A day or two ago Kristina posted a comment in response to one of my blog entries that was such a good question, I decided to turn the answer into a whole post instead of just replying to her comment where other people might not notice it. I think there are a lot of people out there who have the same issues as Kristina and I.
Here is Kristina’s question: What do you do when your having an off day in writing? What I mean is how do you get through writers block? I start great ideas for stories, but then I feel like the story isn’t good enough or some aspect of it completely destroys the rest of the story. After that no more ideas evolve on that project.
I hate to use the phrase writer’s block because it feels so ominous. Like this big dark shadow hanging over you, a harbinger of doom. So instead, I’m just going to say sometimes I get stuck in my writing. It doesn’t feel as daunting.
When I get stuck, I can usually attribute it to one of three things. The first two are relatively easy to fix. The third is what I think Kristina is referring to, and it can be a little longer term project to overcome. So let’s start with the easy ones first.
1) I’m just too tired. In my college days I could work all day, study all night, play on the weekends and never run out of energy. Not so much, now. People think writing is an easy task because you’re sitting on your tail all day. But that’s not really true. Generally you’re not writing about people brushing the dog and organizing their silverware drawers. You’re writing about people going through tough times in their lives. Turmoil and angst and danger abound. As a writer you feel some fraction of what your characters are going through. You have to in order to make the reader feel it. It is draining. The solution for this one: go to bed. It will all be easier in the morning after a good night’s rest. Trying to force it day after day is not good for you or the writing. Trust me on this one.
2) Your subconscious is telling you there really is something wrong with your story. Maybe you don’t know why your character is acting a certain way, or his actions don’t feel right. Maybe you aren’t sure what should happen next. Maybe you know you’re skirting around a tough issue that is difficult to write about or maybe you don’t know your character well enough to know how she would act or what she would say in the situation you’re plotting. Their are many solutions for this one. One of them is to revert to number one (go to bed). But instead of falling asleep with the TV on, make yourself think about your characters — not in exactly the situation you’re having trouble writing, but in their everyday lives. You can actually even train yourself to dream about them. But even if you don’t try that, the twilight time just before you go to sleep and just after you wake up but before you’re really with it is the time your conscious and subconscious minds are closest. The problem, or at least the resolution, will occur to you. Other ways to do this are to go for a drive in the country with the radio turned off or do something repetitive and boring like painting a fence (again with the radio off) so your mind has to entertain itself. Imagine your characters in everyday life. If that still doesn’t work, try writing diary entries as if written by your character. Don’t overthink it. Just jot down whatever is on her mind. If the problem is between two characters, throw them in a room together, lock the door and tell them they’re not getting out until they hash through the problem between them. Write down the dialogue as if you were a tape recorder. Don’t write down their thoughts, their actions and don’t describe them, their clothes or the room. Just what they say. Once you know your characters a lot better, it’ll be easier to write them when you get back to your story.
3) This is the big one — we all think we’re not good enough. I’ve talked to writers who’ve written 50 books, won great awards, made bestseller lists. We all think it must have been a fluke and we’re not nearly good enough to do it again.
I have a totally unscientific theory on why this is true. When we write a story, it is never as good on paper as it is in our head, so we think it’s not “good enough.” We are way too tough on ourselves.
The reason it doesn’t feel good enough is not because of the writing. It’s because of our language. We have something like a billion brain cells. So when we imagine a story, it is incredibly rich with detail, emotion and depth. But there are only about 150,000 words in the English language. No way can so few words relate the story with the same vividness as we imagined it. Think about a sunset over the sea, for example. Picture it in your mind. It’s beautiful, right? Now try to describe it in writing. In your head, their were an infinite number of colors as the pink and yellow and orange and blue blended from one to the other with an infinite number of hues between them. On paper we’re limited to…well…pink and yellow and orange and blue.
So no story will ever be as rich on paper as it is in your head. So we sabotage ourselves and let ourselves believe that it’s because we can’t write good enough. Wrong — it’s because our language isn’t broad enough.
The good news? And this is where a real light bulb came on for me a few months ago — our language doesn’t have to be broad enough to represent all the depth those billion brain cellss were able to create. The reader will do it for us! When the reader reads pink and orange and yellow and blue sunset, her billion brain cells will take those words and convert it back to the indescribable beauty you had in mind. Of course, this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t strive to write strong description and use precise verbs to try to evoke the right picture in the reader’s mind. But you don’t have to do all the work. The reader will do most of it.
Think of it like an hourglass. The side part at the top is the story in our mind, created by our billion brain cells. It’s very rich with detail. Then we write it, and that’s the narrow part in the middle. Our language limits our ability to create the story on paper with the same detail is it lives in our mind. Then the bottom wide part is the reader. As the sand (the story) trickles from the top through the narrow gap (the book) to the wide bottom (the reader’s mind) it fills out again and there is room for all that richness.
Trust your reader’s imagination to take your words and flesh them back out from 150,000 to a billion. She will. It’s why she reads. She’ll see that sunset as beautifully as you did. And it WILL be good enough.
I have no idea if I’ve conveyed my thoughts clearly on this. I’m just saying don’t put all that pressure on yourself that your story has to be good enough, because on paper, it will never be good enough. But once it reaches your reader’s mind, it will be!
Once you’ve taken that pressure off yourself to create a story as rich on paper as it is in your mind (an impossible task), the writing gets much easier. You don’t have to write perfectly. You just have to write!
Hope that made sense. And by the way, I realized from your post, Kristina, that my email is not listed anywhere on my site. You can reach me at vickie.taylor @ gte.net without the spaces (trying to keep the spam bots from picking it up).