Monthly Archives: January 2009

One CAN recover from a horrible bout of writer’s block

I had a severe case of writer’s block that lasted for about eleven years. Though a more accurate term in my case might have been “writer’s anorexia” since my specific problem was that I wouldn’t let myself write.

I wanted to write fiction, and I would force myself not to. I had come to the conviction that writing fiction was a selfish and wasteful act on my part (however, fiction writing was to be admired when done by others), and that I had no right to be doing it. So I told myself it was forbidden to me.

So what followed was eleven years of me denying the urge for months on end (usually around five or six), until I couldn’t take it anymore, and then I’d grab a pen and paper and write for a page or two. And then I’d make myself drop the pen and shove the paper away–and that was that until the pain got too great again. I’d tell myself 1) that I was being selfish and it was time to get back to work on more important things, and 2) the last thing this suffering world needed was another fiction writer.

I was finally brought face-to-face with my own self-punishment after I began a theology program for laypeople (Education for Ministry, run by the University of the South). We had to do personal autobiographies and essays, study Scripture in depth, and learn how to do theological reflection under the guidance of a mentor.

It takes time to undo a block; the worse the block, the more effort required to break it. The kind of virulent block I describe above typically takes therapy, a support group, or a program like ARTIST’S WAY to get out of. (Note: I am reading and doing ARTIST’S WAY right now to see how it is, and will blog on it when done. So far, there are parallels between the book and the theology program I was in.)

Healing does not happen overnight. In my case, it took years to undo the damage, but with time my block went from being the “anorexic” kind to the more traditional “I want to write but can’t” kind to the “I’m scared to death to show my work to other human beings” kind.

There are great books out there for the latter two types of blocks that I’ve blogged about already. Make sure to explore 1) Ralph Keyes, THE COURAGE TO WRITE and THE WRITER’S BOOK OF HOPE, 2) Jerrold Mundis, BREAK WRITER’S BLOCK NOW, and 3) Dorothea Brande, BECOMING A WRITER. I made sure to categorize and tag them under “psychology of writing”.

I’ve found that a block can come back, but if you keep aware of the warning signs and take action to treat it, it can be shortened to a few days.

Right now I’m in the very last stages of dealing with submissions block. One of the reasons I started blogging was to deal with it on a regular basis. Doing the thing you fear most in small manageable steps tends to drain the terror away with the passage of time. When I started this blog, I was so nervous I thought I’d pass out. And I did get a bout of blogger’s block and had to learn to work past it.

Anyways, if anyone suffering from writer’s block finds this blog post, here’s a message for you:
Don’t give up, it can be treated.
Be gentle with yourself.
There are teachers and therapists you can turn to for help if the block is nasty and has lasted for years.

Don’t bring an unfinished draft to a critique

Here’s an important guideline I’ve learned after watching too many fiction writers crash and burn in a critique meeting:

Don’t bring an unfinished first draft of fiction to a critique.

Just don’t, no matter how tempting it is.  Because either the critique group, or you, or both, is going to be sorry you did.

Sure, you might be part of the 5% of writers who can bring in unfinished work and survive unscathed, but I bet you just wasted your critique group’s time.   Why?

Because when fiction writers bring unfinished work to a critique meeting, it’s like overhearing people doing a Rorschach test.   The readers end up wasting time hypothesizing about the ending since they need that information in doing the edit of the first few chapters, they can’t look deep into foreshadowing techniques, and in the worst cases they get stuck asking questions for thirty minutes the writer can’t answer like “Who was the murderer?” or “How does it all end?”

The other, more subtle, danger is to the manuscript itself.   Bringing an unfinished manuscript to a critique group is like going to see a vampire to solve your high blood pressure problem.   You can end up with a lifeless manuscript with all the juice sucked out of it, or lose the energy that drove you to write the manuscript because you’ve already gotten the reward of having people react to your story.

However, depending on the type of writer you are, you may be able to talk about your plot and characters to other people before the first draft is finished.  The results tend to be split–half the writers are energized by sharing their thoughts and get the draft done quick, half get the energy sucked out of them and have trouble finishing.  Decide if you want try out both ways, and see which one works best.  Good luck.

Avoiding Scams in Publishing-Writer Beware and Preditors & Editors

Just in case someone stumbles onto this blog who isn’t already aware of the rip-off artists out there, I’m going to blog about scams.

If you keep these four key points in mind, it’ll help protect you from most of the scammers you’ll run into who prey on new writers:

1)  Money flows from a typical publisher to you, not from you to it.  Little to no money should flow from you to an agent.  I strongly advise reading the essay on agent fees at Writer Beware to get a sense of what a legitimate fee is and what it is not.

2)  Do a background check of any agent, editor, writer’s contest program, or publisher you’re thinking of signing a contract with.   What’s their track record like?  How long have they been around?  Thanks to Google, and websites like Preditors & Editors and Writer Beware this is easy to do.

3) If you decide to self-publish, you are now a small publishing company of one.  There are good e-book services, print-on-demand services, and traditional printers out there, but there are also sleazy companies that grossly overcharge newbie writers and/or  have unreasonable contracts.  You need to put on your CEO hat, and research your industry to find out what the reasonable costs of production are.  You need to learn about contracts, copyright, distribution, and marketing.  You need to find and hire a good freelance editor to go over your work.

4) If it sounds too good or too easy to be true, it probably is.

Any writer can benefit from taking the time to read the various articles at Writer Beware about the common practices, pitfalls, and controversies of the publishing industry.

Bill Denbrough in IT and Paul Sheldon in MISERY (Portrayals of Writers)

Stephen King has had a lifelong fascination with the psychology and craft of being a fiction writer, and as a result he has created numerous characters who are writers. In reading about some of these writer characters, I have found mapped out for me various dangers, joys, and craft challenges of the writing frontier.

Here’s one of my favorite quotes about writing from a Stephen King story. I think it nails exactly how it feels when you’re a writer learning the craft and that inner click-click-click finally happens–you’ve found your voice and have enough skill not to mangle the story while writing it down.  This is from Bill Denbrough’s perspective in Stephen King’s IT in Chapter 3, Section 6 (ISBN 0-451-16951-4):

…his head seems to bulge with the story; it is a little scary, the way it needs to get out.  He feels that if it cannot escape by way of his racing hand that it will pop his eyes out in its urgency to escape and be concrete….after ten years of trying he has suddenly found the starter button on the vast dead bulldozer taking up so much space inside his head.  It has started up.  It is revving, revving.  It is nothing pretty, this big machine.  It was not made for taking pretty girls to proms.  It is not a status symbol.  It means business.  It can knock things down.  If he isn’t careful, it will knock him down….

Then we have the writer character of Paul Sheldon in Stephen King’s MISERY (ISBN 0-451-16952-2), a novel which has an entire writing class hidden within it.  What writing class subjects are hidden in MISERY?  Here’s a list I quickly compiled:

1) An exploration of the dynamics between a writer and fans.

2) The idea of  ‘commercial’ versus ‘literary’ fiction, and how that influences the mindset of writers.

3) The writing process, from idea to finished draft.  We even get to read examples of Paul’s works-in-progress.

4) An exploration of what drives some writers to write.

5) Good plotting versus bad plotting.

6) How writing impacts and changes the mind of the writer.

7) Signs that one is on the right path as a writer.

Here’s an example of 3) from MISERY, Part II Chapter 5:

Paul looked out the window, his chin on his palm.  He was fully awake now, thinking fast and hard, but not really aware of the process.  The top two or three layers of his conscious mind, which dealt with such things as when he had last shampooed, or whether or not Annie would be on time with his next dope allotment, seemed to have departed the scene entirely….

Another part of him was furiously trying out ideas, rejecting them, trying to combine them, rejecting the combinations.  He sensed this going on but had no direct contact with it and wanted none.   It was dirty down there in the sweatshops.

He understood what he was doing now was as TRYING TO HAVE AN IDEA.  TRYING TO HAVE AN IDEA wasn’t the same thing as GETTING AN IDEA.  GETTING AN IDEA was a more humble way of saying I am inspired, or Eureka!  My muse has spoken!

MISERY is a novel I find myself skimming or re-reading once a year for fresh insights into the writing craft.  Let me leave you with an example of 7) from MISERY in Part III, Chapter 7:

The gotta.

It was something he had been irritated to find he could generate in the Misery books almost at will but in his mainstream fiction erratically or not at all.  You didn’t know exactly where to find the gotta, but you always knew when you did….Christ, days went by and the hole in the paper was small, the light was dim, the overheard conversations witless.  You pushed on because that was all you could do….And then one day the hole widened to VistaVision width and the light shone through like a sunray in a Cecil B. De Mille epic and you knew you had the gotta, alive and kicking.

The gotta, as in:  “I think I’ll stay up for another fifteen-twenty minutes, honey, I gotta see how this chapter comes out.”…