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Overcoming Writer's Block: Avoiding the Trap

By Stephen L. Nelson, CPA

I may as well just say it. Writer's block, I'm convinced, doesn't exist. Mostly, I think, authors use writer's block as an excuse to explain to themselves, an editor, or a concerned spouse why the book isn't done or the chapter hasn't been turned in.

Writing is talking on paper. Sometimes literally. And you never hear someone say, "I can't talk anymore. I've got talker's block. There just aren't words there that can come out."

That said, there are several common traps that new writers especially stumble into"and these traps stop writing progress.

Size Matters

One of the easiest traps is letting the sheer size of book stop writing, as mentioned earlier. The prospect of writing 300 pages is daunting. Especially that first day you sit down. It's easy, especially if you're inexperienced or emotionally worn out, to collapse under the mental burden of all that work.

The mental trick, I suggest, is to not think about those sorts of numbers when you're writing. You need to bite off reasonably sized chunks and focus your energy and anxiety on just today's chunk.

If you're writing in the morning before you have to go to standard job, maybe you should do a thousand words a day. A thousand words is a bit of stretch but still a manageable goal. And if you pace yourself and write, for example, a thousand words a day, at the end of the week, you've maybe got a chapter done. And at the end of four months, your book is done. That's how it works.

Don't sit down each day with the burden of writing 80,000 words or 300 pages. Sit down to your very manageable goal of writing a few hundred words. It makes all the difference.

Bad Metrics

A second stumbling block relates to the first. While writers, editors and publishers commonly use measurements like words or pages to specify how big a book should be, you don't really build a book with words or pages. Books require more concrete building blocks. And so, especially as you're trying to slog your way through the first chapters of a book (always the hardest for me, quite truthfully) you can't think things like, well, so I now I need to write a thousand words. Instead, you need to sit down and write a book building block or two or three.

Let me provide an example here. When I write some book about computers or technology, in essence, all I do is string together descriptions of facts, instructions for using some tool, and real-life examples. And these are the building blocks I use to create a book.

If I'm writing about how to use, for example, a word processor's grammar checking tool, I might start by writing a paragraph that explains what the tool does. Then, I might go on by providing descriptions of, say, the six steps you take to use the tool. Finally, I might wrap up the discussion by showing how the tool works on some example text. And when I finish writing up these three building blocks, I've got my thousand words.

Do you see how that's different from saying that you're going to write a thousand words? A thousand words is the goal. But that goal really doesn't help you grind through your writing. In comparison, saying that you're going to briefly describe the thing, provide some step-by-step instructions and give an example is concrete. That concreteness helps you plod through the writing.

You're probably not going to write how-to books about technology. But you'll find that you too build your book using a pretty small set of specific-to-your-genre building blocks.

Don't fiction writers do this, for example? The novelist describes scenes, records actions, crafts dialog and so on. And what this means again'remember that we're talking about the myth of writer's block"is that if you're writing a mystery novel you don't sit down with only the plan to write your thousand words. That's too abstract.

You need to sit down planning to write some set of building blocks. Maybe today you describe the hunting lodge as it looks when Petra and Michael discover the old man's body. Maybe tomorrow, you craft the dialog that occurs when the police interrogate Langston about the missing oil paintings.

Especially if you're having trouble achieving your daily word counts"and probably even if you aren't"you need to use standard building blocks to construct your book. The building blocks let you get the content onto the page.

Small Ideas Mean Big Problems

Let me also revisit something else I often saw when I was a book publisher. Sometimes the real problem a writer is having is trying to turn a little idea into a big book. Yet this problem is misdiagnosed as writer's block. Some topics don't merit a book. They may be great topics, but optimal treatment maybe requires ten page or fifty pages. But a book needs to be bigger than that.

I suggest that you can test your idea by writing a couple of example chapters and then making sure there's not redundancy in those chapters and that there's still good content available for two or three more unique chapters. That technique should work. But let's say you didn't know that when you agreed to write a book. Or that my suggested technique, unfortunately, didn't work in your special situation. What can you do?

You're in a tough spot in this case. You need to expand the scope of your book without screwing up the book's original purpose and justification. If I were you and found myself in this position, I'd try to figure out how short I was coming up. Like, am I fifty pages short? A hundred pages short? Once I had this information, I'd brainstorm to develop a list of related topics that I could use to pad the book or beef it up. Finally, If the book had already been sold, well, I'd probably swallow my pride and have an honest conversation with the editor.

If you're only a little bit short, the fix is usually pretty easy. Publishers can make a book seem larger by putting less text on a page or by using thicker paper. If you're writing a nonfiction book, maybe you can throw in an appendix that covers some tangentially related topic or some extended bibliography or a glossary. If you're writing fiction, I'm actually not sure what you do. That's not my area of expertise. Do you add characters? A subplot? I don't know. You better talk with your editor.

About The Author
Seattle-Bellevue accountant Stephen L. Nelson, CPA is the author of Quicken for Dummies, QuickBooks for Dummies and more than 150 other books as well. He's also been a book packager and a book publisher.

steve@stephenlnelson.com



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