On Writer’s Block

A reader asks: “As an amateur who’s trying to simply get in the habit of writing something coherent on a somewhat regular basis, I’d love to hear your take on the problem of "Writer’s Block." I’d also appreciate any general tips or disciplines you might be willing to share.”

Certainly. Let me, before I answer, announce my disqualifications to answer: There are two major disqualifications to answering not merely this question, but any question on the topic of writing.

First, writing is mysterious. Each writer approaches his craft in a different way, and advice from one writer to another is useful if and only if you happen to be a writer of the same method and temperament as the first.

Example: Robert Heinlein famously used to advise would-be writers never to rewrite their first drafts, except at an editor’s suggestion. Unless you are a ditherer, that is, someone who wastes his limited writing time rewriting scenes that are already saleworthy, this advice is not useful, or indeed may be counterproductive. Heinlein was warning against the pitfalls of perfectionism. But if you are not a perfectionist, and not a ditherer, the advice is counterproductive, because writers who should rewrite are being told not to. Heinlein was a First Draft man: he could breeze off printable copy his first try. His books sold on the strength of their wittiness, readability, and speculative ideas: one strongly suspects he never went back to his first chapter to set up some plot twist he invented for the last.

If you do not write like him, merely able to breeze off finely crafted copy in your first try, then do not take his advice. Frankly, I thought this one of the worst pieces of writing advice ever, because I suffer the opposite vice. I write impromptu and I like to stick with my first instinct, and therefore I do not rewrite often enough. Hence Heinlein’s advice was the opposite of what someone like me should be told.

Every bit of writing craft advice is only good for you to the degree that it applies to your situation. In this example, Dithering Perfectionists should follow Heinlein’s advice, and never rewrite except at an editor’s suggestion. Impomptuarians should follow the opposite advice that all writing is rewriting.

Second, writing is mysterious. No one really knows where stories come from or why human beings tell them. (See footnote).

One can easily imagine that Men from Mars, creatures who possess all human characteristics of rationality and passion, love and hate, and truth and falsehood, who might simply not invent stories. Oh, they may have parables, or hypotheticals, or thought-experiments. They might grasp the concept of putting words together to make a series of statements about something that is not real but which a alike to the real: but they have no impulse to do it, and no interest (other than anthropological) in studying creative works.

The world of Mars would be immeasurably poorer than ours in an imponderable way. We could hardly even tell the Martians why story-telling is valuable to us, except, perhaps, for some halting and lame explanation that story-telling allows the imagination to exercise its faculties. They would understand parables, which use story telling for the purpose of instruction. They would understand hypotheticals, which is story telling used as a means to contemplate a false-to-facts set of events in order to analyze real events. But they would not understand story-telling for its own sake. Story-telling neither allows them to construct a spider-legged war-machine nor to bring nutriment from blood-chemicals back to the hive. It serves no immediate practical purpose.

If asked by the Martians, modern humans might answer that story ideas come from the subconscious mind, which is a polite way of saying we know not whence they come. Using this type of language is merely an affirmation of a mechanistic, modern world-view, which ascribes everything in human life to unknown and unobservable brain mechanisms, including things that do not seem to fit the description, such as poetry.

Older humans (who often saw things more clearly) might answer that story ideas come from the Muses, from the spirits of poetry inhabiting the Hippocrene, which is a poetical way of saying we know not whence they come. Using this type of language is merely an affirmation of a romantic, mystical, magical world-view, which ascribes everything in human life to a supernal and unknowable providence, including things that seem perfectly to fit that description, such as inspiration, or the divine madness called poetry.

Writer’s Block is the word we use to describe those times of famine when, sitting down to compose, we suddenly find that we are Men from Mars, and unable to discover the ideas and inspirations we need to craft creative work, or unable to achieve the artistic effect sought.

Before we talk about Writer’s Block, let us admit we do not know what Writer’s Unblock is. We do not know from what fountainhead the stream of inspiration flows, whether from the subconscious mind or from the muse – these are merely two different words for the unknown – so speculations on how to restore the flow of inspiration once the stream has been blocked cannot carry much certainty.

Nonetheless, I do have what can only be called a personal conviction that Writer’s Block does not exist. This is not to say that there are not times when the stream of inspiration runs shallow, or dries up altogether.

What I do not believe in is the excuse of Writer’s Block. What I do not believe in is quitting.

Are you out of ideas, O writer? Then write without them. Out of inspiration? Write nonetheless. When you try to write without inspiration, is your writing merely junk, tripe, turdsplop, drear, dreck, which you are ashamed to fix your name to, and unable to sell anywhere? Then write under a pseudonym, or, better yet, divest yourself of a sense of shame, which is no fitting adjunct to a poet nor a merit in our chosen profession, which is a type of harlotry. (We are entertainers, after all. We neither construct war-machines nor bring blood-nutrient to the nest.) Write the tripe, write the dreck, get it done, do your work. You can worry about where to sell it later.

Now, this may sound a paradox. It can take months or decades to write a novel. Am I seriously suggesting that you keep working on it once you are convinced that it is terrible and worthless? I am seriously suggesting that you keep working on it until it is no longer terrible and worthless.

You see, that is what I truly and honestly don’t believe in. I don’t believe in making excuses, even if the excuse is true. If you have Writer’s Block, write anyway. You are a professional. Act like it. Man up.

I am seriously suggest that, when weighed all in all, your chance of wasting years of your life writing that one novel that can never be improved and never be sold is smaller, and the harm less severe, than your chance of never starting that one novel that can be sold due to fear, modesty, and hesitation, nor finishing that one novel than can be sold merely because you’ve hit a spot that is hard to write.

Yes, I run the risk of urging truly untalented hacks into investing their dreams and longings in a project that cannot be saved. So be it: I have eliminated some of the competition, and this means more Nachos for me. But I am willing to run that risk because talented hacks who think they are untalented will never become talented unless they write and rewrite until they learn the craft of writing. There is no royal road to learning this. It is like law school: in law school, you start on day one, first class of first year, reading cases. You learn to do it by doing it.

This leads to a much more important discussion. Suppose you agree with me that Writer’s Block does not exist. What do you do when you have it nonetheless? What does a writer do when suffering Writer’s Block? How can you write when you cannot write?

There I have no theoretical understanding to impart, but I do have practical experience. Each time I personally have had a bout of The Block, it has turned out to be for one cause: I could not get any inspiration for my current project because my current project contained a structural flaw. The muses were trying to tell me something.

By a structural flaw I mean that basic idea either in the plot or in the chosen method of execution was wrong. I was writing starting in the middle of the action, for example, instead of writing from the beginning; or I had selected the wrong voice or the wrong point of view for the character or the scene, or I was trying to write three novels instead of one, or I had not correctly defined the theme. In each case, there was no magic formula or shortcut to discovering which was the right approach: I had to try one, then the next, until the correct one was found.

( I should mention that, of the books I have completed so far, the one that was the easiest to write, and the most joy, was my authorized sequel to A.E. van Vogt’s WORLD OF NULL-A called NULL-A CONTINUUM. For once, I wrote with an outline, and had all my plot twists set up beforehand. It may have been easy to do because the hard work had been done for me by the Grandmaster Mr. Van Vogt: since I was writing in his background, I merely used his theme and character, and the starting point was established by the ending of the previous book in the serious. So I did not have any experimenting to do.)

Getting ideas for stories is like fishing. You do not get to pick whether the catch will be fat or lean that day: that is up to the muse, or whatever mysterious power provides us our stories to tell. But you do get to pick whether or not you row out to the spot, and throw out your nets. That is up to you.

I also have two pieces of practical advice. One I borrowed from Gene Wolfe. If you find yourself unable to write, avoid all distraction and do some hard physical exercise. Shut off the radio, television, phone, ipod, internet, brain-shunt, everything. Jog or row or split wooden rails. Your mind, with no ability to distract itself without outward things, will start investigating inward things.

The other I got from my wife. If a scene is not working, look over the basics and see if any of the basics are missing.

The basics include

(1) plot tension. If your scene in not working, up the plot tension. Plot tension is produced by conflict—when the hero wants something he cannot get. Eve wants the apple and Achilles wants honor. Something stands in the way, Jehovah or Agamemnon.

(2) stakes. If your scene is not working, raise the stakes. The fate of all human races depend on Eve’s temptation. The whole Trojan War hangs in the balance, if Achilles will not fight.

(3) Point of View. If the scene is not working, change the point of view. Milton chose to tell the story of Eve’s temptation from the point of view of the Tempter, Satan, who is bent on revenge. There is more drama in his choice, because Satan is a one doing the action, not the one being acted upon.

(4) Point of View also includes timing. Homer picks up the action before the walls of Troy at the moment when the quarrel between Agamemnon and Achilles erupts. Tolstoy starts WAR AND PEACE in the middle of a conversation. Heinlein starts CITIZEN OF THE GALAXY at the end of Balsim’s career, which we come to understand only in flashback. LORD OF THE RINGS starts well before the War of the Ring, and tells of the events leading up to it. It would be a very different book had Tolkien, like Milton, decided to start the tale at the moment when Sam comes across Frodo, poisoned and motionless from the sting of Shelob, in the upper glooms of the pass of Cirith Ungol.

Milton tells of the war in heaven and the creation of the world not where they should go chronologically, at the beginning, but where they go dramatically, in the middle, by having Gabriel describe them to Adam in flashback. Note the artistry here: if you put in a flashback before Chapter Three, usually it is too early. It drags the plot and slows the action. If you put in flashback late enough in the story, it becomes revelation, the solution to a mystery, and not merely back-story. Milton made the back story from Gabriel come as part of a warning to Adam not to give into the temptation to break that one commandment binding him, he who was lord of all the earth besides.

(5) Character paradox. Milton makes Satan voice speeches both of soaring pride and sagging despair: the poet here means us to have at least some sympathy for the devil, whose cause is a sympathetic one: a rebellion against tyranny (or so it first appears). His baser nature is revealed in his monologue atop Mt. Niphates. Neither the Dark Lord in Tolkien nor the three-faced horror in Dante display the remorse which Milton puts in the breast of Satan. Consequently, of the three devils, Milton’s is the most dramatic, and the poet correctly places him in the center of the action.

The contrast between the two disparate parts of the character make each part more dramatic. George Lucas makes Han Solo, loveable rogue, only involved in the rebellion for the money (or so it first appears). His nobler nature is only revealed in the last battle, when the Millennium Falcon swoops out of the sun to save Luke from the pursuing spaceships of Darth Vader. If your scene is not working, go back to an earlier scene, and put something into your character’s personality that contradicts the other aspects of his personality. Ayn Rand did not do this with John Galt, which is why he is flat and uninterested: Hank Reardon is the character who possesses real drama, because his conformity to the world is at odds with his inner conviction of rightness. The moment he throws off his conformity, the character loses his drama, and the writer no longer deals with him.

(6) Theme. The theme is the point of the story, the why of why you are telling it. In the opening chapter of LORD OF THE RINGS, the rustic hobbits drinking beer in the tavern discuss the odd happenings at the borders of their tidy little land: the Fair Folk have been seen departing the shores of Middle-Earth, or giants tall as trees seen stirring in the wild. The plot of LORD OF THE RINGS might indeed be the War of the Ring but the theme is the passing away of the Third Age and the loss of the all the fair and ancient things, noble and great, which must give way and diminish, in order that a great evil equally as ancient be unmade. Tolkien touches on this theme deftly in the opening scene in the tavern, long before any mention is made of the Ring. It is not until late in Chapter Two that even the name of the Dark Land, Mordor, is spoken. If your scene is not working, in a novel the reason is usually because it does not advance your theme. (Or perhaps your theme is wrong, and whole work needed to be revised from the ground up).

(7) Elegance. In an elegant mathematical proof, the mathematician gets you from the axiom to the conclusion in the fewest steps needed to prove his point. Killing one bird is one stone is adequate; killing two birds with one stone is elegant. If your scene is lacking in pep and verve, it may be because it is flat. Scenes get flat because only one thing is happening in them. In each scene the writer needs to advance the plot, establish the theme, develop the characters, and so on. Science fiction writers have even a harder task, because in addition to juggling these balls, SF writers also have to establish their world-building and display their speculations about science.

Let me use here an example from a book I did not myself care for: BLINDSIGHT by Peter Watts. In flashback scene, the origin of the character is established. As a child, the antihero has suffered from radical brain surgery, and no longer has human emotions or sympathies. He sees schoolyard bullies kicking another little boy. The bullies are gene-engineered superhumans, whose parents could afford designer babies, and the little boy is an ugly normal boy, whose Fundamentalist parents had religious objections to gene-tampering, and so cruelly condemned their child to a lifetime of abuse and inferiority. The antihero is indifferent to the beating, but decides to intervene anyway, and he attacks the bullies with teeth and nails, biting ripping and smashing skulls against the playground asphalt with such savage heartlessness as to awe and terrify them forever. He then befriends the ugly duckling boy, who turns out to play a major part in his later career. You see? In one very short scene, the writer not only established his theme, and promoted his plot, and developed the paradox of the unsympathetic yet vicious savior, he also implied, with a tense economy, the negative social implications of widespread gene engineering, including how the lives of schoolboys would be affected. In good world building, the reader is supposed to clap his hand to his forehead and say, “Well, of COURSE it would be that way! Why didn’t I think of that?”

If your scene is flat, it is because you are not juggling enough balls.

(8) Plot reversals or plot twists. You have to have things happen that make the reader say, “I should have expected that!” which requires two things. First, it is unexpected enough that he did not expect it. Second, that it is logical enough, given what has already been established, that in hindsight it looks like he should have. As above, when a good plot twist is twisted correctly, the reader is supposed to say “Well, of COURSE that had to happen! Why didn’t I see that coming?” If your scene is not working out, introduce a plot twist or surprise. Then go back to rewrite earlier scenes to set up what you are about to do (This is something neither Robert Heinlein nor Phillip Pullman seem to be able to do: their plot surprises are always arbitrary, because they are not set up correctly). After the rousing space-dogfight scene between the Millennium Falcon and the skull-like TIE fighters, when the heroes escape, the Space Princess announces, “That was too easy. They let us escape!” and then we see the sinister Space Nazis talking with Lord Dark Helmet to confirm—yet indeed, the ship was allowed to escape so that they would lead the Death Star to their space-rebels secret base. When the narrator of the WAR OF THE WORLDS comes upon the corpses of the Martians in their war machines in the midst of the ruins of London, the plot twist there is that they died of bacteria, the humblest creatures of the Earth, after all the devises of man had failed.

I could go on. There are most basics than this. The best book I have ever seen on the basics is called WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL by Donald Maass. I recommend it every chance I get, and I never recommend anything else. If you have Writer’s Block, go buy a copy of his book and do the exercises in it.

If you have Writer’s Block, and if you are like me, then it is nature’s way of telling you that there is a structural flaw in your story, something basic is wrong with it, and so your mission is to go back and rewrite it, and rewrite it, and rewrite it, until you get it right.

If you are not like me, my advice could turn out to be not merely useless, but counterproductive, so caveat emptor.

FOOTNOTE: You may be wondering why I repeated myself. I can only quote RED DWARF by way of justification:

CAT: What? Am I the only sane one here? Why don’t we drop the defensive shields?
KRYTEN: A superlative suggestion, sir, with just two minor flaws. One, we don’t have any defensive shields, and two, we don’t have any defensive shields. Now I realise that, technically speaking, that’s only one flaw but I thought it was such a big one it was worth mentioning twice.