Writer’s Block Still Sucks

As unlikely as it may seem to regular readers of these blogs, I’m still suffering from writer’s block.

Writer’s block? How could Maria be suffering from writer’s block? She writes blog entries several times a week and she still writes the computer books that pay the bills. How could she possibly think she’s blocked?

That’s what some of you might be thinking. And frankly, I think it, too. But I’m sure writer’s block is the problem. Sadly, I still can’t figure out what’s causing it.

Back in June, I wrote a blog entry complaining about writer’s block. Back then, I was having trouble writing almost anything I needed to write. No, not needed. Wanted. I couldn’t write anything I wanted to write.

That included fiction and eBooks for an eBook publisher I was writing for.

I still haven’t written another eBook for David. And, what’s bothering me most is the fact that I haven’t written a single new word of the mystery book I’ve been trying so hard to write.

Well, obviously I haven’t been trying hard enough. But let’s not go there, okay?

And this problem is making me feel miserable.

(Of course, it could be the weather that’s making me feel miserable. It’s been cloudy and rainy for a long time now — days, in fact — and I’m really not used to it. I live in Arizona where it’s sunny most of the time. This El Nino weather system we’ve been experiencing is great for the desert and the cattle and the wildlife and the wildflowers. But it’s making me understand why Seattle has the highest suicide rate in the world. It’s depressing!)

The problem is, I have an overwhelming need to write. I think that’s one of the reasons I write these blog entries. Something inside of me demands that I share my thoughts with others. Blogs make it easy. They also give me the freedom to write whatever I want to write about. So I don’t have to write 650 pages about how to use Mac OS X 10.4. (Well, actually, I do. But not in my spare time. Just during that 7 to 3 workday.) I can write about anything. The weather, politics, flying, or having a bad case of writer’s block.

Last time I wrote about writer’s block, someone e-mailed me with a lengthy message that advised me to read a specific book. There was a lot in that message and I put it aside to read it when I had more time. More time never seemed to come. Then I changed e-mail programs. The message and its advice was lost. (That’s another good reason to use the Comments feature on these blogs. I can’t lose a comment.)

Today, I was in a bookstore down in Surprise. (Sadly, the closest real bookstore to Wickenburg is 32.65 miles away.) I browsed the books in the reference section, the ones about writing. I found a few books about writer’s block. One was a psychology book that claimed to explain why writer’s block happened. It had diagrams of brains in it. The type was dense, without headings, and it looked very dull. I was afraid that reading it would give me reader’s block, which would probably be worse. A few other books claimed to cure writer’s block. Well, they didn’t actually use the word “cure” but they clearly indicated that they could help. They help by making you do exercises. One of the exercises chilled me to the bone: “Describe the first time you can remember being very embarrassed.” Who the hell wants to remember that? Writing about bad personal experiences is supposed to make you want to write more? I put the book back very quickly.

I’ve been reading a lot of books about writing lately. Sometime last year, I read On Writing by Stephen King. I was extremely surprised by how motivated I was when I’d finished it. (I wasn’t motivated to write while I was reading it because I was so absorbed in it that I couldn’t put it down.) Following Mr. King’s suggestion, I dedicated several hours every evening to my mystery novel project. In no time at all, I’d knocked off about 90 pages or 30,000 words. And what I’d written was pretty good. Then I ran out of steam. Big time. In fact, I guess you can say that the fire had been put out with ice water.

Then I started reading books about writing mysteries. Perhaps I’d be able to pick it up again when I got some advice from mystery writers. I started one book called…oh, hell. I don’t remember. And I don’t have it anymore. I hated the book so much that I donated it to my local library. The book was going to teach me how to write a mystery by using a sample story the author had come up with. The sample story was so gawdawful that I couldn’t bear to read about it. The poor victim — a teenage girl — couldn’t just be murdered. She had to be sexually abused (or made to look like she was) before being murdered. And the murderer was a wacko. (Obviously.) Sheesh. I could never write about something like that and I didn’t want to pretend I could. So I gave the book away.

Next, I picked up a book called The Weekend Novelist Writes a Mystery. The premise behind this book is that the reader is a part-time novelist with a busy day job and family. The reader can only spare time for writing the mystery on weekends. So the book set out tasks for 52 weekends. I figured that my time is a bit more flexible, so I could do most weekend assignments in one evening. For example, do a bunch of exercises that would define the detective. The victim. The murderer. You get the idea. I worked on my assignments faithfully for about a week and they really did help me out. But when it got to the point where I needed to come up with notes for scenes, I ran out of steam again.

That gave me the idea that my problem had something to do with plot. I knew what was going to happen, but not all the details. I needed the details to write them. But, for some reason, I couldn’t come up with a good outline.

I tried index cards, Word’s outline feature, and a notebook. I ended up with a bunch of index cards, a half-finished outline, and a lot of scribbled and disorganized notes.

There was something else nagging me, too. All the books I’d read so far assumed that the victim would die before the detective entered the story — or before the story even started. But after 30,000 words, my victim was still alive. And, at the rate I was going, he’d be alive for at least another 30,000 words. That meant I had to edit what I had to become more focused. But, for the record, I still don’t plan to kill him off before my readers get a chance to know him a little.

I started reading other stuff. I read a book called Seven Floors High, which I absolutely, positively, do not recommend. I bought the damn thing from Amazon.com after reading glowing praise about it in the online reviews. What crap! I think that every single review was written by one of the author’s friends or people who work for his publisher. And I really do mean that. There wasn’t anything worth wasting time on in that book. It was poorly written in first person, present tense (of all things!) and had more exclamation points than periods. It was repetitious, had virtually no plot, and was pointless in every sense of the word. It was about a guy who gets a job in telecomm startup in the U.K. The startup looks like a fraud and everyone who works there spends more time drinking and doing drugs than working. And throughout the book, there’s a “secret narrator” who interjects information about U.S. secret spy stuff, etc. Several conversations in the book were engineered just to share otherwise irrelevant information like this as part of the plot. But none of the characters were remotely involved with spy stuff, so none of it fit. It was weird and stupid and pointless. How an author can get a piece of drivel like that published is beyond me. Yet I kept reading, expecting it to get better at some point. Or for the telecomm startup plot to somehow connect with the spy stuff. After all, all those reviewers said such good things. In the end, I felt as if I’d been ripped off by Amazon.com. I will never buy a book based on a reader review again. And this one is so bad, I wouldn’t even donate it to my library. It went right into the trash.

I read some books about writing. Actually, I guess it’s safe to say that I started reading a few books about writing. The first was Bird by Bird. I don’t recommend it. It’s obviously for people who have been rejected so many times that they’re beside themselves with self-pity. The author tries to be funny with jokes about her own paranoia and hypochondria, clearly expecting the reader to feel the same way she does. I don’t. My paranoia is not as keenly developed — at least not yet — and I’m don’t have any undue concerns about my health. So I thought her jokes were pretty stupid, especially when she kept using the same themes over and over throughout the book. I made it about 3/4 of the way through it.

I started The Plot Thickens: Eight Ways to Bring Fiction to Life. After all, I had a plot problem, didn’t I? The book was good — well written and full of good insight — but I just didn’t feel like reading it. (Are you starting to get the idea that my writer’s block problem centers around my avoidance of the plot issue? I am.) So I put it aside about 1/3 finished.

Next, I read a Tony Hillerman mystery and a Dick Francis mystery. I liked the Hillerman mystery a lot. The Dick Francis book was good, but his main character did a few stupid things that nearly got him killed. It’s hard to believe someone smart enough to solve a mystery would be dumb enough to put himself in danger like he did. I’d taken a second Dick Francis mystery from the library with that batch and found myself wishing that I’d taken two Hillermans instead. So I returned all three books without reading the second Francis book. It’ll still be there when I’m ready for it.

I started The First Five Pages, another writing book by the author of The Plot Thickens. The premise behind this book is that there are 19 factors to consider when writing a book — fiction or nonfiction — and that the editor wading through the slush pile will look for these things when looking for an excuse to reject a book. Noah Lukeman, the author, presents the topics in the order they’re most likely to shoot you down. For example, the first five are presentation, adjectives and adverbs, sound, comparison, and style. According to Lukeman, if you screw one or more of these up, it’ll be easy to spot and the reader won’t get past the first five pages. I have to say that I agree with him. His 19 factors are what makes a book work. A writer must be proficient at all 19 of them to produce a publishable book. In reading this book (I got about 4/5 finished before putting it aside), I was able to objectively look at my own work and decide where my biggest problems are: adjectives and adverbs, focus, and pacing and progression. That’s not to say that I’ve got the other 16 factors licked. I’ll probably reread most of this book — perhaps with a highlighter or notebook nearby — to make sure I fully understand the problems and solutions I need to tackle. The only thing I didn’t like about the book were the author’s examples of bad writing. The examples were so bad, they weren’t good examples. After all, does anyone write that bad? (Well, maybe the author of Seven Floors High.)

One interesting thing in that book: plot is not one of the 19 factors. (Perhaps there’s hope for me after all? Nah, you can’t avoid plot in a mystery.)

A friend of mine loaned me a copy of Michael Crichton’s book, State of Fear. I read it. I found the book enjoyable in that it had a plot that moved and it was just far enough from reality to be a good escape. It was full of facts and figures about global warming and, if that information is real, I appreciate having my eyes opened. Now I know Mr. Crichton is a bestselling author and he obviously knows a lot more about writing than I do. But I just can’t stand the way he breaks up scenes with spacing between paragraphs. It’s customary to use additional space between paragraphs to indicate a scene change within a chapter. But he continues the same scene — sometimes the same conversation within a scene — after that additional space! It drives me bonkers. My brain is not prepared for that and I simply can’t get used to it. The other thing he does — which other bestselling authors who’ve had their work turned into movies often do — is to constantly switch back and forth between character pairs or groups within a chapter. This is writing for the movies or television. Although it works well with visuals in the movies — a dinosaur is sniffing around the car where the kids are trapped; switch to rapter pen — it’s pretty annoying when done to the same extent in writing. Maybe it seems like I’m being nit-picky, but this is personal preference. I just don’t like to read books that pick up and drop scenes like they’re hot potatoes — especially when they’re not. One thing I will swear by — and this is after reading so many books about writing in a short period of time — Mr. Crichton has a lot to learn about showing vs. telling. He tells us everything, not giving his reader much opportunity to figure stuff out for himself. But what disappointed me most about this book was the loose ends he left behind: What ever happened to the cell phone the guy in Hong Kong put in his pocket? It seemed so important when I read about it, but it was never mentioned again. What ever happened to the French girl and her American boyfriend? They seemed like important bad guys, but they were never identified and never caught. What happened to the two NERF guys who were so obviously bad guys? Were they arrested? Was NERF brought down? Were they punished for what they did? Which girl did the lame-o lawyer hero wind up with? I suspect it was Sarah, but I can’t be sure. But I guess none of that matters. He’s proven himself as a bestselling author and can write whatever he damn pleases, whatever way he damn pleases. People will continue to buy his work and overlook any shortcomings. Personally, I’m going to re-read Jurassic Park, just to see how it compares with this latest work. I’m willing to bet that JP is a lot better written.

Which brings up another pet peeve of mine: bestselling authors lending their names to series that they don’t even write. I’m talking about Tom Clancy’s Net Force and Op Center books. I got fooled by one of the Net Force books. I thought I was buying a Tom Clancy book, something equivalent in quality to Hunt for Red October. I got a book that read like a made-for-TV-movie, full of side stories that had nothing to do with the plot (who cares about the main character’s son’s soccer game?) and may have been added to increase page count, and a narrative that obviously suspected the reader of having an IQ below 50 (remember: show, don’t tell!). I knew after 20 pages that Clancy hadn’t written what I was reading, but it took a moment for “created by Tom Clancy” on the cover to explain it to me. I guess a bestselling author gets to a certain point when he doesn’t have to write his own books anymore and can still make a ton of money on them. I hope I don’t get to that point — at least not until arthritis makes it impossible for me to write.

Writer’s block, she says? How can she possible have writer’s block. Look at all she’s written in this entry alone! It might be the work of a raving lunatic, but it’s not the work of someone with writer’s block!

Plot. That’s the problem. I need an outline. I need to get motivated. I need to shut myself up in a room without access to the Internet or other work I’ve written or any other distractions and write the outline. I need to stay at it until I’m done.

I use outlines for my computer books. Frankly, I can’t imagine writing one without an outline. It keeps me on track, it tells me where to go next. It also reminds me that I shouldn’t talk about this now because I’m going to talk about it in Chapter 12. Or I already did in Chapter 2. This is no different. It will definitely help me with that focus problem Mr. Lukeman so kindly pointed out.

I just finished another book yesterday. It’s called Eats, Shoots & Leaves and it’s about punctuation. Oddly, it is a bestselling book in the U.K. I’d seen it more than a few times on Amazon.com, while searching for books to help me get over this block, but have always disregarded it. After all, I know punctuation pretty well. I’m not saying I’m perfect, but I’m certainly above average. I don’t consider it one of my writing problems. But last week, when I stumbled into the library, looking for something new to read, I saw it on the shelf of new books. It’s a small volume with a Panda joke on the cover. (Unfortunately, my library stuck a library address sticker over the first two lines of the joke, making it difficult to read.) I decided to give it a try. I’m glad I did. It turns out that I qualify as a stickler for punctuation, since I get all hot and bothered when people use apostrophes and quotes incorrectly in signs and headlines. The book was full of information about the history of punctuation, as well as lots of examples of how misused punctuation can change the meaning of a sentence. For example, compare “The convict said the judge is crazy” to “The convict, said the judge, is crazy.” Ouch! Unfortunately, the Brits have different punctuation rules than we do, so the book is of limited use to Americans who need to learn about it. But the author’s sense of humor is great. I didn’t think it was possible to laugh out loud when reading a book about punctuation, but it certainly is. I liked the book so much, I bought an audio edition of it to listen to on long drives (or flights) and a copy in print to send to one of my editors, Cliff, the comma king.

What’s currently on my reading list? Writing Down the Bones is another book about writing that has gotten lots of praise. I’m a bit worried that it’ll be another Bird by Bird, so I’m not rushing into it. Today, I picked up Writing Mysteries (a Writer’s Digest book edited by Sue Grafton) and Pen on Fire: A Busy Woman’s Guide to Igniting the Writer Within. I don’t know why I picked up this second book. The inclusion of words like woman and igniting in a book’s title normally raises red flags. I may be a woman, but I don’t see why a woman needs different advice about writing than a man. I have a sneaking suspicion that there will be instructions in here for balancing my family and career or finding time away from the kids to write. I don’t have kids. I don’t really have a family, either. And my career is as a writer — that’s my day job. As for igniting — that’s a stupid marketing word that someone at the publisher obviously wanted to use to punch up the title. (You wouldn’t believe how a publisher’s marketing department gets involved in cover copy when they obviously haven’t even read the book.) Actually, in paging through this book, I realize that I’d better take it back. It’s really not for me.

(Thinking back on this, I realize that I’d picked up this book in the store right before my cell phone rang. It was Rod on the phone and I hadn’t spoken to him in two months, so I found a comfy chair in a quiet corner of Barnes and Nobel and chatted with him for about 15 minutes. Mike came in from Best Buys and read a magazine in a nearby chair while I talked. Then I hung up and we decided to go. I didn’t review the books I was carrying. If I did, I would have noticed the illustration on one cover, which showed a laundry basket, a child’s toys, and a stressed-out looking woman with a pen in her hand. Not a book for me. So I’ll blame it on Rod.)

But Writing Mysteries shows promise. I think I’ll tackle that one next. Or at least after I finish The First Five Pages and The Plot Thickens. Yeah, that’s the ticket.

And about that outline…

I’m sure I’ll get to it soon.

What do you think?