it." You don't need an excuse for your life choices. Once adult, those are all in your own ballpark anyway.

I could have been talented at music. Supposedly I had a lot of potential. I had no interest in it and hated the practice. I enjoyed drawing, still do, but don't want to bulid a professional art career as that would take too much of my time away from being a writer. I don't have the body energy to do both or a very professional attitude about my art. I don't feel the same way about putting a painting in a major gallery as I would about putting a story into a major genre magazine. 

So it's okay to distinguish "I want to do this for fun" from "I want to make a living doing this." The main difference is that hobbyists aren't required to have a minimal level of skill, but professionals are. The best of both are likely to be that good because the passion for doing the work is there whether it's a hobby or a profession.

Many of my favorite science fiction writers don't consider their writing as their career. They're engineers or scientists who love writing and get a little side income that doesn't begin to compare with the earnings of their real careers as scientists. It may carry them through periods of unemployment the way art does for me, but it's not what they put on their business cards. 

So that is a personal choice -- and thanks to Nanowrimo, it's becoming more and more popular to write novels as a hobby. If you want to do it as a professional, it doesn't stop at one. Doing one book in your life is a hobbyist thing even if that book gets popular -- publishers usually don't profit till your second or third, they want you to be able to do another one on time on deadline at the same or better quality.

It's nothing to be ashamed of either way. 

If you suffer from Toxic Perfectionism, that can hurt any aspect of life. Discovering it in relation to writing can lead to finding it applies to how you handle your job or your marriage or your kids, how you deal with housekeeping troubles, how you handle it when the car breaks down. Life does not work that way. It's a good way to ruin your life if you start taking All or Nothing as a way to look at things. 

So reject that one out of hand, teach yourself to recognize Toxic Perfectionism and understand that goofing up is probably the most creative thing you can do. Most of the great artistic and creative achievements anyone does began as something that went wrong and didn't come out the way it was first intended. The fix on the goof can turn into something you'd never have thought of otherwise. 

So don't choke on your mistakes. Keep in mind they're just failed trials. You are not A Failure because something you tried didn't work. It's a failed trial, it's not who you are. It's a potential for a creative solution to a problem if you get past toxic perfectionism to see it that way -- that can be very hard on some things if they are time-dependent or urgent.

Until you have a professional career though, your novel writing isn't in that survival category. It's not a major emergency if you don't get your words in the middle of a Nanowrimo as long as you get past the block -- and your freewrite to get past the block could give you much more words just sorting it out. Leave it in -- Nanowrimo counts by sheer volume. 

So put it in perspective. You can give your novel the time it takes to do a freewrite and find out what's stopping you. Don't be afraid of discovering things like "It would be better to start over." Trust that sometimes that does work -- and that if you do, there comes a point you can count on being able to finish faster by starting over. 

Relax about it. You can do it if you just enjoy it and do the part of it that's in front of you at the time. Don't let the turkeys get you down. They were wrong -- you're a very talented writer!

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Comments 5 comments

waynet profile image

waynet 7 years ago from Hull City United Kingdom

I've always loved to write and have done, I'm currently working on a childrens novel that I've mapped out the stories for another 8 books, but with everything I have to do, I really need to commit some serious time to get the first one finished, so writers block has affected me very much when I do sit down to write, I'm a great fan of writing in little note pads with lots and lots of notes that I can number and reorder when needed.

Often times I have a battle with myself to separate the visuals I see within my stories and the actual written words and this usually means that I could start writing a story only to carry on with drawings of all the characters and this just helps in one way, but then I lose interest, because I think am I writing a novel? or writing and drawing a graphic novel?

I suppose it's about finding a very equal balance to get writing at your most creative times of the day or when the inspiration does hit, I remember once just simple talking to an elderly lady at the bus stop and just suddenly had this idea for a book story just by talking to this woman, it was so vivid in my mind that I had to say I do apologize I have to go and so went and bought a cheap notepad and started writing on a park bench, even though a police man asked me to move on for loitering in a public space...the idea will incorporate part of my childrens novel.


mirglof profile image

mirglof 7 years ago

I dont have much trouble with writer's block but when I write my hands cant keep up with my mind and when I look back I have jumped ahead of so much details that my writing comes off emotionless and blind. have you got any suggestions to help that?


robertsloan2 profile image

robertsloan2 7 years ago from San Francisco, CA Author

Mirglof -- it sounds to me like it would help if you switch to the Dvorak keyboard layout. On average, people type 20 words a minute faster using it than using the standard QWERTY layout. It's a little inconvenient resetting Windows to use Dvorak and if you switch completely all at once it can be frustrating. At first it feels like losing half your brain and you become almost inarticulate online. But if you practice an hour a day and then go back to typing standard, then even though it's slower to learn (took me about 3 months to get to a comfortable speed in Dvorak) but you won't lose the ability to type in normal Qwerty format. I jumped in whole hog and never regretted it -- except when trying to use normal keyboards again.

November is not the time to do it. December would be good, right after Nanowrimo. By the time it's about a year, you get to where there's some improvement over your old speed. In two years the improvement gets very dramatic.

Other than that, practice helps with pacing it so that you don't wind up with emotionless or jerky fiction. You can always deal with expressiveness later during the rewrite, deliberately adding more detail. One of the things I do in rewrite stage is add more body language to dialogue, describe people leaning, smiling, scowling, rubbing their heads, shuffling around. It's much more effective showing emotion than telling it.

Anything like that can always be worked out in rewrite once you know what happened. If you just make quick jotted notes of emotion within the text "he hated her" and so on, then you can elaborate later. Rereading the story usually has me reliving it through the point of view character and the more often I do, the more detail I notice.

Also one thing that causes "emotionless" prose is the copy editing stuff. Passive voice sounds sonorous and pompous rather than intense. Yet tightening it removes words! Afterward scenes will be more lively and emotional. So don't worry about how the rough draft reads except at the stage of editing where you're fixing tone. If you know the story it's easier to refine it later and make it sound like the type of story you wanted to tell.

In some ways this is another variation on expecting the story to come out perfect the first time you get it down. It won't until you've written dozens of novels. Even then a lot of times verbal habits can show up that need to be edited. It's not a big deal, it's how it works for everyone. Jot notes about it if you think a passage is emotionless to study it later and keep getting it down, that's the important thing.

Sometimes things I need to correct afterward are things that I shouldn't have changed. If a character's in denial they may come off as tight or emotionless -- and later in the story I find out why. There may be better ways to show it once I see the whole thing and know why it sounded that way.

Waynet -- Sometimes the problem is one of organizing your time altogether. I've run into that sometimes -- I had time, but it was getting eaten up in things that weren't creative or even important because of other things. That's cool that you're still working on the idea.

Maybe it'd help to jot down quick descriptions of the visuals while writing the story. Or thumbnail draw them so that when you edit you can work out how to describe them within the text so it can stand alone. Either that or you're coming up with a graphic novel that would be very picture-dependent to make sense.

One of my ideas is for a graphic novel and you draw characters so easily that I can see why you'd get graphic novel ideas. The format does exist and you might be moving in that direction. If you want it to be text only, then describing what happens in the visuals is a learned skill to add to what you already have.

The more you do it, the easier it'll get.


waynet profile image

waynet 7 years ago from Hull City United Kingdom

Yes I can try that, thanks for your suggestions there, I have this idea of doing the novel and then translating it all into a graphic novel as a separate book that would add another dimension to it.

Cheers!


robertsloan2 profile image

robertsloan2 7 years ago from San Francisco, CA Author

It would rock doing both versions. Maybe you can work on them concurrently if you sketch all the images and then also do the descriptions of what's in them. It'd take some editing to turn the text-only rough into a good book but having two forms to market would be a boost to both. Sounds like a wonderful project.

I know from all your art hubs that the graphic novel will soar. Your art's good enough and you produce it fast enough to finish yours (unlike me, my 3 Dead Punx is suffering from procrastination till I'm better at comics drawing.)

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