Every writer, I suppose, suffers writer’s block at some point of his career, but I have been suffering it for at least two years, probably longer. I learned writer’s block can take several forms, involve several symptoms, and become a personal habit. Sometimes writer’s block is realizing, thirty-thousand words into a novel, that it’s not what you want to write, that it’s a messy story with no ending. Other times it’s suffering indecision about what you want to write. Or the inability to get started. Though I can claim victim to each of these problems, and others, the most common manifestation of my writer’s block is something I call Distracted Writing.
Distracted Writing—I fear the name says it all. Computers, word processors, Internet browsers, email, Google Maps, and other digital tools are wonderful for the writer, but I learned that, like any tool, there are right and wrong ways to use them, right and wrong times to use them. In the past as I wrote on the computer, I allowed myself quick references to the computer dictionary or on the Internet. What is the right way to spell inconvenient? Look it up in the dictionary. If I didn’t know what car a character drove when I wanted to write about it, I would open Safari and search pictures, used car dealerships, new car dealerships, and other sources, until I found the perfect car for that character.
What date did Nixon resign? What is the title of that song? Who started in What’s Up, Doc? And when was that movie playing in the theater? Street names, artists’ birthdays, names of cities and neighborhoods and streets. If there was a fact I needed, whether I was in the middle of a paragraph or a sentence, I would break away from my writing to Google it.
Another symptom of Distracted Writing is revising as I wrote. I would write a few paragraphs, and then I would pause to read over what I have written, revising and rewording as I read. I would struggle with word choice. Is jumped the right word? Would leaped inspire a clearer vision of the action? Or bounced. Or hopped? What about vaulted or sprung? I would test the words, reading the sentences aloud, until I decided on one.
Sloppy habits lead to sloppy writing. Sloppy writing can be cleaned up, but something worst was happening. All those side trips into the dictionary and the Internet, along with the struggles to find the right word, the right grammar, and the right sentence structure, made writing WORK. Writing is WORK, naturally so, but it also PLAY. I love to write, but with Distracted Writing habits, I learned to dread it. I learned to avoid it.
That was the nature of my writer’s block. Focused Writing is the solution. As Distracted Writing is a descriptive title, so is Focused Writing. Focused Writing has three phases: pre-writing, writing, and post-writing.
Pre-writing is imagining what I’m going to write. For ten to fifteen minutes, I close my eyes and visualize the next vignette. (For the purpose of my writing, a vignette as a day’s writing output.) What characters will be in this vignette? What will they be doing? Where will they be? What will change during the vignette? I imagine the vignette as action in a movie. Visualizing gives me the starting place. Often I framed the first sentence in my mind, before I start writing. I have learned knowing the first sentence is a powerful tool.
During the writing phrase, I work on my iMac and use an application called ByWord. This is a basic writing software—white letters on a black screen. There are several basic word editors on the market, but I selected ByWord because it has both a Mac and an iPad versions, and because it allows for iCloud syncing. I write for ninety minutes. Writing is about putting words on paper. It is not about getting the sentence right or choosing the perfect word or verifying facts. There will be time later for these activities. This is the time to tell the story.
If I am uncertain how to spell a word, I spell it phonically or make my best guess. If I introduce a character whose name I haven’t considered, I type five number signs (#####) to stand for the name. I also use number signs to stand for any fact I need to research—a year something happened, the make and model of a car, a movie title, a song title, a street name, or any detail that will add context and vividness to my story.
Writing is discovery. Pre-writing visualization tells me the gist of what will happen, but writing makes it happen. For that to transpire, I need to evoke a trance and stay in the trace. I need to see the event in my mind and have my hands transcribe what I see. Stopping to double check spelling or to perform a quick Internet search would break me from that trance. Once the trance is broken, it is impossible to repair it. The day is lost.
The first task of post-writing is saving. I save the vignette twice. I save it as a ByWord document in iCloud, and then I copy and paste it to into the manuscript, which I save as a Pages document. In Pages I apply paragraph formatting. The most important task of post-writing is proof reading the vignette. This is when I correct misspellings, debate word choice and sentence structure, perform fact-checking Internet research, and replace the number symbols with words. My final post-writing task is writing a synopsis of the vignette in Evernote. This helps me keep track of what vignettes I have written and where they fit into the story.
After two years, probably longer, of feeling unconnected with my writing, I adopted Focused Writing in August. Though I debated whether it would solve my writer’s block, after three and a half months, I feel more confident in my writing and more connected to the story I am telling. Instead of waking up dreading my writing session, I’m waking up excited for it. Writing has again become PLAY.