Writer’s block. That state of wanting to write something but not being able to find the words, disliking anything you do manage to write, or perhaps losing your motivation to write altogether. No paragraphs, sentences, or words appear on the page. You are blocked, silenced, inert.
Confession: I didn’t used to believe this was a real thing. I was in the “sit down and write” and “it’s all in your head” camps, and maybe I still am to some degree, though I’ve realized that my reluctant mind is more powerfully stubborn than the good intentions of my butt in a chair. I do seem to be suffering from a mild case of writer’s block right now, for the first time ever, and thought I’d try to analyze why.
This is what I’ve come up with.
The Short-Story vs. Novel Merry-Go-Round
It goes a bit like this:
I should work on my novel. Getting a novel published (more than one, actually) is the only possible way to make a living writing fiction. I know this, and I’d love to make a living writing fiction. I have a novel in the drawer that I could polish up, and am 30,000 words into a new one. All it would take is a big push to get one or both done. Yep, I should definitely work on my novel, but…
Short stories are so much more fun! I can write and polish one in a week or two! Comb over it a dozen times to ensure the prose is just right! Sustain a unique voice that would be challenging to sustain at novel length. And I can send several out into the world at once where they might sell, bringing in tiny amounts of money but more importantly feelings of gratification and accomplishment, not to mention a hearty round of congrats on Twitter!
But I should work on my novel. Starting a new short story will just distract me, take my mind off of pressing plot problems and interwoven character arcs. The fast glamour of the shorter form will only highlight what a slog novel writing is by comparison. Plus, if I don’t finish my novel, I won’t have anything to pitch to an agent at the next convention. But…
There’s this cool themed anthology seeking submissions! And getting a short story published would add to my resume and get my name out there, and OH MY GOD maybe qualify me for SFWA, and that stuff’s important, am I right?!
And so on.
I’m sure there are many people who can work on short stories and a novel simultaneously and effectively, but not me. My best writing happens when I’m intensely focused on one project, not when my mind is scattered between several. For the last month or so I’ve been plugging away on my novel, but short story ideas—good ones, I think—keep intruding. I need to tell them to buzz off for a few months, or I’ll never finish this book.
What I’m Writing is Crap, Anyway; or A Crisis in Confidence
When I first began writing seriously, I had in mind an adventurous and entertaining series of high fantasy novels that I hoped would be read and enjoyed by the largest audience possible. Best-seller status was something I aspired to, with critical praise and literary merit of secondary importance. Awards such as the Hugo and Nebula were not even on my radar screen.
I started to attend writing conventions, which are wonderful places to meet people and learn about the craft and business. But I also learned something else: critically acclaimed, award-winning authors are revered (rightfully so), while some of the most mainstream, most popular authors seem to be, well, reviled. Okay, if not reviled then certainly looked at with distain. While no doubt much of the criticism leveled at these popular works is valid, I’ve also been left with the impression that “escapism” is unquestionably bad, and that the “masses” are not discerning enough to be considered an acceptable target audience.
Over time this has led me to question my own goals. Maybe I should be aiming for critical acclaim and not popular success. Maybe what I’m writing—what I like to write—isn’t worthwhile. Maybe it’s not enough to want to entertain readers.
And, well, maybe it isn’t. It’s great to be surrounded by talented peers who by example push me outside my comfort zone, encourage me to up my game and improve my writing, think about the messages and themes in my work. These are all good and valuable things, of benefit to any writer. But I also think it’s possible to stray too far. To lose your way because you’re trying to write to please or impress someone other than yourself.
Example: my current work-in-progress novel is a young-adult, high fantasy adventure with plenty of magic and politics and the odd critter. It also has a romantic sub-plot, which I rarely mention. Why? Because romance is perhaps the most disrespected of all sub-genres and I’m worried about what people will think.
But the problem is this: if on any level I’m ashamed of my work how do I sit down to write every day? How do I do justice to a romantic scene while worrying that its very existence will cause some to roll their eyes?
I know! Maybe I should write a short story instead, one with no romance whatsoever…
Or I could just re-read James Sutter’s helpful post: The Benefits of Being a Hack (Or: Why You Don’t Want to Be Ted Chiang).
Or stop caring so much about what people think and just write, dammit.
I Always Thought I’d Be a Novelist, but Life Isn’t Working Out as Planned, and Maybe This Won’t Work Out Either
This one’s tough, and maybe a bit angsty and self-pitying, so I’ll keep it brief.
From the time I was a child, I thought I would be a writer. I read insatiably, and spent hours holed-up in my room drawing maps, creating characters, and writing. I strayed away from this path during high school, university, and early on in my career, but inevitably returned, as the dream had never left me. One day I’d be a novelist, of that I was sure.
Fast forward to now, and life hasn’t gone how I expected on a number of fronts. Decisions I made with certainty have turned out to be wrong, and ground that once seemed solid has shifted and disappeared beneath my feet. The resulting feelings of failure and self-doubt threaten to bleed into other areas of my life, most importantly, writing. What if I was wrong, like I have been about other important things? What if I’m not meant to be a writer? What if I try and fail? If this dream, too, must fall by the wayside?
Some days I sit at my computer and think I’m just fooling myself. Lately there have been more of these days than I’d care to admit.
Sorry to be so depressing.
I don’t have answers right now, as I’m just trying to work my way through. At least I’ve managed to get a few words down over the past couple months, which is something. I won’t even tell you what a mighty struggle it was to write this blog post. But I’d be grateful to hear about your experiences. Have you had writer’s block? Why? And how did you get past it?