Friday, March 28, 2014

Writing Through the Block to Make a Living

I attended Wizard World Comic Con when it was here in Sacramento three weeks ago, the largest pop culture convention in the area so far. It was basically a mini version of San Diego Comic-Con: the lines were nearly literal blockbusters, both the ones for admission into the con as well as the ones to see big name celebrity guests such as Star Trek’s William Shatner and Marvel Comics founder Stan Lee. As has been done with celebrity appearances at San Diego Comic-Con, Wizard Con staff had to cut off admission once the rooms reached their capacities. Unfortunately, yours truly was in the cut-off part of the lines for Shatner and Lee, who must have been the biggest celebrities there. But while I dig seeing famous pop culture stars like them speak, while I dig seeing fellow participants in colourful costumes of their favourite pop fiction characters such as Spider Man, Wonder Woman, Batman and Thor, one of the things I attend cons for most is to talk to other artists and writers either like myself or who are more experienced.

Even though Wizard World is primarily a comic book convention, their were plenty of authors there whose work went beyond just comic books (even though comic books are lately becoming acknowledged as literature). I chatted with fellow Sacramento fantasy/horror author M. Todd Gallowglas at his table in the exhibit hall where he displayed his Halloween Jack and Tears ofRage novels. He and I exchanged some great ideas about marketing non-comic books at comic book conventions. So I learn from my peer authors as well as my senior ones. And there was one senior author there I learned some very valuable advice from: Michael Golden, who has written for Marvel and DC. Mr. Golden held a panel on making a living from fiction writing that I was sure to attend. One of the biggest gems he offered was how to deal with writing during those times you’re not inspired to write. And how do you do that? Simple: write through the writer’s block.

One of Golden’s most valuable advice he gave at his panel was that when you’re writing fiction for a living do not rely on inspiration. Inspiration is very momentary and so it happens when it happens which can be within a matter of days or even months if not longer. You can’t wait for the muse to drop you ideas when you need a regularly paying salary. Therefore, as Golden said, a writer cannot afford not to be in the mood to write. A writer must work every time they sit down to their writing session and so to do this, more often than not, they have to be their own inspiration. That means composing a story when you don’t feel like writing anything or when you feel you have nothing to write about. Along with this, he said to stick with original ideas, meaning that when you start a story you must continue writing it until you get to the end even if it means having to write what seems to be nonsense. He says that you shouldn’t start a story, stop in the midst of it and then go back and change it or toss the whole thing entirely to start a different story. To do these things will only delay the income you would make from your work and that means delaying your bills, your rent/house mortgage and maybe even your meals. Author William Saroyan said that writing for income should be looked at like it were a “day” job: you write even when you don’t feel like it in the same way you work when you don’t feel like it. A lot of us artists know what it is to work a non-creative job and to do our tasks from the beginning of the shift to the end when we care very little about the type of work the job consists of. Needless to say, we definitely like writing far more than our non-creative jobs (or most of us do, at least) but, even so, there are days that we just don’t feel up to writing anything. Those are the days we have to remember the income that we are writing for.

So you write through the writer’s block but then come out with a poor story. What happens then? You go through your one or two revisions to make the story presentable and communicable, but you don’t keep going back to perfect it like you would with a work of art that’s made to display in an art gallery, as Golden put it. Creating a story for aesthetic reasons is something you do secondary to your projects that would bring in a living income. You put your aesthetic work in its own time slot when money isn’t as crucial of a matter. With the writing you want to make a living income from you must write and publish on the moment. If you happen to catch that aesthetic effect in your work then fine. But if you don’t you can’t afford to go back to reshape the work in order to find that aesthetic effect. You must tell the story, and if the story comes out poorly even after making it communicable to the audience, then, as Golden advised, you send that one off for publication and just make a better attempt on the next story.

For me, thinking of fiction writing as a journey is a great way to avoid, or at least work through, writer’s block. In the rough draft stage, I put myself in the mind of a character that often starts off very flat. The character will develop as the story develops and also when I make a character profile after I’ve completed my first draft. And so, regardless of how flat my character starts out, I take that character on a journey and so move him/her through imaginary space and events. The setting and events keep developing and lead to other settings and events based on the character’s decisions and reactions. For example, I’ll put character Carlos in a train station where he walks to one platform only to discover he’s at the wrong one. So he runs across another track to catch the correct train but at a bad time: another train departs just as he’s crossing. This puts him in the hospital. Putting Carlos in one setting and his actions performed in that setting leads him to another setting.

Thinking for my character in terms of spatial movement, in terms of a journey, enables me to write the first draft spontaneously. I don’t go back to revise anything until after I have completed the first draft. And so even if I have to make my character do stupid or seemingly meaningless things, I continue that journey of words until I feel the character comes to an end of that journey by solving the problem he/she has been dealing with. That’s how I overcome writer’s block which many other authors will say is not really writer’s block. They say this because, even if you are writing what seems to be nonsense, you’re still writing; you’re putting something on paper or screen to work with. And as long as you have that and make it communicable and believable and worth the reader’s time, then you’ve succeeded no matter how poor the aesthetics of the story may be.

As long as you’re willing to write through those times you are not in the mood, as long as you’re willing to write through writer’s block, and as long as you’re willing to make the story communicable and interesting to the reader, you can make a living as a writer. Of course that living income won’t occur over night but if you keep working in that mind-state and with that intention, you’ll eventually make that sustainable income. The very experience of writing the stories you sell is practice within itself. No matter how successful or unsuccessful it may be, you learn from any mistakes you make provided you take notice of them and you do better on the next story, and then you do the same for the story after that, and so on. It’s like working any other job. You’re not going to get all the tasks down pat in the first shift or two. But the more shifts you work, the better you’ll get at the tasks. The same holds true for stories.

Can you think of other ways to write spontaneously under a deadline whether that deadline is self-imposed or set by an editor? Please let us know in the box below. 

Until next time . . . 


  1. I spent eight years as a TV news producer and have been in print media for just about as long now. I can churn out informational stuff at lightning speed, under just about any circumstances. Now that I'm back to my first love -- fiction writing -- I've occasionally succumbed to the "I don't feel creative today" bug. When I make myself sit down and write anyway, though, it takes a little longer to get into a grove, but I get there. It may not be my best work, but it gets the words on the page so at least there's something to be improved upon.

    No matter what kind of writing you do, some days it flows like magic and some days it's pulling teeth. When writing is your job, you do it no matter what. On my worst fiction-writing days, I try to remind myself that at least I'm not working on a Black Friday shopping story for the ninth time or looking for a way to make the latest bank robbery interesting. That reminds me of what it's REALLY like when writing is a job.

  2. That's a great way to look at it. I try to organise my writing projects according to what I'm most and least interested in. Being most passionate about fiction, I try to get all my more technical, non-fiction writing done in the earlier part of the day and then when I do work on my fiction writing in the latter part I feel so much more relaxed as well as enthused. Knowing that the lesser favourite writing projects are out of the way, I find writing my fiction more enjoyable and that I can produce much better and more creative work. Thanks for commenting.