Writer’s Block and Books On Writing

I’ve read approximately thirty different books about the process of writing. Whether it’s formatting in order to snare a publisher, literary devices and the erasing of adverbs (fight me, I love a good adverb), or the characterization of villains, I’ve probably read more words about writing than I’ve finished in first drafts.

Which is, of course, the problem.

Writing is a marathon, not a sprint. I’ve learned this the hard way. NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) tends to encourage the worst parts of my procrastination habit, and going indie means I’m accountable only to myself; I don’t even have the artificial deadline of a month. On the one hand, I make my own schedule! On the other hand, if I’m not feeling like staring at a screen for hours at a time, I can easily pick up a book someone else has already written and just fantasize about how awesome my book is going to be. I’ll be a New York Times bestseller, just you wait! … I just have to actually do the work first.

I’ve come to the conclusion that, when it comes to my own writing projects, Books On Writing are resources that are only to be used for specific instances. If I need a technique for first-person narration, maybe I’ll crack open The Elements of Style for that one chapter. But it does me no good to sink deep into a book about editing when I haven’t even finished the first draft; and it definitely does me no good to read a book about independent publishing when I haven’t even finished the first chapter yet.

So reading Books On Writing is one thing to avoid when I’m actually trying to, you know, write. Or when I know I need to write but I don’t feel like it. That particular state of wretched boredom is how I think of Writer’s Block. It’s not that I can’t write; I can; I just would rather do anything else at the moment.

It’s hard going when you don’t feel like doing it. There were long stretches where I didn’t write a word at all. But getting into a routine helps (mug of cocoa, earbuds, movie playing in the background, and go!). So does telling a few people that you intend to finish this one, so that they can help you hold yourself accountable. And rereading the last bit you wrote can help you get back into the mood of the story. But mostly what you have to do is just put fingers on the keyboard and put something down. Anything. It’s a first draft, it doesn’t have to be good — but it does have to be done. And you’ll be surprised at the freedom that gives you.

Truth, Justice, Freedom, Reasonably Priced Love, and a Hard Boiled Egg

Today is the Glorious 25th of May. For those of you who have read Nightwatch by Sir Terry Pratchett, you know what this means – for those of you who haven’t, suffice to say it’s now an anniversary to remember that writer’s works.

In brief, the 25th of May is a crucial date in the novel, in which a few brave men did the job they didn’t have to do, and died in the attempt. I highly suggest you read it. It’s the single darkest Discworld book, but it has some wonderfully awful puns in there too, and it’ll make you think.

Actually I suggest you read all of the Discworld books. (Don’t start with The Color of Magic, though. Start with Mort or Guards! Guards! or The Wyrd Sisters. There are flow charts. I’m serious.) They’re cleverly written, but not in such a way as to make you feel stupid while reading it. The characterization takes stereotypes and turns them on their heads, with humor and with thoughtfulness. The footnotes are truly hilarious. The plotlines expose the pettiness and awfulness of people, then say, “it doesn’t have to be that way,” and then show how it can be better. In short, the Discworld series is everything I look for in a book.

I discovered the Disc through Neil Gaiman, actually. It’s a funny popcorn linearity as to how. From the Stardust movie coming out in 2007, and reading that book before seeing the movie, to recognizing Gaiman’s name on the spine of Good Omens in my high school library – and then recognizing Pratchett’s name on the spine of Carpe Jugulum, also in my high school library. I was fourteen, and Agnes Nitt was exactly the protagonist I needed. The rest, as they say, is history.

I don’t think I’m the only person who cried when they found out Sir Terry had passed in 2015. He was clever and kind and angry, and he felt like a third grandfather to me despite never having actually met the man. His books have outlined my life for the past eight years, and I expect that they will continue to do so even if there aren’t any more new ones. No, I still haven’t read The Shepherd’s Crown. I know that I should. But it still feels too much like saying goodbye.

As a fantasy/sci fi writer, Sir Terry reached thousands of people. He never talked down to the reader. His characters felt real. There was wit and warmth and kindness in his words. And if I can aspire to a quarter of what he accomplished, I’ll consider it a job well done.

Fantastic Species: Elves

When it comes to fantasy creatures, elves and dwarves are pretty much the go-to nonhuman species for populating a world. (Aside from all the cattle-munching dragons, that is.) And as per the Tolkien world that shadows everything we do in the genre, elves are graceful and wise and as old as time, usually archers and amazing dancers; and dwarves are basically humans but with a rustic Viking aesthetic and a penchant for anvils. Elves can never be wrong, but dwarves are usually about as wrong or right as the rest of us plebes.

Which is interesting, because in the original Lord of the Rings books, Gimli the dwarf is a smooth-talking, graceful diplomat; and Legolas the elf is a big cheerful lug with a bow. And in The Silmarillion, the slim volume that’s packed with more murder and mayhem than A Song of Ice and Fire (if less graphically put), elves are just as likely to mess up catastrophically as humans are.

This begs the question: where did that stereotype of Ancient Wise Elves and Surly Dwarves come from? And the answer is: Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies. Cate Blanchett is amazing, but when you know that Galadriel took part in the slaughter at Alqualondë, it’s a little harder to see the Queen of Lothlorien as always right about everything.

(Caveat: I have never played a single Bioware Dragon Age game, so I can’t speak for the elves in those stories. If elves are treated differently there, I’d love to discuss the difference!)

So once we know that the Ancient Wise Elf is a stereotype, what is the literary utility of a character like that? Someone who has lived through every age, who scorns mortals for their brief lives, who is never wrong about anything — what function does a character like that have in a story? If you need an elder to impart advice to your young hero, sure, that makes sense. But it makes even more sense for your elder to be wrong about something. (Cf. Dumbledore and Old Ben Kenobi.) And it might just be me, but if some fantastically beautiful person told me my life was as brief as an insect and they knew the answer to all of my problems … well, that sounds awfully condescending, doesn’t it?

When it comes to know-it-all characters, for me the satisfaction mostly comes in showing that character that they actually don’t know everything. And when it comes to immortal characters, there’s even more satisfaction in showing that they can be surprised by something. So that’s it, really: the role of the stereotype, at least in my view, is to break it.

Literary v. Genre Fiction – Fight!!

Sometimes literary works (I mean literary in the sense of “described as a classic in English high school classes”) can be interesting. And I suppose as someone who’s trying to make a living out of writing I should be more defensive of literary works. But I confess: the only assigned book aside from Shakespeare that I really enjoyed in high school was Catch-22, which is about as vulgar and silly as a literary book ever gets. I would much rather read a million books about dragons than ever read The Scarlet Letter again – and, of course, there were precisely zero books in the curriculum that included dragons. It feels like the people who sit around deciding what books children ought to read in school specifically choose them for their dull qualities.

Is that true? Maybe. I enjoyed English classes in college a lot more, partly because I got to choose the type of English class. But I maintain the position that the way we study things as “classics”, and sneer at genre books, is … kind of detrimental, actually. Tolkien and Harry Potter deserve to be examined with the same care as F. Scott Fitzgerald, with regards to the craft as well as their impact on our culture. Does a book have less worth because it appeals to a wide variety of people? Tell that to Shakespeare, who was the very definition of wide appeal in Elizabethan England. His popularity with the unwashed masses is the only reason we still know his name today. To study his work for his literary skill is a good thing; we can learn from him. But to hold him up as the pinnacle of literature! universal! et cetera et cetera ad nauseam! doesn’t make any sense. (For more reading on the “universality” of Shakespeare, I recommend reading Shakespeare in the Bush.)

Literary works have their place on the bookshelf, certainly. After all, I wrote my senior thesis on Les Misérables, which is probably one of the biggest literary novels in French. But I think that looking down on people for reading genre fiction is essentially telling them “no, you shouldn’t enjoy reading, you should wade through this difficult bog of prose so that we can give you a gold star.” It seems counter-intuitive to me.

What books were you forced to read in English class that made you want to throw up through your nose? Or conversely, what books were you forced to read in English class that you actually enjoyed? Tell me in the comments!