Sunday, March 8, 2020

When Writers Block Means to Dig Deeper

Our topic at the SFF Seven this week is: "The most difficult scene you ever wrote and why."

I'm guessing that's why was it difficult, not why we wrote it. Though I do think the why we wrote the scene in the first place is relevant.

There's a school of thought among writers and writerly-advice givers that if a story becomes difficult - if the writer hits a block and grinds to a stop - then that's an indicator of Something Gone Wrong. I see this advice a lot. Writers will say - often in response to questions about how they handle Writer's Block - "When I hit a block, I know I've done something wrong, taken a wrong turn somewhere, so I go back and rework the plot."

You all have heard a version of this, right?

Makes me cringe every time. I'll tell you why.

What I hear in this dubious advice is writers advocating walking away from the hard parts and looking for an easier path forward. Now, I know this isn't always the case. Part of becoming a professional writer is learning to decipher your own internal voices - to differentiate between laziness and being truly depleted. To separate painfully accurate critique from toxic attempts to undermine you. To know when resistance means you took a wrong turn - OR when it means you need to dig deeper.

{{{Important caveat: Sometimes writers block can mean depression. Or physical or emotional exhaustion. I'm talking about if those factors have been ruled out. That's a whole 'nother kettle of fish and Mary Robinette Kowal has a great post about it.}}}

For me, resistance has always meant I need to put my nose to the grindstone. Keep picking at that wall. Make myself walk through the fire. Pick your metaphor: in my experience, the best stuff lies on the other side of that wall. I've experienced it repeatedly.

My friend and SFF author Kelly Robson talks about not taking the Monkey Bypass. That's a great essay she wrote about it at the link. In essence, the Monkey Bypass is an opportunity to avoid filth and damage. Robson argues, and I agree, that you can't let your characters bypass danger. I think an author also can't allow herself to retreat from pain and difficulty.

Why have I persisted in writing those difficult scenes? Because the story required it.

I have never once been sorry that I kept pushing through those blockades.

I recently released THE FATE OF THE TALA, the climactic book in my Twelve Kingdoms and Uncharted Realms series. Those who follow me regularly - especially those who listen to my daily (almost) podcast, First Cup of Coffee - know that I had a hell of a time writing this book. I'm not sure if I can point to a specific scene, because the whole freaking book was mostly picking at that wall. And kicking it, pummeling it, then collapsing in a sobbing heap and scraping myself together to try again.

At one point, my mom - who listens to my podcast with the loyalty of a mom - asked if I couldn't just put the book down, walk away from it and write something else for a while. "Isn't this supposed to be fun?" she asked.

Well... no. I don't believe that good art only comes from suffering, but sometimes writers DO need to hold their own feet to the fire to get to the good stuff.

I discovered a lot of things in writing that book - and not just that it's a bitch to write a novel that ties up a 16-episode thread (counting novels and shorter works in the arc). I realized I was working out emotional issues in my own life and marriage that I hadn't faced. And I discovered amazing things from the seeds I'd planted ten years ago, when I began writing THE MARK OF THE TALA.

Now I have readers coming back and telling me how they loved the way I tied this up. Here's one from this morning:

Totally worth that slog through the monkey enclosure!

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