Archive for the 'Writer’s Block' Category

Nov 02 2012

What to Do When You Discover That Your Story Is No Longer Original

I provide advice about how to write novels, comic books and graphic novels. Most of my content applies to fiction-writing in general, but I also provide articles specifically about superhero stories.

Did Hollywood or a well-known author just ruin your day by releasing a story that looks strikingly similar to something you’ve been independently developing for years? Here are some ways you can develop your story in a different direction.


1. Focus on unusual character traits. There have been a LOT of superheroes that are brilliant scientists, but Iron Man’s protagonist has a very unusual combination of traits. Whereas most scientist characters struggle with something like shyness, Tony Stark is hyper-charismatic and his main flaw is impulsiveness/recklessness.


2. Give the main characters unusual goals and/or motivations, preferably which tie into unusual decisions. For example, in most national security thrillers, if a character gets framed for a major crime, the character’s quest will center on proving his innocence and/or getting revenge on the people that have framed him. In contrast, Point of Impact’s protagonist is a backwoods hermit who responds to a framing in a very unusual way. His first move is to break into an FBI-guarded morgue to recover the corpse of his dog (who was killed at his house when the criminals were planting evidence against him). The protagonist’s sense of honor causes him to jeopardize his chances of succeeding at the main plot over a point of honor that wouldn’t matter much to most protagonists.

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27 responses so far

Feb 21 2012

Overcoming Psychological Barriers to Authorial Success

I saw this in one of Slate’s advice columns:

Q: This may not sound like a problem, but I seem to be surrounded by incredibly talented people. My boyfriend has appeared on magazine covers for his worldwide surfing adventures and is also a published writer (which is my chosen field, but I’ve found no success in it). My siblings and circle of friends are all artists and musicians enjoying relative success and happiness with these careers. I know this sounds hyperbolic, but all of them seemed to have found something they’re not only very good at, but passionate about as well. I, on the other hand, am a mediocre “jack of all trades” type and want nothing more than to find that thing that I will shine at… How can I find my talent and/or not be resentful of those in my life who already have?

Here are some thoughts:


1. Writing is more of a practiced skill you create than an innate talent you find.  Temperament and attitude are better indicators of success as a writer than talent is.

  • Are you excited about improving?
  • Do you work hard and write often?
  • Do you take constructive criticism maturely?
  • Are you brave enough to make mistakes and learn from them?
  • Do you read heavily, especially within the genre(s) you write?
  • Are you willing to see this through even though it will probably take you years?

If you said yes to all of those, I think you will probably succeed with practice.  If you said no to a few of them, it might be worth looking into other fields or other forms of writing.  For example, if you would feel like a failure if you’ve been writing for a year and haven’t been published somewhere, it might help to start with short stories rather than novels.


2. Some seemingly-untalented writers make vast improvements. Even incredible writers very frequently start out inauspiciously.  For example, Terry Pratchett’s first manuscript (Carpet People) was an absolute disaster, but he’s grown into an excellent author (maybe the best in his genre).  J.K. Rowling got rejected 12 times and many authors top 50 rejections.  Closer to home, P. Mac and I were not the most talented writers in our high school–hell, not even in our family–but we’ve both practiced heavily* and he’s since been published in the New York Times and I’ve had a few hundred thousand readers.


3. Don’t be discouraged if there is a gap between your self-expectations and the quality of your early work.  You won’t impress professionals right away and that’s okay.  When young writers feel frustrated by the quality of their writing, most often it’s because they’re comparing themselves to experienced writers that have had tens of thousands of hours of practice and are in the prime of their careers.  If your self-expectations are high enough that you’ve read through this far, please keep in mind that the only way to close the gap between your self-expectations and the quality of your work is to practice.


4. Unless you’re independently wealthy, I would recommend looking into full-time writing and/or editing jobs to hone your craft (such as communications, journalism, publishing, publicity, marketing, etc).  The typical professional novelist took 10 years of practice to get published.  That’s a long time to go without getting much positive reinforcement–your self-doubts may overtake your drive.  In contrast, a full-time writing job will give you writing assignments where you can plausibly succeed in the short and medium terms.  That sense of success will help propel you forward.  Additionally, the steady pay and practice will help you develop your writing skills and keep your anxiety level to a minimum.


And this concludes our hopefully encouraging note on talent, effort and the publishing industry.  And now, back to our regularly-scheduled, morbidly depressing content, such as 5 Ways to Survive a Writing Career Without Buying Food.

12 responses so far

Aug 09 2011

8 Reasons Authors Don’t Complete Their Manuscripts


1. The author is working on too many projects to finish one. It’s far better to complete one manuscript than to go halfway on two. Most publishers won’t consider an unfinished novel manuscript from an inexperienced author.


2. The author is unwilling and/or unable to set time aside for writing. Alternately, perhaps the author sets aside a regular time, but is not consistent about actually using it. If you put aside one hour per day for writing, you can pretty easily write 1-2 pages. (Actually, I’d like to phrase that more confidently. If you can sit down for an hour and do nothing but write, you WILL write at least 1-2 pages. If you can do 1-2 pages a day in sequence, you will have a manuscript drafted within 6 months). If you’re writing at your computer, I’d recommend turning off the Internet because I find it tends to reduce productivity.


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52 responses so far

Mar 19 2011

It’s Okay If Your First Draft Sucks–Don’t Let Perfectionism Derail Your Productivity

1. First drafts always suckNobody writes publishable material on the first go.  It takes rewrites to make the story coherent and stylish.


2. Your first draft has permission to suck (hat-tip: Linda Gerber).  When your first draft sucks, as every first draft does, you have not failed as an author. You have succeeded in creating a scaffolding for a better story–maybe even a publishable story.  Excellence emerges only during rewrites, and you need to give yourself something to rewrite.


3. When writing first drafts, I would recommend focusing on getting it done rather than trying to get it done excellently. I find Tiffany Reisz’s take on this to be very helpful.  “I don’t view my first completed draft as my book any more than I view a bunch of ingredients as a meal. The first draft is just the groceries still sitting on the counter. But at least I’ve got the stuff to make the meal now. Once I have a first draft, THEN I start cooking. Cooking is the hard part. People are impressed I can write a 100K book in six weeks. But I can’t. I can write a draft in 6 weeks, but that draft, those ingredients, takes another three or four months to become the book. I don’t stress about the first draft, just throwing it down, anymore than I stress about buying groceries. I might stress over the cooking, but not buying the ingredients.”


4. Doing extensive preparation/outlining may help, but will not prevent the first draft from sucking.  Also, please don’t get so embroiled in your planning that you never feel ready to actually start writing the story.


5. I would recommend holding off on most research until you’ve finished the first draft (unless the research is absolutely integral to the story–e.g. historical fiction or nonfiction). You’ll have a better idea of what you need then, so your research will be better targeted and more efficient then. For more details on research and increasing your productivity as a writer, please see this.

40 responses so far

Apr 02 2010

Write or Die!

Published by under Writer's Block

Write or Die is one of my favorite tools to beat writer’s block.  It’s a website that pushes you to write by trying to hold you to a word-goal within a certain amount of time. On the most forgiving setting, it gives you friendly pop-ups reminding you to keep writing if you wait too long.   On “Kamikaze Commando,” it will slowly delete your words if you stop typing for too long.

If you’re a writer that has trouble completing first drafts, I’d recommend checking it out.  So far, I’ve written at least 275 words every time I sat down for 15 minutes.  (If you’re interested, you can read 30 minutes’ worth here).  At that rate, I’d have a first draft of a novel manuscript within roughly 70 hours or a comic book script within 5.

As always, I recommend just getting the first draft down and saving any concerns about smoothness, style, conciseness, coherence or anything else for the rewriting process.  Having a draft complete will make it vastly easier to rewrite because you’ll have a much better idea when you’re going.

22 responses so far

Feb 22 2010

Another interesting way to beat writer’s block…

Published by under Writer's Block

Lisa Chow keeps writing “blah blah blah” until something better comes up.  “It always does,” she says.

For more advice on beating writer’s block, please see this article and this one.

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Dec 06 2009

An innovative way to fix writer’s block…

A lot of authors (especially me) sit down to type out a story but get distracted by websites a few minutes later.  The conventional solution is  writing with paper-and-pen.  But what if your writing could genuinely benefit from computer access (because of saved drafts, online references and such)?  Try RescueTime, a free program that you can use to block access to distracting websites for a certain amount of time.  For example, if you’ve decided to commit yourself to an hour of writing, do you really need Facebook or email or ESPN or LolCats during that time?  Probably not.  In addition, RescueTime allows you to make the block undoable.  If you decide to check out some LolCats during your hour of writing, too bad!  You’re already locked in for the hour.  Clearly they made this program with me in mind.  😎

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7 responses so far

Oct 31 2009

Beat your writer’s block, NaNoWriMo authors!

If you’re participating in National Novel Writing Month, here are some tips you might find helpful.

1.  Don’t ever tell yourself “that isn’t good enough.” You’re only writing a draft.  It doesn’t need to be perfect, or even readable– it’s just a draft!  Forget “that isn’t good enough.”  Let “save it for rewrite” be your mantra.

2.  Don’t get hung up on research.  In fact, I’d recommend against doing any research during the first draft of most fiction.  (If you’re writing historical fiction for publication, that’s definitely an exception).

3.  Remove any distractions from your writing space.  If you find that the computer itself is a distraction, try writing by hand.

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24 responses so far

Oct 23 2009

How to Beat Writer’s Block, Part 2

For Part 1, please go here.

1. Don’t stop to rewrite chapters until you’ve finished a rough draft of every chapter. Your first draft won’t be great—it definitely won’t be publishable—and that’s okay. At the time you’re first writing a particular chapter, it’s virtually impossible to make it publishably good because you won’t know the endpoint you’re building towards until you’ve gotten there. While an outline can help solve this problem by providing a map, outlines generally change quite a bit as the author actually writes the chapters—characters develop in unforeseen directions, plots are added or removed, characters may be added or removed, etc. It’s much easier to go back and make chapter 5 excellent after you’ve finished the first draft of the entire manuscript.

2. The most important thing is to keep writing. It’s okay if it’s not coherent or stylish—you can always fix that by rewriting later. Don’t worry about whether it’s good or publishable. Before you’ve finished the first draft, it almost assuredly won’t be.

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2 responses so far

Apr 24 2009

How to Beat Writer’s Block, Part 1

Here are a few tricks to help you keep writing after you get stuck.


1.  Switch problems. Writer’s block often sets after a hero has resolved a problem and it’s not clear where the story is headed.  Are there any problems left?  Could you introduce a new problem?


2.  Add a complication. Last chapter, it may have looked like the hero’s solution worked perfectly.  Well, that was last chapter.  What went wrong? For example, perhaps the hero inadvertently made a new enemy or the villain is quickly working to undo the hero’s action.  Maybe two protagonists disagree about something in a major way (e.g. Lucius resigning in Dark Knight).


3. Switch solutions. Have your hero try to look at his problems in a new way.  Maybe he has to use ingenuity instead of brute force, or diplomacy instead of coercion, or careful planning rather than impulsiveness.  (Or vice versa).  For example, Heroes took away the characters’ powers from from time to time.


4.  Switch scenes. “Meanwhile, thousands of miles away…”  Moving the story very far will probably feel disjointed at first, but you can add a smoother transition after you determine where the story is going.


5.  Look at an important character in a new way. Perhaps there’s some aspect to your hero that could be developed more.  (Motivations? Personality? Key traits/flaws?  Where the character’s key traits/flaws came from? Background?)


6.  Give up on perfectionism. If you’re worried about being perfect, it will be very hard for you to start writing.  Don’t set ridiculously high standards for yourself on the first draft.  Think of the first draft as a scaffolding that you can build on rather than anything approaching the standards of the final product. (No one writes rough drafts that are good enough to publish).  It is much easier to write a few pages a day–even if they aren’t any good–and later rewrite them into something publishable.   One highly effective technique is to set aside 30-60 minutes each day to write a page or two.  You can use a free writing website like Write or Die to time you and give helpful reminders if you temporarily stop writing.  (If you averaged 400 words a day, you’d have a first draft of a novel manuscript ready within six months).


7.  Remove anything that distracts you from writing.  For example, if you’re typing away at your computer but find that you’re getting distracted, just turn off the Internet (or use a program like Write or Die that helps keep your focus).  If you’re spending too much time looking through notes or research, put them aside while you’re writing the first draft.


8.  If you’re truly desperate, consider throwing in a new antagonist or obstacle. This may reduce plot coherence, but the most important thing is to keep writing.  You can smooth out the connections later.


9.  If the plot has totally stalled, consider switching your angle. Sometimes, writers pick an angle because it’s conventional.  “I want to write about a magical university, so my story will be about a young wizard who studies there and eventually saves the world from great evil.”  Well, okay, but Harry Potter’s approach isn’t the only possibility.  What if you told a story about the teachers?  Or campus security? Or the admissions office?  Or the Ministry of Magic?  Or the bad guys?  Or the broom-flying instructors?  Or the headmaster?  Your story almost certainly has many such possibilities.  At the very least, any of these perspectives could add another chapter or character to help you develop your main character in a different direction.


Did you find this article helpful? If so, please check out How to Beat Writer’s Block, Part 2. Thanks!

64 responses so far

Aug 04 2008

How to Beat Writer’s Block: Give Up on Perfection

Expecting perfection from the first draft will probably paralyze you. On the first draft, the most important thing is to write something and then you can turn it into a coherent, clean masterpiece later. When you’re writing the first draft, it may help to think of your job as giving your internal self-editor material to work with rather than writing a story fit for public consumption.

Here are a few suggestions to avoid perfectionist impulses during the first draft…

1) Don’t edit.

2) If you get stuck on what happens in one part of the story, summarize it in a few sentences and move on. You can fill it in later.

3) Commit yourself to writing for at least 30 or 45 minutes. After ten minutes of accomplishing little, you will hopefully start to feel frustrated and lower your expectations. “Maybe this line is good enough.”

3 responses so far