Writing Maladies

This is more of a random post; I wanted to start doing these every once in a while, just to mix things up a bit. They won’t always be about writing, but they usually will cover something related to the writing craft. (And with a couple of words I just gave myself creative freedom to produce any post I want. 🙂

This week I wanted to talk about the problems, or “diseases,” that nearly all writers face, in one form or another. You’ve probably encountered them in the past, whether or not you knew exactly what they were, but understanding them is one of the most effective ways of lessening their effect. Let’s list them out:

  • Writer’s Block
  • Worldbuilder’s Disease
  • Imagination Disconnect
  • Verbosity Syndrome

Sometimes, these “diseases” can interconnect. For example, writer’s block may come out in the form of worldbuilder’s disease, as when the writer continues expanding his setting just to push off the actual writing part. I’m sure there are many more writerly problems, but these are just a few off the top of my head. Their similarity lies in the fact that I feel pretty confident saying that most writers have experienced all of these, to varying degrees.

Writer’s Block: For some reason, the fact that your left leg looks strange under the table distracts you enough that your writing abilities decide to go on vacation. (Hey, that sounds like a writing prompt!)

This is one of the biggest ones. It comes in many forms, spans many types of writers, and doesn’t discriminate between genres. Sometimes, it seems an unstoppable force. But–though I’ll list several of the cures I’ve heard over time–there remains and will always remain the one sole, easiest cure for writer’s block: Sit down and write. (Or stand and write, whatever’s your thing. Just write!)

  • Reasons For Writer’s Block:
    • The simplest reason why you can’t write is that–for whatever reason–you simply don’t want to. Maybe you’re in a bad mood, maybe you have a test tomorrow and should be working on that rather than writing this story, but you really want to write and it’s awesome, but it just doesn’t seem to happen and you feel like you . . . Sorry, got carried away. Point is, maybe you just need a break.
    • This is another biggie, and is the most common form of Writer’s Block (Ugh…I’m just going to say WB, from now on) for me, at least. It happens particularly when I haven’t outlined a story well enough–I just can’t seem to figure out what comes next. Or, sometimes, I know what comes next, but I can’t piece out how to put it into words. Maybe this one is just me, but usually I either wait a little and try again, or it comes to me randomly during my day. Then I need a computer. Immediately.
    • Maybe you’re just distracted? Noises, problems, or simply too many ideas are floating through your head. It’s very difficult to write under these circumstances, but it can’t hurt to try.
    • Your environment is bothering you. Some people need quiet to write, while some enjoy listening to music. Others prefer a quite hubbub of conversation. Each writer has his/her preferred writing space; find yours, and try to make sure you write in it as often as possible.
    • Another cause, particularly for newer writers, is that you may think what you just wrote is utter garbage. I think there is a sense that writing is supposed to be easy–I’ll probably rant about this in some other random post–and when it’s not, we feel like we can’t go on. We just failed at doing something simple, so why try at all?
    • It may be there is a fundamental problem with whatever you are writing. This is the hardest one to fix, as the sense that something is wrong comes earlier in the writing career than the knowledge of how to fix it. As we become more experienced, however, this form of WB becomes much easier to deal with.
  • Cures For Writer’s Block: 
    • Writing is not easy! Recognize the skill that you have–the skill to literally transform the realm of thought into the realm of words, to change a metaphysical phase–and recognize that it will only better with time. Every word you put on a page is going directly to making you into the best writer you can be. So, write, write, write!
    • One way I get myself into the writing mood is to do a quick edit of what I wrote the day before. It’s not really that thorough; I just scan through, maybe change a couple words here and there, but it reminds me of what happened yesterday and gives me a boost on today’s writing.
    • Obviously, if you can identify what is distracting you, you should eliminate it as soon as possible and get on with writing.
    • Try writing something else. Some people just need time thinking about something else before they can get back into their current project, and this way you get the benefit of writing, as well!
    • Another effective cure is to allow yourself to write freely. Just keep going–write whatever comes to mind, without thinking, even if its garbage. One of the great things about writing is that you can always go back and fix things. It’s how certain characters sometimes sound wittier than the author themselves; we have the power to go back in time. So, who cares if it’s garbage, now? You’ll fix it later! (I like to have a deleted scenes file to keep anything I delete or change too drastically, just in case.)
    • Now for the hard one . . . what if the scene’s just not working? Obviously, this one’s very subjective, but the general cure could simply be to change something:
      • Try changing the scene’s setting or viewpoint character. Either of these could mix things up and help get the writing back on track.
      • Add a new character (or remove a character) to make the conflict even worse.
      • Get to know the scene’s characters better. Often the problem is they are not being consistent in what they do, as the author does not understand them well enough. Try writing a first-person monologue from their POV. Have a big disaster happen (Things like a plane crash, a forest fire, your love interest walking in with someone else. You know, those sort of things.); we learn a lot from the way people react to the problems they are faced with.

Worldbuilder’s Disease: What? Of course, I’m a writer. I’ll start writing as soon as I finish developing the phonetics of the third dialect that a sub-sect of the Wrenari have adopted, after they fled to the Whites to escape the capital king. Oh, is it in the book? Umm . . . no, but it’s fun!

Disclaimer: I am not saying you can’t have fun worldbuilding. If creating worlds and fantastic settings is your passion, go ahead. I’m talking about the ‘disease’ form of worldbuilding, where a person who would like to be writing–or has a deadline–is stuck continually building parts of his world that are not relevant to the story, and never begins writing.

I happen to love worldbuilding. I enjoy creating governments, cultures, and histories almost as much as I enjoy writing about them. That makes this writerly malady quite the iceberg to my titanic, you might say. (That sounded a lot better in my head . . . . but we’ll get to that.)

From what I’ve seen, worldbuilder’s disease manifests in two primary forms. One is the one I mentioned above, where the writer just keep building and building and never gets to the actual writing. That one is worse, in my opinion. The other is when that same writer has begun writing, but instead of telling the story, he dumps huge blocks of info on the reader, as if to say ‘hey, look what I created!’ The reason I think this one is less bad, is because–although the info dumps will make his story uninteresting–at least he has a story. If there’s one thing you can take from this entire post it’s that having something to edit later is always better than having nothing at all.

I think all of us love worldbuilding, to an extent. It’s apparent in what we do: We want to create a world that’s different from our own, a world we feel we can only partake in through writing/reading it. A world we have to create.

So I don’t think the cure to this ‘disease’ lies in stifling that love. Worldbuilding is an extremely important skill, and–like plotting, characterization, and dialogue–it requires practice to cultivate to perfection. The love of the ‘disease prone’ writers can only aid in this endeavor.

What we need to do is limit it, however. Try giving yourself a week for worldbuilding this particular piece. During that time (or whatever span you choose) work solely on building your world, keeping yourself to the points that will be most central to the story you are telling. As soon as the week is up, however, it’s time to begin writing. And not stop.

Imagination Disconnect: I’m going to have a scene on the peak of a cloven mountain, where the hero will fight an entire army alone, while lightning falls from the sky and volcanoes erupt, backlighting the dragons that soar through the air. (Or something suitably imaginative)

The disease that I call “imagination disconnect” is a phenomenon newer writers are very familiar with. You’ve dreamt up that big idea, and you have it all worked out to the finest of details. Yet when you put thought to page, it’s just not the same. The resulting story doesn’t have the awesomeness of the incredible scene your imagination had created and played out. It’s disappointing, by comparison.

I think one of the main reasons for this “disconnect” is that the ability to perceive what is good art comes long before we know how to emulate it. This may be because most writers are readers first, but the fact is we can usually tell good writing from bad by the time we start writing ourselves. Naturally, since our skill level has not reached even the heels of our taste level, we cannot help but fall short.

The cure to this one, however, is as simple as the reasons that caused it. We all experience it, and we all get over it, at some point. Knowing this is extremely important; you’re not expected to write masterpieces when you first sit down to type!

A writer has to give themselves permission to write badly. Don’t expect your writing to be on par with your imagination, and you won’t be disappointed when it isn’t. On the contrary, when the day comes that you write that perfect scene and realize you have brought form to your to your imagination, your excitement will be that much greater!

Verbosity Syndrome: The protein filaments growing from the follicles in the dermis surrounding my skull have spontaneously combusted to the point that they are clearly and inevitably surrounded by a heated, glowing body of ignited gas. (Translation: My hair is on fire!)

This is another of the ones I’ve noticed, and it creeps up on writers of all types, almost without their noticing it. Have you ever found yourself writing a simple text to a friend and thinking about what the best word to use here would be? I have. I’ve changed that word three times and rearranged the sentence before finding what I felt was the perfect fit.

It’s just a text! Some things in life don’t require perfect spelling, grammar, and punctuation. I find that as writers ease into their roles, this ‘syndrome’ begins bleeding into all aspects of their word-related lives. Many become extremely verbose and particular about even the simplest of writings, almost as if a grammatically incorrect shopping list is indicative of their waning abilities.

It’s worth noting that verbosity is not always welcome in regular writing, either. I once heard a catchy saying: “Writing right is writing tight.” (Or the other way around? I’m not sure where it’s from . . .) Of course, this is heavily dependent on the type of prose you are writing, but–if you’re shooting for an ‘invisible pane’ sort of prose, through which only the story can be seen–you should definitely stay away from overcrowding your sentences. Remember, however, that it’s always fine to write one way, then come back and cut off any fat during revisions. Whichever way you go, the final product will be much leaner and clear of any details that distract from the story you are trying to tell.

Conclusion:  I’m sure there are far more than the ones I listed, but those are the ones I could comes up with, at the moment. If you can think of any others, feel free to comment them below–together with what you feel is their cure, of possible. I tried to come up with cures for most of the problems (though some I still have to try myself), but even just knowing that the problem exists is a step upward. It allows you to know what and when you are fighting, which gives you a much better chance than if it was working at you unawares. After all, I’m feeling the effect of writer’s block right now. Why else would I be writing a blog post? 😉


Storytelling Engineers

The word ‘engineer’ is derived from the Latin words ‘ingeniare’ and ‘ingenium,’ meaning “to contrive, devise” and “cleverness,” respectively. An engineer must design a structure–one that is both beautiful and practical–all while considering the thousands of complex factors and conditions that must be fulfilled at the building’s completion.

In that he is not so different from a writer.

Marc Wolvesheir opened my eyes to this comparison in his own blog, Engineers Do Write. Writing, and, in fact, most forms of art, is widely viewed as a talent rather than an acquired skill. This leads people to believe there is no road to improving one’s natural writing ability, and ultimately results in an almost metaphysical vibe to the entire art. Even worse, new writers are expected to immediately ‘hit it big’ or risk being criticized for wasting their time, writing for ‘fun.’

I once heard this phenomenon exemplified by contrasting it with the expectations placed on a person, say, playing a sport. Most would agree that playing basketball in your backyard is a perfectly acceptable, even healthy pastime. No one would go up to someone casually shooting hoops and ask, “So, when do you plan on playing in the NBA?” Yet, when it comes to writing, this reaction seems to be considered not only the standard, but even the expected response.

Much of this, I assume, comes from the remnants of the past generation’s mentality, during which writing was a vastly different beast, to be tackled in a vastly different way. Writers were taught to write from within, channel the Muse, etc. While much of this still applies, the art seems to have, at least in my opinion, evolved into something much more structured, with several differing approaches that have all been shown time and time again to result in success. The work of the previous generation’s greats has been analyzed, picked apart to find exactly what gave them the ability to withstand the test of time. Tried and true formulas have arisen, strategies that, when used correctly, can effectively produce the same effect in your own writing.

We live in the time of the engineer. Stories can now be intentionally made to play on human emotions, resonating in ways that were often seen as accidental in years past. Today we can structure novels down to the level of word choice, choosing carefully what we know will prompt the desired reaction in the reader. This was all available in the past, and was undoubtedly utilized by many successful authors, but only recently has it become the general mindset of storytelling.

This shift in our approach to the writing craft also serves as a rebuttal of the widespread beliefs mentioned above. Writing is an art like any other, and yet it is also a science. Just like one wouldn’t expect to sit at a piano for the first time and produce a Bach-caliber symphony, one shouldn’t expect to master the art of storytelling without putting in several hours of hard work. Talent does play a part, but it is by no means the whole of it. True writing skill can only be built through continuous practice of doing just that: writing.

Even if you can only spare a couple of minutes a day, every word written is another stone added to the structure of your storytelling ability. The feat is all the more attainable now that we have the ability to learn precisely what it is that makes a story sell. We can maximize those few minutes by focusing on the writing aspects we feel weakest in. We can dissect our story’s many layers to discover exactly what is dragging it down. And, above all, we can use this information to successfully build the story we want to build.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with writing simply as a hobby, and if that is what you wish to do, what are you waiting for? Go to a room, sit down, and get that story that’s been stalling your sleep down on paper. As a general rule, however, I will assume that most of you are, like me, on the path towards being a published author. That doesn’t mean those of you writing for fun will find nothing to learn. Ideally, this advice will resonate with writers for fun and writers for profit, newer writers, and experienced ones–and all those in between. Hopefully, I can share with you some of what I know, learn from your comments, and together we can travel the paved road to becoming true storytelling engineers.