Writer's Block, and Why I Don't Get It

I came across an article on Lifehacker called You Don't Have a Creative Block. It references another article, which in turn quotes the author Jodi Picoult, talking about writer's block.

In it, she says:

"I don’t believe in writer’s block. Think about it—when you were blocked in college and had to write a paper, didn’t it always manage to fix itself the night before the paper was due? Writer’s block is having too much time on your hands. If you have a limited amount of time to write, you just sit down and do it. You might not write well every day, but you can always edit a bad page. You can’t edit a blank page."

I couldn't agree more.  I just finished up two outlines for two new novels, one 7,000 words in length, the other close to 12,000 words. Completing them took two months. An outline is creative invention in its most purest form: imagining a complete narrative, with a beginning, middle and end, incorporating characters, motives, action and theme. Each outline contains a chapter-by-chapter breakdown of the story. This is something I've done since early in my writing career, and most often the resulting novel is pretty close to what you'd find in those outlines.

Behind each outline is a great deal of writing you don't get to see - notes totalling 55,000 words for both projects together. Add in the outline themselves, and that's 75,000 words I've written in the past eight weeks or so: equivalent in length to a short novel.

So why so many words? Because that's how I avoid writer's block. I just start writing. If I get stuck, I summarise what I have so far.

But you can't force it too much: there will be days when nothing comes. But the act of writing out what I've come up with so far, I find, forces unexpected connections to appear. And even if they don't immediately appear, they'll pop into your head at unexpected moments.

What I do most recently is have a 'work diary'. I put in the date, scan the previous entry, then try and think my way further into the story based on what I've already come up with. I scribble down anything, on the off-chance it might mean something. I explore connections. Even if no idea is immediately forthcoming, I keep making notes, waiting for something to come.

And I do it every day.

For instance, in one of the aforementioned outlines, I wanted character A to find out something about Character C. Except Character C is CEO of a major technology company, surrounded by private security, and therefore untouchable. There was no way for A to find out anything. I was stuck.

So I tried looking at it from a different angle. I thought: what about B, who used to have a close personal relationship with C? Is there any reason they couldn't find out the terrible truth about C? And what if they rushed to a phone to tell A the news, then the call got suddenly cut-off...as if someone had got to them before they could fully warn A? And then what if...

And suddenly you're coming up with ideas.

So, really, there is no such thing as Writer's Block. Procrastination, sure, we all get that. But block? Doesn't exist. 


Final Words on Ulysses (the writing software)

Pretty much, it's great.

I'll have to admit, I really, really wasn't hot on it at first. It takes time to work out its kinks and its features. I discovered many of these in the process of using it. On first contact, it seems confusing and limited. I felt as if I were restricted by unmovable, unnameable notes panels. Markdown threw me. If I wanted to edit styles, I had to dig into HTML-like text-files I felt sure would send most people unused to such things running (I'm used to such things, but that doesn't mean I want to have to deal with things like that).

Then, as I explored further, I slowly discovered that I could undock my notes, and a great deal more, and I got things set up more or less the same way I have them in Scrivener. It helps a lot that, like Scrivener, the people behind Ulysses are very quick to respond to questions (in my case, usually via Twitter). I discovered I could have non-printing in-line notes (like Scrivener) and add annotations to individual words, sentences or paragraphs (similar to something you used to get in an earlier version of Scrivener that got pushed out).

I've been using it exclusively now for about a month and if you're thinking of trying it, you definitely should: there's a demo version available for the desktop or laptop with a ten-hour limit which should be time enough to at least explore it a little.

That's not to say I haven't found niggles. I've found several, but I could say much the same about Scrivener. Don't get me wrong - I highly recommend Scrivener as well: but where a few months back I would have said Scrivener was comfortably ahead of the pack, I'd now say Ulysses is more or less neck-and-neck with Scrivener.

There are conditions to that statement, however. Ulysses is Mac only; Scrivener is available on Mac, PC and Linux. Scrivener does not have an iPad app yet, and even though there's been a lot of talk about one forthcoming - I still hold out hope for November for a possible release date - there's no sign of it yet. Ulysses has an iPad app that integrates perfectly with iCloud and syncs smoothly and automatically (I've read elsewhere that hasn't been the case for some people, but so far I've had no problems).

If you have a PC or a computer running some flavour of Linux, Scrivener is by far and away your best possible choice.

If you have a Mac, it's down to personal preference between Scrivener and Ulysses: Scrivener has a huge range of features which mean it can be used for tasks far beyond simple novel writing. Ulysses is much more bare-bones on the surface, but with a great deal of hidden muscle. Some people find Scrivener too complicated (although I must admit I don't understand why); they might have a better time with Ulysses.

If you have a Mac and an iPad, and want to write on the iPad and sync it with the desktop or Macbook, Ulysses is an absolute must-have.

Scrivener is powerful, but utilitarian: Ulysses is more limited, but beautiful to look at and work with.

In the past month and a half, I've written two lengthy outlines for two novels, each document about ten thousand words in length, and all in Ulysses. The real test, of course, is what happens when I write a novel.

And the only way to find out how Ulysses handles that is to do it.