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There's No Such Thing As Writer's Block

Years ago I was looking at how much cartooning -- writing, pencilling, inking, and coloring -- was required to keep Schlock Mercenary going each day, and I asked myself how I could possibly be doing it. Because without knowing how, I WAS doing it. And while thinking along these lines I began to wonder whether discovering how it was done would have some sort of quasi-quantum effect, wherein I find that I can either know how its done, or do it, but not both.

I wondered if I was like the bumblebee, whose flight cannot be described by the conventional laws of aerodynamics, but who doesn't need to describe it... he just needs to keep flapping. That actually became the watchword around my house for years -- Sandra and I would look at how much work needed to be done, and she'd smile at me and say "keep flapping."

As both a spiritualist and a scientist, I'm confident of two things: 1) "know thyself" is always a happier path than ignorance and 2) Heisenberg's uncertainty principle only applies to very, very tiny things. And so I found myself attending a panel entitled "Care and Feeding of the Creative Process" last weekend in Los Angeles at the 64th Annual World Science Fiction Convention in hopes of figuring out a bit more about what I do, and maybe even figuring out how to do it better.

The panelists, all of whom are published authors and/or illustrators in the Fantasy and Science Fiction Market, began by agreeing on one thing: There is no such thing as Writer's Block.

That's a powerful concept. Whether or not you currently believe it, there is strength to be found in repeating aloud "there is no such thing as Writer's Block."

The panelists (Stephen Leigh, Laura Anne Gilman, James Stanley Daugherty, and one other whose name escapes me) went on to qualify these fighting words: there may be times when you cannot write what you were hoping to write. Usually this is because you've already written all day and you're exhausted, or because you simply don't know what you want to say. But actual cases where you sit down in front of the keyboard and cannot write anything are extremely rare. If that's REALLY what you've got, get psychiatric help.

I listened carefully throughout the panel, and identified tactics I could use in order to keep my Muse happy. The best, and most easily abused, is "I'm thinking about writing right now." Cleaning the kitchen, taking a shower, and folding laundry can all be part of the creative process, because they are activities that allow the mind to wander. Exploit these times, and chase your wandering mind onto productive paths. But don't make the mistake of doing chores instead of writing.

My second-favorite tactic is one they called "A.I.C." -- Ass In Chair. Sit down, and don't get up. Get to work. You may not want to write right now, but if you want to get fed, paid, or finished with this, it is time to start. Plant yourself.

Closely related: don't allow distractions into your workspace. This is probably where most of us suffer -- if you've got World of Warcraft or a massive Live Journal friends list waiting for you at the computer where you try to work, A.I.C. will fail unless you've got lots and lots of willpower. My own computer has no games on it.

The panelists went on to describe what is my current favorite muse-enhancing tactic: Think Outside of The Box. Literally... get up, pack up your work, and take it outside of your usual workspace. Go someplace else. Ms. Gilman described camping in the neighborhood Starbucks, where there was lots of conversational white-noise and a short and defensible supply line for caffeine.

A little over six months ago I began hauling my scripts to the local comics-and-games store. I seemed to feel more productive there, and while I didn't know exactly why, I figured I'd exploit it while it lasted. The Bonus Story for the first Schlock Mercenary book was pencilled and inked there. At this point almost ALL of my pencilling and inking is done down there. It's wonderful. They let me pull in a drawing table, and I'm kind of the "resident cartoonist" at this point. I still do all my scripting and coloring at home, but for some reason my pencilling and inking is just better and faster when I do it at the Dragon's Keep.

Maybe it's because I'm surrounded by the work of people who are a lot better at it than I am. Then again, perhaps it's because there's no place for me to take a nap, so I might as well just keep working until I'm done.

I've never heard of "artist's block." Perhaps that's because artists often start their day with warm-up sketches. They may not know what the day's project will look like when the day is still beginning, but they know they'll be drawing all day, so they might as well limber up. That seemed to be what the Worldcon panelists were driving at when they said "start by writing SOMETHING." And in that vein, I think I've figured out what comes next in my strip, so I can wrap up this blog entry and get some actual work done.

I'm always amused when

I'm always amused when someone claims that a particular condition, including writer's block, doesn't exist.Â

Maybe it doesn't affect the person making the claim. That's great for him or her but to infer from that that it doesn't exist for anyone else is stretching a point. It's like saying: "I don't put on weight even when I over-eat, so therefore obesity doesn't exist." Or "fish don't die when you throw them into water, so therefore drowning doesn't exist."

Some writers may not be affected by writer's block or may have found that a particular way of dealing with it works for them. But since so many of the world's greatest writers have openly complained of having suffered from it, I'm prepared to believe them and concede that, despite periodic claims to the contrary, it does exist, after all.

Broken Voice Comics
Because comics are not just for kids

Broken Voice Comics
Because comics are not just for kids

More trite aphorisms.

Howard Tayler's picture

More trite aphorisms. Thank you. For my next article I'll compare writers block to cancer, and have Lance Armstrong post testimonials.Â

If you are having trouble writing, don't just call it "writers' block" and go get drunk. Sit down and try to figure out why you're not able to write what you want.

Sure, great authors have claimed to have writers' block. And lots of other great writers have moved past that petty complaint, and figured out what needed to be figured out in order to write what needed to be written.

Schlock Mercenary

Well, I think you can argue that writer's block exists...

Sure, it's possible to just sit down and write anything, but if you're:

 - writing to spec

and

 - on a deadline

 Then for all intents and purposes you have writer's block. Sure, maybe not an all-encompassing block, but it is a barrier between where you are now and your paycheck...

None of the panelists at

Howard Tayler's picture

None of the panelists at WorldCon called that "writers' block." You can if you want to, but I think that's actually your garden variety "I need this written right in a hurry, but I can't figure out what comes next."

If that's all you're suffering from, you're probably a real writer, with an actual career in the field.

Schlock Mercenary

I can understand writer's

Scott Story's picture

I can understand writer's block for writers working in the strip-a-day format, because that's a lot of material you have to produce consistantly. In the case of page-a-week adventure or episodic strips, though, the story usually will have been written well in advance.Â

As an example, for Johnny Saturn, I wrote a detailed synopsis of whole story, including the ever-approaching ending, in advance. While I have added scenes or dialogue as I felt appropriate, I've never really deviated from that synopsis. So, no writer's block.Â

I have had serious questions on how to approach the art, but I wouldn't go so far as to call it artist's block.

http://www.komikwerks.com/comic_title.php?ti=117

The MOMENT one starts

The MOMENT one starts thinking about how they do something when they shouldn't be able to... they should stop thinking and get to work :P (I don't get to do anything fun. I don't play video games. (Half an hour once every couple of months...) I don't pay attention to the tv. (What just happened?) I don't pay attention to the three year old bouncing on my back or the dog doing the same.. or the cat trying to lay across my drawing space... it's a wonder I get anything done.)

~

Shivae Studios - http://shivae.net

~

Shivae Studios - http://shivae.net

I believe in writing script

Gianna's picture

I believe in writing script well ahead of time (30 episodes ahead in my case) and then revising it a few times. Some of my episodes that went down really well with the readers were stuff that I wasn't too sure about keeping when I first wrote it.

 

-------- Gianna Masetti thenoobcomic.com

--------
Gianna Masetti
thenoobcomic.com

Same here. Except I still

Same here. Except I still don't really like those strips much. In my head they're still marked "barely passable."

 

One time someone asked for a crit on a forum, and I told him all of the strips were good except for one, and he said "Yeah, I agree with you. Interestingly enough, that one is a favorite with the readers."Â

 

So yeah. Sometimes I wonder about the few strips that I made and opted against putting online. Maybe everyone would think they were the best strips ever.Â

<a xhref="http://www.kiwisbybeat.com" target=blank>Kiwis by beat!</a>

Comic readers have no taste, bless 'em!

The William G's picture

A while back I did a comic called The One Panel Project: Noraebang where the entire point was to pull a single panel out of my ass within one hour, every day. I put no care into it, and pretty much made it up as I went along.

It turned out to be the most read thing I've ever done. And my hits fell through the floor when it was done. Which leads me to conclude that one of the following, or maybe all of them, are true:

1- People are willing to read any old shit as long as it's updated daily.

2- Korean hookers = ratings

3- My ass is not only nice to look at, but is a great way to guage the tastes of the public.


"My ass is not only nice to

Scott Story's picture

"My ass is not only nice to look at, but is a great way to guage the tastes of the public."

That is by far the quote of the day.Â

http://www.komikwerks.com/comic_title.php?ti=117

Scripts and blocks.

RemusShepherd's picture

 My entire storyline for the 2-year run of my comic is already more or less written, although I do make minor changes on the fly. It's the artistic blocks ("How do I depict *that*?") that are the challenge at this point.

And when you write in one block of time, then draw the art in another block of time, the differences between writers' and artists' block become very familiar.

 ...

 

 ...

So, the point then:You're

The William G's picture

So, the point then:

You're going to make shit eventually, so stay on the toilet.


Clever, but incorrect

Howard Tayler's picture

Ah, the danger of cute aphorisms. Nothing could be further from the truth. After all, defecating is something we do with predictable regularity. Sitting and waiting for it all day is a pointless waste.Â

Writing, on the other hand, is something you can do pretty much anytime. Writing GOOD stuff usually requires you to have written something -- ANYTHING -- while leaving enough time to go back and edit it.

Sure, there are those golden moments where the stars are right, the planets align, and the words fill the page in an effortless stream of perfection... but most really good writers look back on the stuff they write during those times and realize that it can be tightened up a little here, and a whole paragraph there can be deleted... in short, it isn't perfection the next day, so it probably only FELT perfect at the time.

Don't sit there waiting for the muse to strike. Start writing. That'll teach that pesky muse.

Schlock Mercenary

Um, it's not different at all

The William G's picture

What? You saying you dont give it a push along? That's one slick colon you got there, Howard.


Kind of gross man

Xaviar Xerexes's picture

Dude - one analogy to your digestive system is gross but ugh... Don't keep regurgitating it at us!Â

____

Xaviar Xerexes

Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Gnaw.

I run this place! Tip the piano player on the way out.

See, now, I always

Fabricari's picture

See, now, I always considered writing to be more like masturbation.

Steve "Fabricari" Harrison
Fabricari,

Steve "Fabricari" Harrison

Hmm ... in that case ...

[quote=Fabricari] See, now, I always considered writing to be more like masturbation. [/quote]

I can't help thinking you must be doing at least one of them wrong ... Wink

Broken Voice Comics
Because comics are not just for kids

Broken Voice Comics
Because comics are not just for kids

You may be right. If I had

Fabricari's picture

You may be right. If I had practiced one as much as the other, I'd wager that I'd be far more prolific than I am now.

Steve "Fabricari" Harrison
Fabricari,

Steve "Fabricari" Harrison

Now now, I think you have no

The William G's picture

Now now, I think you have no problems tossing off a comic...


Comics: Like a Date With The

The William G's picture

Comics: Like a Date With The Palm Sisters

 Now THAT'S a catchphrase if I've ever heard one!


Artist Block and a Room of One's Own

Fabricari's picture

I know it doesn't work for everybody, but the most important ingredient for productivity, for myself, is consistancy. I have my office, my art table, my supplies in their designated locations, and my schedule. No distractions. All that's left is to fight the block.

And man, do I get a lot of 'em. But a great thing about presenting a long form comic as a scheduled webcomic is that you are force to overcome your blocks. Some nights I'll sit at the table and do nothing, feeling the pressure of time up against my back until it's 2am and then I know I have to draw or die. I purposely draw the comic hours before it's posted - to tempt the muse. There's a thrill in taunting that dreaded block. I'm a massochist.

Overcoming a block is often overcoming uncertainty, doubt, and self-loathing. I hate everything that I draw; I've had to learn to live with my fallabilities. I have to remind myself that I'm not a fine-artist; my job is to tell the story.

Artistic blocks not constrained to a plotted comic usually have to do with trying to come up with something WORTH illustrating. The best way around that is to realize that in the time I've stared at a blank page, I could have rendered several sketches.

 

Steve "Fabricari" Harrison
Fabricari,

Steve "Fabricari" Harrison

My Schroeder's Cat ate my

Scott Story's picture

My Schroeder's Cat ate my Heisenberg Principle. Or something.

Speaking of getting rid of distractions in your work area, nothing ever increased my productivity as much as getting rid of tv in my house. I don't watch tv when I work, or at all. It's wonderful.

http://www.komikwerks.com/comic_title.php?ti=117

Great article. I

Great article. I particularly liked your "I am thinking about writing now" tactic - I do the same, and knowing someone else does the same makes me feel justified.

Somebody famous once said something like "The secret to 99% of writing is just turning up".Â
JK Galbraith said (quoted in The Atlantic Monthly) :
"All writers know that on some golden mornings they are touched by the wand—are on intimate terms with poetry and cosmic truth. I have experienced those moments myself. Their lesson is simple: It's a total illusion. And the danger in the illusion is that you will wait for those moments. Such is the horror of having to face the typewriter that you will spend all your time waiting. I am persuaded that most writers, like most shoemakers, are about as good one day as the next (a point which Trollope made), hangovers apart. The difference is the result of euphoria, alcohol, or imagination. The meaning is that one had better go to his or her typewriter every morning and stay there regardless of the seeming result. It will be much the same."


Wise words, I think.

Artist's block exists, but is different.

RemusShepherd's picture

As I've tried to transition from written fiction to comics, I've found something interesting about these creative blocks. All the following is IMHO, and may not be true for everyone, as subjective as this field is...

Writer's block happens when you don't know what you want to say. You can force yourself to output something, even if it will need to be extensively cleaned up later.

Artist's block is more sinister. You know what you want to draw, but it just doesn't come out right. And your efforts to clean it up seem doomed to fail. It's some failure of the compositional part of the mind, perhaps, or a lapse in hand-eye coordination. Whatever it is, you *can* work through artist's block, but the result will be lower than your average quality. You will need to clean it up later.

Ass in Chair, Fingers on Keyboard is a great philosophy for productivity. But the results might disappoint...that is, until years of productivity have honed your skills enough that even your half-assed efforts reek of genius. :) Still, it's excellent advice. And as my website lists Mr. Tayler as my comic-creating idol, it's one I've been trying to take to heart. :)

...

 

 ...

As long as you've got the

Howard Tayler's picture

As long as you've got the time and the willpower to go back and edit the next day, the stuff you cranked out in museless stupor today will come out just fine.

In fact, it will probably be better than unedited stuff your muse dictated to you.Â

Schlock Mercenary

Re: Bees

Scarybug's picture

Bee flight explained!

That mystery was solved only last January!Â

___

Nerdcore: The Core Wars

___ Nerdcore: The Core Wars

http://www.pbs.org/saf/transc

http://www.pbs.org/saf/transcripts/transcript904.htm#4 They've know for a while how bees fly. And it was never as big a mystery as all that - the rules of aerodynamics they 'violated' all assumed fixed-shape wings, so engineers always knew it had to do with the flexible wings.

Cool Story

Xaviar Xerexes's picture

Wow - that was interesting. I wish they'd had video of the giant bee wing they built!Â

____

Xaviar Xerexes

Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Gnaw.

I run this place! Tip the piano player on the way out.

Yes, I was careful to say

Howard Tayler's picture

Yes, I was careful to say "aerodynamics" because the conventional laws of aerodynamics don't apply. The research I read (and oddly, that article you linked didn't seem to explain anything) indicated that bees fly using principles similar to those exploited by the Tesla turbine -- they generate turbulence. Sure, you can lump all that into "aerodynamics" NOW, but the math is infernally complex, and all but un-doable without modern computers.

Schlock Mercenary