The Cure for Common Novel-Writing Maladies – Part 1

Solving Common Writing Maladies

In my experience, aspiring novelists are stricken with some common problems. Are you suffering from one of these debilitating literary maladies?

1. Writer’s Block.

If you think you have writer’s block, or fear you might suddenly come down with it, you probably should be worrying about something else. Writer’s block is most often a euphemism, like having “the vapours” – defined by the Urban Dictionary as: “A polite 19th-century term women used, meaning either 1) Being emotionally overcome, or 2) Having gas.”

Having writer’s block is pretty much the same.

Cause? In 9 out of 10 cases, to be honest, it is due to a lack of professional commitment. Professional writers seldom get writer’s block, any more than do carpenters or farmers. They know how to focus, work, and produce something, drawing on experience, skill, knowledge of craft.

Cure for writer’s block?

  • Have a regular work schedule & commit to it.
  • Have several projects going (this gives you the option to at least choose what you want to work on at a given time).
  • Have a decent tangible work plan (words per day, an outline to follow, a breakdown of project steps, etc.).
  • Have a good organizational system (so you don’t waste time each session re-orienting, looking for misplaced resources, etc.)
  • Have confidence in your abilities (so as not to succumb to self-doubt).
  • Have a meaningful deadline.

These are tool professional writers understand and use on a daily basis.

2. Writer’s Unblock.

I’m tempted to call it Writer’s Effluence – too many words, ideas flowing too fast.

Why do so many aspiring novelists plan and pitch a series, for instance, when they really need to focus first on tackling the difficult challenge of writing one well-crafted, compelling novel? An unpublished novelist pitching a series is always a red flag to me; it makes me wonder if that person really understands what is needed to create a successful first book.

A novel is a matter of beginning, middle, and end. In some ways, it’s a simple formula. And, like many simple things, it’s not easy to master. At all points, the writer needs to be sure that the reader still has a positive answer to the question: who cares?

We’ve all been present for the casual conversationalist who wants to tell a story . . . and they go on and on, long past your real interest in paying attention.

A story needs to be succinct enough. It needs to be intriguing and and appealing; it calls for suspense and delivery of satisfaction. This can all be delivered, often, with fewer words. With tighter scenes. Sometimes with fewer characters.

Some novels indeed are long. But unless you’re quite sure you’re as gifted as Tolkien or Tolstoy, keep it tight.

Cure for effluence?

  • Better project planning. (If you choose to wing it without an outline, you’d better have an excellent internal grasp of how to manage the sequence.)
  • Strong knowledge of traditional, effective story structure & construction.
  • Strong scene-craft (knowing when to end a scene, knowing how to vary the pace, how to alternate detail with action.
  • Command of classic techniques (reversals, suspense-building, working with archetypes, showing and telling as needed, etc.).
  • Working your way through a reasonable number of drafts and revisions, with time for the work to rest and be reviewed with fresh eyes.

How To Develop Professionalism

The secret is in finding that balance, the wisdom, the command of the tools.

When I worked for some years as book acquisitions editor for The Writer Books, I kept firmly in mind the original slogan of The Writer magazine from its 1896 roots: “A monthly magazine for literary workers.” Our job at The Writer was to provide truly useful guidance for craft and career development, to help writers achieve a success as professional workers, not just to fill wannabe heads with promises of easy pickings, the “how to write a bestseller in 4 easy steps” type of nonsense.

Literary professionalism is best learned from other professionals. The professionals in the field work steadily. And they continue to learn from others who are their equals or their betters. They don’t get over-excited or depressed, and they have a clear view of the publishing field – how they fit in, who needs and reads their work, and what tools are required to succeed.

How do you seek out and learn from working professionals? Consider major literary gatherings. Seek out conferences, with genre or regional focus, where top writers, agents, and editors gather.

And do consider the Novel-in-Progress Bookcamp (the host of this blog). This May 2014, for instance, you could spend a week working with SJ Rozan, as well as other professionals (myself included), whose goal is to provide the serious guidance to direct your progress toward publication of your novel.

We currently have a good core set of registrants, but there is still space for a few more.

What about you?

For more on this Spring’s Bookcamp plans, happening May 18–24 at a retreat center near West Bend, Wisconsin (near Milwaukee), visit the Novel-in-Progress Bookcamp website now.

And think about what this might do for you and your novel. To cure the common maladies, seek professional advice.

– Philip Martin
Director of Great Lakes Literary , Publisher of Crickhollow Books, and Bookcamp Lead Instructor

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3 Responses

  1. I don’t think it’s a good idea to offend your readers by telling them, “You’ve got writer’s block because you’re unprofessional.” There are many more reasons why someone would get stuck — fear, risk aversion, perfectionism, and that nagging feeling that something isn’t quite right with your story.

    • PhilipMartin says:

      Shelli: thanks for the comment. I don’t mean to offend, and I agree that there are more reasons why writers get stuck and encounter roadblocks. Some of this I’ll address in a follow-up Part II post.

      Writer’s block is a fairly narrow type of literary affliction, really the inability to work, and I do believe it exists. But novel-writing problems are usually problems that can be solved by applying good process (and sometimes that involves time away from the project). I wouldn’t call getting really blocked unprofessional (seems more pejorative to me), just not common for professionals. The professional approach is to find techniques to move ahead, on the work at hand or another pending project, but to keep working.

      So the professional works around the block. I want to focus on looking for solutions, rather than letting writers see a block as something that is common and unavoidable.

      But yes, we all encounter all sorts of problems and challenges, all the time! I’m definitely not suggesting the writing process is easy!

      One way to look at professionalism is to consider it as the experience a writer accumulates by sticking with the field and working through and around all sorts of problems. It’s why most professionals, when asked about writer’s block, say they don’t suffer from it.

  2. PhilipMartin says:

    Apropos the “writer’s block” bugaboo, here’s some solution-seeking advice from Margaret Atwood (via Jon Winokur):

    “Don’t sit down in the middle of the woods. If you’re lost in the plot or blocked, retrace your steps to where you went wrong. Then take the other road. And/or change the person. Change the tense. Change the opening page.”

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