“So what?” (Miles Davis)
Okay, I know I’m a few hours late delivering the answer to the very excellent Quiz #8.
I had writer’s block. Just couldn’t think of what to write…
Kidding! I’m joshing with you.
I apologize for the delay. Simple matter of being abducted by friends and whisked off to an enjoyable Friday adventure. I earned it, and knew you’d forgive me for being a tad late with the solution to the Quiz. (You know it takes me several hours to concoct these posts, right?)
Let’s get down to it, then.
First: I want to thank, and congratulate, everyone who posted for the Quiz. The threads on this blog are always energizing mini-riots of good critical thinking…
… along with a smattering of cleverness, sheer brilliance, pontificating idiocy, and (always) one or two utterly outraged comments from folks who wandered into the fray by accident.
I love it all.
As many have noted… the comment threads at this blog rival the actual posts for being fascinating reading.
There’s some smokin’-hot wisdom out there, for anyone paying attention.
Second: Here is the answer to the Quiz question…
“Writer’s block is…
… a self-induced delusional state of undisciplined focus.
It is merely not knowing what to do next.”
Technically, it is a “real” affliction in the same way that — technically — you perhaps once thought that if only the lovely Susie Q would realize you were meant for each other, and tumble into your arms… then life would be perfect forever after.
It’s not true. But it feels true to the afflicted.
(Susie Q would, of course, have broken your heart within weeks.)
I am decidedly biased on this issue.
And I’m right.
I’ve never had single moment of “writer’s block” in my life.
I have struggled to write well at times, but that’s not the same thing at all. (And, later in this post, I’ll give you a couple of tactics to muscle your way past those moments of struggle.)
If you read the entire thread in the Quiz comments section, you may have noticed that a number of fiction writers chimed in. And they defended “writer’s block” like a warrior might show you battlefield scars.
“It’s real! You’re not a real writer if you’ve never suffered from it!”
Now, I’ve lived in both worlds. Long career in non-fiction writing (as a copywriter, and author of business books like “Kick-Ass Copywriting Secrets of a Marketing Rebel”)…
… and an equal period of time writing fiction. (I’ve penned 3 novels, and have towering stacks of short stories in storage.) (I’ve also written several hundred songs.)
And this straddling of professions has given me a very nuanced perspective of how people approach writing.
My last foray into fiction writing pretty much crushed my passion for getting a novel published. Ten years ago, I took a break from the business world and focused on fiction for a while.
I attended a couple of very prestigious week-long fiction workshops (including the one in Lake Tahoe which produced Amy Tan and Kem Nunn — killer authors — and one of the oldest workshops, in Swanee, Tennessee).
Two things happened at every workshop: First, as soon as folks learned that I was actually making money as a professional ad writer, I got swarmed.
I never met a writer — including the faculty — at any of these workshops who could support themselves with fiction. (The best gig they could find was getting hired to teach “writing” in academia.)
A few actually wrote best-selling books. Flurry of attention and fleeting fame, a couple of nice checks in the mail… and then back to starving.
I quickly realized that my fiction-writing was going to remain a sideline hobby, like playing music and cartooning.
Second: As an already-successful professional writer, I realized I was a complete outsider amongst the throng of wannabe novelists at these workshops.
And it wasn’t just the fact I was rolling in dough as a freelancer. (And was living off fat royalties while I dabbled in fiction during a year-long vacation.)
The main reason I didn’t fit in with the other folks at the workshop…
… was my work ethic.
I was used to meeting deadlines. I took writing seriously, and I studied the essentials of getting my work done (so I could collect those fees that made clients faint).
This is important: The vast majority of wannabe novelists I met didn’t actually want to write.
They wanted to have already written a great novel… so they could enjoy what they thought was the confidence, respect and romantic life of a published author.
I remain stunned at this attitude.
Writers write. You earn respect — it isn’t bestowed upon you like an award for being a nice person.
And if there’s any “romance” to writing… it comes either before or after the actual task of sitting at your desk and working.
Don’t get me wrong. Being a pro writer is the best gig on the planet.
Well, next to being a rock star guitarist, I suppose.
But in both cases… you’re working your ass off. Yes, there are rewards. Yes, it’s a blast to carve out a niche among your peers as a wicked-good producer of the real stuff.
And yes, to outsiders it can look like a cushy, easy job.
Get past that illusion.
You build up your chops through experience and discipline. The professionals code is simple: “When there’s money on the line, you show up where you’re supposed to be, when you said you’d be there… having done what you said you’d do.”
For a writer, that means you meet your hard deadlines… with the best stuff you’re capable of producing. (“Soft” deadlines, which do not impact the client’s project, are different animals… as I’ve frequently discussed. You should always have multiple soft deadlines prior to every hard deadline. “Hard” means final… as in meeting printing deadlines, launch schedules, and any other deadline where — if it’s missed — disaster looms.) (This attitude, of never missing hard deadlines, still separates the rookies from the trusted pro’s in business.)
And you meet your critical deadlines every time.
It’s just a matter of not having prepared yourself for the task.
Here’s a clue: The very first step in the Simple Writing System is…
You learn everything you can about the market you’re writing to. Who the competition is, what they’re doing right and what they’re doing wrong, what’s new, what’s over and done with, where the opportunities are.
The second step: Get into the head of your prospect. Research the emotional, physiological, spiritual and psychological needs, wants and world-view of the folks you’re going to persuade.
There are 17 steps, total, in the System. And every last one of them rest on the practical information you get through research. (Which is easy, and even enjoyable, once you know what you’re doing.)
So, when you’re finally ready to sit down and “write”… you know where you’re going, who you’re going after…
… and what you need to write to accomplish it all.
Somehow, people get the notion (even at fancy, expensive fiction workshops) that inspiration has something to do with writing.
So they sit down at the keyboard, stare at the blank monitor…
… and despair.
This is beyond dumb. It’s suicidal, if there’s money on the line.
It is exactly like flying to a strange city… agreeing to meet someone at a restaurant downtown… and then hopping in a car to drive there…
… without an address, or a GPS, or a map, or even advice on where you’re going.
You’ll freeze up at the first cross-street. Do you go left? Right? Straight?
You don’t know. You have no clue where you’re going.
Preparing to write something means you’ll never sit there staring at the blank screen.
Your research is your address, GPS, and map.
The tactics and tips you learn from guys like me are the advice on getting there.
Want some practical, professional advice right now?
Here’s what pro-level writers do:
1. Take lots of notes. Most of the “real” writers I know (those making a living at it) always carry a pen a notebook around with them.
They take long walks, long showers, long naps… letting all that deep research they’ve done settle and gurgle inside their cerebral cortex…
… where, eventually, it will burble up in the form of “a-HA!” hooks, headline ideas, and overall narration strategies.
This is not inspiration. This is going deep into a subject, so your brain gets deeply involved.
You don’t sit down to write until your fingers are twitching, desperate to hit the keyboard and start the process of getting all these “cooked notes” written out.
And you work yourself into that state by prepping. It’s active, not reactive.
2. Don’t even try to write “finished copy” right off the bat.
Your first draft should look like a disaster. Just disgorge everything haphazardly onto the page. Don’t sweat adjectives, or grammar, or any of the niceties of a finished piece.
Pro writers know that writing is re-writing.
Get it down. Go back and edit. Then edit again. And again.
Inspiration is great, I suppose. I’ve never experienced it. Nor have any of the famous writer’s I’ve met and hung out with.
Writing is just translating a story (or a pitch) into words. You develop the skills of doing this through experience.
3. Don’t start at the beginning.
The classic notion of “writer’s block” is sitting at your desk, staring hopelessly at a blank page.
Here’s another hint: Most writers don’t start on page one.
With sales copy, the headline is seldom the first thing you write. I usually start out by writing bullets — those nuggets of info and insight that normally don’t appear in an ad until way after page one.
This helps me get hip to the essence of the product I’m writing about. Often, my headline and opening paragraphs will come from the bullets.
Or I’ll slam out the guarantee first. Or the close.
Or a few subheads. It’s okay to ease into the process… as long as you’re actually writing.
A good piece of writing is actually multiple — and very different — sections of thought smoothly connected together…
… in a process.
Not one inspired session of writing, starting with “It was a dark and stormy night…” and moving through each sentence thereafter in a single flow until you triumphantly type out “The End.”
It’s more like a ridiculously-simple jigsaw puzzle. Imagine one cut into just 17 pieces (instead of the 200 most are).
You know what the final result should look like (more or less), and so each piece you handle has an obvious destination. You don’t need to start in the upper left corner, and work from there.
You can start anywhere. You know where you’re going.
(And, yes, you may end up tossing entire chunks, or rewriting so severely that the 3rd edit looks nothing like the 2nd… and, occasionally, you may burn an entire manuscript. All part of getting to where you need to go. Don’t panic at ANY stage, as long as you’re moving forward.)
Writer’s block is not a lie. Not even a myth (one of the most common answers given).
It’s bullshit… but it afflicts people nonetheless.
It is simple a matter of not knowing what to do next.
Easily solved… once you start getting good advice, and maybe get some decent coaching. (To get your hands on the Simple Writing System — obviously a great choice of training — go here: www.simplewritingsystem.com.)
This is good. After all my efforts to spread the wealth (and the prizes) around…
… the FIRST GUY TO POST won.
So, congrats to Henry Bingaman. Nice, tidy answer that shows he understands the process of writing.
The second winner… the eleventh to post the right answer… is:
Stephan Erdman. Entry number 62.
Good job, guys.
My overworked assistant, Diane, will be contacting you about sending over the two prizes — the Power Words compendium, and the “11 Quick Marketing Fixes” checklist.
That was fun, no?
Everybody wins, because engaging your brain in critical thinking — especially when you’re challenging your belief systems and superstitions and flawed ideology — is an essential step in becoming a killer writer.
We’ll have to do this again, soon.
I gotta split now.