Uncorking the Genie

We’re all familiar with writer’s block, even those of us who aren’t writers. What, you never dreaded a school paper just because you didn’t know what to say? At least with a research paper, or a book report, there’s a kernel of… something there. With fiction it’s both easier and harder. Easier because, as you rightly point out, we’re just making it all up. Harder because fiction, unlike real life, must make a modicum of sense and follow a narrative path (even if said path doubles back on itself a few times. But woe betide the writer who loses his Reader in the deep dark woods far from home. The Reader may close up the book in fright, having lost the path entirely, and worse, they may never choose you, Author, as their guide again).

With all this in mind, is it any wonder we have times where we stare at the blank screen/paper and wonder just where our fickle muse got off to? Surely that mental genie is having more fun than we are, stuck here staring at the incessant blinking cursor. For me, being a professional means I need to have a measurable, predictable output when I sit down to write. But it’s not always possible. Sometimes to pull that cork, I have to build up a head of steam and pop it out by pressure, first. Like yesterday. We drove for about six hours, down into Kentucky and back, and spent about six hours visiting while we were down there. Tiring day, but as my Evil Muse pointed out, the next time I complain about being blocked, he’s going to pick up the car keys and herd me to it for a long drive to nowhere. We talk, in the car, and often enough we talk about writing. Sometimes he’ll give me the idea that crystallizes everything that has been floating nebulously around in my head and boom… it all comes out of solution into a beautiful structure.

For those times that hours in the car are just not practical, other solutions I have found include standing in the shower (there’s something about being places where you CANNOT write, and suddenly you need to write), doing dishes, walking the dog… Others have reported good results from similar activities.

However, for consistent daily results, keep in mind that writing is mental exercise. Just like building muscle and burning fat, you can’t just sit down one day, put in a huge burst of effort, and expect that to do all the work and you don’t have to go to the gym again this year. Small daily exercises will yield far more effective results in the long term. It feels uncomfortable and awkward at first, to make yourself write. You may doubt that what you are writing is worth keeping. I will be honest, in the long run you might not keep that work. But in the beginning, you aren’t allowed to doubt it. Keep writing, and when you come to the end of the tale, then and only then may you go back and see what you have wrought.

I’ve seen far too many people get hung up there, on the rocks and shoals of doubt. With the beginning of a story, they suddenly doubt if it’s right. Or they are uncomfortable with what they are writing. Readers may not know this, but writers are insecure, shallow creatures. This is why we crave and cling onto reviews, even long after our efforts on that particular book have ceased. However, if you the Author never finish that story, you’ll never know whether you got it right, or not.

I rarely give writing advice. When I do, it consists of a few simple things, but they all center around this. Write. Just write. if your muse is being recalcitrant, you can either pop the cork out by thinking about the story until it comes to life in your head and you wind up dictating it all in a rush as it is told to you, or you can force the cork out slowly by writing a little every day. Like exercise, that’s a slower process. But it will pay off in the long run, as you build up the mental muscles until when a sudden need says ‘I need a story/blog post/paper in an hour.. Go!” you’ll be able to do it almost effortlessly. And while a 10K word day will be a physical ache, after, it will also be a thrill like standing on top of a mountain looking down and remembering the day you could barely make it across a parking lot.

 

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53 responses to “Uncorking the Genie

  1. Write SOMETHING, you can always fix it later.

    For a while I was stuck on a stupid little scene, Benita is riding with her new master on his oxcart headed to the tower. She’s going to say something, but what?

    I was agonizing so much over what I was going to have her say that I just decided that I’d have HER agonize over what to say, and she solved the problem.

    Sure, I didn’t get to make an “Are we there yet?” joke, but it’s probably better that I didn’t.

  2. A lot of writers argue – and my experience seems to be that it’s often true – is that a lot of what we call writer’s block is really a case of the writer having written themselves into a corner.

    It’s not always the case, however. On my current WIP, I know exactly where the story should go. Yet it’s still dragging. Recent real life issues contributed, but I was stuck long before any of that happened, so I can’t agree that all cases of writer’s block is because you don’t know where the story is going.

    Sometimes, it’s just a case of not knowing how to say it, rather than what to say.

    • Very much this. About four months ago I became the primary taker-of-care for a tiny psychic vampire. It’s the only explanation that makes sense. If he were female, I’d suspect we’d been “gifted” with a just-whelped leanansidhe, as my ability to create has seemingly whithered under his “care.” The kid’s adorable as all get out, but I can’t seem to manage more than a few sentences before he either REQUIRES MY ATTENTION or the story juice slows to a trickle. It’s … not at all unusual for writers with children, I’m told, and also temporary. It’s godsbedamned annoying, I know that much, and pricks all those sensitive insecurities.

      • I know the feeling on that front. While my daughter’s birth didn’t impact me so much, she’s now at a point where she demands more of my attention for interaction. It makes writing…difficult, to some extent.

      • To a much lesser extent, my cats seem to have a Writing Detection Sensor, and when I start to write, one of them will come up and tug on my shirtsleeve and meow for attention. Not when I’m web browsing, but as soon as I switch to OpenOffice….

    • I’m beginning to think I should go back to writing out of order. I too have all those future scenes running around in my head, and yet I get stuck on the things that have to come before. I think if I could get those future scenes down, it might be easier to write the connecting bits with the decks cleared.

      • I’ve heard of plenty of folks doing just that.

        If it works, it works, right?

        • It makes the editing part more difficult, there will be more continuity errors and so forth. On the plus side, you realize that you don’t actually have to drag the reader through _all_the long boring parts. “Twelve hours later, she dragged her weary carcase out of the car” is often better than a chapter about the trip.

      • Laura M

        Somebody’s writerly advice was to leave out the boring bits.

    • if you’re stuck on a draggy scene, ask yourself “is this necessary?” Chances are if you’re bored with it, the reader will be, too. It’s perfectly all right to skip the long bridges of time/travel/healing and get back to the action. Life may be full of long periods of waiting, but Readers rarely are interested in reading about that (Marukami would be the authorial exception to this, and I’ve never made it all the way through one of his books).

      • Agreed.

        Though sometimes, passion for a story can fade for other reasons. My current WIP has been in my head for a couple of years in various forms. After a while, you just get tired of a story.

        Luckily for me, I’m getting that enthusiasm back at the moment.

    • Akilika

      I am finding [SCENE GOES HERE] or [TRANSITION] markers to be incredibly useful to me… sometimes, knowing what happens next (in between the stuff I already know) seems to makes it easier to figure out what goes there. 🙂

      (Not that I’ve been writing long, but coming across these tidbits is really fun… ^_^ )

    • Sometimes I’m stalled because where I consciously think it should go, and where my subconscious thinks it ought to go are in conflict. Teasing the info out of the back brain can be frustrating.

  3. I presented this problem to a chat room one evening and was advised that if you are really stuck it’s time to have armed men burst into the scene suddenly. Worked.

  4. Pingback: Divertissments | Cedar Writes

  5. I’ve been, eh, not exactly blocking but staring at a low wall on two of the WIPs at the moment. One because I kept trying to shoehorn a major element of the story and it’s made the Muse sulk. That unlocked last night and now i’ve got a sense of how something’s going to work. The other one is hanging a bit of fire because I need to read two more military histories to get the exact flow of what I’m going to change worked out, and at what point the protagonist is going to be invalided out of the Imperial Army. What level of detail do I need to have vis-a-vis weapons, terrain, tactics, and so on? Still not sure and I may stop sweating it and just plunge ahead with the draft and fill those in later (he’s a WWI cavalry officer, so at least I don’t have to deal with motor vehicles *grin*).

  6. Laura M

    For me, writing is thinking, and I’ve used Dr. Mauser’s approach of having the character do all my fretting. This is particularly good in NaNo, where the word count is all that matters. Half the fretting gets dropped later, but writing the fretting into the scene helps you see the logic of whatever choices might be available to the character. I find out a lot by writing. Having it all mapped out in my mind is actually somewhat inchoate, and not the same as step by stepping it through in narrative form and capturing it.

  7. Reblogged this on Bitchy Muse and commented:
    “However, if you the Author never finish that story, you’ll never know whether you got it right, or not.”

    Ah, but if you never finish, you’ll always have the comfort of not knowing you failed, right? If you never fail, you always might have succeeded, instead of having to confront how horribly the reality doesn’t jive with the dream. And so…what foolish creatures we mortals be, yes?

    For me, the enemy is named Perfection. It’s my demon, my intimate, my tormentor. It appears on either shoulder, in two forms: Obsession and Paralyzing Fear. When Obsession giggles and whispers with its long forked tongue, I go over and over that last sentence, desperately seeking that just-right word or a just-so turn of phrase. When his twin Paralyzing Fear poofs up and never speaks, only stares with it’s big owl eyes of knowing, it’s always some form of “it’ll never be the way you see it in your head.” And that’s when the blinking cursor never moves, because I’m always trying to prove PF wrong by writing the way I know I can write–perfectly.

    Of course, this is impossible, since Perfection is nothing more than a rumor, cooked up by some Mad Wandering Muse to damn some of us to everlasting creative hell. But even knowing that, I still strive for it.

    Even on this last weekend of NaNo, when I’m desperately down on my wordcount and over-tired from too much real-life work, I still strive for it. Ah well. Strive away it is, then.

    The daily training seems like such a good idea. Even just a bare minimum of a hundred words a day, and I might be able to tire out the shoulder demons a bit.

  8. Holly

    I’m short a word, which I may need to make up. Anyone know if there is a term for a moon or planet without an atmosphere, something that would get used as in “Go get him a vacuum suit, our next two stops are a space station and an (moon without an atmosphere).” Or the opposite, a body with an atmosphere? If there isn’t, I’m going to have to make up a term, because this is a topic of everyday life and people aren’t going to use the whole phrase.
    Speaking of finding just the right word to write next.

    • Most moons don’t have atmospheres. But depending on how space-operatic you’re going “dead moon” might do it. “Rock” or “dead rock” might also serve.

      OTOH, a space station implies an atmosphere inside and docking.

      • Holly

        They’re aboard a hyper-ship, about to depart a planet-based station with an unbreathable atmosphere, and the boss is mildly paranoid while her subordinate is a ‘by the book’ type. Then I realized that as these guys keep moving from place to place this will be a recurrent topic of conversation: “Our next stop is x, it’s an whatever-it-is,” where what it is will depend on plot ideas: space station, planet or moon without atmosphere, planet or moon with unbreathable atmosphere, planet or moon with breathable atmosphere, asteroid, comet, etc.

        I think it’s a bit small scope for space opera, maybe a space operetta or a space musical, but more likely just a space skit. But what do I know?

        • These things often take on a life of their own!

        • Made me think of James White’s four-letter descriptions. I don’t think English has a single word, we make do with phrases. German, now, you could probably ram airless and planet and a couple other things all into one word and people would be perfectly happy with it. How about vakuummondmitschlag (yes, I know that is cream. Don’t you like cream on top?)

          Let’s see. We have letters for suns to indicate which type they are. Add a number for size of the planet, from rubble in asteroid belts through moons past ordinary planets and up to the saturns and jovians? atmosphere seems like a good third modifier, maybe letters again? So we might have a G4E, type G sun, medium size planet, and breathable atmosphere. Or that airless moon might be a G2A with 2 indicating it is rather small, and A showing negligible or no atmosphere.

          Or you could just go with airless moon, I suppose. Not nearly as much romance, but you don’t have to work an explanation of the naming scheme into the thing.

          • Laura M

            I vote for airless moon. There will be no confusion.

            • Second thoughts. If they are doing a lot of this, I’ll bet they simply start referring to the type of suit needed. So shirtsleeve is normal planet with breathable atmosphere, no protection needed. Airless is probably full suit or something. Death world is biosuit with full augment. And so on.

              • Laura M

                Ooooh. Nice. Jargon is never quite the thing you’re talking about, but always a couple steps removed. Your shirtsleeves achieves that little two-step. Very nice.
                (I remain fond of “airless moon” from a plain language perspective.)

          • Arwen

            OT, but I love your icon. It’s so cute!

    • Non-skyclad satellite.

      Vacuum moon. Vacumoon.

      Lu-nekkid.

      • The First Reader is asking me why I’m cackling so hard. Brilliant!

      • Atmospherically underprivileged planetoid.

        Breathable gasses are racist, don’chewknow.

        • Holly

          Funny, and I may have to have some societies that use these at some point.
          I take it if there is a short-hand used by astronomers, this crowd doesn’t know it, which probably means it’s so rarely used as to be non-existent for all practical purposes, so then it’s just bouncing ideas off the family til I hit something I like that doesn’t need much explanation. (Isn’t that what parents, spouses, and kids are good for? That and proof-reading.)

  9. John McDonald

    For me, road trips are usually when I do a transport for one of the animal (mostly dog) rescues I’m involved in. I have had a fair bit of success using a digital voice recorder, as it seems quite a few good ideas, scenes, etc., happen when I’m driving. I also tuck it in my pocket when I’m out walking the dog. Some folks might think it strange to see an old man having a one-sided conversation with a 95 pound German Shepherd, but the Shepherd hasn’t made any snide remarks about my writing. At least not yet.

    • Dogs, thankfully, are wholehearted supporters of their writer friends, not least because it means more time where they can nap on their writer’s feet and get unexpected walkies after their writer started cursing at the funny blue screen. At least this is what our dog will tell you 😉

  10. I’ve been having problems due to interrupted workflow. Mostly physical, and hormonal, that I didn’t expect at all. I discovered my belly gets in the way of my elbow when I’m drawing, and I get complaints from the Work In Progress if I lean forward as I tend to do when I’m really into writing something. Complaints that are delivered in the form of two-footed kicks into my diaphragm, or bladder.

    They never said being a writer would ever be like this! This is something they never warned us about! O_O Well, okay us writers who are preggy mums.

    More seriously, I’ve discovered over time that I do my best work for writing at night. For drawing, during the day. I used to be able to pull through on 6 hours of sleep, but as I’ve aged, to my frustration, this is not something I can do any more. And gone are the days that a single large mug of Lethal Level Caffeine coffee would wake me. I zombie for a few hours during the morning, just trying to get my brain into gear. Coffee alone no longer sets my mind in motion! This cannae be~!

    (why yes, I’m severely sleep deprived. What gave that away? *silly smile*)

    • Funny, the older I get, the less sleep I seem to need. I get by on about 6 hours most days. Although weekends I become a serious lay-abed. My biggest problem is falling asleep. It often takes me hours.

      And long vacations, like the upcoming Christmas break. I will totally lose sync with reality.

    • Laura M

      When I was pregnant with my two boys I spent a couple of months on house arrest ’cause twins. It was better than bed rest, which a lot of people have to go through, but I really only got to take the stairs once a day. I had tons of books, videogames and music, and I was working from home about 20 hours per week. All I remember of that time was how much I stared out the window. (I didn’t have other kids, so that was possible.)