Knowing when to fold ‘em

I’m in the middle of a book right now, happily writing away, getting (on average) 2000 to 2500 words a day, and all is well. And then yesterday I realized it was 4:00 already, and I need to get my son from karate at 5:00, and I still only had about 300 ords. That’s a very good time to sit down and analyze what’s going on.

Almost every writer in the world will tell you something different about writer’s block: some say it doesn’t exist, or that it’s just an excuse, or that it’s a sign of a lazy writer; others say that it’s real and there’s not much you can do about it. I’m of the opinion that when you can’t think of anything to write, or you hate everything you write, or you just flat-out can’t write at all, it’s a sign that there’s a problem you need to identify and solve. There are real factors that can impede your writing, and telling people they’re lazy is not going to help them solve the problem. So, what was the problem for me?

I looked first at my physical situation: I wasn’t hungry, I wasn’t tired, I wasn’t cold. Many times when I can’t focus on writing I’ll realize that my body just wants a snack, so I get something to eat or drink and my body shuts up and I can get back to writing. That wasn’t the case yesterday, so I loved on: I wasn’t bored with my story, and I was in fact very interested in what was going on–it was the first section of a big, tent-pole sequence in the book, and I’d been building up to it for a while, and I was excited to finally write it. Was that the problem? Was I expecting too much? Possibly, I needed more information.

I looked at my outline, which said simply “The executives talk to the reporter.” While I also outline my books, chapter by chapter and often section by section, I very often leave the outline notes vague like this, because it lets me stay spontaneous while I write. Characters can say things I didn’t plan, and events can happen in new ways, if I keep things loose and write a lot of my book off-the-cuff. I write in order, so I already knew how we got to this point in the story, and where the characters were, and what they wanted. In the chapter I’d just finished, the executives had talked about why they wanted to meet the reporter and what they wanted to say to her. So I knew what to write, and it should have been easy enough to flesh it out, but every time I tried I’d either delete it all or find myself surfing the net without realizing I was doing it.

If I can’t find any problems with the scene itself, the next thing I look at is the outline. I think about what the book needs, and which parts of it I’m excited about, and in this instance I realized something interesting: I was excited about, and had cool ideas for, every scene in that sequence except the one I was currently working on. Every other sequence had cool moments, or funny moments, or something I could sink my teeth into, but that one scene with the executives and the reporter was just…filler. Worse than filler, actually, it was set-up, and it was a retread of set-up I’d already done in the previous chapter. I knew what they wanted to say to her, and I’d have chances in later chapters to show the results of their meeting, so the meeting itself was redundant. When I really got down and studied it, that scene didn’t need to exist at all.

So I tossed it out. I deleted it from my outline, moved on to the next scene, and wrote about 1000 words in the half-hour that remained. The book continues to excite me, and I’m progressing at a good pace, and my writer’s block was overcome. I just wish I’d had the sense to see it for what it was and solve the problem earlier in the day.

8 Responses to “Knowing when to fold ‘em”

  1. Angie says:

    Great thoughts about writers block. I love seeing your problem-solving process. I can see how this would help me out tremendously. It reminds of how my husband goes about programming software. In fact, he and I have talked a lot about the similarities between writing and programming. I think he sometimes gets “programmers block,” if there is such a thing. Well, I don’t know if that was really relevant, but I do appreciate this post.

  2. Bryce says:

    Nice post about writer’s block, Dan. I concur.

  3. Sam says:

    Another useful link to refer people to. Huzzah!

  4. Jacob says:

    Thanks for this post. Very cool insight.

  5. [...] 26, 2010 von Andrea Ich habe diesen wunderbaren Eintrag von Dan Wells bez├╝glich Schreibblockaden gefunden. Das Tolle daran ist, dass er davon ausgeht, dass eine Schreibblocke, der man begegnet, [...]

  6. Eliza says:

    I agree with you about writer’s block being the result of an unidentified or unaddressed problem. I’ve always thought the idea that it was some almost supernatural problem was pretty bogus, and disheartening to boot.
    That being said, biting the delete key bullet can be rough, especially after you’ve forced your way through thousands of painful words, just to amp up the word count.

    Yeah- not that I’ve ever done that.

    I’m glad you’re posting more often! I like your voice. I’m anticipating the US release with slightly bated breath. I decided to wait for it to come out here after you mentioned it would be sharp as a razor, or something akin to that.

  7. Arlene says:

    Wow. Great advice…I feel like I say that a lot on this blog. Huh. Anyway, I always appreciate when you can break down a problem in a logical way and present an answer that makes sense. Well done.

  8. Arlene says:

    Also, way cool that someone commented in German. I wonder if you have German stalker fans….

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