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Keep Your Eye On The Goal

Some hundreds of years ago, back when I was a lad in the ninteen-hundred and seventies, I was playing a wargame with a friend of mine, as I often did. In this particular game, though, I made a very bad mistake; I beat the crap out of his army, thrashing it all over the map.

Unfortunately, the victory conditions–what you had to do to win–in that particular game didn’t involved beating up the other fellow’s army so much as taking and holding cities. I was having so much fun thrashing his army that I forgot to do this. I won almost all the battles, but lost the war because I didn’t pay enough attention to what ‘winning’ meant.

Keep your eye on your goals. A success that doesn’t move you closer to those goals is not a success; it’s a distraction.

Big Bad Block

I’ve been thinking a little about writer’s block lately. Haven’t had it, thank goodness, just been thinking about it.

A lot of people will tell you that writer’s block is a made-up thing. Plumbers and laborers and computer programmers don’t get writer’s block, right? You never hear a plumber say, “I just can’t fix another toilet today. I just don’t know how.” And it’s true that people who work at certain kind of jobs may find themselves hating their work, contemplating suicide rather than go to work, or desperate to change their line of work, but they rarely or never find themselves psychologically unable to do the work.

So, writers who claim to be blocked are just whining drama queens, right?

Maybe not.

I first heard about ‘the yips’ a couple of years ago, when the Red Sox acquired catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia from the Texas Rangers. There was a lot of talk about how earlier in his career Salty had suffered from the yips.

What the hell, I thought, are ‘the yips?’

In baseball, ‘the yips’ are when a player suddenly loses their ability to throw the ball. There’s nothing physically wrong with the afflicted player, he just suddenly can’t get the ball to go anywhere near where he wants it to. Similar symptoms can afflict other athletes as well. Golfers, too.

Usually, the player can work through it and regain their old form. It’s a psychological block, not a physical condition.

Hmm. Block? Yes, so it would seem. Professional athletes can suffer from a condition very much like writer’s block, where they suddenly lose the ability to do something that they used to do as naturally as breathing.

I thought this was very interesting and it made me wonder about those plumbers. Their work isn’t typically very high-pressure, like playing professional sports, or creative, like writing. (Not to take anything away from plumbers; what they do is essential, and often hard and dirty work. But they rarely have to create something completely new, or do their work in front of an audience of tens of thousands of people.) How about other creative professions, what some people call ‘knowledge workers.’ Do they suffer from anything like writer’s block?

Yes, it seems like they do. (So much for Eben Hewitt’s claim that no one has ever said such a thing.)

So do musicians. Probably a lot of other creative professions too.

And it turns out that every now and then, when faced with something that requires creative thinking, plumbers get blocked too. Just like writers, programmers, and musicians. I bet it also happens to carpenters, architects, engineers, and all sorts of other people that we rarely hear about being ‘blocked.’

Sometimes people who are called on to come up with something new just draw a blank. They can’t figure out what comes next. They’re just stuck. Athletes can become stuck at the point where they have to release the ball or swing the club, commit to acting and whatever result is going to come from it.

I think there’s a similar underlying psychological issue at the root of these blocks and yips. Sometimes the part of our brain that spits out new ideas, the part that works under pressure, just quits on us. Then you’re stuck with trying to coax it back out of hiding.

As for what to do about your block, if you’ve got one, well, I don’t really have any new ideas there. It’s been talked to death. Maybe just knowing that it’s not just you, that it’s not even just writers, is some comfort. I still think that the best way out of writer’s block is to not get it in the first place, and the best way to do that is to follow Hemingway’s old advice: Never write yourself dry. Always stop for the day while you still know what’s going to happen next, so when you sit down the next day you already know what you’re going to write, at least to start with.

If you’ve got it, though, good luck to you. You’ve probably heard all the familiar advice for getting unstuck (just start typing anything at all, etc.) and it’s either worked or it hasn’t. The most interesting idea I came across while researching this post is from the Rhythm Creation article linked above. “Limit the equipment you use to produce your tracks.” (There are actually several ideas in that article that can be applied to writing, but I thought this was the most interesting.) If sitting at the computer and banging at your keyboard (or sitting at your computer and not banging on the keyboard) isn’t working for you, take a pen and notepad and go outside somewhere. Sit under a tree or on a bench in the mall and scribble the old fashioned way. What’s the worst that can happen? You don’t write anything?

Or you could go fix some toilets.

Leaving The Pages Behind

It seems that pages may not be my friend.

This is something I stumbled across by accident. When writing my last novel I tracked my progress by pages. It was important to me to use a word processor that displayed the page count, so I could tell how far I’d come, when it was time to start looking for a new chapter break, etc. What I settled on was MS Word (version 2008), and it worked well enough for those purposes, but it was so buggy that by the end of the book I loathed it and swore never to write another story in Word.

(I have notes on most of the word processors I’ve tried since switching to the Mac about four years ago. My notes on MS Word read: “Big fat ugly pig. Weird screen artifacts when scrolling rapidly through a document (shows some lines repeatedly on the screen, doesn’t refresh properly). ‘Fucking MS Fucking Word just fucking crashed on me fucking twice trying to edit a fucking header.'” So, there you go. Not a huge fan.)

The one thing Word has that I’ve missed, though, is the so-called ‘Normal’ view. That focuses the display window on the text and compresses the page break down to a single dashed-line. No other word processor does that quite as well. Typically you have a choice between ‘layout’ view (in which your document window shows a picture of a piece of paper with your text on it, wasting a lot of screen area) or ‘draft’ view, which focuses on the text, but doesn’t show page breaks at all.

I hate ‘layout’ view for writing fiction, but resisted ‘draft’ mode for a long time. I really, really wanted those page breaks. I’m writing my new novel in Bean, though and reluctantly went naked, without visible page indicators. In ‘no layout’ mode Bean doesn’t even show the page count in the status bar at the bottom of the screen, just a word count. It was just me and a long window of text.

The new novel is moving along much more briskly than the last one. It’s hard to point to one thing and say “That’s why,” but I have to wonder if part of the way the words are flowing is the lack of that page break every 250 or so words. It’s not that I’d say, “Okay, I’ve got my four pages. I can stop now.” I think it’s just the little mental tick, that awareness of, “Oh, I’ve flipped over to another page,” that may have been interfering slightly. That little bit of focus on pages, which don’t really matter to the story, instead of words and scenes, which do.

I don’t know. Maybe it’s switching from Courier font to Menlo. Maybe it’s the story, or other things going on in my life, or the weather. But it’s hard not to think that the the unimpeded flow of words in the word processor may have something to do with the unimpeded flow of words coming from my fingers.

I’m not talking about a ‘distraction free’ writing environment, such as have become all the rage lately. If that’s your thing, fine, but I use other windows when I’m working (mainly a text file up on another screen with notes and character names). I’m just talking about in your word processor itself. If you’re using a view mode that shows page breaks, try turning them off. Arrange your application window so there’s nothing there but your words. Close the toolbars if it’ll let you, so you can fit an extra line or two of text on the screen.

It’s worth a shot, and it doesn’t cost anything to try it. Maybe you can get rid of some friction that you didn’t even realize was there.

Close the Window, Pick Up The Phone

I was writing at the library the other day and for some reason my laptop wouldn’t latch onto the library’s WIFI. When I had to look up something or other, do a quick bit of research, I used my iPhone.

It worked. No Internet on the laptop kept me focused, but I wasn’t completely cut off from whatever facts I thought I needed. The extra step of picking up the phone to get to the Internet (and the low speed and small screen), kept me from lunging for it every time I paused in my writing, the way I might on the computer.

Give it a try. Unplug your computer from the Internet, or turn off your WIFI, do your fact checking on your phone, and write. If you don’t have an Internet-capable phone, go back to the old trick; slap [lookitup] in the text where you need to check something and move on. Go back later and fill in the gaps.