Saturday, November 06, 2004

Ah writer's block!

I don't believe in writer's block, but I have a case (or hopefully, had) of it. I believe in writer's burnout, though. How can I not when I've written four books and a novella this year, and am working to finish book five by December? I'll hit the 500,000 word mark this year, and that doesn't count the fifty pages here, hundred pages there, that I wrote and discarded.

Since my dentist torture experience, I've been completely fried and unable to produce very much. I still managed to write 40 pages of the Lacey novel I need to finish, and I finally believe I've gotten the story, opening, and details right. That was the hard part. Writing good prose is actually the easy part. I never used to think so. But--I'm 60 pages behind my goal for this week. That's 2-3 days of work right there. Gah.

Here's why I think published authors get writer's block:.

1. The emotional roller-coaster--the worry (is this as good as what I've written before? will the sales good? will my editor like me or dump me?); the envy (why is his first book soaring to the top while I'm struggling? why is she getting more fan mail than I am?); the guilt (I know I should be writing today, but I just can't); the doubt (this book will never sell; I'm a crappy writer; I didn't final for that award, so I obviously don't know what I'm doing); the depression (why am I doing this at all?)

2. The deadlines. Sitting down and being creative is one thing. Being creative on someone else's schedule is a recipe for stress. But if you don't meet someone else's schedule, your book won't be in the bookstores, now will it? You won't sell anything, your fans will forget you, you won't be able to afford cat food, and the world will end.

3. The focus shifts from our work to us. Publicists advise published authors to sell themselves, not the books. (For instance, I'd say--I write funny Regency pirate tales; or I write dark Regency mysteries.) That's a little frustrating for me, because I don't want to be locked in to a certain type of writing. I want to explore and learn and grow, which is the fun of writing! Also, you do start focusing on selling, and not your characters, your prose, your plotting. You think--ok, I need to do this signing, I need bookmarks, I need to meet this bookseller, I need to show up at this conference and do a workshop. All this is important, of course; it's part of the job--but publicity can suck you in and make you believe it's the most important part of the job--which it's not.

4. It really is plain hard work. Writing is a job. It can be a joyous, heady, very fulfilling experience, but it's also hard work. The physical demand of simply sitting down and typing out 400 pages of double-spaced Times Roman is high. It takes time, it takes energy. When I have a good writing day--everything flows like magic and I produce 25 pages--boy, do I sleep that night. It's like running 10K. And there's no guarantee I can produce 25 pages the next day. Those writers who decide to produce only 2-5 pages a day of very clean work pay the price of taking a year or two to complete their manuscripts.

5. Writers don't always make that much money. Money comes after you've hit a bestseller list or have excellent sell through. You usually have to wait a year or longer after pub. date to get your first royalty check. Yes, you get advances, but newbies rarely get six-figure advances any more (it can and does happen, but for every newbie with six figures, there are about two hundred newbies in the low four figures). Ergo, you can't buy food for the cat, and the world ends.

So--is it any wonder we burn out? When a writer you loved disappears from the shelves, you can bet that they succumbed to one of the above.

What to do about it? Well--my prescription is to go back to the whole reason why we started writing in the first place.

Love of the craft.

I remember when I first started writing, I was on a loop (defunct now) where we talked about characterization, plot points, pacing, dialog, and much more. A writer would post a paragraph or a scene and ask if it were plausible. Now on the loops, we talk about agents, publicity, print runs, editors, conferences, contests, and the like. These are all important matters, but I can't remember the last time someone wanted to talk about characterization.

Here are some tips for breaking through the block, hopefully some of which will help anyone with writer's block:

1. Get back to basics. Shut off the chat rooms, the loops, the blogs (!). Go to a bookstore or library or the corner of your bedroom and read books. A stack. (or if you read e-books, download one and read it away from your computer with Internet). Don't talk to the authors online, don't read the reviews at Amazon, don't critique it in your blog. Just read it. Remember what being a reader is like. Finish it and read the next one. Make your world about story, words, characters, writing.

2. Staying off the darn loops and chat rooms, start writing. If you're stymied on what you're working on right now, start something new. Or jump to a part of your story that you truly want to work on.

3. Leave the house and put reading and writing completely out of your mind. Ride a bike, hike, exercise, stroll through a park--do anything not related to reading or writing.

4. Go to the movies. Good movies (and even bad ones) can stimulate a thought or an idea. It's best to watch something you never thought you'd like--action/adventure if you love romance; romance if you love thrillers.

5. Pursue an interest that's completely outside writing. For instance, I build miniatures. It takes a different set of brain skills from writing.

6. Visit your family and friends--people you like to be with, not those you feel obligated to be with. Let them talk about their lives and their frustruations and don't talk about writing.

You get the idea. Forget about the stress of sales and marketing and whether your agent will still love you in the morning. Free your mind to think about story. Enjoy it.

Which makes me think I'll go out for a bike ride, take a shower, then fire up the computer. I wisely have my writing computer not on the Internet, so I'm not tempted to check e-mail every ten minutes.

I'll do it of course after I post this to my blog. :)



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