How do you do that? Writer's block and other problems

I was recently talking to a writer friend of mine about a book she's writing. I'd read the manuscript and given her some feedback on it, suggesting that she intensify certain themes, draw out particular threads, etc. Basic high-level (as in broad in scope, not focusing on grammar or punctuation) feedback about a work in progress. At one point I remember she said something like, "These are all great suggestions, but how do I do it? How?" (Insert some flailing hands and a pained expression.)

I didn't really have a good answer for her then (sorry!), but this conversation has been sticking with me, and lately I've come across a couple of blog posts about the whole "how do I write a book" problem. It reminded me of one time during the revision of Ash when my editor asked me to do something, and I sat there looking at the manuscript and her notes and thinking: How the hell do I do what she wants? If she would just tell me, I'd just do it!

It was initially really frustrating, because I felt like a total beginner. I wanted to learn how to improve my book, but all of the questions and suggestions my editor gave me simply left me feeling bewildered. I could see what she wanted — and I thought she was right — but I had no idea how to fix the book. ((Eventually I figured it out. I think.))

Over the last couple of years, I've realized that while the desire for a straightforward answer to the How? question is understandable, basically there is no straightforward answer. Every book has its own set of problems that require specific solutions based on the context of the story. And I think that while an editor can point you in the right direction, it is actually the writer's job (really, their job) to figure out how to solve the problem.

This is because it's the writer's book, and to maintain the writer's voice and vision, the solution must come from their worldview. But also, it's because the best way to understand a solution is to come up with it yourself. In this respect, it's like doing math proofs. ((I can't believe I'm bringing up math. I hated math, but I was cursed to be relatively good at it.)) Doing the proof helps you understand the math.

This doesn't mean, though, that as the writer you have to just sit there being frustrated about not knowing how to fix things. There actually are many ways to help yourself solve the problem. Here are some things you can do:

Read books that don't have the problem that your book does.

What I mean is, if you're writing a fighting scene or a kissing scene or a talking-over-coffee scene (though really, I think you should largely avoid talking-over-coffee scenes), find a book in which those scenes also exist, and they are done well. Read that book. Read the whole book, I recommend, because those scenes exist in the context of the entire book. You may discover that the fighting scene was set up four chapters earlier, and maybe the problem with your book is that you haven't done the proper set-up.

Read some books on writing craft, but not the ones everybody's always talking about.

I think that most books on writing craft are full of rules and regulations that really do nothing to help you write a good book. Books on plot may be useful at the very beginning of your book when you're trying to structure your book (this is if you outline — if you don't, books on plot aren't going to help you), but otherwise, they're too high-level and vague to do any good. I know a lot of people love craft books, but I don't find them useful.

What I mean by "craft books" are actually memoirs by writers about the writing life. Read Stephen King's On Writing. Read Ursula K. Le Guin's essays about writing fantasy (Cheek By Jowl and Language of the Night). I think it's important to see how other writers grappled with writing, not in a "do it this way" kind of manner, but in a more nuanced and detailed "I survived this" way.

At the very least, it helps you realize you're not alone in not knowing how to do anything!

Get out of your chair.

Most writing advice ((Which, again, I mostly ignore.)) says to sit your butt in the chair and stay there. Well, this is true — to a point. But if you're fully and firmly stuck in a problem and have no idea how to fix it, you can't sit there staring futilely at it for days on end. Believe me, I've done that, and it's not only useless, it's unhealthy!

One of the best ways to circumvent a block or problem is to get out of the chair and do something else for a while. An hour, a day, a week even. Go for a long walk (several miles — not just around the block). Clean the entire house. You need to firmly disconnect your conscious brain from worrying over that problem, and allow your subconscious to do some of the work. Once you feel more relaxed — once your writing teeth have ungritted themselves, so to speak — then go back to your desk and approach the problem again. I guarantee you it will look different. And from that different perspective, a solution may emerge.

There are no quick solutions.

The one thing to remember is that there really are no quick fixes here. Most people want quick fixes, but a novel is by nature not a quick thing. If you don't have the solution within five minutes, all is not lost. Think about it longer.

I think that when you're learning how to write a book (which happens every time you write a book, whether it's your first or your fifth), you have to go into it with patience and dedication. Passion and fire, too, but you must be willing to sit through (or walk through) the rough spots. You can't expect it to come easily, and you can't give up when it doesn't.

Yeah, it can feel really awful and draining to be flailing around in the muddy pit of apparent ignorance. I've been there! I'm sure I'll be there again this week! But don't forget that every other writer out there has also been in the mud pit of despair ((You think I'm exaggerating, but no, it really is a mud pit of despair.)) when faced with a seemingly insurmountable problem in their book. And everybody fashions their own escape route, unique to them and their strengths. Nobody can tell you what your escape route will look like until you discover it.