I don’t believe in writer’s block, but man was I stuck on this novel.
I say that in passing, but I’m forgetting that some of you don’t know I finished the third draft my fourth novel (my first publishable novel). See the update bars < if you’re looking at this on a laptop. Mobile will have them below /.
So that happened. Huzzah.
Okay, back to block people.
Rothfuss said it best, “Plumbers don’t get plumber’s block.” I think, generally, if I’m stuck on a piece it’s either because ::
- Distraction and anxiety have gotten in the way of my work or
- My ignorance has limited me. I’m up against a problem I haven’t yet encountered. If this happens, I shouldn’t freak out. I need to learn something about my opponent, about the block itself.
And I had two problems I hadn’t encountered this time around. Most people would call this “blocked,” but I call alleged “writers block” simply a worthy opponent. Every block is different, as is every opponent.
Anxiety and distraction.
I solve the anxiety and distraction problem by getting away from society and getting to a quiet place. In that quiet place I meditate (not Eastern meditation, I mean something more akin to prayer). I journal and I sit still and tell my body that sometimes it’s better to build an architecture of time than an architecture of space. I spend most of my weeks saying “I wish I had more time.” Well, The Sabbath is the day that I do have more time, the day that I build palaces and castles and giant freaking starship cruisers (complete with photon torpedoes) out of time rather than money or success out of space.
I literally make time.
I do this not by Netflix binge-watching. Not by to-do-list reading. But by dabbling in random books that peak my interest and I do not need to finish. Petting my dog for egregious amounts of time. Napping with my wife. Playing a board game. Eating leftovers. Hanky panky. But mostly thinking. Dreaming. Hoping. Praying to God the Father, which amounts not to a religious ritual but to a conversation with my friend. When I’m at my best, this too is Sabbath.
As my friend Ellie said recently:
“Some days I have to decide whether I want to be a professional writer or a professional internet browser.”
The internet really is best described as a web – an interconnected set of sticky threads that will catch you if you’re not careful. And who knows what might come along and inject its digestive juices into you once you’re caught in that snare…
So the other thing I did to combat anxiety and distractions in the last three months was install Freedom. I literally block The Internet when it’s time to write. When I’m disciplined with it, this is a beautiful thing. Thank you, Neil Gaiman. You have now changed the trajectory of my career for a third time.
But there were other pieces to this “stuck.” Sometimes I need to learn new information, which I’ll handle in the comments below, but sometimes I need to learn how to use a new tool. One piece of my ignorance played out like this: I was stuck not because of what I hadn’t written, but because of what I had. I knew that I needed to take an axe to some sections and completely disintegrate others into non-being, but I also knew some of these parts were workable bits of back story that I simply needed to relocate into other sections of the book, rework them into sections I had yet to write.
Then at the tail end of Writer’s UnBoxed Unconference (which I surprisingly never blogged about — I’m woefully behind on blogging), actually on the ride back to Boston, my new Aussie friend Jo Eberhardt told me she uses a “morgue” file. She highlights sections she’s unsure about. Cuts them. Pastes them into the document.
This may be the most liberating thing I’ve heard in years.
There were times in this novel where I literally highlighted fifteen thousand words and pressed DELETE and started again. That’s basically a novella, gone. It’s not as dramatic as the time I covered a typewritten novel manuscript in gasoline and struck a match, but it’s just as effective. Some of those fifteen thousand words were decent, a few were great, most of it was trash.
Other times in the writing, I couldn’t bring myself to do something that drastic. Not because I thought the given passage was gold, but because I couldn’t quite place when and where the passage went wrong, and so it stayed like a symbiont, a parasite, but one I could live with.
The morgue changed all of that. Some of it made it back into the novel. In the most extreme example, a small part of this long passage I cut from page 7 made it back into the novel on page 394. Most of it stayed out.
So yes, you need to kill your darlings, those passages you hold dear, the times you think the writing’s gold when it’s awful. But sometimes all of your children are blame-shifting one another and you don’t know which one to discipline. They all need to be put in time out so you can smoke out the darling among them, weed out the mole, the passage that needs eviscerated.
Don’t kill your darlings, exile them.
Create two files when you start – one for the stuff you’re putting in and one for the stuff you’re taking out. If your work is healthy, both files should grow as the novel grows and there should be a healthy amount of smuggling across the border between the two, exports and imports.
One of the guilds I work with in the city suggests something similar. The leader of the songwriter’s guild, Ben Grace, suggests his fellow songwriters dump every little voice memo and sound clip and lyrical phrase into one big Google Drive folder. Then as they start to coagulate, he moves them over to another folder. Stuff that only needs a new paint job he relocates in a third folder. Call them the “Bucket, Chunk, Marinade” folders if you will, but the point’s the same : you need a place where your good thoughts can congregate and then excommunicate other thoughts that don’t belong in your work in progress.
There are other things I learned this time around that got me past that second ignorance barrier, but most of those involved tricks for colliding characters or inserting more foreshadowing or making life harder on my protagonist or integrating my world’s sociological strata. Typical rewrite stuff and typical next-level tweaks like a golfer working on his downswing.
However, this morgue idea was a completely new one on me and it made a world of difference, so thanks Jo.