5 Tips for Punching Writer's Block in the Face
People frequently ask me for writing advice, because professional writing is as fiercely competitive as it is desired, because they mistake me for the respected poet by the same name, or possibly just because the world is not a fair place and the God of Words wants them to fail in the most extravagant and embarrassing way possible. What these people are most concerned about, judging by the sheer number of requests, is really just one thing: "How do I get past this accursed writer's block?" While I may not be the right authority to help you with quality writing, I can sure as hell help you with quantity. If your muse is currently giving you the Kato Kaelin treatment, maybe try some of these handy tips and get that lazy wad off the couch and working again.
Know What You Write
The old saying is "write what you know," and that's sound advice. As a caveat, I once advocated that you should only "write what you know" if what you know is interesting, novel, or worthwhile. Don't bother writing it down if "what you know" is how to masturbate to reruns of Everybody Loves Raymond. I've got that down pat, thank you very much. Perhaps better advice would be "know what you write." Between my full-time job and my books, I straddle the line between fiction and non-fiction daily. I also interact with a lot of new writers in each genre, and I see a strange sentiment being echoed by both. The non-fiction writers all seem to think they can write fiction easily, because it's not as research-intensive. And the fiction writers generally think they couldn't possibly write non-fiction, because they'd spend too much time researching and not enough time writing. To which I can only say: "You're both assholes, hypothetical people whom I've just invented."
Does the pivotal scene of your genre-defying action adventure take place in your own living room? No? General Kill McKillian doesn't face off against Bigg Meatchest on your suburban patio for the fate of the Underverse?
"And so, Meatchest, we meet again. And how fitting that our final showdown should occur where it all began -- by the lawn chairs!"
Then you need to research location. If you can't personally visit every place you write about in your fiction, see if you can contact somebody who has. Ask them questions. Look up as many photos as you can -- hell, we have Google Maps Street View now! That's no substitute for reality, of course, but it's a big one-up on turn-of-the-century authors who had to tie a wig on the cat, squint at the garden, and pretend it was Africa. The point is, if you're stuck staring at a blank page, the important question to ask is: Why is this page blank? You should have reams of research, notes, and images all there waiting for you -- even if you're imagining an entirely new location.
My last novel took place in a dystopian city located entirely within a gargantuan skyscraper -- obviously I didn't have the funds to visit Dr. Doom's Terror Tower in person to take notes, so I had to make that shit up. But first, I looked up building techniques for mega-structures and I browsed thousands of pictures of crowded Chinese apartment towers and South African skyscraper projects. When it came time to write, I wasn't staring at a blank page and panicking; I was just staring at the collective misery of our species and exploiting it for my own uses.
And that's what writing is all about!
Accept That You're Going to Write Garbage
You're a terrible writer.
But that's OK, because so is everybody else. There's no such thing as a great writer; there are only terrible writers with great ideas and the patience to hammer them into shape. Vonnegut once said there were two types of writers: swoopers and bashers. Swoopers vomit everything down on the page, then edit, edit, and re-edit until it starts to look like coherent language. Bashers work sentence by sentence, only moving on when it's perfect. Most new writers think there's a third category that Vonnegut forgot: the beautiful fucking Disney princesses of the literary world, who lightly kiss the page once and fully formed masterpieces spring forth.
Pictured: The entire editing process.
Vonnegut didn't mention the princesses, because they don't exist.
Both swoopers and bashers have one thing in common: agony. They agonize over the work again and again and again, until they get it right. Whether you do it sentence by sentence or revisit the whole thing at the end makes no difference. You need something down -- anything, even just a single word -- that you can refine. Writer's block comes from the panic of potentiality: There's too much you can do, so you do nothing. Push that thought out of your head and put something down on paper that you know, as a fact, is going to be garbage. Whether that's a terrible chapter full of hackneyed twists and cliched dialogue, a single sentence with six adverbs and zero nouns, or the lone word "dongasm" in all capitals followed by four exclamation points and a 1 -- just give yourself permission to fuck right and thoroughly up. You have all the time in the world to fix it. You're not turning each letter into the English Warden when you're done with it; you can always change things. And if it really sucks, you can always delete it before anybody sees, burn the keyboard that typed such heresy, and then get so drunk that you yell at the couch for judging you.
Figure Out What You're Writing
This is the most intuitive and obvious advice possible, and yet occasionally it will surprise a new writer: Figure out what you want to write before it's time to write it.
Do you want to write the great American novel? That's way too goddamn broad.
Do you want to write a globe-trotting romance/adventure about a man falling in love while losing his faith ... while also fighting the ghost of his dead twin who's trying to solve the mystery of the Vatican? That's way too goddamn specific.
A few hundred thousand words is pretty much the limit for the modern novel. There are rare works that surpass that number and still function. There are even the occasional authors who pull it off routinely, like Neal Stephenson, who is apparently out to drown the world in his books to avenge some childhood slight. You are probably not Neal Stephenson, and if you are: Hi! Thanks for reading. I loved The Diamond Age. Would you like to get in my mysterious van for reasons unspecified at this time?
"It's not what you think! It's for a Little League tournament! OF RAPE!"
The reality is this: You only have between 100,000 and 200,000 words to tell a story. I know, when you're sitting there struggling with the first line, that seems like telling a fish flopping around in the bottom of the boat that there's only so much ocean in the world. But if you're having trouble starting, it might be because you didn't set down a place to start. If you want to write a moving literary novel, why not add a few words to that descriptor before setting out? If you want to write a paranormal sci-fi romantic legal thriller, try subtracting one or two of those terms before starting.
Because trust me, you do not have the space to encapsulate every nuance of the American zeitgeist with your touching classic about a man who orgasms fireworks. And you don't have space to write a genre-spanning masterwork that pulls the best elements from Jane Eyre, Catch-22, World War Z, Fifty Shades of Grey, and The Hurt Locker into the world's first rom-com-zom-dom-bomb.
Don't Get Ahead of Yourself
Are you worried about marketing, promotion, or traditional publishing vs. self-publishing? There might be a more pressing issue you're forgetting about: Do you have a finished fucking book yet?
You'd be astounded how many requests for writing advice start out: "I'm going to write a book, should I self-publish? How do I get an agent?"
Self-publish what? Your good intentions? An agent for what? Your nebulous aspirations? You don't have anything yet!
You have a vague idea and an impulse. You might as well tell me you're thinking about grabbing a burrito, but you want to know which toilet you're going to crap it out into first. You're concerned with a hypothetical future, and that concern is actively preventing said future from happening. Even if you're just sitting there staring at a blank page, you're still being infinitely more productive than the writer who doesn't even have a word processor open yet. As human beings, we are all very stupid in the exact same way: We procrastinate, but we know procrastination is bad, so we try to spin the act into alternate methods of productivity.
"I know we have a big case to prep for, but this is relevant, I swear: Do you think you could kill an intern with a paper airplane?"
"I'm not putting off cleaning the garage; I'm just practicing the Swedish art of planed space arrangement first!"
"I'm not putting off my thesis; I'm just researching which fonts are most efficient at conveying numerical data in low light!"
"I'm not putting off writing my book; I'm just trying to figure out what demographics are most interested in purchasing erotic island-themed horror for the Nook first!"
Yes, what you are doing is, at first glance, slightly more productive than playing XCOM until your eyes bleed, but it's still not accomplishing the task at hand.
Stop Worrying About Originality
You know what nobody's done before? A gender-bending mermaid story that takes place entirely in cyberspace.
You're right. Nobody has done that before. And there's a very good reason for it: TranSplash: Open Ports is probably going to be a terrible book just as soon as I'm finished writing it.
Most new authors are extremely worried about novelty. They don't want to write something that's been written before or, God forbid, be accused of ripping off some other book. But as counterintuitive as it sounds, originality should be your last concern. Virtually every story has already been told. All of the major arcs and plot structures are several millennia old, and if you squint hard enough, even Die Hard 4 is just a palette-swapped Beowulf. Unless it's The Epic of Gilgamesh, your favorite book is probably not the first to put its core concepts into words. Good books are not gauged by their novelty, otherwise the most successful modern novels would just be random pictographs and artfully smeared feces. Hey, nobody's done an anthology of "don't walk" signs and poo before -- sounds like a best-seller!
"Like Fifty Shades of Grey, but with less crap!"
The problem is not uniqueness. It's earnestness. If you're worried that your pacing is too similar to Harry Potter, don't write it backward in a mirror; just try to be honest and respectful to your audience. If you're concerned that your main character is too similar to Italo Calvino's protagonists, you don't need to make your omniscient water molecule a midget, too. Just have the little dude speak with your voice, and tell any dissentin' bitches it was an homage. Nobody can dispute an homage.
That shit's like a literary force field.
Buy Robert's stunning, transcendental, orgasmic science fiction novel, Rx: A Tale of Electronegativity, right here. Or buy Robert's other (pretty OK) book, Everything Is Going to Kill Everybody: The Terrifyingly Real Ways the World Wants You Dead. Follow him on Tumblr, Twitter, and Facebook.