Friday, June 4, 2010

Conquering Writer’s Block


by Jean Henry Mead

I rarely suffer from writer’s block, thanks to my journalism training, but I’m told many writers do. While packing to move, I found an article concerning the malady, written, ironically, by Lawrence Block, an MWA Grandmaster.

Block asked the question: “What’s the biggest factor in determining writing success? “ Not just talent, “but a feel for language, an intuitive understanding of how to arrange words in their best order, a sense of what is and is not dramatically effective.”

Perseverance and the courage to continue writing, no matter how many walls you’ve papered with rejection slips, are also contributing factors. Block credits believing in your ability to write as the most important aspect of successful writing. Comparing writers to athletes, he said, “Mental attitude and preparation make the difference. It plays precisely the same role for us that it does for the runner and the weight lifter. The more completely I believe in myself, the more I am able to employ the talent I possess. My belief in my ability and in the worth of my work will enable me to work to the limit of my capacity."

He recommends sitting at the computer for fifteen minutes before beginning to write. Spend that time telling yourself what a good writer you are and that you do excellent work. Erasing negative thoughts before you begin is a huge step in getting those words down on paper. Negative beliefs, whether or not you’re aware of them, can sabotage your work. Thoughts such as: I’m not a good writer, what I’ve written is crap, I never finish what I start, no one will publish my work, etc.

As so often happens, the first third of your book goes well but when you get to the middle you’re stuck, particularly if you don’t outline the plot (which I don’t). During my current work in progress, I wrote myself into a corner and had to put my story in reverse and back up some 20,000 words. It was not only discouraging, it briefly made me lose confidence in my ability to write. But once I took off in another direction, the writing has gone quite well.

I’ve also found that reading the previous chapter before starting to write helps to carry me forward into the next chapter. Bestselling novelists I’ve interviewed have said to stop writing when you’re over the “hump”—when a plot problem is solved--so that you’re ready to finish the scene the following day. That isn’t as easy as it sounds, especially for me, because you want your muse to run its course before you quit for the day.

I aim for five pages and sometimes find that it’s like pulling teeth to meet my goal, so I stop, hoping to take up the slack the following day. Writing fast and making changes in the second draft seems to work for most successful writers.

Negative beliefs can be damaging as well as paralyzing, resulting in long term writer’s block. But how do you pull yourself out of writer’s depression? Lawrence Block recommends putting your negative thoughts on paper. When you read them, tell yourself they’re all LIES. Rejection won’t destroy you, he said. “Nobody ever died of a rejection slip, and nobody every succeeded without accumulating plenty of them along the way."

3 comments:

Mark W. Danielson said...

For me, the key to being "in the zone" is being able to write undistracted. When this happens, I can be quite productive. I once wrote 150 pages in three days on a long layover with no difficulty. Letting my mind flow makes writing easy.

Jean Henry Mead said...

Now that's what I call a muse, Mark. :)

Beth Terrell said...

Wow, Mark. That's impressive. I wrote almost 10,000 words one day, but I was brain dead afterward.

Jean, terrific post, as always.