Today’s guest post comes from Lisa M. Lilly, author of The Awakening.
I’m going to knock on wood as I say this. I’ve never had writer’s block. Because a lot of writers struggle with feeling like they simply can’t get many pages written even when they carve out time to write, I’ve given a lot of thought to this topic. I’m hoping these thoughts will be helpful to other writers when facing the blank screen.
My first serious career ambition was to make a living as a singer/songwriter. I started getting up on stage, first at open mikes, then at coffeehouses and festivals, when I was 16, within just two years of learning to play guitar. One thing I found right off about performing — if I hadn’t practiced recently and repeatedly, I’d forget words and chords even to songs I’d known for years. Including songs I’d written myself. Lack of practice also significantly increased my pre-performance sweaty hands, nausea and dry mouth.
Because I’m not a fan of feeling nauseous, or of stumbling in front of an audience, I practiced an hour a day, usually from six to seven a.m. before school or work. (My parents were amazingly tolerant of this and probably should get a medal for not complaining, especially when I also decided to learn the banjo.) When I started to write seriously, I thought of writing the same way I’d thought of practice. I set a schedule of when I would write, and when the time came, I wrote whether I felt like it or not. If I didn’t have a story or novel on-going, I wrote journal entries, or I wrote about what I might like to write about. Some days when I felt inspired and thought I’d written something fabulous, I read it later and found it clunky, wordy, and boring. Other times I trudged through each line and was sure I’d have to toss out the pages, only to find it was some of the best writing I’d ever done. And vice versa.
The second reason I’ve been fortunate enough to keep writing regardless what else is happening in my life is the courses I took in college. Ironically, the fiction program at Columbia College disappointed me in many ways. I’d hoped to learn plot, theme, and characterization, and I found the fiction courses and teachers rarely touched on those. Instead, what seemed like forever was spent on exercises. Sometimes the teacher went in a circle and had us each say a word, any word. Without saying why, the teacher might then reject the word and make a student try another. I’m guessing now the rejected words were too closely related to the last person’s word or didn’t evoke much emotion or imagery, such as “the”. Another exercise was person-action-person. The first student chose a person, meaning a man, woman, boy or girl, an action verb, and another person. An example is “man holds girl.” The next student chose another combination, and so on. Yet another was to sit in complete silence and listen to the sounds from the room, the building, or the street below. Sometimes I suspected just making us sit still in silence for endless periods (the class lasted 4 hours) was what generated the ideas, as you’ve got to entertain yourself somehow.
After whichever exercise, a few people were asked to describe the scene they’d imagined. Then we were told to “write as much as you can as fast as you can.” We could write about anything triggered by the exercise, even a scene someone else described. We later turned the pages in to meet our 4-page-a- week requirement. Grades were based on total pages for the semester and also on improvement over time. We rarely got feedback from the teacher, but our work was occasionally read in class.
At the time, I thought this process related only to first drafting. But I realized later that it really helped with two other steps in writing. First, it helped generate ideas and, perhaps more important, pay attention to what we saw, heard, and felt so that we were open to story ideas wherever they arose. Second, the process, with its emphasis on writing fast and not getting much feedback, helped disengage the editing/reviewing part of our minds. That matters because it’s the editor that stops the writing process dead. It’s that voice, which might sound like your mother or your fifth-grade English teacher, that chimes in before you type or write a word. (Mine definitely sounds like my mother. When I started my second novel after having collected a hundred rejections on the first, my mother asked why I’d bother to write another book since no one bought the first one. Did I mention there are some people you shouldn’t discuss your writing with?) The editor says that your idea is boring, no one will like it. It says that the first sentence you’re considering is all wrong – which could mean dull, clunky, too many syllables, too few syllables, too wordy, too sparse, not the way real mystery authors/literary authors/horror writers/real writers actually write.
The editor is important, in fact crucial, when it comes to revising. The editor spots sentences that are unintentionally rambling; it catches typos and makes your work polished and professional. But letting the editor out during a first draft may ensure no first draft is ever finished, because nothing you consider writing will ever be good enough for the editor. If you do manage to get a first page or even a first chapter written, the editor will make you rewrite it a hundred times before you go forward. Three years later, you’ll have a fantastic first chapter. And nothing else.
To this day, I have moments where I sit down to write and feel my throat and stomach constrict and my breathing get shallow. But I have ideas bouncing around in my head, so I have somewhere to start. I also typically outline (which is a topic for another post), so I have a map of where I’m going. And when the editor starts talking, and it always does, I ignore it and write as much as I can, as fast as I can.
Lisa M. Lilly is the author of THE AWAKENING, a mystery/thriller about a young woman whose mysterious pregnancy may bring the world its first female messiah — or trigger the Apocalypse. She is also an attorney and the author of THE TOWER FORMERLY KNOWN AS SEARS AND TWO OTHER TALES OF URBAN HORROR.