Below we have two photos: Spiderman and Peter Parker. What’s the difference?
Picture 1: Outfit, babe, crazy powers.
Picture 2: Doofus.
(What’s he doing in that picture anyway? It looks like someone just stole his doughnut.)
Do you remember what turned him into a doofus? Remember this shot?
His spideygrip had failed him. And it failed him because he was trying to deny his essential spideyness. Remember?
This is what writers do all the time. Instead of going out and swinging from the skyscrapers, they turn into creative doofuses because they deny their essential storyness and end up unable to wield any power at all.
What am I talking about?
I’m talking about writer’s block.
Nooooooooo! The horror, the horror.
Alright, stop with the Psycho music. Writer’s block is not one of the bad guys.
No. Writer’s block is exactly the opposite. Writer’s block is a gift.
Somehow, some cabal of nitwits turned that simple fact onto its head. And it causes problems wherever it goes.
Of course, I didn’t know this starting out. And so that ignorance was one of the KEY things that kept me wandering around in the bushes for 10 years. It’s one of the marvelous insights I learned in Card’s boot camp that blew a hole through the wall of my sniveling prison of unproductivity.
What I learned was that writer’s block was not something to be avoided. It couldn’t be avoided. Shouldn’t be. It was a natural part of the process. And “writer’s block” was just a stupid name for the fabulous inner spideysense we have for story. (I could use “writeysense,” but that word’s too lacking in brawn.) What I learned was that this inner sense starts acting up when certain things begin to go wrong.
I’m going to help you learn how to listen to your writersense (humm, maybe that one’s okay), how to recognize what it’s alerting you to, and exactly what it’s telling you to do.
The Writer’s Trance
In the Zone
Good ideas carry current, they spark your interest, they tug your heart strings, they turn you on. I categorize ideas by setting, character, problem, and plot–what I consider the basic ingredients of story. I can’t get out of my pre-draft stage until all four are humming with current. Some might add text as a basic ingredient, and while, yes, it does have an effect on the reader’s experience, it’s not the heart of the matter. Story is.
So I’m looking for current. What I’ve learned about a spark is that it’s like an electric jolt. Sometimes it’s very small, a little zzszt, and it’s gone. And sometimes it’s overpowering and shakes you about. Whatever it’s size, it’s the feeling of “cool,” “whoa,” or “oh, boy, this has possibilities.”
When the sparks combine in the right way you get into the writer’s trance. And I’ve found I want to do all I can to get into the writer’s trance. When I’m in the trance, the electricity is flowing, the ideas are coming, and I’m constantly thinking to myself: “Ah, yes, that’s what he’d do,” or, “Oh, man, yeah, this is what’s got to happen now,” or “Oh, baby, that’s perfect.” I can see the story roll out in front of me like a red carpet. And I write at high speed. Well, high for me.
Expect the Trance to Come and Go
But the fact is that while I may come up with a cool idea or six, start my story with a bang, move to the next scene or chapter (or even to the end), at some point something always suddenly pulls the plug, and everything grinds to a sickening halt.
I used to panic because I took this to mean I wasn’t a real writer. It meant I didn’t have writer genes. I didn’t have the writer’s personality type. Good grief, I sometimes thought it meant God did not want me to write.
Drama, drama, drama.
All that angst was rubbish. That fact is that THE TRANCE COMES AND GOES. For everybody. End of story. Don’t expect your process to work any differently. I don’t know any author who doesn’t experience this when writing a large project like a novel. This means it’s to be expected. I SHOULD run out of juice. I SHOULD get off track once in a while.
So when the trance goes, it’s not a sign from the heavens.
It’s no big deal.
Now, instead of freaking out, I listen. And the sense tells me why I’ve popped out of the trance and what I need to do to get back into it.
The Trance Breakers
Below, I list the major signals I get from my writersense and what they tell me to do.
Breaker 1: Dude, Like You Ran Out of Gas
Symptoms: You don’t know what supposed to happen next or what the characters are supposed to say or do. You literally don’t know what to write.
Diagnosis & Fix: You’ve simply written to the end of your invention. The fridge and cupboards are bare. This means you start up your magical brain, you turn on your idea machine, you go to the store and get some food. You know the principles of getting ideas; I shared a bunch of lessons on this. If not, go back and review them. Figure out your objective, come up with options, feed you imagination by going out and gathering zing, sketch, perform Creative Q&A, go take long walks and sketch aloud. I do the QA session at the computer, while walking, hiking, driving, showering, doing the dishes. One particular issue took me about 12 miles over three days walking up a canyon by our house to finally get the solution that carried the zing. Sooner or later, you’ll have a zing storm, and the trance will return.
Breaker 2: The Grunter
Symptoms: Your story bores you. Instead of feeling excited or drawn to the story, you have to push yourself to write. This is not the same as not knowing what to write next. You know what comes next, but it’s BOR-ing, or just stupid, or feels “made up,” or you recognize that the character wouldn’t act like your plot says she should.
Diagnosis & Fix: You don’t care about or believe in what you’re writing. The “3 grunts” refer to the three types of negative reactions (grunts) readers might have as they react to a specific part of your story. Orson Card describes them in his book Characters & Viewpoints. They occur when your story is unclear, unbelievable, or boring. You feel these as a reader, but also as a writer. And when the Grunter shows up, he’s there to share valuable information.
The thing you don’t want to do is freak out. So you’ve developed something lacking zing. Big hairy deal. Something is better than nothing. What you need to do now is find the zing trail again. Or if you don’t believe your characters would act that way, or you feel like you’re making it up, feed your mind. To do that, ask yourself what the problem is–clarity, belief, or interest? Then start a Creative Q&A session to think up options to fix it. You might need to go hunt some zing and drag it back. You might need to do research.
Breaker 3: The All-or-Nothing
Symptoms: You keep feeling it’s not good enough, not original enough. It’s not going to blow the competition away. You can’t compete. Why should you even write when books like the one you just read exist?
Diagnosis and Fix: You have fallen into the trap of thinking that every book must be like the one you just read. Please read what Thomas McCormack (28 years as the CEO and Editorial Director of St. Martin’s Press) said in his brilliant The Fiction Editor:
An author needs a lot more than one person to succumb to his literarily seductive charms, but, like Saul, he must realize that he doesn’t have to—and indeed cannot—capture the hearts of every possible reader out there. No matter who the writer, his ideal intended audience is only a small fraction of all the living readers. Name the most widely read authors you can think of—Shakespeare, Austen, and Dickens to Robert Waller, Stephen King, and JK Rowling—and the immense majority of book-buyers out there actively decline to read them.
Let’s not think that the only thing anyone likes to eat is pizza or Thai food or hamburgers. Look around. There are a lot of different things people like.
Second, you’ve probably fallen into the trap of thinking your story is either the most incredible thing ever or it’s nothing. You’re thinking your story has to be perfect for people to derive great enjoyment from it. You need to remind yourself of this fact: no story is perfect. Every story has some blah spots. You don’t think so? Take a hard look at some of your favorite books. Is every chapter equally enthralling? Every character equally delightful? Ask the authors if there aren’t things they could fix. They’ll tell you of course there are.
Third, this doesn’t mean any old thing will work. Stories do need to provide a certain level of clarity and interest to capture a lot of readers. But if you’re lamenting that your story isn’t up to snuff yet, you’ve fallen into the trap of thinking that manure is bad. But manure isn’t bad. Very often, the best way to something brilliant is with manure. You need to practice farmer’s faith. Farmers know crap is gold. They know it fertilizes their fields and makes it possible to grow wonderful things. So produce piles of manure. Even if your story isn’t there yet, the crap will fertilize the garden of your mind. It will. I promise.
For example, on my first novel I knew the ending was cool but wrong for the book. I wrote it anyway. I eventually had to cast that whole novel aside. But good grief–the beautiful things that grew out of that novel! I learned I could actually finish. That’s huge for a first-timer. I increased my structure skills. My ability to characterize. I learned things about chaptering, description, multiple points of view, and much more. And I took all of that to the next novel.
The idea that storytelling ability comes to us fully formed is simply a myth. It doesn’t. Everyone has to learn it via lots of wrong notes just like we do when learning to play the guitar. The idea that real writers receive jaw-dropping novels from the ether is another myth. They don’t. It’s work and involves ideas and sketches you end up throwing away. You’re not being realistic if you’re expecting instant success.
Write down the inaccurate things you are telling yourself and then next to them the ideas about writing and your work that are more accurate and reasonable.
Breaker 4: The Holy Crapper
Symptoms: Holy crap, I can never do this! It’s too big. Too difficult. It’s going to take six months and it just exhausts me thinking about where to begin.
Diagnosis and Fix: You’ve forgotten that novels are big projects. And they’re even bigger for folks who haven’t done one before. But folks complete big projects all the time. The key is breaking them down into actionable-sized chunks.
First, remind yourself of these two things: a little each day adds up AND something is always better than nothing, even one minute of manure. Mary Higgins Clark wrote a little each day and became a bestseller. So have many others. And even if what you produce today is crap, that’s fine. It’s progress. And you now know that it WILL lead to better things.
Second, break down what you have to do into small tasks that you can complete in a session or three with some larger deadlines. A task list is incredibly helpful. I use a traditional project work breakdown approach. So the main tasks of my writing novel process are:
- Pre-draft sketches and working outline
- First draft
- Second draft (it goes out to beta readers)
- Third draft
I’m not going to worry about 2, 5, and 7 until I’m done with 1. So I give myself a target deadline and list the tasks and subtasks for 1. This list often grows more and more specific as I go along. But I DON’T write EVERY POSSIBLE task out in the beginning. I just write those I see clearly, and the list continues to live because I add tasks as I finish others.
For example, in the beginning of pre-draft for a fantasy novel I might have these tasks:
- Sketch possible plot problems
- List cool ideas for magic
- List cool ideas for setting
- List cool ideas for characters
As I get into these tasks, more specific parts of these tasks present themselves as I go. For example, “cool ideas for characters” became “create sketches for these folks in Lord of Bones”:
- Steward’s Son
- 2 younger brothers (very young still, toddler and 4 etc.)
“Sketch cool things for the setting” became research these topics for some zing:
- Thief catchers
- Policing and law in Middle ages
- Roman warfare
I know what I need to have to move to step 2 and start drafting. I need sketches of character, setting, problem, and plot. I need my working outline. I don’t need all the details, but I need to be humming with zing and see my way into the story and some events in the middle and end. And so I just work at those sub-tasks until I get the working outline, then move to step 2.
The third thing I do to manage the project is take 3 or 4 minutes at the end of every writing session to jot down the simple tasks for tomorrow. Here’s an example of such a daily list at one point while working on Lord of Bones.
- Tomorrow’s 1,2,3
- Names—girl etc. Especially for places. Just steal some of them.
- Cultural effects of magic quick list
- I have map shape, need to define major cities and areas. Give it big feel, Tolkien-like feel with places of mystery
- History of area, just a quick list
If you’re feeling The Holy Crapper, listen to it. It’s telling you to break your project down into big steps or parts and then the bite-sized chunks within each of those parts.
Breaker 5: Sleep Fatigue
Symptoms: You can’t stay awake. You feel bonk-your-head-on-the-keyboard sleepiness.
Diagnosis and Fix: Duh. Go take a nap. Or just go to bed.
Breaker 6: The Cold Furnace
Symptoms: This feels like you ran out of gas, except you know you have created a lot of good stuff, but you just can’t feel it now. Heck, you can’t even remember it. You feel like you’re always reviewing your old notes to remember what you’d sketched and planned.
Diagnosis and Fix: You are not spending enough time on the project, and so you’re spending all your time getting your furnace warmed up. I’ve found that if I haven’t worked on a project for a while, then it WILL go cold. The fix is to spend lots of consistent time focused on the project.
However, don’t think this means you need four-hour chunks of time. You can get up 30 minutes earlier in the morning to review the current scene you’re writing and what you’ll sketch during breaks during the day. That way you’re ready to dive in during your session later that night. You can take a story question with you to lunch and do a quick sketch. Or when you’re on the drive to or from work. You can take 15 minutes to get a dialogue exchange or description down, even if you have to do it freehand. Feeding your furnace a little bit throughout the day will add up and can keep it burning hot.
Embrace the Truth
Remember that the trance WILL come and go. It does not mean you’re a story moron when it goes. It’s to be expected. When it does go, it’s your job to identify what broke the trance, then take the appropriate action.
When you do, the fix will eventually come, the lights will go back on, the music will begin to play, and the words will roll off your fingers . . . until the next break. Because that’s just the way the process works.