Monday, January 31, 2011

End Writer's Block Forever

All writing is difficult. The most you can hope for is a day when it goes reasonably easily. Plumbers don’t get plumber’s block, and doctors don’t get doctor’s block; why should writers be the only profession that gives a special name to the difficulty of working, and then expects sympathy for it? 
—Philip Pullman

Most of my clients have experienced writer’s block. When it happens, we think that we are the only ones who suffer so fiercely. We imagine that our favorite novelists produce their books easily and fully formed. As we hit our head on our desks, struggling to find any old word (not to mention the best word), we think, “REAL WRITERS don’t have this problem. PROFESSIONALS never get blocked. If I were GOOD at this, I’d be done by now.” Yeah, right.

Writers get writer’s block. After years of writing professionally and coaching writers through blocks, I’ve learned that writer’s block is not some mysterious curse that needs to be cured. Instead, writer’s block is simply information. Writer’s block teaches us that something about our writing project or process is not working. In that sense, writer’s block is a gift. Like the pain that comes with a broken ankle, writer’s block tells us what’s broken. Once we know what is NOT working, we can fix it. Use the following questions to help you discover what writer’s block has to teach you:

1. Is this the right project for me? Sometimes we get blocked because we are working on writing assignments that are not right for us. Yeah, I know—professional writers write, no matter what. Ideally, we should be able to put together an article on either tree frogs or toe fungus with our eyes closed. But we can get embroiled in projects that don’t work for us. Writer’s block or procrastination is our soul saying, “No.” Let go of what does not work and move on.

2. Is this the right time for this project? We can love a project and desire to do it, but bump against writer’s block because the timing is wrong. Maybe we are trying to write a book while also launching a business or a teenager. Perhaps we don’t have the distance from a difficult experience to write a memoir about it. Or maybe we should just wait until tomorrow when the kids are back at school, and the house is quiet! If now is not the right time for this project, work on something else. Or, schedule a different time to write.

3. Do I have the information I need to do this project? Writer’s block can happen when we do not know enough to write an article or book. We might have thought we were ready to write, but writer’s block shows up to teach us we need to research more. Get thee to a library (or Google)!

4. Do I believe I can do this project? Research on the effectiveness of medication reveals that when a patient believes that a placebo will cure depression or a headache, it usually does. The same goes for us—if we believe we can write it, we can. It doesn’t matter what we are writing, how much training we have, or how well connected we are, our belief in our ability to write well busts through any block we might face. If you don’t believe you can write this particular project, you have two choices: write as if you believe in yourself or dump the project and find a new one.

5. Is the [structure, plot, character, etc.] working? Writer’s block is often a sign that a crucial element of the book is not working. Figure out what that is, and the block will disappear.

6. What do I know? You might run through all five of the above questions and still feel blocked. If that’s the case, ask yourself what you do know. Write what you know (even if it is simply a description of the character’s socks) until you stop feeling blocked.

That’s it—my not-so-magical solution to writer’s block. I hope you are cured. If not, maybe it is time to go to plumbing school?

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Be Persistent

A professional writer is an amateur who didn’t quit. —Richard Bach

Just over a month ago, our family adopted an 11-year-old Bichon named Muffin Man. This 16-pound dog has three great loves: treats, walks, and cuddles. When he wants any one of the three, he will employ one of his well-honed begging tricks. He follows me around the house, trying to guide me to the front door and his leash. Muffin dances backwards and forwards on two legs, tilting his little head to the side and making eyes at my daughter, begging for a treat. He sits attentively, tapping his feet rhythmically, silently pleading my husband to invite him to jump into his lap! No matter how many times we say later or no—we’ll walk you later, no table treats, no sitting on the sofa—Muffin persists in asking for what he wants. Writers, we can learn from my dog!

Richard Bach said that a professional writer is an amateur who didn’t quit. How true. In this complicated, competitive market, persistence might be your best asset. The writers who succeed continued writing and revising their books even after their family, friends, or a few dozen agents told them to give up and get a real job. They submitted their books to hundreds of agents and publishers until something clicked. Then the authors persistently marketed their books until readers started showing up.

Yes, it is hard to get published. There are fewer publishing houses looking for bigger name authors who can promise thousands of readers. But there are also new, smaller publishing houses cropping up all over the place. Online venues offer additional places for writers to get published. But before any of that matters, you must persist in writing and rewriting until you have a manuscript that shines. The key to all of the above tasks is persistence. Now, get back to that writing!

P.S. If you don’t believe me, take a look at this article about 30 famous authors who were rejected repeatedly before they got published!

Monday, January 10, 2011

Choose One Thing

When asked, “How do you write?” I invariably answer, “one word at a time.” —Stephen King 

Last week you dreamed about what might be possible. You thought about what you want to give up, what you hope to take on, and what you want to write. Now it is time to choose one goal and make a plan to achieve it.

“Just one?” you ask. “But I have a million good ideas.”

Most writers have a million good ideas floating around in their brains. We jot them in our notebooks and on our to-do lists, but often juggling too many good ideas and potential projects prevents us from finishing any of them.

Make this year different. Choose one project and schedule time to work on it. Write one word at a time until the project is done. When you have finished writing and revising to your satisfaction, choose another project.

This is how a writer builds a large body of work—by writing one word at a time. Now go and do likewise!