Silver Wordsmith: An author's journey
There’s much to enjoy about being a writer, much more than there is to not enjoy about being one, but if there’s one thing writers enjoy the least, it’s writers block (he says, stepping away from the screen for a few minutes because the next sentence is refusing to come). I spent a previous entry discussing a serious bout of writer’s block I recently experienced and how I managed to overcome it. But writer’s block is a creature of many faces. In its most gruesome form, it disables the writer completely and words flow to the page like juice hand-squeezed from a stone. And then there’s its less sinister cousins that detonate in the middle of the page, leaving gaps in the narrative. It’s these little buggers that I want to talk about today, and how I try to deal with them.
One thing to remember about these little spots of writer’s block is that each one of them aspires to become the eldritch horror that consumes your entire craft. They feast on your confidence, and grow as it shrinks. The inability to complete a sentence can grow into the inability to finish a chapter. With an unfinished chapter you begin to question whether your work will ever be completed. And if this work, which you’ve planned for years and written for months, needs to go into the dustbin, then perhaps you were never cut out to be a writer and your father was right, you should go back to school and get an MBA and spend the rest of your life drinking tepid water from the cooler because the AC wreaks havoc on your throat. Sound familiar? Then I feel for you.
There are ways, however, of reducing the chances that the little bastards will achieve their goals, and I want to set out a few of them below:
1. CUT YOUR LOSSES
Ideally, your writing simply flows and you don’t have to put much thought into what comes next. In practice, there are plenty of reasons to pause: finding the next word, phrase or thought, or perhaps finding that what you’ve just written sounded much better in your head. That’s fine. But sometimes these pauses swell.
You know your writing better than anyone, so you’re the best judge of when a normal pause turns into something more. You can feel the doubt start creeping in and wondering why you’re not able to conclude such a seemingly simple thought.
So my advice is to step away as soon as you can. Don’t let the little snag become something bigger than it needs to be. Go for a walk, get a drink of water, find something else to do however brief or however long. Just let your brain step away from the conscious cycling through a problem that leads to a distorted emphasis on the problem, and let your subconscious brain take over and focus on a solution.
You’d be surprised how many of these mini-blocks can be dislodged by diverting your attention elsewhere, and you could do something useful in the meantime instead of staring at a computer screen or a piece of paper.
The next two strategies take a similar approach, but maintain emphasis on your writing.
2. WRITE SOMETHING ELSE
This is why I find it useful to have several projects on the go (including this blog, because if anything allows for an unmitigated stream of consciousness rant, it’s a blog entry, so, I’m sorry, I guess?). I can always unplug myself from one project and work on the other. And sometimes these shifts last weeks if not months. But the result is that if you do happen to lose your infatuation with a particular project, it doesn’t turn into a tragedy, because you have something else to nourish in the meantime.
I’m aware that some would argue that this leads to jumping from one project to the next without anything crossing the finish line. These “completionists” think a project has to be seen to its bitter end no matter what toll it takes. And while there is merit in occasionally finishing a project, because a finished project is an entirely different learning experience than just writing parts of one, it presumes that this strategy means nothing will get done. It does get done, but slowly. Ultimately you’re the best judge of what works for you, so if you think you’re the kind of person that will just get distracted by the next shiny new thing, perhaps this one isn’t for you.
3. LEAVE GAPS
This is basically the same as the previous strategy, but instead of having to look outside of the current work, you look inside it. The jumps could be as big as working on another chapter at a completely different part of the novel, or it could be working on the next paragraph while the previous one sits unfinished.
Oftentimes, I have a general sense of how a scene is going to go and all the little interactions, actions and descriptions that will form it. However, sometimes transitioning from one to the other can be a challenge. So if I ever get into trouble and a transition is not immediately forthcoming, I just skip right over to the next little bit and I continue. Coming back even fifteen minutes later might be enough to tie the two portions together, or sometimes I have to sleep on it and the transition comes so smoothly that I’m surprised it gave me trouble to begin with. I find it much easier to drop a tricky line and come back to it later than to puzzle it out and force a solution.
4. IMAGINE YOUR WAY OUT
This is a mental trick I’ve used that is not always successful, but when it works, it feels a little bit like magic. I find it more suitable for stubborn sentences than whole paragraphs, but if you find that this works for you, I would be curious to hear your success stories.
So whenever I encounter a sentence that for whatever reason I’m not able to complete, I try to imagine what comes next. Sounds stupid, right? Like, what the hell are you doing with your writing if you’re not imagining it? But I’m not talking about imagining a scene. I’m talking about imagining the writing itself.
I try to put myself in a specific state of mind where I try to picture myself reading a book that I’m really enjoying, but not a real book that I’ve already read. This is a great book by an excellent author and I’m enjoying reading it because it’s one of those works that I just wish I’d written myself. And so once I have this little scene laid out in my head, I read the last couple of sentences that I wrote before the snag, and then once I reach it, I let go, and allow my mind to picture the words or the sentences that would come next.
What would I expect of a high-quality work?
It doesn’t always work, or sometimes it needs a couple of false starts to work, but when it does, oh man, like I said, it’s magic. It feels as though some other part of my brain tells me to step aside, takes over, and shows me what is to write well. Of course, it was me all along, but imagining already completed writing takes the edge of the stress of conjuring something into existence. It also you to treat the writing as already there, and you’re merely showing it to yourself.
I would recommend to everyone to try this for yourselves because this has helped me imagine my way out of writer’s block on more than one occasion.
So there it is, hopefully you’re able to integrate one or all of these strategies into your writing and remember, don’t accept that writing is suffering and wherever you can, try to find the joy.
Hello and welcome to the first installment of the “Supplementary Material” for my sci-fi web serial, Drops of the Black Sun. This is where I can drop additional lore that is not integral to the storyline, but can be used to enrich the world without bogging down the main story. It’s not necessary to read these occasional diversions to follow the main story, but I think it helps the experiences and it fleshes-out the world. A full list of this supplemental material can be found in the Table of Contents, which also cross-references the chapter segments that it is most relevant to.
The first installment relates to Book I, Chapter 1, Part 2/3. Here one of more main characters, Mikarik, is speaking to a fellow passenger on his flight to Earth, an unnamed Mraboran female. They get to talking about the Thorian language and Mikarik mentions a “two-bit traveller’s guide” that he feels does not paint an accurate picture of the capabilities of his native tongue. Below is a reproduction of the relevant section of Standard Earth Commercial version, which is a new and revised addition that actual comes to address the very issue that Mikarik took umbrage at.
An excerpt from the “Thorian Noun Classes” chapter of The Traveller’s Guide to the Thorian Language for Speakers of Standard Earth Commercial (Stec):
“As it slowly became the lingua franca of the Known Reaches over the last few millennia, Thorian (or Native Thorian, when contrasted with Trade Thorian or Common Pidgin, as it is sometimes called) adopted many of the simplifications inherent in Trade Thorian. One of the complexities of their language that the Thorians cling on to with great zeal is the five classes into which all Thorian nouns are classified. Noun classes in Thorian serve a number of purposes including affecting the conjugation of adjectives, verbs, and objects attaching to the noun, as well as which verbs may be used in conjunction with the noun.
Anyone who has ever bothered to get off the rock they were born on are aware of the Thorians’ great appetite for territorial and population expansion at the expense of less developed and less organized species. Particularly those living in the Thorian Homesteads are familiar with the unique flavour of Thorian confidence, pride and patriotism. It is therefore no great coincidence that the five classes of the Thorian language are organized by the noun’s relationship to the Thorians themselves.
First Class (Kinship Class)
Examples: mother, he/she, doctor, liar
Nouns that refer to an entity that is a Thorian fall into the first class. The difficulty arises for a non-native speaker when they encounter a noun that, in their first language, may refer both to a person and to a non-person. For instance, in most languages, the word for ‘mother’ is the same when referring to the mother of a child and the mother of an animal offspring. In Thorian, however, the mother of a child is a first class noun and the mother of an animal is a second class noun and is therefore a completely different word. Interestingly enough, some cultural insights may be gleaned from observing which class nouns the Thorians use in a particular context. The name of the Thorian homeworld, for example, is Kai Thori, which is loosely translated as “Mother of the Peoples”. The word ‘Kai’ is a first class noun, even though the Thorian word for ‘planet’ is a third class noun, leading to the conclusion that the Thorians see their homeworld as an inexorable part of themselves.
Second Class (Living Class)
Examples: animal, bird, flower, tree
The test for whether a noun falls into the second class is deceptively straightforward: if the noun refers to a living thing that is not a Thorian, it falls into the second class. From that basic premise, we can delve into several further nuances. Large flora generally falls into the second class, but smaller flora like ‘grass’ is usually relegated to the third class. Living things that have ceased being alive (whether recently or in the distant past) do not cease being classified into the second class. Derivative products from living things which are no longer independently alive may be classified as either the second class or the third class. ‘Meat’ (when referring to meat for consumption), is still classified under the second class, but ‘leather’ (when referring to the material) is a third class noun. Although Thorian grammarians have tried to forcibly clean up Thorian classes, some cultural and spiritual artifacts remain. For example, the words for ‘water’ and ‘lightning’ are second class nouns instead of third.
Third Class (Natural Class)
Examples: wind, canyon, eye, metal
Constituent parts of living things (like organs, limbs, hair and leaves), and objects and phenomena that occur naturally, are grouped into the third class. Natural phenomena form the largest proportion of the third class and include weather events (‘rain’ and ‘the cold’), natural formations (‘sea’ and ‘forest’) and anything derived from the environment (‘wood’ and ‘rock’). Eager to lord anything over the Thorians, literary theorists from species with more ‘flexible’ languages have commented at length on the limits that classes place on Thorian prose. In Thorian, the phrase “an angry wind” is both absurdist and grammatically incorrect. ‘Angry’ is a first class adjective and cannot describe a third class noun. This inability to ascribe sentient-like qualities to non-sentient entities has been postulated as the great weakness of Thorian literary tradition. In response to this criticism, Thorian scholars point to their rich collection of adjectives that aren’t specific to the first class. These adjectives derive not from a quality the noun possesses, such as ‘anger’, but from the effect that the noun causes. For instance, a Thorian may describe the wind as being ‘netkarthai’ approximately meaning “invoking a fear that one will never see their loved ones again”.
Fourth Class (Object Class)
Examples: table, city, vehicle, explosion
The fourth class encompasses any entity that is likely to be described as a “thing” and that does not fall into the third class. One temptation for a non-native speaker is to try to convey meaning by changing the class of a noun. One has to remember that a noun’s class is an intrinsic property and does not change depending on context. Therefore, treating the word for ‘tree’ like a third class noun does not make the word suddenly mean ‘log’ or ‘wood’. Instead, many Thorian nouns trace a mad descent from second to fourth class. A tree (second class) may fall and become a log (third class) and then someone may come along and carve it into a bench (fourth class). However, just because a deliberate transformation has been applied to an object, it doesn’t necessarily mean it completed its journey to the fourth class. ‘Garden’ is a third class noun while ‘canal’ (as in, a waterway) is a fourth class noun.
Fifth Class (Idea Class)
Examples: death, order, silence, regret
Any intangible concept falls into the final fifth class of nouns. Second maybe only to the first class, this is one of the most intuitive of the Thorian classes. The fifth class is the most restricted of the Thorian classes. A few exceptions aside, the only verb that can be used when a fifth class noun is the subject of a sentence is the verb “to be”. Literary critics cite this as another disadvantage of the Thorian language. “His fear consumed him” is a phrase that does not work in Thorian because “fear”, being a fifth class noun, cannot ‘eat’ which is a first and second class verb. A Thorian writer may instead opt for “His fear became his world”.
One peculiar side-effect of the continued use of Thorian classes in an age of interplanetary contact, is that a Thorian speaker’s class choice when referring to a member of another sentient species is revealing of the speaker’s political stance on issues of inter-species relations:
Class Used Speaker
First Ultra-liberal hippie crackpot
Second Moderate to Liberal
I want to start off by saying that I like my day job, and I’m not just writing that because someone might be watching. I may not love it as much as I would kicking back and writing all day so that I can sell coffee table editions of books of lore for my sci-fi epic and raking in money by the hundreds of thousands, but hey, I can still dream. I really do enjoy it. As much as one can enjoy being a lawyer without marrying the law itself and deriving pure unadulterated joy out of structuring complex securities transactions.
I’ve had a testy relationship with my career, but ever since I landed a gig at a post-secondary institution, gone are the days of wondering why I’m spending ten or twelve hours a day helping mining companies sell hopeless assets or aiding energy companies in potentially harming sensitive marine environments. Now I’m one of the greased wheels that helps an academic institution go round and round. Between the variety of work and being steeped in an environment of learning, this place is pretty great.
The nature of my work (and this is a reason why I appreciate a desk job in general) enables me to take a minute or two out of the day to write down an idea, or to a walk to a colleague’s office across campus and brainstorm, or to carve some time during lunch to eat at my desk and write. Overall, I find this job pretty conducive to my life as a writer. Despite keeping me consistently busy and for relatively long hours, I can make it work.
But it is a day job; that second-most dreaded adversary of a writer after self-loathing. So it does come with its challenges, and the reason I’ve been prompted to write about it is because the last couple weeks have been particularly brutal. It was so busy at work that I had no time to think about anything else. I barely had enough time to remember how to breathe. Lunches were spent reading emails, the hours stretched somewhat, and the looming threat of an ever-growing to-do list clogged all my creative pores and drained me of that desire to write – the one that helps me pour out several hundred words in just a ten-minute stretch so that I could at least stay consistently productive. By the time I got home, my brain was so drained that I just had enough energy to put the kids to bed and watch Netflix with my wife over dinner.
It was one of the few times where I felt that my day job actually clashed with my craft. I don’t count the years spent at the law firm because that job just slowly saps your soul until you get irrationally angry at having to wake up in the morning. The last couple of weeks, where my job completely eclipsed my writing, gave me pangs for that fantasy world where I sit with a hot mug of lapsang souchong as the sun shines into our home office and I’m taking my time reading up on the East India Company as part of my research.
And you know what, for some people, that’s their life. They’ve chosen to make it work and they can make it work and I can respect that. I can also respect the shift worker that comes home at 7 in the morning, sleeps, hammers out a page or two in the evening while the world is settling for bed and then off they go to help the world turn while everyone else is sleeping.
The bottom line is, they’re all writers.
I’ve got a family and a demanding job and I continue to write in the same way as the Creative Writing major who spends more time writing than I do sleeping. Yet it’s not uncommon to see those “75 Habits of Successful Writers that Won’t Guarantee Success but if You Don’t Follow Them, You’re Basically a Fraud” articles treat having a day job as the antithesis of being a “real” writer.
You know what makes it really hard to write? Hunger. Not having a roof over your head. The stress of not knowing where your next paycheque comes from. Yes, a skillful writer can turn transform those things into inspiration and a burning fire to produce great writing, but it’s not a necessary ingredient to success. You don’t have to enslave yourself to a different master just to be a good writer; to prove yourselves to those anonymous people to whom you owe absolutely nothing.
A job is life experience. A job allows you to meet new interesting people or be alone with your thoughts for hours on end. I’ve advocated several times on this blog that the act of being a writer doesn’t start and end with the addition of words onto a page. It starts when you wake up and it ends when your go to sleep, and in between those two are dreams and nightmares that can be used for sparks of inspiration.
So don’t be tempted into being hard on yourself for how you choose to structure your life, there’s no one kiln out which a writer can be forged and there is no shame in choosing any kind of job, whether it be a long-term career or a part time means of making some cash, over fully dedicating yourself to the writing craft.
Michael is a husband, father of two, lawyer, writer, and is currently working on his first novel, at a snail's pace. A very leisurely snail. All opinions are author's own.