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Overcoming Writerís Block: Avoiding the Trap
by: Stephen L. Nelson, CPA

I may as well just say it. Writerís block, Iím convinced, doesnít exist. Mostly, I think, authors use writerís block as an excuse to explain to themselves, an editor, or a concerned spouse why the book isnít done or the chapter hasnít been turned in.

Writing is talking on paper. Sometimes literally. And you never hear someone say, ďI canít talk anymore. Iíve got talkerís block. There just arenít words there that can come out.Ē

That said, there are several common traps that new writers especially stumble intoóand these traps stop writing progress.

Size Matters

One of the easiest traps is letting the sheer size of book stop writing, as mentioned earlier. The prospect of writing 300 pages is daunting. Especially that first day you sit down. Itís easy, especially if youíre inexperienced or emotionally worn out, to collapse under the mental burden of all that work.

The mental trick, I suggest, is to not think about those sorts of numbers when youíre writing. You need to bite off reasonably sized chunks and focus your energy and anxiety on just todayís chunk.

If youíre writing in the morning before you have to go to standard job, maybe you should do a thousand words a day. A thousand words is a bit of stretch but still a manageable goal. And if you pace yourself and write, for example, a thousand words a day, at the end of the week, youíve maybe got a chapter done. And at the end of four months, your book is done. Thatís how it works.

Donít sit down each day with the burden of writing 80,000 words or 300 pages. Sit down to your very manageable goal of writing a few hundred words. It makes all the difference.

Bad Metrics

A second stumbling block relates to the first. While writers, editors and publishers commonly use measurements like words or pages to specify how big a book should be, you donít really build a book with words or pages. Books require more concrete building blocks. And so, especially as youíre trying to slog your way through the first chapters of a book (always the hardest for me, quite truthfully) you canít think things like, well, so I now I need to write a thousand words. Instead, you need to sit down and write a book building block or two or three.

Let me provide an example here. When I write some book about computers or technology, in essence, all I do is string together descriptions of facts, instructions for using some tool, and real-life examples. And these are the building blocks I use to create a book.

If Iím writing about how to use, for example, a word processorís grammar checking tool, I might start by writing a paragraph that explains what the tool does. Then, I might go on by providing descriptions of, say, the six steps you take to use the tool. Finally, I might wrap up the discussion by showing how the tool works on some example text. And when I finish writing up these three building blocks, Iíve got my thousand words.

Do you see how thatís different from saying that youíre going to write a thousand words? A thousand words is the goal. But that goal really doesnít help you grind through your writing. In comparison, saying that youíre going to briefly describe the thing, provide some step-by-step instructions and give an example is concrete. That concreteness helps you plod through the writing.

Youíre probably not going to write how-to books about technology. But youíll find that you too build your book using a pretty small set of specific-to-your-genre building blocks.

Donít fiction writers do this, for example? The novelist describes scenes, records actions, crafts dialog and so on. And what this means againóremember that weíre talking about the myth of writerís blockóis that if youíre writing a mystery novel you donít sit down with only the plan to write your thousand words. Thatís too abstract.

You need to sit down planning to write some set of building blocks. Maybe today you describe the hunting lodge as it looks when Petra and Michael discover the old manís body. Maybe tomorrow, you craft the dialog that occurs when the police interrogate Langston about the missing oil paintings.

Especially if youíre having trouble achieving your daily word countsóand probably even if you arenítóyou need to use standard building blocks to construct your book. The building blocks let you get the content onto the page.

Small Ideas Mean Big Problems

Let me also revisit something else I often saw when I was a book publisher. Sometimes the real problem a writer is having is trying to turn a little idea into a big book. Yet this problem is misdiagnosed as writerís block. Some topics donít merit a book. They may be great topics, but optimal treatment maybe requires ten page or fifty pages. But a book needs to be bigger than that.

I suggest that you can test your idea by writing a couple of example chapters and then making sure thereís not redundancy in those chapters and that thereís still good content available for two or three more unique chapters. That technique should work. But letís say you didnít know that when you agreed to write a book. Or that my suggested technique, unfortunately, didnít work in your special situation. What can you do?

Youíre in a tough spot in this case. You need to expand the scope of your book without screwing up the bookís original purpose and justification. If I were you and found myself in this position, Iíd try to figure out how short I was coming up. Like, am I fifty pages short? A hundred pages short? Once I had this information, Iíd brainstorm to develop a list of related topics that I could use to pad the book or beef it up. Finally, If the book had already been sold, well, Iíd probably swallow my pride and have an honest conversation with the editor.

If youíre only a little bit short, the fix is usually pretty easy. Publishers can make a book seem larger by putting less text on a page or by using thicker paper. If youíre writing a nonfiction book, maybe you can throw in an appendix that covers some tangentially related topic or some extended bibliography or a glossary. If youíre writing fiction, Iím actually not sure what you do. Thatís not my area of expertise. Do you add characters? A subplot? I donít know. You better talk with your editor.

About The Author

Seattle-Bellevue accountant Stephen L. Nelson, CPA is the author of Quicken for Dummies, QuickBooks for Dummies and more than 150 other books as well. He's also been a book packager and a book publisher.

This article was posted on November 26, 2005


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