Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Writers Block I - Stop Beating Yourself

Today I read another blog entry that moved me deep: The author, Karl Bimshas, wrote about the best cure for writer's block. Don't just sit there telling yourself "I need to write and I can't." Write something.

I used to be that obnoxious, needy, depressed wannabe writer. I spent decades in that terrible state trying to get friends and family members to read fragments of future novels and story starts. I had good reasons for it, which is why I'm sympathetic to anyone who is in that state. Quit beating yourself up. Karl is right. Write something, even if it's just personal journal or venting in an email to a trusted friend.

Choose friends who support you and want you to succeed at writing. Don't vent to people who discourage you.

One of the reasons I was blocked for that long is basic. We live in a critical, judgmental society where fault-finding and personal criticism is socially acceptable. Do not show your unfinished writing to anyone but another writer who's genuinely supportive, probably wants reciprocation and willing to help. Be clear about whether you're asking for support or critique.

Writers with confidence ask for critique in order to get help with the lengthy editing process. Writers without it who just ask someone to look at it are likely to get a useful critique of everything that needs work. That's just as important as support - the difference is that both are real needs.

The way to get support from non-writers is something I learned from Chris Baty at my first NaNoWriMo. Don't tell your non-writer friends about the story unless you can put it in a two-sentence blurb. If you can tell it for TV Guide, give that version. Measure your progress by quantity, not quality.

It's an achievement to write 5,000 words or 20,000 words or 50,000 words. It's an enormous achievement to write The End on a novel. You deserve to be cheered. The best way to get those cheers is to give them for all of your acquaintances' personal achievements. When they clear out the garage, congratulate them on a hard task well done. They are likely to reciprocate.

The more positive you are about friends' achievements, the more likely that social exchange gets reciprocated and you'll get a big cheering section. If they like the topic of your writing, give the two-sentence blurb as "what it's about." They may even ask instead of your having to twist their arms to get them to look at it.

But even if they don't read for enjoyment, they're going to recognize your achievement as one comparable to clearing the garage, losing 25 pounds, winning a gardening award, getting a promotion at work. Everyone's life is full of achievements. The way to get positive people who support them into your life is to join in that reciprocal support pattern.

If you need validation for your plot, seek out a writing group in your genre that separates "Supportive" comments from "Critique" or has critique levels. Believe it or not, pure support critique is real feedback. A better writer looking at a beginner's first story is going to look for something good about it that's real.

The beginner may be more self conscious about the best things in the story than about the worst. It's very easy to mistake your worst passage for your best, because it flowed easily or made you feel good. Or think your best passage is your worst, because you dared to try something new and it's not like the rest of your writing. Getting support feedback from experienced writers can give a much clearer idea of the successes and flaws of any given story than your knitting friend who goes "Congratulations" without understanding.

I still sometimes do that, even though by now my rough drafts are pretty clean. I'll do something new that's a stretch for me and get self conscious about it until I hear back from writer friends that it's the best part - when I didn't cue them. Or vice versa, feeling so proud of a polished, poetic passage I slaved over that turns out to be completely redundant. It goes on the cutting room floor.

Most writing groups mix the two types in their critique guidelines - open with something positive, go into the problems, suggest possible fixes for the problems and end on a positive note. The "Crit sandwich" is a good comfort level except when the writer is confident enough not to want to bother reading through all the compliments and just wants a line edit - or the writer's feeling discouraged and needs support only. That's why so many groups have critique levels.

People have many reasons to be negative and discouraging. Often it's jealousy. Anne Lamott writes about this in Bird by Bird. She talked about losing a lot of her friends once she sold her first book. Writing groups that were uniformly supportive right to that point gave her some nasty surprises as some of her unpublished fellows got jealous and turned on her socially.

The risk of rejection is not the risk that an editor will write back saying "This story doesn't meet our current needs. Please submit again." Those editors mean it. They'd like you to look at their upcoming issues, pick a theme from next year's list and send in another story that has the good points of what they just looked at. If they give any critique, it's gold. They're telling you how to write for that publication and also in general how to write. That means they liked it enough that they almost bought it. They think you're worth cultivating.

The risk that sent me into black terrors of anguish staring at the blank page was the risk of social rejection. My parents, my teachers, my ex, many of my friends and when I was underage, everyone in my life including therapists all were dead set against my becoming a writer. They each had their own reasons.

I'll go into some of those social risks in later entries, along with other factors that can interfere with successful writing. I've got the dubious privilege of having believed at one time or another in every idiot myth, pretentious attitude and stupid idea about writing that I ever heard.

I don't beat myself up that often now. Every time I succeed at writing, whether it's finishing a story, finishing a Nanowrimo, editing one, sending something out, I'm building another level that my confidence won't sink below. I know I can finish a book. I know I can sell a short story at pro rates. I know my indie novel paid out well enough to be an economic success. I know my friends are happy for me when I succeed and that I won't be friendless when I sell a pro novel.

So watch for Writer's Block II: Better Taste than Skill.


  1. Robert,

    Your writing never ceases to inspire me. Thank you for this post! It's encouragement that every writer can use. I very much look forward to reading Part II of this post.

    I've got Word open. It's time to add a bit to Brainsick!


  2. Thank you! Oh purr! I love Brainsick. You've got one devoted fan for it that won't rest until the whole thing's done and it's in my hands in print. Purr! Happy cat dance! Keep writing!

  3. Once I have the money I might get that Paranoid t-shirt, it's too cool. If you do one with Lily, then I definitely want it!

  4. But Robert, I enjoy beating myself every night.

    I'm just kidding. Ignore the lame perverted pun.

    Anyway, in all seriousness, thanks for writing this up. I read both of your and the blog posted by Karl and it was worth a read and give writer's a boost of confidence. I am no writer, but this can relate to other things.

  5. Crystal, thank you! Yes, it does apply to art, to music, to dance, to any kind of creative activity. It's all got the same general atmosphere of "personal criticism is fine and you're supposed to just Take It no matter how cruel" along with "jealousy is natural if you do anything well," with more sympathy for whoever's jealous than for whoever's the victim of their malicious words and actions.

    It's also up against a general American attitude that ignorance is good and knowledge is dangerous, the arts are a waste of time, the sciences dangerous and wrong.

    So coming to a sensible attitude means getting over the insult "you're too sensitive" when in fact, all you're rejecting is personal insults and pointlessly discouraging comments. "No one makes a living at it" is not useful critique. Obviously some people do and that person would rather you didn't.

    I've been thinking about these things for a long time. The second entry's already written and I'll post it next week, I'm working out the third in the series now.

  6. Look forward to seeing the second entry next week! Keep it up Robert my man!

    Let me tell you how much I despise hearing or even reading those words "Art is a waste of time." I couldn't even stand myself typing that! And "No one makes a living at it." When anyone says that, I go "And... What makes the banners, logos, and so on?" when talking about artists. Which, we all know that graphic designers do those, and they are usually considered artists. They're making a living off art. Some people even are lucky to get sales up the ass with their paintings. I find the "No one makes a living at it" an ignorant statement, and that also goes for writing, music, dance or whatever because there is obvious proof that there are people who make a living off it. There's a shit ton of books. There's so many musicians. There's many dancers, and the strippers in the club is also considered dancing and they're making a living off it. I agree that it's not useful critique neither to say "No one makes a living off it."

    And for the people who get jealous, that really sucks for them to be that way.

  7. It does. I agree with you 100%! Art, writing, music, dance, none of these things are a waste of time. They're what make life worth living. Real people do them and make a good living at them even if they're never nationally famous.

    Every one of the arts has a host of people doing it well on a local level. Musicians who play weddings, exotic dancers working their way through ballet school, artists doing portrait commissions of school kids. Writers who get pretty darn good bread and butter out of doing other people's blogs and various topical nonfiction articles while the novel's out on submission. Or writers who go with e-publishers and create several titles a year.

    The big difference between those myths and reality is that the arts have a learning curve. It takes time to reach professional quality and to do it for a living, it takes some job skills or marketing skills to turn pro. That's the unglamorous part but it's the line between pro and amateur.

    The line at which people will pay real money for your work in the arts is when it's recognizable. When the painting looks like what you painted and a non-artist can recognize it. When the story makes sense and amuses a reader. When the tune is recognizable so the busker can sit on a street corner with his guitar case open and do requests.

    Those entry level non-famous arts jobs are everywhere but they're invisible to those ignorant enough to say "no one makes a living at it." Truth is, that's a more secure living than any job with an employer that might downsize. The little sole proprietor can pull up stakes or change tactics fast. If a market dries up, find another one. I did that for years and when I look back, I'm shocked at how much I earned for how few hours I could work.

    If I hadn't been born with these disabilities I'd have been doing a lot more and earned a lot more. I did and I was but everyone else I know who did things like that did very well in life.

    I'm glad you don't believe that cruel myth. Reality contradicts it at every turn.

  8. It often seems to me that the more I learn about writing, the harder it becomes to actually... write. Thanks for this freeing post, Rob! It's just what I needed.

  9. Thank you! I just changed the title of the upcoming entry because I wrote it offline. I'll still do "Identify External Blocks," it's just going to become the third in the series.