Tag Archives: writing style

Is Writer’s Block Just Martyrdom?

I am sure some people have approached this post with a flicker of outrage and defensiveness that anyone could even deign to suggest such a thing.  But How To Write Damn Good Fiction by James N. Frey dares to barrel into this most sensitive of subjects for most writers.

Frey writes an appropriately “Damn Good” guide to writing fiction, and one from which I have taken much over the years.  It goes over the finer points of plot development and writing techniques with a refreshing level of conviction, and does so assuming that the aspiring author already has the chops to write to a respectable level in the first instance.  It’s also witty and the author’s voice is, in my opinion, unusually distinctive and powerful.

However, some may take his assertions about writer’s block with not a small amount of offence. Frey boldly states that, “Writer’s block… comes from a subconscious wish to be a martyr.”

When I first read this, I myself was rather wounded at the accusation.  I could think of many a time where I had legitimately felt completely uninspired to write and hated every word I had forced onto the page; times where the back-space button was used almost as much as every letter on the keyboard combined.  Nonetheless, since writing was a private pursuit, I never shared my feelings of frustration with anyone.  Under those circumstances, how could he possibly suggest that such a decision had anything to do with seeking sympathy?

When I completed his novel, however, I did begin to understand a little more where he was coming from.  In fact, his book was the inspiration for a previous post: to write professionally, one must treat writing as a profession.  You have to work at it every day and meet targets, just as you would any other job.

If you have an off-day at work, you may not be spectacularly productive, but you will achieve something nonetheless.  In fact, even on good days at work, most of us are not ecstatically happy to be doing our jobs.  We accept that it is a living and either don’t use our jobs to define ourselves or justify them as a stepping stone to something bigger.

Writing can be no exception to the rule of working.  In the same way that others do not expect to be enthralled by their daily work tasks, the lightning bolt of ecstatically powerful inspiration, though nice, cannot be relied upon to constitute the bulk of writing output all the time.  “Genius,” Thomas Edison once asserted, “is 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration.”

Likewise, as Frey asserts, one must not bellyache over one’s drafts for fear of imperfection if they truly ever want to produce.  This was always a problem for me.  I am notoriously indecisive and a perfectionist.  I continually worried that my penmanship wouldn’t match the image in my head, and simultaneously feared the images in my head were not clear enough for me to write about.  A complete Catch-22.  Ultimately, however, I overcame this to realise the most important thing was to produce something.  Otherwise there would be no novel at all.

I do not agree with Frey that writer’s block is a product of subconscious martyrdom, but do see that I have used it as an excuse to avoid writing, instead declaring my novel-creating time better spent on world construction and research periods, downtime and plot re-evaluation.  It has been employed as an excuse.  When it isn’t, it is, in my opinion, not an obstruction to one’s ability to write, but an obstruction to one’s own belief that one can write.  To an extent, I also believe the word, “Inspired,” sets the bar very high as a consistent writing experience.  Some people begin their writing lives unfulfilled because they are convinced they should only write on an inspiration rush, rather than barrelling through when they aren’t.

Personally, I think the characterisations of writer’s block as a tangible thing, as an enemy or an affliction, contributes to a state of learned helplessness amongst writers – as does identifying inspiration as an antidote or dynamo.  Moreover, since I have refused to even think these terms whilst writing, I have found it increasingly easy to soldier on and be productive.  Perhaps if instead we could think in terms of easier days and harder days – remove “writer’s block” from our vocabulary altogether – we would all be a little less discouraged.

So, I turn the question on you, the lovely reader.  What is your opinion on writer’s block?

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Was Noah’s Compass Also Laura’s Compass?

No.  Not particularly.

Let me back up and start again with this one.  When I said I was going to be reflecting on books to help improve my writing, I said so having recently joined a book club.  I reckon it’s a better place to start, in a lot of ways, because it means I’m reading something I would normally never dream of picking up.  I personally need the book club because before I joined, although I was an avid reader as a child, I hadn’t finished a fiction book in ten years.  I know how terrible that sounds on paper, so now I am making up for it.

Noah’s Compass by Anne Tyler is the second book I have read on our reading list.  The book is about a 60-year-old man named Liam whose bout of memory loss causes him to question his current life and purpose in the world.

For the most part I enjoyed the book.  It was well-written and easy to become immersed in its universe.  At one point, as a sat down again and opened to the bookmarked page, I remember consciously feeling myself submerge back into this other universe.  It was genuinely very enjoyable.

Then something unfortunate happened.  Namely that I got to the final thirty pages and started to get a sneaking suspicion that the lead character was not going to have evolved as much as I hoped he would.  In fact, scratch “hoped”: I wanted to see Liam evolve because, after 250 pages with him, I felt I deserved to see him evolve more.  I do understand that the point of the book is to keep afloat in life rather than hunt for personal fulfilment or change, but the writing style flowed so well at times that honestly if there was a major eureka moment regarding this idea I must have glanced over it.  It’s all personal taste, but for my thick noggin it was a bit too subtle.

I can’t take much away from Noah’s Compass, not least because our genres are so different I don’t think there’s much comparison.  One thing it has got me thinking about, however, is that change needs to occur in proportion with the length and pace of a book.  As a reader I won’t be thrilled if I read through 450 pages just for the deadbeat dad to eventually have the sense to buy his infant son one ice cream.  The same is true in reverse: if, at the end of twenty pages of sitting on the couch, Ben the Capitalist suddenly flips his entire world view and makes the sickle and hammer his Facebook picture it won’t be very believable.

No-one is saying that all of a character’s problems should be magically resolved by the final chapter, but an audience generally wants to feel that something has been clearly achieved by the characters during the course of the plot – whether that something is external, internal or both.

To conclude, my writer’s resolution here is to make absolutely sure my lead character takes something away from her experiences in the novel and makes peace with some aspect of her identity.