Op-ed • "It's Time to Retire Writer's Block," By Eric Dontigney •
So let’s talk about the much-feared affliction called writer’s block. Rather, let’s talk about why I don’t give much credence to it. Here’s my problem. Virtually every discussion of it I’ve ever seen points to some cause that doesn’t have anything to do with writing. There’s a tragedy in the family. Financial stress. A marriage breaks up. Illness. I might even lend some credence to these claims if writing were some ephemeral process that we don’t understand. It isn’t.
Writing is primarily a skill. It’s the organization of ideas within the accepted rules of grammar, and we can even fudge the grammar a little. There are accepted structures in writing. The 5-paragraph essay was popular when I rolled through college and most academic papers follow the same structure, just bigger. Journalists use the inverted pyramid. Screenwriters and even some novelists use 3-act or 5-act structures. A recent trend in blogging holds that paragraphs shouldn’t go over 3 sentences because it’s easier to read on screen. Once you know the rules of grammar and get a handle on structure, you don’t lose that knowledge because life goes in the toilet.
I’m sure someone is thinking something like, “But what about ideation? I can’t write until I have a great idea.” Not true. That’s not even kind of true. The vast majority of fiction doesn’t stem from some single, original idea. Here’s the idea behind nearly every detective novel ever written: A crime or moral outrage occurs and a detective investigates. Sure, an idea can be original or groundbreaking, but most originality stems from careful and clever details.
Consider American Gods, one of the more beloved modern fantasy novels. The core idea is that gods walk among us with their own, sometimes alien, agendas. It’s not a new idea. Diana Wynne Jones used it. John James used it. Harlan Ellison used it. What makes American Gods special is all of the details layered over the base idea…well, that and Neil Gaiman’s nigh-uncanny talent.
Plus, there are lots of reliable techniques for generating story ideas. There’s the classic brainstorming approach. It’s not my favorite, but it works for some people. You can go somewhere people gather and create imaginary lives for the people you see. Restaurants, stores, bars, zoos, and parks are all good for that. Check out the latest news. There’s almost always something bizarre happening that can serve as fodder for a story.
Ask “Why” about things you see. For example, there’s an older gentleman who lives in my neighborhood. He walks up and down the street a few times a day when the weather is good. Why? I write urban fantasy, so my answers lean that direction. Maybe he’s an aging sorcerer checking on his wards. Maybe he’s protecting us from restless spirits. Maybe he was a rogue Vodou priest 30 years ago, and he’s watching for signs of vengeful Loa. When you get right down to it, ideas are everywhere.
“But, but what about plotting?” There’s nothing magical about plotting. Academics argue about how many plots there are, but it’s probably in the neighborhood of six. If you can argue the minutia of Game of Thrones episodes, you can master the basics of the six essential plots. Besides, a lot of stories unconsciously fall back onto Joseph Campbell’s monomyth or some part of it. George Lucas quite intentionally and shamelessly built the original Star Wars movies around the monomyth. For those writing women protagonists, Maureen Murdock lays out an alternative myth structure centered on the feminine journey.
In other words, if you’re struggling to plot your novel, there’s plenty of resources out there to help you find your way. Plot is a known quantity. The specific plot you choose for a story is more about personal style and any native genre restrictions. In capital-L literature, your protagonist can fail or die. It’s almost expected. In genre fiction, there’s a general expectation that your protagonist will triumph in the end.
You can, however, subvert those expectations to excellent results. Charles Stross’ Laundry Files novels are a great example. Every seeming victory on the part of Bob Howard, the usual protagonist, peels away his humanity a bit at a time. All of which happens on the way toward an unavoidable, Lovecraftian apocalypse. Granted, that kind of meta-plotting isn’t for beginners, but it can be done.
So what does all of this have to do with writer’s block and my disbelief in it?
If writing were some ephemeral process, guided entirely by the invisible hands of some mercurial spirit, then writer’s block might seem plausible. The reality is far more mundane. Writing is a skill, guided by known rules, structures, and techniques. You can learn them. You can apply them. You can write every single day. Saying you’ve got writer’s block is a less blatant way of saying, “I don’t want to.” Here’s how I know this.
Doctors, lawyers, and engineers are also in jobs that require creativity and higher-order thinking within accepted rules, structures and techniques. When their lives go sideways, they take a little time off to put things in order as well as they can. Then, they go back to work. People undergoing chemotherapy still go to work. They may not be 100%, but they show up and do their jobs. You’ve got an uphill battle to convince me that writing is more demanding than performing surgery, or designing a building, or defending a client in court. You’ve got an impossible battle to convince me that writing is harder than showing up to a job while battling a life-threatening condition.
Think about it. How would you react if someone said they couldn’t work because they had “doctor’s block,” or “engineer’s block,” or “lawyer’s block?” You’d roll your eyes at them. Writers get away with it only because dubious ideas about inspiration as an external force have filtered into the public consciousness. People let it slide because everyone knows those pesky muses are fickle. The truth is that it’s time to retire the term writer’s block. If Brandon Sanderson can write 20+ books in 12 years, the rest of us ought to be able to muster the discipline to write a few hundred words a day.
Eric Dontigney is the author of the Samuel Branch urban fantasy series and the short story collection, Contingency Jones: The Complete Season One. Raised in Western New York, he currently resides in Memphis, TN. You can find him haunting obscure sections of libraries, in Chinese restaurants or occasionally at ericdontigney.com.
Eric’s last appearance in our pages was “Memory Makes Liars of Us All,” in Stupefying Stories #13, his next will be “Lenses,” in Stupefying Stories #21, and later this year we’ll be releasing his paranormal mystery novel, The Midnight Ground. Watch for it!