Writer’s Block: An Update

More book reviews and a possible solution to my problem.

Back in February, I reported again on a case of writer’s block I’ve been suffering with and what I’d been doing about it. (Refer to “Writer’s Block Still Sucks” in the “Writing for Pleasure” category.) That entry reads more like a series of book reviews than anything else. Here’s an update to that entry.

I finished Noah Lukeman’s The First Five Pages and The Plot Thickens. I enjoyed both of them; they provided some valuable insight to fiction writing and publication process. Not everything in the books was new to me, but enough was new or expressed in a new way to make them good reads. And keepers. (These days, when I read a book I don’t really care for, I donate it to my local library.)

Another recent read that I didn’t even bother to finish before dropping it off at the library was Norman Mailer’s book about writing. I can’t remember its name. It started off interestingly enough, but then got weird. The play by play review of Last Tango in Paris was probably what put me off the most.

I never returned Pen on Fire. I can’t find it. It has been con-Celiaed. (That’s a double pun. Celia is our Mexican cleaning woman who likes to put things away for us. Trouble is, she doesn’t know where things go. So she puts them where she thinks they go, thus concealing (or con-Celiaing) them. It’s a double pun because con means with in Spanish. I can’t take credit for this pun — Mike’s mother came up with it. I’m not sure if she realized it was double, though.) When I find the book, I’ll take it to the library.

I started, but did not finish, Writing Down the Bones. Natalie Goldberg is a poet. I am not. I don’t care much for poetry and don’t want to write like a poet. I want to tell a story, one that makes readers keep turning pages. Not one that makes readers sigh about my perfect choice of words, remarkable rhythm, or incredible imagery. Besides, one big piece of advice Ms. Goldberg offers is to keep a journal and force yourself to write in it every single day, even when you don’t have anything to write. Stream of consciousness stuff and all that. I believe that kind of exercise belongs in a high school writing class. I think I’m a bit beyond that. The book hasn’t made it to the library yet, but I’m sure it will.

On the flip side is Robert’s Rules of Writing: 101 Unconventional Lessons Every Writer Needs to Know by Robert Masello. The book delivers 101 numbered rules, each explained in 2-3 pages. Rule #1 is probably what sold me on the book: Burn Your Journal. Rule #2, Get a Pen Pal, offered some relief for writers who need to jot their thoughts down somewhere after their journal has been turned to ashes. I realized when I read it that these blog entries are a kind of cross between a journal and letters to a pen pal. (You, dear reader, are the recipient of these letters.) I’m not saying the book is perfect — anyone who reads my critiques should know that I’ve seldom found perfection anywhere — but it’s got some useful information in it. I’m about 1/3 finished right now and read a few rules before bed each night.

One piece of advice I’ve read several places (including Mailer’s book and Robert’s Rules of Writing) is to stop reading fiction when you’re ready to write it. So I’m going cold turkey. That’s okay, at least for now. I just finished reading a ton of mystery novels and can use a break.

What have I been reading? Hillerman, for one. My local library numbers an author’s books in the order in which they were published. I started with 1 and got to 16. I can whip through a Hillerman in 2-3 days. Light reading, interesting locations, and the Navajo culture, which is quickly fading away, is/was fascinating. The main thing that bugs me about Hillerman’s work is the way he handles the love interests in his main characters’ lives. One character is completely wrapped up in a string of women who are wrong for him. The other character can’t get past the memory of his dead wife. I feel like slapping each of them on the side of the head.

I subscribed to a magazine called Bookmarks and go through each bimonthly issue for new authors. Not necessarily new authors, you understand. Authors who are new to me. That’s how I discovered John Dunning. The only unfortunate part about his mystery novels featuring bookman/detective Cliff Janeway is that he only wrote four of them. (Maybe five; I’m still looking.) And he’s old, so I can’t expect many more. The first and second were definitely better than the third. The fourth is still out on loan at my local library; it appears that someone else in Wickenburg is worse than me when it comes to returning books on time. I’ll pick it up in the fall.

(I don’t get fines for late books anymore. I’ve donated so many books to the library that I think they’re preparing a separate wing for me. I try to give them money when I’m late and they just won’t take it. I wish they would. It would make me feel better about bringing them back late.)

Megg Morin, my editor from Osborne, has recommended Nevada Barr. I picked book number 1 up at the library but never got a chance to read it, so I brought it back before it would be late. I’ll try again in the fall.

I got wrapped up in Holy Blood, Holy Grail. Now normally, I’m a very fast reader. I can get through most novels in less than 12 hours — which is why I don’t usually buy them. (Hard to spend $8 on a paperback I’ll get through so quickly and probably never read again.) But HBHG is a completely different animal. The book is excruciatingly detailed, with more history than the average person can swallow in casual reading. I’d been interested in the book since I read Dan Brown’s bestseller, The DaVinci Code. I didn’t think the book was well written, but it had a very good story, based on the second half of HBHG. The premise of HBHG is that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalen and fathered at least one child who escaped with Mary to France. The bloodline is the Holy Grail that the Templars and Priory of Sion were in charge of protecting. All this was in The DaVinci Code, but HBHG goes way further, producing evidence that Jesus may not have died on the cross and lots of other stuff that would really tweak religious folks. The book has dense type, no dialog (of course) and few headings. As a result, it was a slow read. I just finished it yesterday. Very interesting, but I wouldn’t want to debate it with a “born again” Christian.

Which reminds me of State of Fear, which I comments on in February. The book was blasted by a reviewer in Technology Today magazine (which I also recently subscribed to). And he wasn’t picking on Crichton’s poorly developed characters or loose ends. He basically said that the premise on which the book was built — primarily that global warming is a sham pushed on the public by environmentalists — is an outright lie. He produces several instances of Crichton distorting facts and misquoting sources. Now I wonder. Did he mean to do that? Or was he trying, like Dan Brown, to promote a radical theory through the use of popular fiction?

Now for the solution.

If you recall, when I wrote in February, I’d pretty much realized that my writer’s block problem was centered around plot. I hadn’t thought it out all the way and had no firm direction to go when I finally got rolling. I was also losing focus — a fact I realized when reading The First Five Pages. Finally, I had far too many distractions at home for me to get any work done.

The solution was threefold.

First, I went through what I’d written and ruthlessly cut out scenes and parts of scenes. I chopped 1/3 of the work’s length — 10,000 words — right out of the book. If it didn’t move the plot forward, it went bye-bye. (Bye-bye is an Edits file I use to store stuff I chop out that might be used another time.) I gave what was left a read-through and decided on a few more scenes that needed revision rather than cutting. I highlighted those in yellow so I wouldn’t forget them.

Second, I forced myself to sit down and write a list of scenes. It’s like an outline, but not very detailed. It laid the plot out in a way that made it clear how I needed to get from point A to point Z, by listing all the points in between, in order. Along the way, I cut my timeline down so things would happen quicker. Then, knowing that my outline would be an ever-changing thing that I’d add notes to all the time, I created a card file with large index cards, in an organized box. I have scene/plot cards, character cards, clue cards, and note cards. With this system in place, the computer-created outline is now dead and I’ll rely on the cards for all my notes and organization.

Third, I cleared my plate, made a hole in my computer book writing schedule, and left town. I’m writing this on the picnic table of our place at Howard Mesa, with the cool wind in my hair and nothing but my animals to distract me. I’m here for 6 to 8 weeks, working by day on a shed we’re converting into a temporary cabin and by afternoon/evening on this mystery novel.

If I discipline myself enough, I should be able to get both jobs done.

2 thoughts on “Writer’s Block: An Update

  1. Good take on Goldberg’s “Writing Down the Bones.” It is easily the most inane and vapid piece of pseudo intellectual fluff I have ever seen since Jonathan Livingston Seagull. Goldberg, however, is not a poet. Shelley was a poet. Byron was a poet. Goldberg is a New Age Kumbaya hippy that found a market niche for a pile of “Get in touch with your inner artist” drivel, much like Julia Cameron did with the whole Recovery movement.

    John Gardner, Robert McKee, Sol Stein, Linda Seger and Dara Marks. Those are people who can help you become a popular and competent writer.

    Goldberg can only teach you how to be a navel-gazing and self-absorbed incense-burner.

    • Kevin: Well said. I thought I was the only one with a bad opinion of Goldberg. Glad to see I was wrong. Will look into the writings of the others you mentioned. Navel-gazing is definitely not my goal.

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