My drug of choice is writing––writing, art, reading, inspiration, books, creativity, process, craft, blogging, grammar, linguistics, and did I mention writing?

Friday, September 27, 2013

The Mailbox: What Do I Write If I Can't Write?

I'm having trouble just sitting and staring at the screen. Also, will you post more fiction?

[Remember, keep sending in your questions to chris.brecheen@gmail.com with the subject line "W.A.W. Mailbox" and I will answer each Friday. I will use your first name ONLY unless you tell me explicitly that you'd like me to use your full name or you would prefer to remain anonymous.  My comment policy also may mean one of your comments ends up in the mailbox. Also don't forget the F.A.Q. covers a lot of questions.]    

Sophia writes:

My problem isn't sitting down every day. I do that for three hours religiously. My problem is that I just sit there and stare at the screen. Sometimes for the whole three hours. I have story ideas in my head, but when I go to write them, they're gone. I know you say you've never had writer's block, so please tell me your secret. If I can ask two questions, I'd really like to ask you to post more fiction. I loved Falling From Orbit and The Look, and I can't wait for the next part of the Demon's Rubicon. [Author's note: I added the text links to Sophia's question.]

My reply:

So there's bad news and there's good news, Sophia, and then there's also kind of hard to believe news but potentially more good, if you can swallow your pride and believe the last news, news. I'll try to break it down.

First I have to tell you the story of the Karate Kid. Actually, I have a lot of housework I need to get to today, so I'm just going to link this Youtube.

I'm a child of the eighties, so this is the old version with Pat Morita and the crane kick that we actually saw Daniel practicing, instead of the triple flip downaxe kick what ever-the-hell-thing Jayden Smith did and whereandwhenthehelldidhelearnTHAT moment at the end of the Jackie Chan version.

Now hang tight if the analogy I'm about to make about writing is escaping you. I know it's pretty hard to decode.

Bad news- This is a pitfall that most writers experience.

You're in good company, Sophia. In fact, almost every writer experiences a blank page they can't fill at some point in their lives. They taunt us more than French people in castles.

And while this is more common among starting writers, it often happens to experienced writers after they've had a measure of success and are worried about repeating it. It comes from the deep seated worry that what we write will not be good, so we sit trying to come up with the best words ever. You read a billion memes a day about first drafts being shit, but if you don't feel it in your soul, they're just words.

Empty, hollow, mocking words.

Writer's block is a real thing, but it doesn't have to be the end of the road. As a matter of factoid, there is a fairly consistent consensus among the most successful writers that what you do (or don't do) at the point the words are no longer doing the driving has a lot to do with what separates serious writers from casual hobbyists. If you walk away, blame your muse, give up, and begin a strict regimen of talking about how writing without inspiration feels like a chore or forcing yourself to write makes it feel like work you will probably always be a casual writer.

Good news- For most people, most of the time, there is a way out.

Actually, there are two ways out. You can wait for inspiration--it will eventually return (probably).  You will have an idea and then you can go write about it. But it will do so on its own sweet fucking time. (The bastage.) It may take weeks, months, even years, but it will probably eventually happen. The downside of being at your muses whim like that is 1) you may not have enough mojo to see you through a whole project, and 2) even if you do finish something, once you are done, you are back to not writing. You will find that your artistic well tends to dry out every time writing starts to feel like work you're the muse's buttmonkey,.

Though this does have the benefit of allow you to feel even more justified in getting cranky at advice to write every day. But on the down side, this path may lead to a lot of frustration if you're hoping to be a professional writer or a working novelist or something.

Fortunately there is another path for those who are serious. You can screw your determination to the sticking place and be like Joe Swanson from Family Guy facing down your problems with a cry of "BRING IT ON!"

A giant mutated rat will be playing the part of Writer's Block in our scenario.
Hard to believe news- I will show you how to fix it.

The kind of writer's block that you're describing comes from some pretty predictable places, and it's actually pretty easy to overcome for almost everyone. That's easy as in simple, not easy as in effortless. If it were effortless, you'd probably see a lot more people who express grandiloquent love of writing actually doing a lot more of it instead of just filling up a Pinterest "Writing" board and following every writing Tumblr they can.

But here's why I started with The Karate Kid. You have to do the exercises I recommend, and you have to do them in good faith....possibly for a few months. If you don't do them, you can't scratch your head when it doesn't work.

As Mr. Miyagi might say: "You either writing do YES or you writing do NO. Otherwise, sooner or later.... ~squeerk~ Get the squish."

Just like a grape baby. Just like a grape.

This is where I lose most people. I tell them to write every day and they think "fuck that." I tell them to do free writing and they're too good for it. I explain how the muse, creative flow, inspiration, unconscious, subconscious, brain, whatever struggles against even the pleasure of artistic creation the minute it starts to feel like work, and they think "Not MY brain." They know better. (You know because of all the books they published and money they've made.) They're too good for plebeian exercises because they are artistes. Artistes must be inspired, not do drudgery work. And a few years later when I check in on them, they're usually still struggling.

The potentially more good, if you can swallow your pride and believe the last news, news- If you take these steps, and you do them faithfully, the chances are in about two or three months we get to have whatever analogous writing equivalent there would be to this scene (maybe you like writing a lot while I make grunting noises or something):

So are you ready to do what I say, no matter how weird you think it is and how much you might feel like it is sucking the joy out of something you love or making it feel like a chore, and no matter how much you think you know better? No matter how much you feel like maybe I might--JUST SHUT THE FUCK UP AND DO WHAT I TELL YOU!!!!

Okay? Here we go:

1- Follow all the links below. The text links below are all to superfly shit that is exactly what you're asking about. I go into more detail about something that I've written an entire article about previously. Morning writing. The Floating Half Hour. Free writing. They are all their own articles, and it's GOOD information. Yes, it's a lot of reading, but some of this information doesn't bullet point well.  If you want to know, for example, why you do "morning writing" right when you wake up, it's in that article. This article would become too long to include all that information. It's worth it. Trust your uncle Chris.

2- Get your hands on Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande. This is the best process book you could ever possibly have.  It is so amazeballs that I changed my product review so that it could go up to eleven. Many of the other suggestions on this list will be coming from that book. There is nothing in this book about how to write. No grammar rules. No craft suggestions. Brande doesn't care what your prose looks like (yet). It's all about how to be a writer. When to write. How long to write. How to read.

This isn't easy reading either. It's not motivational speaker positivism crap. Dorothea is not kind--she is like the mean physical trainer at the gym who won't let you get away with saying that you're tired. In fact, she very clearly tells writers at a couple of points that if they can't do an exercise, their internal desire not to write is clearly greater than their desire TO write, and they should give up.

Ouch, right? Yeah. Dorothea isn't fucking around, and neither is this book.

Becoming a Writer is off copyright, so there are a lot of ways to get it for free if you're budget is in a pinch. The PDF URL tends to move, but if you Google it, I'm sure you can find a copy.

3- Do the morning writing exercise that I've written about. The benefits and reasoning is all there. Find a way and make it happen. Don't be too good for it. Don't figure you can do it whenever. Don't write your fiction. Even if you have to write about how you don't have any ideas for what to write, do not stop moving your fingers no matter what. Free writing has a valid neurological reason that it will work.

4- When you achieve success at the morning writing (which you will know by reading that article) move on to The Floating Half Hour of Writing. It may take you a month to get here and a month to successfully do this exercise. It may take you three months to get here and a month to do this exercise...or vice versa. It may take you three months each.

Stick with it. It won't be easy. The floating half hour causes even more people to give up (or to think they're too good for it) but it is really where the magic happens. If you really sit down when you say you will (instead of "a little later") you are learning to make your muse YOUR buttmonkey. [Don't tell Cathamel I said that.] If you pull this off, you may never have writer's block again.

5- When you are not working on these exercises, and you are working on your fiction, attempt to write the worst fiction you can. Seriously. Make it the most self-induldgent, train wreck filled pile of steaming crap you can. Set out to make it suck.

A lot of that frozen-in-front-of-your-screen (or paper) stuff comes from feeling like you have to write something good. People sort of intellectually know that they get multiple drafts, but they don't REALLY respect the process. They still think "No, that's no good..." If you undermine that anxiety by literally trying to be the worst you can, you may find that within minutes you're writing fluidly. You need to be revising (a lot). You can fix it then.

6- Read more.  I don't know how much you're reading, Sophia, but I do know that not reading can lead to having stories in your head that you can't get onto paper. Unless you are reading three or four hours a day, it sounds like you could benefit from reading more. That's because you have ideas and maybe images in there, and you want to have words. Writers deal in words. Cultivate that relationship you have with language. You may even literally find that after reading a rich description of something in a story that you feel ready to run to the paper and do some of your own writing.

7- Write every day and at the same time every day. Don't confuse this with morning writing. Morning writing is just an exercise. You HAVE to write anything that comes into your head in the morning, so you shouldn't be working on fiction. But when you do work on fiction, sit down at the same time each day--and do it every day.

You may take ONE day off each week....but if you do, try to notice how the next day on feels a little stiff.

If you do this after the morning writing, that's okay, but it will be best if you take a little break in between to mentally separate the two. Try not to skip days (except the one) no matter how badly you want to or what comes up. Make this time sacred.

Pretty soon (between a couple of weeks and a couple of months) you're going to find that you are starting to become creative thirty minutes to an hour before your writing time. Ideas will be gushing. Sentences will be springing fully-written into your head. You may even find your fingers starting to ghost type.

8- Shut off anything that you might be doing during your writing time that isn't writing. Facebook. Email. Livejournal. Youtube. Kittiessmokinghashpipes/tumblr. Whatever it is, close the window. Turn off the wireless if it's too tempting, and go somewhere without signal if that's too tempting. If you sit there and really stare at the screen, the first seven steps will probably help you. However, if "staring at the screen" really means letting yourself get so fucking distracted that you can't hear your own thoughts, you'll never escape the block.

Epilogue- If you literally cannot write after all these steps, try this: This will jump start your engine, but it's not going to help if you haven't done the other steps. Take out a book you like, written in a style close to your own (or what you wish was your own), and just start typing what you see on the page. After a few minutes your brain will be "out ahead" of the typing. Then let your own thoughts edge into your writing. This is a trick that will break a "RIGHT NOW" block, but like a car that has to be jump started, eventually you have to do the real servicing.

That's it. Do those things for a few months and I can almost promise you--unless you have certain linguistic learning disabilities or a very strong will not to work (which I don't think you have, Sophia, since you sit for three hours)--that you will be writing easily and fluidly every time you sit down.

The trouble is most people won't do these things. They find excuses not to do morning writing. They believe they "can handle" having Facebook open while they write. The legions who think they don't need to write every day send me hate mail nearly weekly. And for some, they can find other roads to unlocking the flow of words (though many continue to scratch their heads about why the creative flow is so sporadic.) But these are tried, tested, and approved methods, so if you stick with them, it should go well.

Let me know how it turns out!

As for your second set of questions, most of it is addressed in the F.A.Q. here.

I am leaning in my probable intentions toward the less-traditional routes. The success of "Creepy Guy" has given me quite a lot of optimism about blogging as a means of monetization. And traditional publishing has some serious problems with being about white men.


  1. Thank you. Really. THANK YOU. I wrote my first play two years ago and it turned out to be quite successful, but I haven't written ANYTHING AT ALL ever since. I've read lots of blogs and advice, but it's the first time I feel I've read something about writing that will actually work, if I make the commitment. For the first time I'm not telling myself "I'll try this tomorrow/next week/sometime". I'm starting right now and, if I fail to stick with it, I'll just start over again.

  2. So I'm trying to go through this process (the roommate is making *THINKING* difficult sometimes, sigh), but I have a question about the floating half-hour. Is it supposed to be free-writing like the morning writing was, or is it supposed to be um, goal oriented--writing on your chosen topic?