This io9 article not only fits the theme of this blog, but is also—by far—the most useful article I’ve ever read about the topic of Writer’s Block. Give it a read.
The 10 Types of Writers’ Block (and How to Overcome Them)
By Charlie Jane Anders, on io9
Trying to think of something to write this morning, I came up with the following idea. I’m posting it here as a writing prompt for other writers. If you end up using this prompt, please share your story with me. I’d be curious and excited to see what you do with it!
Everyone has to permanently evacuate (the city? the state? the world?). Contamination, war, incoming asteroid strike, global catastrophe, whatever. Each block or section of a populated area has a designated “sweep” person, someone who goes through the area after everyone has evacuated to make sure no one is left behind.
Our protagonist is one such person. She is a loner, grew up an orphan, so she’s excited about events—she’s not leaving anyone or anything behind, and relishes the fresh start. Show the pang of loss from her POV as she moves through houses along the block: photos and other mementos left behind, a home that will forever after be empty, etc. She comes to understand how hard this is for most other people.
I came across these 22 excellent rules of storytelling from Pixar, and thought they were worth sharing for any writers who stumble upon this blog. Here are a few of my favorites:
#1: You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.
#6: What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?
#9: When you’re stuck, make a list of what WOULDN’T happen next. Lots of times the material to get you unstuck will show up.
#15: If you were your character, in this situation, how would you feel? Honesty lends credibility to unbelievable situations.
#19: Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.
Check out the entire list on io9 here.
Ten years ago, I wrote another blog whose purpose was also, ostensibly, to generate creative sparks and inspire me to write more often. As I described that blog then, “It is my intention to use this daily exercise to jump-start my too-long-dormant creative energies, and perhaps generate some worthwhile material this year.” Sound familiar?
Because this current blog was born of this month’s Camp NaNoWriMo creative challenge to write a novel, and science fiction is my genre of choice, I thought it’d be worthwhile to reprint this old but still relevant blog post—written 10 years ago to the day.
What’s interesting is to look back through my own slow glass at myself, 10 years ago. While my current life is different in many profound ways, other things are depressingly unchanged. In the intervening decade, I haven’t published anything of note, and here I am, 3,650 days later, still pecking away at a blog that maybe three people will read. A rational person would conclude that such lack of progress means I should give up on writing and focus on a different hobby or activity. But to me, it simply proves that I need to write, even if only for the three of you.
written April 11, 2003
In his short story “Light of Other Days,” written the year I was born, science fiction writer Bob Shaw formulated the concept of “slow glass.” In brief, slow glass is glass that is so opaque that light takes as long as ten years to pass through it. From a practical standpoint, then, if you looked through a window made of slow glass, you’d see events that took place outside that window ten years ago. In his story, Shaw explores the lives of a man and woman whose marriage is in its death throes. While on vacation, they visit a slow glass merchant and notice the man’s wife and child through the window, playing inside the house. When they enter, however, the house is deserted; only then do they realize that the window is made of slow glass, giving the lonely man his final glimpses of his long-dead wife and child.
With his unique plot device, Shaw keenly illustrated how we are prone to look through slow glass in our own lives. Sometimes we focus too sharply on the present through the lens of the past, illuminating our lives with the “light of other days.” The older we get, the more memories we accumulate. It becomes easier to look backward instead of forward. In bad times, especially, it can be seductive to look back at better times gone by, embracing nostalgia and indulging regrets.
This example shows the best of what science fiction can achieve. Though too often the genre doesn’t rise above the little green men and space battles of popcorn movies like “Independence Day” and “Star Wars,” the best SF utilizes the conventions of the genre to comment on the human condition. Time travel, alien visitation, space exploration… all can be dramatic tools to tell a story about the universal struggles we go through in our lives.
To some degree, this has been part of the formula for the long-lived success of the “Star Trek” franchise. Most of the best episodes of the series (in all its incarnations) deal thematically with one human issue or another. In the “Next Generation” episode “Redemption,” for example, the Enterprise responds to a potential civil war on the Klingon home world, but ultimately the story is about the conflicts between duty and family honor with which Worf wrestles. The movie “Star Trek: First Contact” featured battles between the Enterprise crew and the Borg, but at its heart was Picard’s fight to overcome his inner demons.
Ultimately, the best storytelling does more than just tell a story, more than merely entertain. The greatest stories teach us about ourselves, comment on what makes us who we are, how we deal with the constant struggle from cradle to grave. What makes science fiction so effective—and perhaps what attracts me to it so—is its ability to utilize speculative, imaginative concepts as metaphors: otherworldly devices to tell very worldly stories.
Some morning freewriting….
Cats like to think they are aloof, mysterious creatures, but really, they’re as easy to read as a children’s book. When a cat purrs, you don’t wonder whether or not it’s happy. Same goes for a low, throaty growl; the cat might as well be saying “You don’t want to be near me right now.” And every cat is born knowing exactly how to show you that it’s bored and couldn’t care less.
Peter sometimes wished he were married to a cat. He’d have to clean up the occasional hairball, and once a month his wife might scratch the hell out of the side of the couch. But at least he’d be able to read her emotional state and not have to figure out whether no means yes this time.
No, women are the true enigmas of the animal world. The Sphinx might have the body of a cat, but its head—where all games start, after all—is that of a woman. The Riddler, that most cryptic of all Batman villains: he wore a mask, so how do you know he wasn’t a she? And what was Churchill speaking off, calling it “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma”? Mother Russia.
To know the mind of a woman is to peel back the mysteries of the universe and understand life’s greatest secrets. But one might as well try to walk upside down on the top of the sky.
After sharing this new blog, I received a link from a writer friend with a list of fantastic writing tips from none other than John Steinbeck. In the Paris Review article from which the advice was taken, the author describes a familiar feeling to me. That as soon as one begins to write, “one stiffens in exactly the same way one does when one is being photographed.” I can relate to that, as I keep waiting for the flash to fire—the only difference is that I don’t have a goofy smile on my face as I wait.
I’m going to try to incorporate some of this advice into my daily writing, with hopes I’ll have at least some success.
- Abandon the idea that you are ever going to finish. Lose track of the 400 pages and write just one page for each day, it helps. Then when it gets finished, you are always surprised.
- Write freely and as rapidly as possible and throw the whole thing on paper. Never correct or rewrite until the whole thing is down. Rewrite in process is usually found to be an excuse for not going on. It also interferes with flow and rhythm which can only come from a kind of unconscious association with the material.
- Forget your generalized audience. In the first place, the nameless, faceless audience will scare you to death and in the second place, unlike the theater, it doesn’t exist. In writing, your audience is one single reader. I have found that sometimes it helps to pick out one person—a real person you know, or an imagined person and write to that one.
- If a scene or a section gets the better of you and you still think you want it—bypass it and go on. When you have finished the whole you can come back to it and then you may find that the reason it gave trouble is because it didn’t belong there.
- Beware of a scene that becomes too dear to you, dearer than the rest. It will usually be found that it is out of drawing.
- If you are using dialogue—say it aloud as you write it. Only then will it have the sound of speech.
Writing daily is hard stuff. Sitting down and facing a blank screen without knowing what you’re going to write is like standing in front of your house and contemplating where to go. The possibilities are endless; you can start walking in any direction, including three dimensions—you can climb up a tree or down into a canyon. You can make your way to the airport and board a flight for anywhere in the world. You can walk onto the freeway, into oncoming traffic, creating your own drama in the process. You can walk into the restroom designated for the opposite sex, creating a different kind of uproar. You can walk over to a homeless person and buy him a sandwich, or walk an old lady across the street. You can walk into the surf until you’re in over your head, or walk across a frozen pond until the ice breaks. Or you can remain standing in front of your house, paralyzed by the infinite choices and unable to begin walking.
That’s what it’s like for every writer who sits down in front of a blank computer screen or sheet of paper. Without knowing what you’re going to write, without planning where you want to go, you just sit staring like that sojourner in front of his house, paralyzed by limitless choices. To take a step, to make a choice, is to close off other options. You took a step to the right, but what if left was really the best way to go? You turned east, but maybe you would’ve had the time of your life if only you’d turned northwest.
Some might envision a dark and gaping maw full of sharp teeth as the most terrifying thing imaginable; but for a writer, that most horrific of all monsters is the one that opens its hungry, blankly white mouth to pull you down into an empty, wordless oblivion. The white page, the blank screen. If you can fight darkness by filling it with light, then a writer’s best defense against the Great White Beast is to start firing words at it like bullets. Fill that bastard with dark black slugs of letters, compose sentences that will slice it like swords, pummel it with paragraphs.
In other words, just start walking.