Cleolinda Jones (cleolinda) wrote,
Cleolinda Jones

Rx for Writer's Block

I ended up writing a bit last night about fighting writer's block--adapted in part from my response to a comment on the previous entry. So, you know, if it helps you, rock on.

One of the books we got assigned for a writer's workshop was really tough-love about it--I forget the book, probably because I was so busy trying to meet the frickin' class deadlines to read it--but the guy was basically like, "If you have block, it's because you don't want to write bad enough. Get off your ass and DO IT." He may have been more helpful than that, but I wouldn't know, because OH MY GOD I HAVE TO HAVE 5000 WORDS BY 5 PM. So let's take his advice out of context and say that "DO IT" is not, in and of itself, the most helpful advice. I think it can be helpful for a certain strain of writer's block, the fearful procrastinatory kind, but--and this is precisely my point--I think there really are different kinds of writer's block, and you really do need to treat each one differently.

Part one: Performance Anxiety

1) I'm scared to write because it's going to suck. We all know that the first draft is ugly, and is supposed to be ugly, and so on. Knowing that doesn't always dispel the fear, though, so what I used to do, back before I had my own computer, was to write in a way that Did Not Count. It's not Real Writing, you see; it's just notes, or a particularly wordy outline. So it's not supposed to sound good, and it's not for third-party consumption. Example: write on plain white paper. Write in pencil if you usually write in pen, or vice versa. Write in a different color ink (I used red ink when I was really skittish, because, come on, red ink? Does Not Count.) Write diagonally across the page. Write on large napkins. Write in bullet points. Now that I type pretty much all the time--mostly because I can keep up with the speed of thought better that way--I have different tactics: write in Arial font instead of Times New Roman. Write in italics. Write in a different color font. Write single-spaced lines. Skip lines between paragraphs instead of indenting. Do anything, anything, that visually signals that this is not a polished manuscript. Because it doesn't count, remember?

2) A subcategory of It Doesn't Count: don't try to draft in polished narrative sentences. It's too stressful, y'all. I mean, unless you're feeling it today, that's fine. But if you're feeling skittish, don't try to push it. I have what I call Narrative Sketchy, and I think I've mentioned it before, but the typical example I give is, "She's walking down the stairs--I don't know what she's going to see when she gets down there. Is it dark? Maybe there's a cat." It's more like describing the scene to yourself, almost an automatic kind of writing, and I have surprised myself several times. You get one of two things out of this process: at worst, you've blocked out what you want to happen, and you've wrestled through the whole What Happens Next problem so you can focus on writing pretty the next time around; at best, you've slipped into a proper narrative voice midstream and started writing usable text. When I pop up and go, "YAY 2500 WORDS!!," this is what I'm usually talking about: blocking things out, discussing them with myself. And a lot of times some proper narrative comes out, but really, I've come to consider What Happens Next to be just about the hardest part of the process.

(This is, incidentally, why I'm up shit creek when I try to write parodies, because you can't sketch out a draft. "Something funny here" is pretty much the whole thing, isn't it? I can list off the scenes of the movie, maybe jot down a few punchlines I've already thought of, but it's pretty much all or nothing when it's humor: it's either funny or it's not.)

Another trick I use is the bracket. A lot of times I'll be zipping along, and I know what needs to be said, but not how to say it. Or the only word I can think of is crashingly wrong, but it's going to take me thirty minutes to suss out the right one, and by then I'll have lost my train of thought entirely. This is where brackets are your friend. Use them to mark a word you want to change later, an idea you're not sure how to put into words, or a comment to yourself. Example, made up for the occasion:

They’re not sure they’re even on the right track, but as someone [Jane?] points out, it’s not like they have anything else to go on. Have them search the forest [now, as opposed to later]. And then he says, [something along the lines of "I'll never stop until I get my revenge," except less obvious and lame].
The idea is to keep moving when you're setting down a draft for the first time; don't let indecision or perfectionism get in the way of your initial ideas. You've got plenty of time to dither over nuances in the revision phase(s). And there are other things you can use as well. Make Microsoft Word earn its keep, y'all. You've got footnotes (ctrl+alt+F), endnotes, comments--all kinds of things you can use. Actual footnotes I have used:

1. This is an awful [minor] character name. Replace with something better.
2. Remember to revisit this idea up later in [certain scene].
3. She figured that out a little too easily, didn't she?
4. This is a nice line and all, but it’s completely out of character.
5. A little less Tolkien Lite in the revision, thnx.

3) Just say what damn happens. I learned this the hard way--after reading Nabokov, I was obsessed with the idea that every sentence had to sparkle like a jewel. I've finally gotten to the point, however, where I've realized that I want to write stories that are, above all, entertaining reads. Not stupid reads; not trashy reads. But I have come to believe that, among "entertaining," "profound," and "beautifully written," "entertaining" is hardest. If you can engage the reader and tell a good story, you can--and should--worry about the polish and the profundity, but you can worry about it later. Here's another thing I've learned: I'm not Nabokov. Dude, no one is. I've tried to develop an ear for sound and rhythm, though, and I think that's taking me further than gilding every single word. Because, here's the thing: it's very, very hard to read a story when you're tripping over silver-dollar verbosity. What you want is the best word, which may or may not be the prettiest. I forget who it was who first told me to kill all gratuitous adverbs, but seriously: thank you. And just say "he said," full stop. Yes, every single time, unless adding a descriptive verb or adverb actually changes the meaning of the sentence.
"Well, that's wonderful," he snapped.
Like all rules, it's a rule made to be broken. But see if it doesn't help your writing move a lot faster.

And if you don't believe me, as far as the overly pretty writing goes, think of it like this: stuffing your sentences with exotic, ornate words is like the yodeling those American Idol contestants gum up their performances with; overwriting is literary melisma. Or, to put it another way in the same vein, listen to any great pop song: a performer just lets the song ride for a verse or so. The whole song can't be bridge or chorus. Some of it is; but not all of it. Save the heavy descriptors for when you really need to rock.

The thing to remember is that what you really want to do is tell a story in a relatively unobtrusive way. Just get the girl down the stairs, okay? You don't have to think of the most imaginative verb or describe every painstaking squeak of the steps. After you've been writing a while, you'll get a feel for what kinds of words you need to deploy and when. And the deployment of picturesque words is something you can do in subsequent revisions--when you're drafting, just get the girl down the damn stairs.

Later today: what to do when you get stalled mid-story.

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Tags: advice, rx for writer's block, writer's block, writing
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