I’m here to talk about motivation, and how an urban myth called writer’s block can get in the way. And most importantly, what to do about it.
Has anyone seen Quentin Tarantino’s “The Hateful Eight?” There’s one moment when they’re in Minnie’s Habadershery, and John “The Hangman” Ruth sidles up to “cowboy fella” Joe Gage, and they have a conversation that goes a little something like this:
John “The Hangman” Ruth: Whatchyu writin’ friend?
Joe Gage: The only thing I’m qualified to write about.
John “The Hangman” Ruth: What’s that?
Joe Gage: My life story
John “The Hangman” Ruth: You’re writing your life story..?
Joe Gage: You bet I am.
John “The Hangman” Ruth: Am I in it?
Joe Gage: ….you just entered it.
Well, much like Joe Gage, I feel like there is one particular thing I’m especially qualified to write about. Not necessarily my life story, since I don’t remember A LOT of it. I don’t yet have the credentials that would make me feel comfortable giving writing advice, beyond what I liked and what I didn’t. But motivation, and how to conquer writer’s block? That’s something I think I can competently talk about.
Here’s why. This is going to sound like bragging, and it is, but it’s bragging for a purpose. I want to show you exactly where I was in regards to my writing, and where I am now, and how I got there.
I’ve always *liked* writing, and I’ve always wanted to be a writer. Scratch that, an author. Like a lot of people, the act of actually committing words to a page felt painful at times. For me, the trouble was never that I was afraid of writing something bad, my ego is WAY too big for that (not that I haven’t written way more than my share of garbage). For me, the trouble was not knowing what to write, and once I started writing, not knowing what to write next. In a phrase, writer’s block. If I had a dollar for every time I decided to watch TV, play video games, mess around on social media, or do anything BUT write I’d be living next door to Jonathan Maberry in Del Mar. But I changed all that.
Before I tell you how I changed, let me tell you what “change” means to me.
In 2016, I made a new year’s resolution. I was about to turn 35 and hadn’t published anything. Ever. Maybe it was the milestone birthday, but I felt like my life was slipping away one moment at a time and if I didn’t do something soon I’d wake up much, much older and feel like I’d wasted my life. So I decided to refocus on writing.
Since, I’ve written almost 800,000 words, in the form of about 70 short stories/ novellas and three novels, the bulk of that in the past year. Now I’m going to tell you about how I found my motivation, and how I kept the energy up.
First, what exactly is writer’s block?
To me, writer’s block is the condition of NOT WRITING. Simple as that. It’s not one thing with one cause. Imagine, for a moment, you go to get in your car in the morning. You turn the key but the engine doesn’t start. Why is that? Well, the starter might have gone bad, the battery might be dead, maybe there’s a river of gas flowing down your sidewalk from a hole in the tank and you should maybe run like hell. The point is, the car won’t start, and if someone walked by and authoritatively told you IT’S THE STARTER, they could very well be wrong.
There are a lot of different reasons why someone might not be writing at any given time. Time, for one. We’ve got other responsibilities, jobs, kids, pets, distractions. I can’t add hours to the clock, but I can tell you most anyone can carve out five or ten minutes, and those minutes add up. Or maybe it’s inspiration. I used to wait day in and day out for the inspiration bus to come zooming around the corner and smear me all over the asphalt, but those days are over. No more. Here are some of the strategies I’ve used. Keep in mind, I’m not telling you what TO DO, some of these might actually be counter-productive depending on your individual makeup. I’m just telling you what you CAN DO.
- Write every day. I’ve shot for writing 1000 words a day, and haven’t always made it, but I HAVE written at least 500 words five days a week. Hell, try to write one. It’s better than nothing. Did you know that at one word a day, you could write a standard length novel in 200 years? Okay, maybe try to write more than one word a day. But if you write a mere 24 words a day, you can complete a novel in eight years, which is how long it took Michael Crichton to write “Jurassic Park.”
- Use writing prompts. Browse Dark Markets, look for anthologies and theme issues (like “I Can Taste the Blood,” for example). Another option is to pick a title and use that as a prompt. “The Masque of the Red Death?” “Sex, Death and Starshine?” “Kenneth is Drowning?” You might want to change the title at the end, but it’s fun to take a title and run with it, ESPECIALLY if you’ve not read the story.
- Manatees. Did you ever see that one South Park where they were making fun of Family Guy for being written by manatees? If so, this makes a whole lot more sense. But basically make yourself two random lists of words, then combine words until something speaks to you and you have a story idea.
- Get lost. I try to make it a point to go to new places a few times a month. For example, the other day I went to a Mexican restaurant by the bay I’d never been to before. The bartender had a fresh tattoo of a star on his elbow. Two women in their forties were both talking into the same cell phone outside when I walked in, and when I walked out. Who were they talking to? Do they know the bartender with the fresh tattoo? Why did the cook have a bandage on his cheek? What’s the hostess’ number and is she seeing anyone? And so forth. Pick a random person and write about where they’d coming from, where they’ve been, what they want, etc.
- Get outside. Walk around, feel the energy, get the endorphins flowing. Just walking around the neighborhood you can get ideas. Yesterday I saw a piece of paper in a bush, and for just a second I thought it had my name written on it. What if it had? What the hell would that mean?
- Take notes. Write everything you think of down in your phone. Even what you think is the worst idea, write it down. And then if you can’t think of anything when you sit down to write, dust off that worst idea ever and just write it anyway. I always get my best inspiration when I’m ALREADY WRITING. Besides, while there’s a lot of bad fiction out there if you could somehow manage to ACTUALLY WRITE the worst story ever you would go down in history! You’d be famous! Well, infamous.
- Combine writing with another activity you like. I like drinking beer, so I take my laptop and find a relatively quiet bar corner or brewery (preferably one I haven’t been to, see #4) and get some writing in. If coffee, tea cakes, or buckets of fried chicken are your thing, go for it. Or maybe go bowl a few frames and then sit there in the shoes so many other people have sweated in and write a little bit. Go fishing, then take a break by the side of the river.
- Write every day. Well, not EVERY day, but regularly. I know I said that already, but the surest way to defeat writer’s block is to write. Even if you are writing crap. Even if you’re just describing the furniture in the room you’re in, which you’ve seen a million times. Or have you? Where did that one scuff mark on the side of the bookcase come from? That wasn’t there yesterday, was it?
All right, I’ve shown you mine, now you show me yours. Where do you find motivation? How do you slay the dragon that is a blank page?
by Brian Asman
Brian is a member of the HWA and President of the San Diego HWA Chapter. He is an editor for Unnerving Magazine and was recently published in the anthology California Screamin’.