On Inspiration and Writer’s Block, and overcoming it.

“Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.” – Pablo Picasso

I currently write approximately 10k-20k words a week. Most days I am content to slam out 2500 and call it a day, some less, some more. On especially productive days I might manage the rare 4k, 5k, day. But I have unproductive days; days where the cavalcade of adult responsibilities, parental responsibilities, and professional or social obligations, prevents me from my hours at my keyboard.

I’m not telling you my numbers to boast, or to admonish you. These are just my facts of life, the dry statistics of my data.

I have my bad days.

I have days where opening up the word processor and slamming out another dozen pages sounds exhausting. Days where double-clicking that icon open and staring blearily at my work sounds painful. Days where the words trickle, falling in clunky chunks like an obstinate ice dispenser.

But the days of fearing my own writing block are a long way behind me. I know that, for me, writing block is not a force of nature, nor an immutable law of the creative process. It is a symptom, just like muscle and joint pain might be for an athlete.

So I look for causes.

The most common cause is sleep deprivation. I’ve written at length in the past about my rather extraordinary level of caffeine addiction. It assists my productivity, but at the cost of sleep, and when that catches up to me, my word count, structure, plotting, and the entirety of my writing craft suffers for it.

The second most common cause is a failure to plot. Often times I discover it isn’t that I am stuck, but the story is stuck. When I discover this, I step back from my words and I go back to my planning documents, and inspect the skeleton I’m trying to flesh out. Very often, it’s a fast fix that sends the dominoes tumbling once again, neatly down the pages.

The third most common cause is noisy distractions. I have three children! They are noisy, wonderful, cantankerous, adorable, messy, funny, aggravating, excellent children. I share my life with two adults, both of whom share the same living room for all their media needs. For these days, I have both earplugs at my desk, and a little desk in my bedroom with an ancient old laptop for the days of extreme noise and activity.

The fourth most common cause, a simple lack of discipline. Some days it is way more fun to screw around online and play video games, read twitter, browse imgur, go on reddit. There’s a thousand ways to lose your productive day. For those days, I have a user account on my computers that have everything fun more or less locked off. The browser only opens a select few (productive) addresses, and no more. No IM programs run, games are blocked, and the computer at that point exists only to write. Attempting to open unauthorized programs kicks back, instead, a rude little text file admonishing myself. If I cannot manufacture discipline, I can certainly automate it.

As pertains to inspiration, I often find that people who complain to me about a lack of inspiration have plenty of ideas, but haven’t plotted and planned a story around the idea. Inspiration can be found in a thousand sources. My personal favorites are music lyrics, and ‘What if?’ games. “From Winter’s Ashes” came about when Diz described to me a character idea of his of Heather Blackthorne, a Detective working for a church, burnt out on her own grief and the world around her. The story was going nowhere, and he was frustrated with it.

So I sat with him and talked about the idea, and his burnout. He described this narrative arc of her being ground down, of being surrounded by people who didn’t care, or outright betrayed her, and how her support network eroded, and let her fall through. And he found himself left with a suicidal character. Nobody gave a damn about some washed-up failure of a detective, and why should a reader?

The ‘What If?’ that solved this block was simple: What if someone gave a damn? 

Which turned into “What if someone gave a damn with all their heart and soul? What would that person be like? Who would they be? Why would they exist? Would it be enough to salvage her? Who would she be, at the end of all this? 

The answer came to us over a few beers and a few hours worth of music and talking about the problem. Thinking and writing Heather to the blues came naturally; and the moment  “Gotta Knock A Little Harder”  came to mind, I knew we had the heart and soul of the story encapsulated.

The heart of any story is questions; and if you find yourself stuck, ask a question. Then ask another, and then another, and keep asking them of yourself until you find the ones interesting enough to pursue and write answers to.

That’s my secret, anyway. Now you know it too.

A few nights ago I found myself stuck at 500 words, and I was frustrated, aggravated, and was left wondering if my internal tank was empty so early. In desperation, I forced myself into a simple bargain: “Write just one more line. It has to be a question.”

I wrote the line.

I wrote the answer to the question.

I wrote the conversation that had the line and the answer.

And the next thing I knew, I had 2000 more words on the page. (And it was 2:30 a.m., but that’s neither here nor there.)

You cannot resolve writer’s block without writing the words down. The muse is late, she’s caught in traffic, but she’s on her way. But if she checks in and you’re not there to work with her, well, you better believe she’s gonna head right on back home, bucko. Better luck tomorrow.

Let your muse find you working.