Breathe! The Copyeditor Has Your Back

One of the things a good copyeditor will do, beyond dealing with infelicities of grammar, syntax, style, composition, and general meaning, is cover your back. And I mean totally cover it.

In my experience, what most indie authors require is actually a combination of line, copy, and general editing*, not least because the cost of the numerous editing passes a big publishing house would do (general/developmental edit, line edit, copyedit) can add up to several thousand dollars, a prohibitive sum for the vast majority of indies.

When I’m copyediting a manuscript for a client, I’m in a watchful mode, consciously noting and monitoring a broad swath of detail and information. The characters’ physical characteristics, the revealed details of their backstories, geographical locations, dates and times events take place, even character names—all these are prone to inconsistency and slippage over the course of a long work and revisions, and it’s the copyeditor’s job to spot these errors and fix them. But that’s just the beginning.

A copyeditor takes little for granted. If, say, I find a reference to a company called Datavision in the text, my first instinct is to wonder if it might not be styled DataVision, or Data Vision, and I’ll google it right away to see if a correction is needed. If I’m working on a science fiction novel and the author states that the universe is 13.8 billion years old, I’ll check that this figure is current and correct—science and tech are especially tricky, since our knowledge is increasing at such a rate that “facts” are constantly changing.

Or let’s say the author has used a Latin or French phrase, like non plus ultra (nothing beyond compare, as far as you can go) or cherchez la femme (look for the woman). A good copyeditor will, if not familiar with it, check both the spelling and the meaning of the phrase to ensure the author has used it correctly. German words like schadenfreude (taking pleasure in others’ misfortune) are especially hazardous. It’s terribly easy to make mistakes in this area.

Firearms present notorious problems for writers, many of whom have little or no firsthand knowledge of them. I’ve come across more than one hero flicking the safety catch off a revolver…but revolvers don’t come with safeties. Whenever a gun is used in a story, details need checking. Is that brand made in that caliber? How many rounds does the standard magazine fit? And so on. As to the actual use of firearms in fiction, it’s the copyeditor’s business to know and alert the writer that anyone who isn’t an experienced shooter is very unlikely to hit a person at more than fifteen yards with a pistol, especially a snubnose or a large caliber model with heavy recoil.

It helps if the copyeditor has a good memory and a large store of general knowledge. Just recently, I was going through a manuscript where the author invoked the European terrorist group of the 1970s and 1980s, naming them the Red Brigade. Fortunately, I was around then, and know that they styled themselves, and were known as, the Red Brigades (plural). A small error, but these add up.

Then there are the logical and physical errors and impossibilities. If the author has a terrorist at Dulles airport notice “a group of heavily-armed cops in the distance, maybe a thousand feet away,” the copyeditor should be thinking, wow, that’s a fifth of a mile…and go googling for maps of Dulles airport to see if there really are sightlines that long, as well as adding an inline comment for the author. In another recent manuscript I worked on, the author has a fellow chopping a line of cocaine on the railing of a ship at sea, which is a great way to prevent any actual drug use: better to find a more sheltered spot well out of the wind.

Sex presents a lot of fun for the copyeditor, and fortunately, most writers have a sense of humor when it comes to edits on the subject. I once had to point out to an author that the words vibrator and dildo aren’t interchangeable, the two devices being functionally different in significant ways. No, please don’t ask.

In summary, a good copyeditor working with indies usually does a lot more than check grammar, syntax, and punctuation. Though some of the above falls into the grey area between copyediting, line editing and developmental or substantive editing, it’s my belief that the copyeditor’s job is to protect the writer from every possible circumstance that may cause embarrassment, criticism, scathing reviews, or ridicule. No editor or proofreader is perfect: we all miss things. But the manuscript needs to leave the copyeditor’s hands in a condition such that even if errors remain, they are so minor that no harm will come to the author’s sales or reputation.

So go on, create awesome fiction and don’t worry about taking risks. The copyeditor has your back.

Have you worked with a copyeditor? What was your experience like? 

*I call this the “single edit solution.” Details of my editing services can be found here

Note: This post was originally published as part of the Indie Author Series at Janice Hardy’s Fiction University, 8/11/2016

Advertisements

4 Comments

Filed under Writing

The Made in L.A. Anthology is here!

We at Made in L.A. Writers have been working like crazy to put our first anthology together since deciding on it late last year. The anthology is now available in print and releases in digital format on the occasion of the L.A. Times Festival of Books (April 21-22), where we’ll have a booth. If you’re in L.A., we’d love to see you there. My own fiction contribution to the 300+ page volume, a 45-page novella titled Dry Bones, is set right here in the City of Angels, as are all the other stories. I’m very excited about this anthology! Here’s a peek at the cover and the list of fabulous authors. 

Cover of the Made in L.A. anthology, vol.1

cover design by Allison Rose


CONTRIBUTORS:

Amy Sterling Casil
Dario Ciriello
Jude-Marie Green
Andre Hardy
Gabi Lorino
Bonnie Randall
Allison Rose
Cody Sisco

Readers in Los Angeles are thirsty for stories that bring their city to life. This anthology features a diverse range of voices and genres. Like the City of Angels in which these stories were born, nothing is off-limits. Literary or contemporary, noir or ghost story, fabulism or science fiction, each story in this volume will forever change the way you look at this iconic metropolis.

Made in L.A. Writers is a collaborative of Los Angeles-based authors dedicated to nurturing and promoting indie fiction. This 2018 volume is the first of the annual Made in L.A. anthology series. While our styles, themes, and story locales differ, our work is both influenced and illuminated by our hometown and underpinned by the extraordinary, multifaceted, and often surreal culture and life of the City of Angels.

From my colleague Cody Sisco’s introduction to the volume, here’s the scoop on how this anthology series came to be:

“In 2017 four indie authors first came together under the Made in L.A. banner to support each other and share a booth at the Los Angeles Festival of Books. We passed out bookmarks, watched as kids made away with our candy, chatted with a few questionable characters, and found many new fans. We expected all of that.

“What surprised us was how many people approached our booth with a version of the question: Are these books all set in L.A.? Our reluctant though truthful response, “Not really,” didn’t satisfy them and it didn’t satisfy the four of us, who saw a missed opportunity to “give them what they want.”

My own novella, Dry Bones, set in the Altadena foothills of the San Gabriel mountains, revolves around the breakdown of relationships, reality, and even time in the face of L.A.’s haunted past of cults and occultism.

The Made in L.A. anthology is already available in print at Amazon, and will release as an Amazon eBook on Saturday April 21. If you prefer the digital copy, please pre-order it now, since every pre-ordered copy will help us immensely by building momentum and interest on release day. Either click on the book cover image above or follow this link to the book page for either edition.

We had a lot of fun putting this volume together, and I know you’re going to love it. And don’t forget — if you’re in L.A. that weekend, do stop by our booth at the festival and say hello!

 

 

2 Comments

Filed under Books and Writers

Witches and Warlocks and Gunpowder, oh my!

I’m not a Halloween guy, nor much of a fan of things twisted and scary. I delight in complimenting little witches and warlocks and spidermen and ladybugs on their great costumes, but the holiday itself I really don’t care for. I confess I find it hard to understand its appeal to anyone over thirteen, except that dressing up and walking around with a gang of your besties at night would definitely be fun. But the candy and cobweb stuff? Meh. 

Of course, I wasn’t brought up with Halloween. When I was a kid in London, October 31st, though acknowledged and known as all Hallows’ Eve, which had its origins in the Celtic Samhain, was a non-event unless you were a pagan or a super-devout Roman Catholic. The big harvest time festival of my childhood was Guy Fawkes, aka Bonfire Night, which occurs on November 5th.

The Guy Fawkes festivities mark the capture and execution of the plotters who wanted to blow up the House of Lords and assassinate King James in order to restore a Catholic king to the throne. But as a child, I confess I believed the celebration, with all its rockets and roman candles, catherine wheels and bangers, was really in honor of what might have been had the gunpowder plotters not been discovered, and instead succeeded. Clearly, like all children, I was an anarchist to my core.

My reading and viewing habits today just skirt the edges of the horror genre. I’m a little impressionable: as a child, I remember having difficulty sleeping after reading the Sherlock Holmes story, The Speckled Band, late at night (the reveal with the bell cord…omg!). And the 1961 Roger Corman movie of Poe’s The Pit and the Pendulum with Vincent Price scared the daylights out of me.

Now, I do love Stephen King’s work, but curiously not the books other fans hold up as masterpieces (aside from The Stand, which is genius): I far prefer King’s less graphic and more psychological ouevres, like The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, Gerald’s Game, and Duma Key, to the gory shockers Carrie and The Shining, to name a few.

It’s odd therefore that in late 2014 I ended up writing Black Easter, a suspense/horror novel of sorts featuring ritual magic of the darkest kind, demonic possession, and human sacrifice, not to mention inventing a whole new demonology to drive the book. What can I say but that I don’t care to use off-the-shelf pantheons and cosmologies, and inventing your own is a lot of fun. Especially when you can bring in a shimmer of Lovecraft without actually adopting his cosmology wholesale and ending up with a fanfic piece.

If you like Halloween and supernatural fiction, and haven’t read it, Black Easter is on sale at Amazon all this spooky week for just $0.99. Grab it now and make it a week of demon worship and reading past your bedtime! And while you celebrate the spook-fest, I’ll be giving early thanks that I never lost a single finger or eye to the mad fooling with fireworks and rockets of my long-ago childhood.

Happy Halloween!

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Manufactured Crisis or Thoughtful Analysis? Stay Informed Without Losing Your Mind

Some days it seems that everyone I know is stressed over what’s going on in the world. Extremely stressed. I mean, like, freaking out. Panic attacks.

This is most apparent on social media, where everyone’s fears are repeated, reinforced, and magnified in a white-knuckle crescendo of screaming feedback and hyperbole. Some of the stress is justifiable: it’s pretty clear we’re not living in the best of all possible worlds. Bad enough that we have North Korea, ISIL, almost weekly terror attacks in Europe, resurgent racism, and what looks like a new cold war starting up. Add to that an unpredictable US president with a Twitter account and a penchant for pouring gasoline on every fire he sees, and it’s hard not to be concerned.

In the last few weeks, I’ve seen many people expressing fears about everything from nuclear missile attacks vaporizing US cities to civil war in the US. Friends and acquaintances are having panic attacks, rage episodes, and experiencing chronic depression. This is hardly surprising, since the two biggest stressors in primates are lack of predictability and lack of control.

I share some of my friends’ concerns to a degree, but I’m far from depression or panic. Part of this is simply being older—I remember the Cuba missile crisis and lived in London throughout the brutal IRA bombing campaigns of the 1970s and 1980s. I’m still here, and so is almost everyone else.

Beyond that, there’s one thing I do control, and you can too: your media. That doesn’t mean not staying informed—in fact, you can be both better informed and less stressed if you want to.

First, let’s remind ourselves that it wasn’t always like this. The 24/7 news cycle began in 1980, when Ted Turner’s CNN first came on the air. Before that, the news cycle was a daily one, beginning with the newspaper, and the same applied to the evening news on network TV. CNN was a game-changer: suddenly news was breaking 24/7, and anything even remotely newsworthy stood a good chance of being magnified for impact.

It’s important to understand the power of the visual medium in humans, who are primarily visual creatures (unlike, say, dogs, who get the vast majority of their information through their sense of smell).

Accordingly, a dramatic news item presented as video—a CCTV clip of a car mowing down innocent pedestrians, say—has infinitely higher emotional impact on the viewer than if they read the same item in textual form. Repeat that image over and over, and the impact on the audience is multiplied. Anyone who watched network news daily at the time of the 9/11 attacks probably saw the twin towers coming down at least scores of times, and probably several hundred: the networks played them over and over and over. For weeks. Months.

When Marshall McLuhan, back in 1964, wrote, “The medium is the message”,1 he wasn’t joking. The medium in which content is delivered shapes the content and the way it affects society in ways that are often unforeseen.

I haven’t watched TV news in almost thirty years. I have for many years listened to the BBC and NPR news on radio, and for the last decade mostly online, but in the last year or so I’ve mostly ditched that too.

How do I stay informed? I read. I read good news sources that report accurate, factual news—and, no, there’s no debate over what that is. (If you’re someone who believes the alt-right and president Trump’s definitions of “fake news”—or for that matter think Occupy Democrats and Addicting Info are credible news sources—you really shouldn’t waste your time reading this post. You’re not going to be convinced, and there’s a good chance I’ll can your comment: it’s my blog and my op-ed.)

I happened to be born with news media in my veins. My father was a celebrated, first-rank journalist, and I had a clear grasp of media accountability and the importance of credible sources before I was ten. Nine or ten newspapers were delivered daily to our house, and a number of news and current affairs weeklies, from Time Magazine to The Economist, as well as several Italian and French publications, were always to hand.

Now here’s the point. Television and radio news are push media: what that means is that the newsroom determines the hierarchy of importance of each item or topic and pumps them at you in a steady stream: you can’t just dip in and grab what interests you or what you consider important. Moreover, TV news has to be both sensational and simplified enough to keep the largest possible audience riveted: it’s fueled by advertising dollars, and airtime is very costly.

Text, on the other hand, is a pull medium: you can scan, determine what matters to you, and read just that; moreover, you can usually go and read more on that same subject in depth elsewhere. Lacking dramatic video imagery and manipulative voice tone, text media is much closer to sterile than visual or audio. Articles may of course carry spin or falsehoods, but selecting good sources addresses that.

Here’s a handy graph which compares news sources. The vertical axis defines journalistic quality; the horizontal, partisan bias. On the whole, I think it’s very accurate.

News Source Graphic

image too small? click here to enlarge

Another upside of text is that it’ll leave you better-informed. A four-minute radio piece—about the length of most items on NPR, undoubtedly one of the best news sources in the world—is perhaps 600 words. That’s not much, about the length of a typical blog post;2 you can barely scratch the surface. By contrast, the average length of a NYT article is around 1,200 words. Publications that take analysis really seriously, such as The Economist and The Atlantic Monthly, run some articles up into the several thousand-word range.

It’s true that readers’ attention spans are diminishing, and many people won’t take the ten minutes or so required to read a 1,200-word article. And the fact that everything is powered by the advertising makes it even more likely that newsroom editors, even in gold-standard publications, will be tempted to trim analysis and background material from articles.3

So: get your information fix from image-rich, emotionally manipulative push media, or pick your topics at leisure from in-depth, thoughtful, and less strident text media? Anxiety attacks or informed consideration?

The choice is yours. And there’s always antidepressants, right?

 

Notes

1  Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, Marshall McLuhan (Signet, 1966)

2 Most of my posts on this blog, and when I guest post elsewhere, are usually in the 1,200-1,500-word range—that’s how long it takes to dig a little into a subject.

3 https://www.theguardian.com/media-network/2015/jul/15/tldr-quartz-associated-press-article-length

Thanks due to Vanessa Otero for her wonderful graphic comparing news sources. Check out her excellent blog here

Leave a comment

Filed under Material World

Poorly Served: The Upside-Down World of Dining Out and Shopping in America

It’s not easy being a cultural transplant.

After almost three decades in the US, one thing in particular still makes me gibber and foam at the mouth: the absolutely awful service in stores, and especially restaurants.

Say, what? Let me explain.

I’ll be in a store — a supermarket, say — and deeply focused on my mission. I have a list, either on paper or in memory.  I’m juggling menus and selections in my head. I may be examining tomatoes, considering their ripeness because the recipe I intend to use them in is three days away, and I want them perfect then.

And from behind me, a complete stranger asks me how I’m doing today, not only startling me but also totally disrupting my chain of thought.

Or the restaurant where I’m deep in conversation with my wife or a friend, and every five minutes either the waitperson will interrupt us to ask how everything is, or some poor wretch tries to refill my water glass every time I take a sip. Worst of all is the breathtakingly inconsiderate habit of starting to bus our plates before everyone is finished, on the pretext of “let me get these out of your way, sir.”

You moron! Go away! They’re not in my way, and my wife hasn’t even finished her meal!

Okay, I’ve never called anyone a moron yet, but I have told water-bringers to “go away and never come back.” For real. And, yes, I like to linger with my empty plate, to adjust and tinker with the carefully-positioned utensils laying across it as we chat and refill our wineglasses. It makes me feel I’m not being rushed. What’s the damned hurry?

Why do I get so bothered over this? Because I’m European. I come from a place where a diner’s chief priority isn’t wolfing down their food and getting out of a restaurant in twenty minutes. Where sharing a meal is something to be enjoyed, a chance to be unwind and bond and connect with one another. Where once you sit at a table, it’s yours until you’re ready to go. Where people aren’t coerced into hiding their real feelings behind a corporate mask of bland niceness and fake solicitousness.

I’m sure the waitstaff at restaurants and the people who stock the shelves in the supermarkets are often wonderful people, but I don’t go there to have a social experience with them: I have friends for that. And greeting a shopper when you’re not even in their field of vision isn’t merely annoying, it’s downright creepy! (Trader Joe’s, where all the staff are under substantial pressure to be full of puppy-dog good cheer, has an especially bad problem, as revealed in this NYT piece).

I don’t care what my restaurant waitperson’s name is. I just want them to bring my food while it’s still hot (a particularly challenging item in the US, especially with soup), and leave me to enjoy my meal in peace. Why must they waste our time and confuse us by reciting an endless list of specials in mind-numbing detail which we’ll all forget two seconds after they finish? Surely the restaurant has a computer and printer, and could just slip a sheet of paper listing the specials into the menu like they once used to. Is the management  under the illusion that we’ll find it a bonding experience and like the place better? It’s nuts.

Look, good service isn’t intrusive — it’s discreet and invisible. Waitstaff and store employees should be around and available when you need them and stay out of the way when you don’t. Pestering people, interrupting them, interrogating them…none of this is good service. It’s pretend, flummery, stagecraft. Sadly, these are core American values. (Discuss.)

The same goes for clothing, household, and other stores. I understand acknowledging the customer as they walk in to let them know staff is aware of their presence in case they’re thinking of shoplifting. But if — as happened to me in the lovely Huntington Museum gift shop just a few weeks ago —  four different people come up to me in the course of ten minutes to ask if I need help, I just walk. Usually after telling them why, and sometimes handing them the item I had intended to buy until they shattered the last of my dwindling patience.

Once or twice I’ve sought out the manager in a supermarket and told them that the smiling attempts to catch my eye, the repeated greetings, and the dreaded, “did you find everything okay?” at the checkout are excessive. When pushed, they’ll mumble that they and their staff hate it too, but head office makes them do it. And head office is probably getting that advice from some consultancy firm or guru, for which advice we, of course, are ultimately paying.

Service industry protocols in this country are upside down. It’s like living in a sick mirror universe, and there’s not much one can do about it. When my wife and I go into a restaurant these days, I’ve taken to telling the waitperson, nicely and right up front, that we’re not in a hurry, want the food to come slow, and don’t want to be bussed before we’re ready. They nod and smile and seem to get it. And yet four out of five times the result is no different.

So does anyone actually enjoy all these forced interactions and interruptions? Or am I simply legend?

10 Comments

Filed under Material World

Drown the Cat: Video Trailer

Are you ready, world?
My new and somewhat contrarian guide to writing craft, Drown the Cat: The Rebel Author’s Guide to Writing Beyond the Rules, releases on July 4, 2017. I chose to release the book on U.S. Independence Day because Drown the Cat is all about empowering writers to take back their freedom by questioning all the so-called “rules of writing”. Check out the awesome one-minute video trailer and turn it up!If you like the sound of this, the click here to pre-order the Kindle version and have it delivered wirelessly on Independence Day! Print and other retailer links will follow on release date.

Just to whet your appetite, here’s a brief excerpt from the book in which I address what may be the most misunderstood writing rule of all:

Show, Don’t Tell

The show, don’t tell dichotomy is entirely false: all fiction is telling; if it weren’t, it would be called storyshowing. The author is telling you a story, and you, the reader, agree to either play along or not. And given that you’re paying for the privilege, it had better be well-told.

The nonsense spoken on this subject is legion, with the result that writers drive themselves mad, often wasting days of their time trying to dramatize, in onstage action and dialogue, scenes that could be far more effectively and economically handled another way.

Remember when we talked about narrative distance in the interiority chapter, and I pretty much said, “screw pulling back the camera, keep the narrative distance tight”? Well, strong interiority will feel most like showing to the reader, and pulling back so that the reader’s not tight in the PoV character’s head anymore will feel more like telling.

When you read, as any editor does, a lot of newer writers’ novels, you’ll find they’re often puffy, too long by thousands, and sometimes tens of thousands, of words, with stiff, awkward scenes that stand out in contrast to the faster, free-flowing sections.

One major reason for this is that the poor author has had the tyrannical Show, Don’t Tell dictum pounded into their brain by so many writing books and blogs and fellow authors that they’re terrified to summarize in narrative things which don’t need to be dramatized. So they go ahead and build a “live” scene around every particle of information or setting they think the reader may require.

This perceived need to dramatize everything can, among other things, result in pointless scenes where characters talk about things for no reason other than to avoid a narrative passage. The scene isn’t doing anything else, and the characters who were so alive earlier have turned strangely wooden. At its worst, you have the dreaded “As you know, Bob” dialogue, a scene in which characters tell one another things they already ought to know.

Don’t do this. Ditch these scenes mercilessly.

[…] There, now—that didn’t hurt a bit, did it? No need for dialogue or having it all happen onstage, you’d have been bored to distraction. Narrative summary in viewpoint works just fine.

I’ll say it once again. The show, don’t tell dichotomy is entirely false: all fiction is telling.


My sincerest thanks are due to Allison Rose for her spectacular work on the book trailer


 

4 Comments

Filed under Books and Writers, Writing

Breaking Writer’s Block

Since I spent most of last year struggling with a difficult-to-write novel, I want to talk a bit about writer’s block.

Let me say right up front that I don’t believe there is such a thing in the sense most people apply the term. I think the popular image of writer’s block—and one that’s shared, unfortunately, by a good many writers—is that the muse has abandoned the author. Even taken as a metaphor, I don’t feel this is a helpful definition. Why? Because it’s disempowering. It makes the writer the victim of a mythical entity with superhuman gifts.

It’s natural for a writer who suddenly can’t make headway to panic. Unfortunately, not only is that likely to result in even greater paralysis and stress, but it’s distracting you from the real issue.

First off, a muse, which I believe is actually the writer’s subconscious, requires work on the part of the writer to nourish1. This work primarily takes the form of sitting down every day at the keyboard, whether or not you feel inspired, and typing something. In addition, the writer needs to be reading, getting out, exchanging ideas, experiencing life, and generally feeding their muse. If you sit around waiting to be inspired, you’re likely to have a very long wait, and any inspiration that does come is likely to be short-lived.

I think the well of creativity can temporarily run dry, especially after a long spell of intense work. If you really believe writing burnout is your problem, worrying isn’t going to help. Better to simply accept that you need to recharge. Go for long walks. Go on a reading binge. Travel. Have a torrid love affair. Try bungee jumping or Go-Kart racing. Or even simply allow yourself time to get bored. Just living and experiencing life will help far more than fretting or obsessing or trying to force something to come.

In my experience, writer’s block, especially with a work-in-progress, is always a signal from the subconscious that something isn’t working, and specifically that I don’t understand some specific aspect of what I’m trying to write. I always look for this first in character and ask myself if I have all my characters squarely in focus, whether I know them all as well as I should. Since I don’t plot much in the abstract but rather let my characters create the plot under pressure from a strong setup, the problem for me is almost always one of character…because if they aren’t moving and acting, the plot stops. If I don’t fully understand their goals and motivations and internal conflict, how can I write the next scene? I want to write about real people, not puppets. Digging deeper and earnestly into character can solve a lot of story issues and unblock you.

It’s also possible that the blocked writer is simply bored with their work. This happens. In this case one answer is to write an exciting scene even if it’s out of sequence: this can often get you engaged and moving again.  It that fails, try rethinking the story altogether and ask yourself if the idea will actually carry a novel, trilogy, etc. To paraphrase Elmore Leonard, leave out the boring bits2. If they bore you, they’re likely to bore your reader too.

On a related note, it’s also worth asking yourself how much you care about the story, whether your heart is really in it. Newer writers in particular may find, on honest reflection, that they’re trying to write something they think will be popular rather than telling a story they really want to tell. You need to have passion about the work for it to really come alive.

Sometimes writer’s block can be a result of the writer’s own growth process. As we start learning our craft, our appreciation and admiration of others’ talents and the realization of how much we don’t know and still have to learn can amplify our self-doubt to the point where it becomes  a paralyzing wall of terror. This is something that makes or breaks writers, a demon that comes with the territory. When one finds oneself at this pass, it’s helpful to remember that every single one of the writers you read and admire also had to learn their craft and overcome these same terrors3. They say it takes a million words to learn your craft, and I believe there’s some truth in that. It’s also good to bear in mind the saying that “it takes ten years to become an overnight success.”

It’s also possible the writer may just be overwhelmed by life. Demands of work, money concerns, domestic discord, caring for aging parents, family illness, all consume time and bandwidth: by the end of the day you’re too fried to do even think, let alone write.

My advice in these cases is the same advice I give writers in every case: write daily, and first thing in the morning, before your head gets filled with junk and other people’s words, and the world begins to pull you every which way. Get up an hour or two earlier if you need to. Find the courage to say no to everything that’s not critical. Ditch TV for sure, go to bed earlier if you need to, and get your social media and online time under control. All these things can be huge time sinks.

I can hear the chorus now: “But how am I supposed to relax?” Nuts. If you want to write badly enough, you’ll push other things aside. Think how much more relaxed you’ll be when that damn novel you’re stuck on is done!

Fear of failure can be a factor, too. Writing is a hard, solitary business. You ask yourself if the possible returns—because, honestly, very few of us will ever make anything like a living off our writing—are worth the effort. Hell, you could be having fun: playing games, watching movies, partying with friends, learning some other skill. Instead, you’re stuck at your desk trying to pile up tens of thousands of words about made-up people which, in the end, nobody may give a damn about. Well, those doubts are real, and we all face them at some point, often more than once. My approach is to face them squarely, stare them down. It’s your decision, nobody else’s. You can choose to go forward or you can stop. So far, I’ve chosen to go forward4.

So how did I break through the obstacles with my own work-in-progress? Time wasn’t the issue in my case. I had that. The problem was a multifaceted one stemming in part from the odd way in which I write, in part from the conceit of the novel. The solution—and it took me months to dismantle, brick by brick, the wall I seemed to have pulled up against—lay in further character work, and pulling apart what seemed like an absolute tangle of character arcs into separate threads. I don’t plot in detail much, but because of the present-day, real-world settings and outrageous premise of the novel, I was forced to do far more intense tracking and actualization of my characters and the situations in which they found themselves than ever before. I set up spreadsheets to track character interactions, and spent more time listing each character’s foibles and peculiarities, down to star signs and unconscious conflicts.

I used Google Street View, too, a favourite tool of mine. Using this amazing tech to walk the streets your characters walk, to see their neighbours’ houses and the locations where bad things happen, can really help get the creative imagination flowing again and spur progress. You have to be in your novel, standing right by each character as you write about them, to forge ahead. When one is stuck, it’s often because—like Timothy Leary—you’re on the outside, looking in.

Even the above wasn’t enough. I had to dig deeper, more than I ever have, to really get to the core of what was the novel was about. The core plot conceit—an engineered coup and the complete collapse of the status quo in a major Western democracy—kept pushing the novel towards being a formulaic, testosterone-fueled yarn about the machinations of people in the halls of power, and the military: I didn’t want that, I wanted a visceral book about real, sympathetic, knowable people. It took that realization, and a concerted effort of will to repeatedly steer the focus back towards a group of ordinary Janes and Joes, people like you and I, faced with the meltdown of pretty much everything they know. I had to not only leave out the boring bits, I had to leave out everything that would prevent this from being my book. That meant sifting through the piled-up garbage and cookie-cutter tropes I’ve absorbed for years and disregarding all the accumulated BS from watching Hollywood and reading bestselers. To hell with Save the Cat. I’m gonna let it drown.

Finally, talk to people you trust. Your wife or husband, fellow writers, your ideal readers. Simply doing that, talking through the problems and fears, can bring fresh insights on what is really causing you to be stuck and help you move through it.

To conclude, then, I believe that writer’s block comes in many forms, and each is eminently capable of a cure. But it takes effort, intelligence, courage, and, most of all, determination to work through them. Writing is mostly about tenacity and will. The only one who can finish the work is you. And though your muse may feel like some fickle, external supernatural being, they’re not: they’re a part of you, the writer.

Writing is hard. But with courage , creativity, and sheer willpower, you can break through any block.

Have you experienced writer’s block? How did you get past it?

Notes

1 Both Stephen King and Damon Knight have written at some length about this

2 The actual quote is, “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.”

3Robert Silverberg, in “Science Fiction 101,” gives a wonderful, detailed account of his own struggle to master his craft

4I strongly disagree with all the writing coaches and bloggers who exhort and badger you to keep writing at all costs: I believe that knowing one has a choice and the freedom to stop if the cost–mental, emotional, or otherwise–becomes such that your life suffers is empowering, and I’m not going to take that away from you. You need to choose to keep writing, not do it to please me or anyone else.

3 Comments

Filed under Writing