Friday, January 29, 2010

Writer's Block: Imagined or Real?

Writers block: does it exist? Anyone who has ever experienced it will nod their head vigorously and say yes, of course it does. Other writers will smugly say they have never experienced it. There are differing viewpoints on exactly what one should call the phenomenon of when ideas grind to a halt, plots get stuck, and why one just can’t seem to move the action or the characters forward. Advice to Writers offers some interesting viewpoints of writers from Toni Morrison to H.G. Wells to Irving Stone on what they consider to be writer’s block and what to do about it. Some are very amusing.

Whatever one does or doesn’t like to call it, many authors get to a point where they’ll do anything except sit down and write their book. Carrie Lofty, a romance writer with a passion for history, has a new take on an old problem: it's called 'fiddling' and when writers don't want to write, they fiddle. Let's hear it from Carrie who has the solution to the writer’s habit of ‘fiddling!’

Are You a Fiddler?
By Carrie Lofty

I like to think that I've been writing romance since I was 13, but that wouldn't be entirely accurate. Although I finished a romantic screenplay at that age, I wouldn't complete another work of romantic fiction until September of 2006. In the interim, I wrote a series of fantastic, incomplete 100-page attempts. Some didn't even make it to 100 pages. I might finish a few chapters, or a chapter … or a scene.

To say that I hit a wall would also be inaccurate. I've never had writer’s block. After all, the ideas were always there. And that was the problem! I would dive headfirst into a new idea only to be distracted, a few days or weeks or chapters later, by a newer and shinier one. My husband threatened to stop listening to my writing discussions if I changed stories again.

This carried on until that fateful summer in 2006 when my husband flew to Virginia for an internship. I stayed behind in Madison, Wisconsin with our two daughters, who were then aged two and three. I wanted desperately to finish a novel so that I, too, could have a career that would take me around the country. And more importantly, I wanted to prove it to myself that I could finish. I couldn't stomach the idea of being a wannabe who always talked a good line, but never actually finished their “some day” novel. What I had been doing was obviously not working. I would write a chapter—then print it out, eviscerate it, revise it, reread it.

In essence, I was a fiddler.

After the initial burst of inspiration wears off and the hard work of actually finishing a 300+ page novel begins, hesitant writers are left with only one recourse: to fiddle. Revising, creating note cards, reading craft books, rereading—all of these can be useful skills and techniques, but only if they are used productively. I was using those same techniques to delay. After all, it looked like I was working!

I believe it stems from fear. The new, bright, shiny, beautiful idea in your head can be an intimidating muse to live up to. While first drafts are messy and unwieldy, the idea in your head looks more like a polished novel or a big-screen movie. The contrast between those two—what you’re attempting to create and what you imagine—can be so dissonant and daunting as to cause a fatal case of fiddling. It's fatal to your chances of finishing a book, that's for certain.

How did I break the cycle?

I started with a very reasonable goal. I would write 1000 new words every day. No matter what. Rain, shine, cyclone—no excuses. The first night was the hardest. I wanted to go to bed. I wanted to give up, go back, and mess with what I had already written. But I persevered. After days of practice, and then after weeks of success, those 1000 word slogs began to add up. I finished my first draft in 88 days.

Granted, revising the sucker took four months. I was still learning, and that first draft was truly horrible. But I had done it. I had finished my thought. I had resisted the urge to fiddle. What's more, by the time I typed “the end,” the beautiful bright-and-shiny idea that I'd started with didn't glow quite so fiercely. It didn't hold as much appeal. I had moved the flawless “one day” idea out of my head. Now it was a tangible “that day is now” novel. My sense of accomplishment and pride was far outweighed by distress about how many revisions it still required.

So…are you a fiddler?

Do you have so many ideas, all of which you hope to get to “some day”? Do you often start a project, only to abandon it part way through in favor of a newer, better idea? Do you obsess about research and character backgrounds, or reread and revise chapters—all to the detriment of producing new words?

Then I would suggest that you need an intervention. Set yourself a small, reasonable goal to produce new words every day. No matter what. Do not reread what you wrote the day before. Once you’ve filled up your pages, you can go back and fiddle to your heart’s content. And if a new, fantastic idea comes along, use it to motivate yourself into finishing this idea first.

That’s my take. I hope you glean wonderful things from it. But just like eating healthy or exercising or quitting smoking, the real impetus to make lasting changes in your writing habits begins with you.

Carrie’s witty and observant reflections on life can be found at her website and if you’re fascinated by historical romance that takes risks, then check out Carrie’s latest book Scoundrel’s Kiss (and enjoy!).

Some Top Advice

Alan Rinzler (Consulting Editor) has a great post that suggests perhaps one of the reasons you can’t finish that novel is because your plot is not clear. His advice is simple and clear: get your outline right.

Matthew Stibbe (writer in chief at Articulate Marketing) suggests that concentrating on writing will get you over your hurdles and offers 22 ways for staying focused on your writing.

Have you overcome your writer’s block? Got any great suggestions? Please let readers know.
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