WRITER’S BLOCK: THE GREAT MYTH

Connie Fischer asked this question a few weeks ago: “I have enjoyed reading your books and love how the writing always flows so smoothly and keeps my interest all the way through. For your writing to have that effect on me, I have to ask if you’ve ever had writer’s block?

This may be a bit harsh toward other writers, and of course I can only really speak for myself, but I think the whole idea of writer’s block is a big myth. There is no such thing; it is just a fancy term for lack of discipline.

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I could say yes to the question every single day when I am working on a book, and I don’t exaggerate. No matter how well the story flowed yesterday and how eager I was then for today to come so that I could continue, today, now, my mind is blank. I don’t know where to start or how to start, and the whole story is rubbish, and I hate all the characters, and I have a load of washing to put in, and I should check my Facebook page to see how many people have “liked” my newest post, and–well, I really need a cup of coffee, and while I am up…..  If I give in to any of these daily urges,I may eventually decide that it is too late to do any writing today and I need to get my thoughts in order anyway. And the loss of one day is not really catastrophic. I’ll write double my quota tomorrow. The only trouble is that tomorrow I will go through exactly the same thing. No, not the same–worse. By tomorrow my confidence in the book will have been shaken by my doubts today. And soon I will convince myself that I have writer’s block and that will be a huge consolation because that is a genuine affliction and everyone will sympathize with me.

Now what I should have done on that very first day, and what I actually do ninety-nine-and-a-half times out of a hundred, is sit there in front of my computer and work on my mind until I can focus in. Often it is incredibly difficult to do because my mind (like most other people’s) is totally scattered. It flits over everything except the task in hand. Focusing in is a sort of pre-meditation exercise. I have no secret to how to do it and no formula. It is just a discipline, I think. I force my mind to narrow down to my two main characters. If possible, I hop right in to the mind of one of them and live the particular point in the story he/she has reached. I feel their feelings. And then I start writing. I can recall someone (I can’t remember who) at a conference many years ago telling the audience that when you can’t think how to begin your writing you should write anyway. It sounds totally absurd, but it works. Writing is my natural medium (more natural than talking). When I start to write, ideas flow and words come. Each day after I have wrestled with my demons (some days are worse than others) I get on with the story until my daily quota is done. These years that is 2000 words.

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Actually getting started, though, does not always mean moving ahead with the story. If that were so, I would be able to write a complete book in 50 days–my books are 100, 000 words long and I write seven days a week. In fact, they take on average four months or 120+ days. Sometimes that feeling that the story is rubbish and the characters rotten persists to a degree that I know there is something definitely wrong with what I have already written. Or sometimes the feeling returns quite powerfully after I have labored onward with some actual writing. Experience has taught me that I must stop–but not to go put that load of wash in, etc. I turn immediately back to page 1 and read through to find the problem. Occasionally it is in the plot. Usually it is in the characters. A number of people have asked me questions about character and I intend to devote a whole blog to answering those, maybe next time. But I will say here that since my stories are all told through the eyes and minds of the hero and heroine (alternately), I have to know them to the depth I know myself. And that understanding is not easy and does not come all at once. They always have layer upon layer of secrets that they give up to me only with great reluctance. And with each new discovery I have to go back through the whole story and make the necessary adjustments. Until I know everything, the story won’t work.

Writing requires a great deal of thought, of working things out like a puzzle, of making sure everything hangs together, that every detail is consistent with the rest, that the whole thing is plausible. Writing is hard work. That does not mean it is unpleasant. Quite the contrary. But no matter how well the story seems to flow when the finished book is in a reader’s hand, the writing of it is a bit like constantly sanding a very rough board until it is smooth enough to leave no slivers and to show no sign of the constant grind of the sander. There is too much to be done to allow for such nonsense as writer’s block! Focus in. Think. Write. As one writer friend of mine is fond of saying, “Butt on chair, fingers on keyboard.” A teacher can’t just walk out of the classroom at the start of a class claiming teacher’s block (though her students might be delighted). A surgeon can’t walk out of the operating room when the patient is anesthetized, claiming surgeon’s block. A bricklayer can’t….  Well, you get the message.

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To one person who leaves a comment below before the end of April I will send a signed copy of THE PROPOSAL. The winner last time was Tai Smith. Congratulations to her and thanks to everyone who left a comment. I always love reading them.

THE AUTHOR/PUBLISHER RELATIONSHIP

Here are a few more questions you asked a few weeks ago when I solicited them:

Mary T asked: “I am curious about the time lapse between when you complete writing a book and when it is published. Is it a decision that is made between you and the publisher, or is it out of your hands entirely? For instance, I was surprised that you did not decide on what cover would be used for your books.”

Julie-ann Ford asked: “How do you and your publisher determine how long it will take to write a book? Also, what do you do when a book just won’t let you finish it?”

These days writers don’t absolutely have to have a publisher. They can e-publish their own books and have successful careers without ever going near a publisher. Some self-published books are very good. A vast number are very bad. Some of the very bad ones (not all) might be made considerably better with the help of a good editor and publisher. I am not going to debate this topic, however, though it would make for a fascinating subject for someone with more specific knowledge than I have. For me, a publisher and an editor are essential. I could not–or, rather, I would not–do without them. I write the books, but they have all the expertise to make those books as perfect and as marketable as they can be. And I am firmly of this opinion this despite the fact that I sometimes have disagreements (even bitter ones) with my publishers, especially over covers.

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I have contracts with my publishers. One thing agreed upon is deadline dates for each of the books in the contract. I set those. I know that I take on average four months to write a book. I know too that I need time between books to air out my head, to catch up on everything that has been put on hold, and to dream up an idea for the next book. I don’t like to be rushed. I have never encountered the “deadline hell” so many writers talk about. I have never (so far) been late delivering a book or even on time. I am almost always a few months early. I have never had an editor who has prodded me to get on with it or put any sort of pressure on me. I have never sent any part of a book in advance to an editor. She sees it only when I have finished it. I find this part of the relationship very stress-free. Oh, and I have never encountered a book that will not let me finish it. A story has a definite “shape” in my mind, depending upon the number of words to which I have agreed in the contract (100, 000 at present). I won’t let the story get out of my control. When it is time to start shaping it downward toward the conclusion, down it goes! Thus I avoid abrupt endings because I have run out of words. I want a story to read as if it had been smooth and effortless to write, but behind the scenes a lot of wrestling goes on.

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I think many people assume (I probably did myself before I was published) that all a publisher has to do when a book comes in is set it in some sort of type, print out multiple copies, slap a cover on it, and send it out to the bookstores. Why, then, does it almost always take nine months to a year before the book is actually on sale? The (very busy) editor has to go carefully through the manuscript and suggest any changes she thinks will improve the story. The author then has to delve back into it to make the changes or at least to discuss them with the editor. Then a copyeditor has to go through the manuscript with a fine tooth comb, looking for errors and inconsistencies, repetitions, and anything else about the actual writing   that somehow bother her. She has to note everything on the manuscript, and then the author has to go through it to make the suggested corrections or to argue for what was there originally. Then, after the corrected manuscript has been prepared for the final printing, other copyeditors and the author have to go through it one more time looking for typos. The gremlins come in after that and make a few more shocking typos, but they are spotted only when it is too late for anyone but readers to notice them.

In the meantime, the editor in association with all sorts of other people at the publishing house, has to discuss numerous other points relating to the actual publishing of the book. The title has to be agreed upon. A cover has to be designed and cover copy has to be written. If the author has cover consultation rights, there can be some haggling here and occasionally a complete change of design. The publisher has to plan its list of books to be published for months, even years, in advance. A bestselling author needs to have a good “slot.” That is, it’s not a good idea to have several top authors of similar type of books all being published in the same month. The books have to be sold in to the various accounts and they need to be promoted and advertised and be given good shelf space. So choosing the exact publication month is not a random thing. Sometimes a book is held back a month or two so that it can get a better “slot” than originally planned. My upcoming book THE ESCAPE, for example, was originally planned for February, 2014. It was then moved back to May and finally to July. That is a bit of an extreme example, and I have not been happy about it, but the plus side is that the book after that, ONLY ENCHANTING, with my new publisher, NAL, will be out in November.

There are numerous other things that go on between the turning-in of a book and its appearance in a bookstore, but this probably gives you some idea of why the time span is so long. Publication dates are not mentioned in contracts, though there are usually some safeguards for the author so that a publisher cannot keep on delaying  the publishing forever. For example, part of the advance moneys may be due when the book is published OR no later than one year after the manuscript is submitted. This is a hypothetical example, but it does mean that it is in the financial interest of the publisher not to delay too long before getting something back in sales for the investment they have made.

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I will look forward to reading your comments below. To one randomly chosen person who comments before the end of Tuesday, April 15, I will send a signed copy of the two-in-one edition of THE TEMPORARY WIFE/A PROMISE OF SPRING. The last winner was Tina (last name still unknown at the moment). Congratulations to her, and thanks to everyone who commented upon Jessica Eissfeldt’s guest blog. Many thanks to Jessica too.