Monday, November 17, 2008

Writer's Block

‘Writing’ is a broad category. There’s a difference between doing technical writing and writing poetry. A difference between blogging and writing a novel. A difference between journalism and writing fortunes for fortune cookies. Being able to write a short story doesn’t mean that you’re qualified to write an instruction manual for a complex piece of machinery. Or vice-versa.

A lot of writers have multiple writing skill sets. Some people can write fiction and poetry. Some people can do technical writing and journalism. Some people can write every damn thing in every damn format, and those people are just plain show-offs.

Okay, I admit it. I used to be something of a show-off myself. I never did any technical writing, my journalism was all high-school journalism, and my poetry was mostly free-verse stuff. I haven’t had anything published or produced in the mainstream, but I’ve written fiction, non-fiction, poetry, a comic book script, essays, experimental fiction pieces, a novel, and I’ve co-written a television script. I’ve done zines, I’ve done columns, I’ve done blogs.

The reason that I’m here on Earth is to write novels. As near as I can tell, that’s my purpose in life. Write, write, write.

And that being my purpose was all fine and good right up until 1997. That’s when the writer’s block hit.

I have to stop at this point to define writer’s block. The affliction that I suffer from is different than the problem people usually have when they say that they have writer’s block. And it’s always made more sense to me that what I have is actually writer’s block, and what everybody else has is actually something else. So, I’ve arbitrarily decided that that’s how it is.

The majority of people who claim to have writer’s block have the following difficulty: They can’t think of anything to write. They can’t come up with an idea. They’re all ready to go, but there isn’t any inspiration to build a story. That is NOT writer’s block. That is storyteller’s block. The problem isn’t with their writing skills, it’s with their storytelling stills. Instead of not being able to write they simply don’t have a story to tell.

What I have is writer’s block. I’ve got a story to tell. (Stories to tell. At this point, I’ve probably got more stories to tell than I ever possibly could.) But I’m not able to write them. My writing skills are blocked off.

And this is the part that most of the people around me have a difficult (usually impossible) time trying to understand. My writer’s block has pretty much just affected my fiction writing skills. I can’t write stories. Can’t write novels.

I’ve had friends and family during the past ten years point to whatever zine or blog project I had going at the time and tell me, “What do you mean, you have writer’s block? No you don’t. You’re writing this right now, aren’t you? Don’t be stupid.”

Then I explain that ‘writing’ is an umbrella term that covers a variety of skill subsets, and they either stare blankly at me, or correct me. “No it isn’t. You’re wrong. If you can write zines/blogs, then you can write a novel. Quit complaining and get to work.”

What an understanding support system I have.

Writer’s block. Fiction writer’s block, more specifically. Want to write, but can’t. I can create characters and spin plotlines. I can figure out what happens. I can take notes. I can even open a new word processor document and set my fingers on the keyboard’s home row. But that’s about it. For me, the next step is to stare at the blank screen until blood pours out my eyes and ears.

I suppose that I wouldn’t mind it quite so much if I had storyteller’s block to go along with it. But I don’t. I still come up with new stories to tell. In fact, I come up with stories I want to write at a greater rate now than I did before the writer’s block started.

Once the writer’s block was firmly in place, the idea floodgates opened up. I was getting what seemed to be a solid new idea for a project I wanted to tackle every week or so. A new novel here. A movie idea there. Serialized fiction pieces (usually intended for self-publication). Scripts for a new comic book series. Every damn thing you can imagine. Unwritten (and currently unwritable) story ideas were piling up in the back of my head like cordwood. I’m sitting on what seems like an infinite project list, and no accessible writing skills with which to tackle any of them.

I’ve tried everything to bypass the writer’s block. I’ve tried to break through, push through, sneak around, hop over, tunnel under, etc. Nothing works. I’ve read material on writer’s block and tried to utilize the advice therein. I’ve read books on the creative process. No success.

Five or six years into life with writer’s block, I turned my attempts at writing toward writing erotica. I’d written a little bit of erotica in the past. Nothing major, mainly just experiments with stroke material. But I had recently been reading lots of poorly-written porn stories on the internet – just stuff to masturbate to – and I thought that maybe it would be an easier way to crack the writer’s block than my usual stuff.

For the most part, that didn’t work either. What it did do, however, was switch the bulk of the idea flow from mainstream-type ideas to porn concepts. I still get ideas for new non-sex based novels about once a month or so, but now the majority of my new story ideas are for erotic stories.

Being a big fan of the type of mythos settings like the Marvel and DC universes (for the fact that characters from one set of stories can interact with characters from another set of stories, not for the flying people in tights and capes), the majority of my erotic stories take place in the same fictional universe. Characters from stories set in Washington could drive down to California and fuck characters from stories I’ve plotted that are set down there if they wanted to. Heck, I’ve got stories planned in which some of them do just that. I’ve taken to calling this little interconnectivity framework the ‘Zeitverse’.

Yes, my brain took what was intended to be just a bunch of one-off stroke stories, and turned it into a complete fictional universe. (Stupid brain.) A complex, mostly unwritten fictional mythos. Yeah, I used the word mostly.

Since every rule seems to have it’s exception . . . A couple of years ago I spent several months doing prepwork on what was intended to be a piece of serialized erotic fiction entitled “The Sex Lives of Edwin Dauly”. The project was another one of my experimental treatments for writer’s block. It was simply a case of ‘well, nothing else has worked, so why not try this? And why not try it on this particular project?’

As I said, several months worth of prepwork went into this thing. I plotted out a month in the life of my main character. Created his supporting cast. Figured out the needed locations where stuff would take place. Sketched out backstories and histories. All the usual stuff.

Then I focused on the opening chapter, which took place at a New Year’s sex party. I figured out everything that happened in my head. I went over it again and again. I spent over a month repeating it back to myself, retelling the story. It was mid-October by this point, and I suddenly realized that I was just a couple of weeks away from National Novel Writing Month.

So I redoubled my efforts, tightened my focus, and spent all my time concentrating on being able to tell the story of that first chapter in my head. Then on November 1st I tried writing. I spent the whole day writing and deleting crap after crap. Finally, sometime in the middle of the night, I had a beginning that I thought I could live with. I collapsed into bed and picked it up the next day.

Over the period of those first few days, I slowly began putting together something that I thought looked remarkably like a work of fiction. I finished the first chapter and moved onto the second. The second had been outlined, but not beaten to death in my head like the first one had. But I was able to work my way through it and move on to the third.

At this point, the problem was that I couldn’t tell whether what I had churned out thus far had any merit whatsoever. It had been so long since I’d actually been able to write anything that I honestly couldn’t judge my own work anymore. I needed feedback. I needed some kind of quality control.

All of my traditional test readers from back in the day had either broken contact and moved away, or were dead (in one notable case were both dead AND my mom – and even if she hadn’t been the former, being the latter would still have kept me from handing over a stack of porn I’d written for her opinion).

I tried recruiting members of my current social circle as test readers, but that went nowhere fast. I handed out a bunch of copies for perusal. Most potential readers were either legitimately busy or couldn’t be bothered. My sister refuses to read anything I write that has sex in it, as she does not want the concepts of ‘me’ and ‘sex’ connected in any way, shape, or form in her fragile little brain. One guy actually did read it, but informed me that he sucked at giving feedback. He liked it, though. (“I liked it, though” being the sole feedback I got from him.) And he wanted more once I had more written. The only person who gave me useful feedback gave it to me on the first segment I gave her, but never got around to reading the next pieces I sent.

[Interestingly, one of the things that she pointed out to me about that first chapter was that – after spending months going over and over what would go on so that telling and retelling the story was second nature to me, I’d actually managed to forget to slip in minor little things like description and characterization. Or any kind of plot beyond just people doing what people do at a sex party.]

I ended up writing what was a surprisingly large chunk of text for not having been able to write in so very, very long. (More than NaNoWriMo’s requisite 50,000 words.) And then the plot problems began to surface. That, coupled with my inability to tell if what I was writing was decent, left me suddenly no longer able to write it.

Haven’t written a thing since. Haven’t been able to.

I’ve tried using the same process that created the initial chunk of “The Sex Lives of Edwin Dauly” for two other projects. One was a non-sex based sci-fi story, the other was another erotica piece. Neither one worked.

I’m still convinced that I’m going to have an easier time writing erotica/pornography than I will writing the more mainstream type stuff. Which is why the hard drive crash a month or so ago was such a tragedy. It wiped out my notes file.

My erotica notes system works like this: When I get a new idea for an erotica story, I type it into a (currently gigantic) word processor file. Working title (if I have one) and a short synopsis (anywhere from one line to a short paragraph).

Then, about once a month or so, I take all of the new story ideas and start new files for them. One word processor document per story idea. It’s in these individual documents that the ideas actually get developed. Sometimes they stay one line or one paragraph. Sometimes they end up being twenty or more pages of notes.

As I spent the weeks post crash trying to retrieve files, I discovered that the folder containing the individual notes files for each story idea was corrupted beyond retrieval. Which puts me back to July of 2007 and the previous back-up for any of that data. I was able to retrieve the 108 page document containing the short synopsizes of all those stories (over 1300 of them), so not all of the core concepts were lost, just the development I put into them.

I honestly can’t decide whether to try and rebuild my notes or just abandon the stories and move on to something else. Even if my writing skills were to come back today, between the porn stories and the other non-sex stuff, I wouldn’t be able to write everything on the big project list if I lived to be 114. So I don’t know what I’m doing yet.

Most of what is on the massive list of erotic story concepts is intended to be either short stories or serialized pieces. There are a few things that could easily be turned into novels with the right preparation, but the list is mainly just the seeds for shorter pieces.

I’d like to start writing BDSM and fetish novels. Projects that have very explicit sex scenes and elaborate descriptions of kink scenarios . . . but also have the kind of overall plotlines that you find in what the mainstream likes to label ‘literature’. That’s the current goal.

We’re approaching the end of the year. And once again I find myself saying, “Well, looks like this year was another bust. But next year – next year I’ll start writing again. Next year is the year that it all turns around for me.”

I always say this. I always mean it. Deep down, I don’t think I ever really believe it. Not anymore. But this time . . . I don’t know. This time I feel weirdly optimistic about things. Like maybe 2009 really is the year it all turns around for me, and I start writing again.

Who knows? Maybe if I can’t impress (and seduce) women with the blog, I’ll be able to do it with a novel or two.

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