Some friends on Twitter (@starbuxman and @mikojava) recently had a quick exchange regarding writer's block. Now that I'm in the midst of writing what is probably my sixth book (I forget), and because I know many writers, I think about writer's block a bit. I wrote my first book in exactly 90 days. It was 900 pages. Years later, my 750 page book Java SOA Cookbook was written in 6 months.
You can beat writer's block. It's easy. Unable to fit my comments into 140 characters (I tried for a while, and failed), I offer these simple steps to beating writer's block.
1. Don't be a "Writer". Write. There's a line from a George Orwell story that I just love: "Every time he entered a room, he thought, 'he entered the room...'".
"Writer" sounds special. It sounds glamorous and fascinating, as if you're about to jot off to Lucerne to schmooze with "artists" and captains of industry over martinis. Eventually the story goes, as you trade witticisms, the movie starts, and a spirituous muse of inspiration will slowly encircle you, mist-like, and you'll suddenly break away from the mob to blurt out your latest flash of genius on a cocktail napkin, clutching it with you for the long, lonely ride home as you look longingly out the window of the plane, the cheerful stewardess bobbing above the water of blissful ignorance as you slowly drown, down through the leagues, burdened by the heaviness of your introspection, hung about your neck.
"Loneliness" is not glamorous. More importantly, it is not required, and certainly not helpful, for writing. I am not a lonely writer. I have written most of my books with my lovely Alison a few feet away, reading her book or writing herself. We talk. I glance up to see her pretty little toes every once in a while. We chat. I go on. She goes on.
These cultural overlays promote this fantasy of a writer, and they're necessary for two reasons: it creates images for movies, and it helps writers feel important. The first is required because there is no image of a writer, save one: a typist, which is not interesting--at least, it's not cinematic. The second point is a matter of money. When people find out I have written books, this conjures up a lot of culture overlays for them, and a primary one is that it's made me rich. There's a reason that even Nobel prize winners and best sellers like Toni Morrison and Joyce Carol Oates have day jobs. Writing does not make one rich. We seek, then, a story, in which we are the hero, because heroes, as everyone knows, never are looking for something so pedestrian as money. This is a basic reaction formation, and nothing more.
So do not be a "writer", where writer is lit up like a Las Vegas sign, suggesting something fantastical. Writing is not special. The act of writing is interesting to writers, perhaps, but in the way that a carburettor is interesting to a mechanic. It's just this thing you do. Like exercising (if you exercise, of course; I make it a point never to do so). But it's not interesting to anyone else. Or if you suspect it may be, pretend that it isn't. Being a writer means typing words. Put the words down. Which leads us to the next point.
2. Are You Just Being Lazy?
"Writer's block" is a phrase that helps us feel that we are at the mercy of something else. We say to ourselves, I would go out and play, but I can't because I have chicken pox. Something else is keeping us from our true desire. We say, I would write, but I have writer's block. Hogwash. There is no such gravitational pull on you. There is no Death Star with a tractor beam pulling you away from writing. If you feel such a pull, it's laziness. Just switch this off in your mind. Go write, as if you were someone else. Pretend you are not you, the you under the sway of this tractor beam. Pretend, if you must, that you are someone else, who just doesn't have that problem. Let the other you be the one who can't write. Then you don't have to deal with the problem, you and the problem can happily co-exist. The other you will have writer's block, and the you-you will be the one writing.
3. Make Writing a First-Class Citizen
The things of the world take time. There are many distractions. We feel that writing is not important, it tends to come last. Treat it as important as your day job. Defend your writing time. Sometimes this will not go over well with your friends and loved ones. No one will help you write. If you're to do it, you must take it and own it and be occasionally ruthless about your time.
4. Writers Deal in Words.
If you don't love language, if you don't care about clarity of expression, if you aren't delighted by a certain turn of phrase, if you aren't inspired by the perfect, distillation in the capturing of a thought maybe you aren't that into words. Writers like words. If you're a great programmer or geologist or whatever you're writing about, you may not make a great writer. Because writing is a thing. If you don't love words, you're going to have a very hard row to hoe, and no advice will help you--you're just in the wrong gig.
5. Take Breaks
This is boring, cliched advice, but it also has the merit of being helpful. Your body gets tired. Every once in a while, get up and wander outside, poke around, clear your head. Don't start something else. Just putt around for 5 or 7 minutes. Think about what you need to write in your next chunk of time. Then just go do it. Don't get distracted. The purpose of the break is not to take a break. The purpose of the break is to organize your next chunk of writing.
6. Make Lists
I make a list at the start of a writing day. It is a simple bullet list of what topics I want to cover by the end of the day. I typically have 6-8 things on the list. I typically accomplish 2. But I feed this list into the next day. It feels good to cross stuff off a list. Lists keep us focused. Lists are a litmus test that we actually know what we're doing. If you can't make a list, you don't know what to write, and you'll just bang away. It will be unpleasant and unproductive.
When you're starting a book you know will be 300 pages or 700 pages, it's daunting. Lists help me focus on what I can do just today, and screw the rest. The saying goes, how do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.
Sorry to mix metaphors, but just pick up the shovel, and start digging.
7. Block off Big Chunks of Time
You'll never get anything done writing for an hour or two. The context switching is too expensive. When I write, I get up at 6 on Saturday, start writing within the hour, and write until about 6 at night. Just truck. In this much time you can easily get 5 or 7 or 10 good pages.
This is hard to do, depending on circumstances. Oh well.
8. Write As If There's Only One Draft
My finished books look an awful lot like my first drafts. If you're one of these "writing is rewriting" people, I wish you luck. You'll never get done. And yes, I know the theory, and yes, I see the value. But that helps academics think about writing. It doesn't help you get words on the page.
So you need to have a clear idea of Done. And mine is two-fold: There's Done, which is something that is readable by an editor, which is basically a first draft that is potentially shippable if people didn't care about typos and some awkward phrasing. And then there's a single second round of Done-Done, because people turn out to care about those things when they're paying $40 for your book.
Sure there's copy editing and whatever, but that's just stuff. It's important to do, but the writing is baked at that point.
Typically, writers don't do this. They have absolutely no idea what their current relation to Done is for whatever they're working on today. Think of writing a chapter as a two week sprint, and at the end of it, you need to be potentially shippable.
This will not only help actually get the book done. It will also help you psychologically, because you can see real progress: the finish line must always be in site, or you'll get mired in worry and generalization.
9. There is No Such Thing as "Writer's Block".
If you think you have writer's block, it follows that you think that writing is something-that-can-be-blocked, that it implements the Blockable interface. Fiddlesticks. Who talks about "mechanic's block"? Who talks about "programmer's block"? No one. Because they don't exist. As a mechanic or programmer or writer, some days you got it, some days you don't. Big deal. If you set out to write today and you're not feeling it, write off the whole day. Go do something else. Not because it will free your block, which doesn't exist, but because if you're not in the mood, you're not in the mood--but you'll do your valiant best to fight through it anyway, and end up writing a bunch of disorganized rubbish that you'll just have to throw away tomorrow. So if today's not the day, blow it off and do it later. Listen to your internal voice to know if today's the day or not.
If you honor the term "writer's block" with ontological status, you'll have to deal with it. This inventiveness takes time and energy which you should spend typing.
I don't think writer's block exists, so I never, ever have it. I'm not being mystical; this is a statement of fact.
10. Deadlines Matter. Deadlines matter at our jobs. If you blow them off, there are consequences, because it's Serious Business. It matters. Honor the many people who have jobs of their own who are working to support your book, including your family, by getting the bloody thing done. On time. Writers are the single most notorious blower-offers of deadlines. Only because they think they are special. They are artists, and the rules of the world don't apply to them. Fiddlesticks. That's not being an artist; that's being a jerk who doesn't understand how the world works.
Of course, from time to time, things come up, and stuff happens, and we miss a deadline. Just make status updates so everyone's prepared.
If you think deadlines don't matter, you will get writer's block, because, secretly, you think what you're doing doesn't matter. It does. And it doesn't. It's just a thing some people do.
If all else fails, step away from the keyboard, relax with a beer. Hit it tomorrow. If you love writing, you'll get it, my friend. If you don't love writing, you won't--and it won't matter anyway.