Writer’s Block and other Writing Myths
By Larry Kahaner
Every successful writer has his or her favorite myths. Here are some that I’ve heard or read about and eventually confronted, dealt with and dismissed. Here’s your opportunity to do the same.
1 – Write what you know: If writers wrote only what they knew, there would be no Star Trek episodes. Have you been to outer space? There would be no serial killer stories. How many novelists are serial killers? Don’t answer that. You get the picture. You don’t need to experience something to write about it convincingly. Unmarried people can write about marriage. If you’re going to write a sweeping historical saga read about that time, study the habits, clothes and mores of the period. If you’re going to write about murderers and thieves learn about them. Meet some if you can (I have) but you don’t need to know everything about a topic to write with authority. Good writing is illusion.
2 – Show, don’t tell: You hear this all the time and it drives me nuts. There’s nothing wrong with telling the reader: “The cop was tall, his black curly hair was unruly. His eyes were blue.” You don’t have to describe the cop looking into the mirror and seeing his stature, hair and eyes. Another character doesn’t have to describe the cop either. You can do it. You’re the writer. One more thing: you don’t have to describe a character completely. Let readers use their imagination. Let them form their own pictures. I promise you that it will end up working in your favor.
3 – Writer’s Block: There is no such thing. Do plumbers have plumber’s block? Do doctors have doctor’s block? Writer’s block is often a way for inexperienced or lazy writers to say that they don’t want to work today. It’s a way for would-be writers to feel special. We all have those days that we don’t feel like working, but it’s not because you’re a writer. It’s because you don’t feel well, or you’re tired or you’re hungover. You have only two choices: you can work or you cannot work. If you want to get your book done then write. If you don’t, then don’t. And this is related to the next one…
4 – I can only write when the muse visits me: Please. There are no such thing as muses. We have days when we are more creative than others, when our brains work better than other days, but every day is a writing day – if you really want to write. Think of this: if you write just one measly page a day – that’s about 250 words – you will have over 300 pages done in a year. That’s a respectable size for a first draft. They don’t have to be the most perfect words in the world either. That’s why we rewrite (more on that in another post). Get the words down. Worry about how good they are later.
5 – There is a formula for writing a bestseller: If this were true, publishers would always crank out bestsellers. And they don’t. They can’t. Yes, there are conventions in certain genres. For example, thriller readers expect a race against time; historical fiction aficionados expect sweeping, multigenerational sagas with lots of stunning clothes described in great detail. That’s fine but it’s also okay if you omit some items. If there is one ‘secret’ to writing a great novel it’s this: Readers want a compelling, entertaining and absorbing story. It’s all about story. Story, story, story. Good novels are not about fancy or clever writing. Or about scenery. Or about a plot that no one has ever written before (although that’s always cool). More than anything else, it’s about telling a great story and giving readers an emotional feeling. (More on the elements of ‘story’ in another post, too.)
Readers may not remember what you wrote, but they will remember how you made them feel. The most widely-read authors know this. Now you know it, too.
Takeaway: Just writing about the myths of writing, makes it seem as though there might possibly be something mystical or magical about writing. There isn’t. It takes skill (which can be learned), interest in the subject matter, perseverance and the guts to do hard work. Writing isn’t easy. It’s difficult work and most people don’t want to do hard work especially if they already have a day job. However, if writing a novel is what you really want to do, you can do it.
My posts will help you accomplish this goal.