Don't Let Writer's Block Stop You: How to Fire Your Inner Editor and Write
Writer's Block is caused by your Inner Editor. Overcome writer's block by firing the Inner Editor and start doing what you love!
Tap, Tap, Tap
"Don't get it right. Just get it written." —James Thurber
Oh, to write. To pull up to your well-worn oak desk, pull your typewriter or cracked leather journal close, look out the window in front of you, filled with lakes, trees, birdsong and the like... The Great American Novel is in your bones. You can feel it. For days and weeks, even years!, you've thought it through—there will be adventure, intrigue, tension, and of course, romance. Your characters are the people with whom your readers live and work. They will have character, depth. Readers will cry with the wicked, sob with the innocent, snarl at the criminals. Souls will be torn asunder! With heavy hearts, readers will leave your book on their nightstands, devastated that it has ended, that you, the author, have decided in your God-like wisdom that it had to end.They will reread the description on the dust jacket. They will look at your picture and your author's bio. They'll open to a favorite passage and be sad that a part of their own hearts has died with those two fateful words: "The End."
But now, in front of the window that all great authors sit before, you have to write it. You need to get The Beginning on the page.
Problem is you've been saying that for days. Weeks. GASP. You've been sayin git for years. And what do you have to show for it? Some well-plotted excuses, no doubt. Some creative segues to new conversations when someone asks how your writing is going.
Here's the real problem. No, it's not that you don't have time. No, it's not that your characters aren't fully formed "in your head." And no, it's not that your muse took a vacation or you're just waiting for your spouse to watch the kids for a measly hour so you can actually get to writing.
The problem is your editor. The problem is your lack of practice because of your editor.
Feels better to know there is someone to blame, right? Except, you didn't hire an editor.
Unfortunately, your editor lives inside you. And that lazy, no-good, space-waster has got to go.
So, buck up. Be a hero. Fire the bastard.
Giving Your Inner Editor the Pink Slip
When I was 16, I decided I wanted to play soccer. At the time, running was my thing. But I had just moved in with a new foster family and they all played soccer. I wanted in. I had seen plenty of games. Visualization, right? How hard can it be? Just visualize it...
My new foster father, however, had a quality I wasn't quite used to: honesty. He told me that if I wanted to learn to play soccer and have fun and horse around, he'll teach me. But if I wanted to learn soccer just to be on the high school soccer team, it was way too late. It turns out that in soccer, you have to sort of, you know, learn some skills and stuff. You have to practice.
No matter what you decide to take up—running, soccer, golf, bowling, writing—you have to practice. It's incredibly rare for somebody to pick up a pen and decide to write a great novel and then successfully, on their first try, do it . Sure, it can happen. But it's incredibly rare. If you think you're one of those people, then write it. But if you are one of those people, you would have written it already.
I know. It stings a little. I'm here to help.
We have been brainwashed into believing that anything we put on paper is there forever, a missive to the future about the past, a peek into the soul of the creator of the words. Hogwash! How many sheets of paper did you waste just practicing your penmanship? How many letters have you started with "Dear Stella," only to throw it away after "How are you?" because you weren't happy with the way "are" looked? Did you save the pages? Did you scratch out the words and put it in a box you keep in the closet? No. You threw it away. You forgot about it.
And then, you started again. After a few tries, you were fine with how it looked, how it sounded, and Stella got a nice little letter. (If you didn't make it that far, though, I think I can help you too). You practiced. You forgot about the ones that didn't work, and you made it work .
Grab a composition notebook and a ball point pen. Sit your ass down at whatever table is available (you can get the window with the lake a little later, if it suits your fancy). Open the notebook and write this:
Dear Inner Editor,
It has come to my attention that our years together, you have abused your power. Your totalitarianism will no longer be tolerated. Your inability to accept mistakes, learn from those mistakes, and try again has hindered the productivity of this enterprise. Therefore, I am informing you of your immediate dismissal. A time may come when I decide your services are again needed; however, this invitation to return will come at my own discretion at a time of my choosing.
While I appreciate your efforts to protect the world from my garbage, I can take it from here. With practice comes skill, and from skill comes The Great American Novel. I must go on this journey alone. Please use this time to relax.
Now turn the page and keep reading.
"Keep the Pen Moving"
I've said it before and it must be repeated: The goal is to keep your editor at bay. You are in charge. You are the boss. Your editor is gone. She (or he) is pissed about being fired; you know a pissed-off employee has nothing to offer you.
What you'll notice first is how hard it is. You'll experience some separation anxiety. Your pen will hesitate, your eyes will grow wide, and I daresay some sweat will form above your lips. RELAX! Remember: nobody is seeing this. Nobody. You are the only person holding the pen. You have done worse things, more embarrassing, in a room by yourself, than writing in a notebook.
We're going to start real small. This is for practice. This is to warm you up.
Fill the first page with only this:
keep the pen moving
Go outside the lines. Write in the book upside down or sideways. Make it big, loopy, messy. Do it as fast as you can. If it urges you on, start a stopwatch and see how long it takes you. Just do it fast.
There's a reason for this.
I have run writing meetings that always started with a five-minute freewrite. I'd start my kitchen timer, bend my head, and write. When I looked up, people were tapping their pens, or looking around, or sighing loudly. What were they doing? They were doing the one thing a writer should NOT do when they are practicing, gearing up for that novel. THEY ARE THINKING!
No, no, no, my friends. We are writing now. We're not practicing thinking. We've done enough thinking.
We are writers; not thinkers.
No reader is going to stare wistfully at the thoughts they can't see wishing they could keep ... watching. They want a book! A story! They want writing! You can only be a writer if you write. So stop it. Stop thinking.
By writing "keep the pen moving" over and over, you are slowly getting your mind to let go and become automatic. It is not thinking. It is not stopping to cross out words that "don't sound right" or to add new adjectives or wondering what a synonym for "dusty" is. Your mind is opening up. Do you know how many great ideas are hidden behind those typos? You will be flabbergasted. Word combinations you didn't think possible will fall out of your brain onto the page and when you see it, just as it leaves the tip of your pen, you may whisper to yourself, "Holy shit! That's awesome!" But keep writing.
In the exercises I give you, I want you to remember these four words: Keep the pen moving. Whenever you feel that editor trying to peek his head in and beg for his job back, I want you to firmly kick the door closed, and write "keep the pen moving"—or pick your own words: "Inner editor is a jerk " or "I fired you, man!" or "Please do not disturb." Whatever works for you, use it. This will be the phrase you return to when you feel your pen trip because your inner editor doesn't know how to listen. He messed up. He's had his chances. He's been there for years and you have nothing to show for it. Pick your phrase and use it.
(I have "Keep the Pen Moving" tattooed on my forearm, in Garamond font, facing me. I did it when I was well into my 20's. I believe in this.)
Practice Makes Perfect; Editor Shrugs
Every writing exercise is writing. It's more than you did yesterday. It's more than you did before Googling "how to start writing my novel."
The more you practice, the more open you are not only to writing, but to details. You will find your eye wandering to spaces you hadn't before noticed, because every day, you pick up your pen and your mind opens. It wants more. Without stress, tension, or fear, you will find it. When you dream at night, you'll wake wondering why the hell you dreamed about your high school girlfriend eating an apple while apartment hunting with you in New York, eating croissants in art galleries, when you live in Des Moines and haven't seen her in ten years. There are vaults of material stored in your mind. Your inner editor, however, has been the keeper of the locks on all those vaults, and in doing so, has kept you from the greatest wealth of writing material. Writing practice opens those vaults. You will write what you thought only Dali could imagine. It will be surreal; it won't make sense; it will be crap. But sometimes, it will be genius and if not genius, it will have something in it that says "Work with me. I'm just waiting to be made better."
After a while, your inner editor will sneak in dressed as an adjective and take a look around. He'll purse his lips in humility. Then he'll shrug. "So it's new stuff. Big whoop..." but he lingers. He watches. And when he comes again and rides along as you read what you wrote a month ago, together you'll ooh and ahh over that exercise about the plastic bags and together you'll agree: This could be something.
It's the joy of the writing practice. You are always rewarded. You are always writing. No more thinking or waiting or sitting around, all "Woe is me! I'm struggling! I'm a struggling writer!" while your notebook and your laptop remain empty of words. You weren't a struggling writer then. You were just thinking, waiting. But with practice... now... you have something to show for it.
Here are just a few exercises to get you going. Refer to my other hub on writing practice topics for more.
- For one minute, write down as many cliches as you can. Scribble madly. "Two wrongs don't make a right. Can't kill two birds with one stone. She had lips as red as a rose. She was sweet like wine..." etc. You just might make some up!
- For five minutes, write if/then statements. "If I were a man, then I'd wear boxers instead of briefs. If I wore briefs, then I'd wear blue ones, or those boxer briefs..." etc.
- For ten minutes, describe you, physically and characteristically. Do it in the third person. "She was anxious. Leaning against the wall, her five foot six frame belied the smallness she was feeling wearing nothing but her blue boxer briefs..." etc.
Whenever you feel that son-of-a-bitch editor poke his nosy little head in, "Keep the pen moving. Keep the pen moving," and start writing again.
Now start. Take deep breaths. Be in control of your writing. Get something on paper. Flex the muscles of your mind, stretch the creative angles that have atrophied, and allow yourself to trip.
Some inspirational words to urge you on:
"You must write, not just think you're going to... And you must widen your vocabulary, enjoy words. You must read widely, not in order to copy, but to find your own voice. It's a matter of going through life with all one's senses alive, to be responsive to experience, to other people." —P. D. James
"I remember once asking him if he wanted to write. He laughed and said he had nothing to write about. 'That's the most inconclusive reason for not writing that I've ever heard,' I smiled." —W. Somerset Maugham
"How do I know what I think until I see what I say?" —E. M. Forster
"Talent is a question of quantity. Talent does not write one page: it writes three hundred." —Jules Reynard
"Walking on water wasn't built in a day." —Jack Kerouac
"The more a man writes, the more he can write." —William Hazlitt
More timed writing exercises can be found here.