Guest Post by Barb Geiger:
In 1998, I went to New York to visit my darling Dvorah. I'd just come back from living in Japan for a couple of years, but New York was a world in itself. I remember sitting on a horse in mid-afternoon workday traffic at a light, because the stables were three blocks away from Central Park and riding a horse through the park had been a lifelong, bucket-list goal. Devo took me to a bookstore that was like the used bookstores in the movies, with bookcases up to the ceiling and one of those push ladders that goes around the perimetre and the smell of old books and dust had permeated every soft surface in the building.
I bought Lawrence Block's Telling Lies for Fun and Profit. They say if cookbooks have one go-to recipe, it's a good book (though they said that before the age of the internet). I think with writing books, if it has one nugget of truth in it, it's worth it too. This one had a line about a chapter is the length it takes for one thing to change in the book and the example he gave was Chapter 15: I'm pregnant.
It made me think that not just every chapter, but every scene needs to have something that changes. Which is why "Just Write" in general and having a daily word count quota in particular bothers me so much.
2000 words is a good length for the average scene. Some will be more, some less, but when I was trying to recapture my passion in my writing, I'd ask that every time I sat down, I'd write a scene from start to finish. Getting it all down in a single sitting gave the scene a cohesiveness in flow, but also, it made sure when the one (or more) things changed, that the scene ended without the character wandering off and filling up the page with unnecessary filler.
But I didn't write every day if I didn't have that thing that the next scene needed to do. Sometimes I'd be brushing my teeth and the next scene would pop out of my skull fully formed like Athena, but sometimes even if I knew exactly what I wanted to happen, I still couldn't write it. Rather than fighting that block and just pushing through, I examined the lack of desire under the microscope. I had three questions I asked myself and worked through them until I had a solution.
1. Why don't I want to write this scene? This could be an outside problem -- exhaustion often crept in, but again I have skittering spiders in my skull instead of brain matter. If I was bored, I couldn't yet make myself do anything yet. Like a good horse trainer, I realized early on that if a section of my story bores me, it's been boring my reader for a while. Upping the stakes, the conflict and the action did a lot to make me more engaged with writing.
2. Is something missing? I can't say how many times I just wanted to write a simple scene where X happened, but it blocks me for three days. And when I finally sit down, a whole new scene emerges that changes everything, or becomes the emotional heartbeat. When I've worked through step 1 and I still don't want to write it, the problem needs more thinking about.
3. So if step 1 and 2 don't work, and I've given step 2 enough time to work through the problem, it makes me think of the story as a whole. If I still don't want to write, I look at the whole piece. I haven't had to do this for a while, but I've cut up to 40k of a novel in a single sitting, just because the path those series of decisions the characters made led to a blind canyon and the only way out is back. I've read too many books where the writer just ploughs that initial problem further into the story with sheer will, and that's just not how I write.
If I met a baby writer who asked me for their opinion, I'd tell them my "write three books" theory of starting out. But if the writer has already turned their writing from their hobby to a chore they dislike doing, recapturing the motivation to write is their problem.
Because between being motivated to write and being disciplined to write, motivation wins every time. I do write every day. I want to write every day and I enjoy writing every day. But I got there by not writing for days and weeks and on two separate occasions, for more than a year. Learning how to write every day is far more important than just writing every day, and I don't care what Stephen King says.
A later post-script:
And I just want to say I don't think Stephen King is wrong. And it's no concession to say that. But seriously, I do think his take home message is incorrect. When he says pros sit down and do the work it takes to produce at a level to be a professional writer, he's not wrong. But the idea that people should not wait around for inspiration is the bit I have a problem with. I dislike the word "wait" because when you hit that inspiration, you're inspired, and nothing inspires inspiration like inspiration. Amateurs become pros because they stop waiting around for inspiration.
Because no one is waiting with bated breath for work the new writer had to force out. Quality over quantity eventually matters, and too many writers quit trying to write before they ever get there.
Barb Geiger is an author/editor and is currently finishing up an MFA.