5 Rules for Writing Humor Right

You may think it’s difficult to write funny stories, but the truth is it’s excruciatingly agonizing. Also, if you endure all that pain and get the humor wrong, readers will laugh at you (and your mismatched clothes and uncombed hair) rather than at your story.

Since humorous writing is so tough to get right, why don’t we forget the whole thing? For one, if we can manage to tell a funny story, readers like it. An amusing tale lifts them from the gloomy tedium of their dreary lives, the poor things. Think of it as a public service, kind of a ‘clown-author saves the world’ idea.

I know, I know. I hear you saying, “But, Steve, I write serious fiction. I don’t need to know how to write humor.” Okay, surf elsewhere if you want. But you really should spice up your “serious fiction” with occasional bursts of frivolity, if only to break up the interminable stretches of seriousity.

For those still reading this, I’m about to reveal my five simple rules for writing humor. Well, they’re not that simple, and aren’t actually rules, but at least they do total up to five. To develop them, I scoured the Internet (and it needed a good scouring). Then I spent literally lots of minutes searching for good advice on writing humor. I found that good advice from Brian A. Klems, Joe Bunting, Annie Binns, and Joe Bunting again. While blindfolded, I then chose only the choicest rules, right up until I got tired. After five. Here they are:

1. Maintain the elephant of surprise. Take common sayings or clichés and tie them in knots. Go in directions the reader doesn’t expect.

B. Dare to ask why pants come in pairs. Start with the ordinary, the mundane, the familiar, and the everyday, then find some weird aspect about it all. Look at it from a bizarre angle. Drive your reader to that vantage and invite her to look, too. (Note, “Hey, Babe, let me drive you to my bizarre-angled vantage to look at my weird aspect” is not a recommended pick-up line. Ever. It’s a metaphor.)

III. It’s still legal to discriminate against words. Choose words carefully. Unearth a thesaurus and examine its guts. Select specific words, not general ones. Seek words that sound humorous when juxtaposed. (I think the word ‘juxtaposed’ is kinda funny all by itself.)

Four. It’s a story, not a routine. When a comedian performs a stand-up routine, he feels free to change topics several times. You can’t do that. Your story must hang together as an integral whole, not consist of disconnected jokes. I blogged once about how some movies do that well and some do it poorly.

7. No, sorry—5. Wait for it… Structure your sentences so the last words have the most impact. Ideally, the joke is in the very last word. Develop a comedic sense of timing so that you’re not rushing to get to that ending punch. Let your sentences roll along, lulling the reader, and then swing your sledgehammer. (Metaphor again.)

If you study those five rules carefully, I can guarantee that…well, that you’ve studied them carefully. You’re going to need a lot of practice to actually write funny stories, and so will—

Poseidon’s Scribe

Last Chance, the Final Day to Vote

You meant to vote in the Preditors & Editors Readers Poll, you really did. But time slipped away and you kinda forgot.

Wait! It’s not too late! There is still time to vote, if you do it now. You can vote for my stories, or you can vote for those of another author. It doesn’t matter. Just vote!

Of course, I’d be grateful if you’d cast a vote for my story “After the Martians” in the Science Fiction Short Story category, and for the anthology In a Cat’s Eye, in the Anthology category. My story “The Cats of Nerio-3” appears in that delightful anthology.

According to the latest vote count, “After the Martians” is fifth out of thirty-seven, and In a Cat’s Eye is tied for  thirteenth out of sixty. Let’s vote them each up to number one!

Since you’re almost out of time, click on any of the links or pictures in this post and vote. If it seems confusing, see the more explanatory instructions here.

You can stop reading this post, because this is not the time for reading. This is the time to vote for—

Poseidon’s Scribe

Should You Enter Writing Contests?

You’ve heard there are writing contests out there. Wouldn’t it be great to win one? Should you devote time, energy, and possibly some money, to enter one or more of them? Let’s explore these questions.

What’s in it for you?

If you win, you get whatever prize the contest offers, generally a monetary prize. Some contests publish the winning entries. Also, there’s the prestige of being a contest winner. You’re “an award-winning author.” You can cite that contest among your achievements. When you submit stories for publication, you can mention in your cover letter that one of your tales won the XYZ Writing Contest.

Some contests offer second and third prizes that carry their own prestige too.

If you lose the contest, you also lose the entry fee you paid, if any. You may also experience a brief moment of disappointment, dejection, etc. This should be brief; you shouldn’t have your heart set on winning a contest. Losing should prompt no more than a fleeting twinge of sadness before you move on with life.

How do contests work?

Say you wanted to set up a writing contest yourself. How would you do it? You’d make sure you had prize money (or whatever type of prize you were going to offer) available. You’d advertise your contest, specifying the rules about how to enter, genre(s), submission guidelines, submission fees, any other restrictions, etc.

You’d assemble a panel of judges, people with demonstrated writing skills or other literary credentials, people you trust, who are willing to wade through numerous submissions. Realize these are people, not angels. They have biases, pet peeves, favorite styles, etc.

You have to decide whether to charge a fee for submissions. If your prize money comes from a giant pile o’ cash you have sitting around, you might not need to charge for entry. However, you might consider charging a fee (1) if there is no giant pile o’ cash, (2) if you can’t seem to lure the judges you want without paying them something, or (3) if you anticipate a tsunami-type volume of entries and need a way to limit them.

(There’s one other, less high-minded, reason you might charge a fee. If your motivation is not so much about finding and promoting undiscovered writers, but is more about swindling gullible rubes, you’d definitely require a fee for submissions and disguise your contest as legitimate.)

Lastly, you’d set up some way to have the judges review the submissions and render a judgement. You could set up some sort of voting mechanism; you could have stages of reviews where not all the first stage judges read every submission but only a subset. You could structure it in any of several ways.

That’s what you’d do if you were setting up your own writing contest, right? That’s pretty much how it happens.

How do you win?

Yeah…about that. If I knew a precise, never-fail method for winning contests, I wouldn’t be wasting time writing blog posts. Let’s restate that question as “How do you increase your odds of winning?”

Mathematically, if every submission had an equal chance, your odds would be one out of the number of entries. Like a well-run lottery, someone’s going to win, and it might be you.

However, the submissions don’t all have an equal chance, and you want to make yours rise above the rest. (In a scam contest run mainly to exploit vulnerable writers, you need to be a friend or relative of the main judge.)

For a legitimate contest, the way to increase your odds of winning is to (1) strictly observe all the contest rules for entering, and (2) follow all the same rules of story writing as you would if you were submitting to an editor for publication. Regarding (2), those story-writing rules consist of all the same advice I’ve been giving for years in this blog: strong and endearing main characters, high-stakes conflict, vivid setting, logical and well-paced plot, distinctive style and voice, etc.

Should you enter?

Obviously, it’s a question that depends on (1) whether you think a particular contest might be a scam, (2) whether there’s an entry fee, and if so, whether you’re willing to pay it, and (3) whether you have a story that meets the contest’s rules, and other factors specific to the situation. You’ll have to answer this one yourself.

One more thing…

Oh, yeah, while you’ve got contests on your mind, don’t forget to vote for my story “After the Martians” and the book In a Cat’s Eye in the Preditors & Editors poll, in the Science Fiction Short Story and Anthology categories, respectively. The voting period closes on January 14th. See the instructions in last week’s blog post.

Whether you enter a contest or not, at least you’ll make your choice armed with a complete knowledge of the opinions of—

Poseidon’s Scribe

It’s 2017; What’s Your Favorite Story from 2016?

<Clink!> ~kazoo blast~ Happy New Year! Yes, the ol’ Earth made it one more time around its elliptical orbit to a particular, and arbitrary, point. Let’s party!

I know a productive way you could begin 2017. You could click over to the Critters Writers Workshop site and vote in their annual Preditors & Editors Poll for your favorite books published during 2016.

The poll includes a variety of categories. Although it’s not a scientific poll, winning it gives the fortunate author some bragging rights, and even making it to the top ten is an honor.

You could (ahem) even vote for two of my stories. One of them, After the Martians,” is in the Science Fiction & Fantasy Short Story category. In the Anthologies category, the book In a Cat’s Eye contains my story “The Cats of Nerio-3.” The links in this paragraph and the book cover images open a new tab taking you straight to the correct poll category to vote.

To vote, click the button beside your favorite story’s (or anthology’s) title, then enter your name and e-mail address, then scroll to the bottom where you’ll see the image of a book’s cover (not mine). Type the author’s name of that book in the box to prove you’re not a spam robot. You’ll receive an e-mail to confirm your vote; just click the link in the e-mail and you’re done. Please vote before January 14, when they close the polling.

Recently, In a Cat’s Eye received a five-star review on Amazon by Katherine A. Lashley. She singled out “The Cats of Nerio-3” as one of her favorites in the book, saying it “does an amazing job in exploring the future of humans, artificial intelligence, and cats.” Thank you very much, Katherine!

If you haven’t read “After the Martians” or In a Cat’s Eye, you can still vote for them in the Preditors & Editors poll, but I also recommend reading them. Whether you vote for my stories or those written by others, I thank you for supporting authors. We value any scrap of appreciation thrown our way. Take it from—

                                                  Poseidon’s Scribe

13 Ways You’re Writing Wrongly

Inspired by K. M. Weiland’s wonderful post, “How Not to Be a Writer: 15 Signs You’re Doing It Wrong,” I decided to make my own list.

My list differs from hers, since it’s borne of my own experiences. Moreover, I’m sure there are plenty of unlisted items I’m still getting wrong, that hinder me from greater success.

Arranged in rough order of the writing process, here are a baker’s dozen ways you’re writing wrongly:

  1. You’re not actually fitting one word up against another. In other words, you’re not writing any fiction. Maybe you’re easily distracted, doing too much research, talking about being a writer while not writing, or just intimidated by the prospect. Doesn’t matter. If you’re not writing, you’re never going to be a writer.
  1. You bought your limousine and mansion before the advance arrived. Let’s set some realistic expectations here. Most likely, you’re going to labor in obscurity for a while, probably years. First time best-sellers are very rare. Heck, best-selling authors themselves are rare. Only a tiny percentage of writers support themselves with their writing.
  1. You’re copying someone else’s style. After all, (you’re thinking), if it’s working for James Patterson, J.K. Rowling, Nora Roberts, John Grisham, etc., then it should work for you. Inconvenient fact—readers already have a Patterson, Rowling, Roberts, Grisham, etc. Create your own style.
  1. You’re sure the rules don’t apply to you. I’m talking about those pesky rules of English and the rules of literature, stuff like spelling, grammar, and story structure. All those rules are for mere plebeians, not you, right? Actually, you’re really supposed to know them. As for always following each rule to the letter, see item 5 on my list.
  1. You obsess about following the rules. You’re now a walking dictionary and could qualify to teach English at Harvard. You chiseled the rules onto granite tablets and now pray before the tablets twice daily. Why are your stories not selling? There’s an overarching rule you forgot—you’re supposed to write stories people want to read. If some rule of writing is keeping you from telling a great story, break the rule. Just don’t go too far (see item 4).
  1. You quit before “The End.” Around the world, desk drawers and computer file directories bulge with half-finished stories. If you would be a writer, you must finish your stories.
  1. Your epidermis is on the thin side. In other words, you don’t take criticism well. The most mundane comment from someone in your critique group or from an editor will either set you off in a bout of inconsolable sobbing or high-minded ranting at the imbeciles that surround you. Get a grip. They’re not attacking your personal character; they’re trying to help you improve your story.
  1. You inhabit a world that’s just too slow to recognize the wonder that is you. How frustrating that must be, to cast your gaze at the mortals about you and see them not bowing before the genius in their midst. Well, genius, here’s a word you might look up: patience. Recognition, if it’s to come at all, will come in time.
  1. You revise edit reword amend change adjust vary redraft alter rephrase modify wordsmith rewrite your story endlessly. Sure, that story will be perfect once you work on it a bit more, just add this and delete that, change the POV character, throw in some better verbs and adjectives. It seems like it’s never quite right. True, it never will be perfect, but it could be good enough.
  1. You defy Submission Guidelines. What’s with all these editors, anyway? Each one has a particular format for story submissions, and each format is different. That’s too much trouble for a great writer like you. Your story is so superb the editor will overlook how you flouted a few guidelines, right? Nope, wrong again. Obey those guidelines.
  1. You never click ‘Submit’ or ‘Send.’ That’s because if you do, some editor might actually see your precious story, might read it, and might not like it. Better to keep your story safe with you, in your home, where nobody can ever criticize it. Uh…no. Show your baby to the world. It will be okay.
  1. Rejections are reasons to revise edit reword…rewrite your story. An editor has rejected your story, perhaps even explained why. To you, that’s a sign you must rewrite it before it can be good enough to submit elsewhere. No. Go ahead and submit it elsewhere immediately. (However, if an editor rejects your story but says she’ll accept it if you revise it in a particular way—ah, that’s the sign that you should rewrite and submit it to her again.)
  1. You’re relaxing after submitting a story. There, you just sent your story on its way. Now you can kick back and wait for the acceptance, the contract with the six-figure advance, the launch party, the book tour, and the TV interviews. Sorry, no. You’re supposed to be a writer. Start writing your next story already.

Avoid those pitfalls and you’ll be on your way to becoming a published writer. Best wishes in all your writing efforts, from—

            Poseidon’s Scribe

The 7 Best Science Fiction Submarines

My recent experience moderating a panel on Science Fiction submarines at Chessiecon inspired this blog post. As a former submariner and current science fiction writer, I’m fascinated by the submarines of SF. Earth’s ocean, or oceans in general, are not common settings in SF, and I really enjoy such stories when I come across them.

Before I reveal the list of the seven best, here’s my chronologically ordered list of the more prominent submarines of science fiction. The list includes those from books, movies, TV shows, and some Anime. I included the Red October as a SF sub because of its advanced “caterpillar drive.”

Name Source (Book, Movie, TV, Anime) Year(s)
Nautilus (B,M,T) 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea 1870 (B)

1916, 1954 (M)

1997 (T)

Wonder (B) Tom Swift and His Submarine Boat 1910
Rocket Submarine (M) The Undersea Kingdom 1936
The Iron Fish (C) The Beano 1949
USS Triton (B) Attack From Atlantis 1953
Jetmarine (B) Tom Swift and His Jetmarine 1954
Diving Seacopter (B) Tom Swift and His Diving Seacopter 1956
Fenian Ram S1881 (B) Under Pressure or The Dragon in the Sea 1956
Seaview (M,T) Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea 1961, 1964-1968
Flying Sub (FS-1) (T) Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea 1964-1968
Unnamed (M) Atlantis the Lost Continent 1961
Stingray (T) Stingray 1964
Gotengo (M) Atragon 1963
Proteus/Voyager (B,M) Fantastic Voyage 1966
Blue Sub 006 (A) Blue Submarine #6 1967,1997-2000
Dyna-4 Capsule (B) Tom Swift and His Dyna-4 Capsule 1969
<Unknown> (B) The Deep Range 1970
Rorqual Maru (B) The Godwhale 1974
S.S. Cetacean (T) The Man from Atlantis 1977-78
Sea Trench (B) Aquarius Mission 1978
Blue Noah (T) Thundersub 1979-80
Red October (B,M) The Hunt for Red October 1984 (B) 1990 (M)
Seaquest (T) Seaquest DSV 1993-96
Gungan Bongo Submarine (M) Star Wars: Episode I The Phantom Menace 1999
Ulysses (M) Atlantis: The Lost Empire 2001
UX (A) Submarine 707R 2003
I-507 (M) Lorelei: The Witch of the Pacific Ocean 2005
Vorpal Blade (B) Looking Glass series 2005, 2007, 2008, 2009
I-401 (A) Arpeggio of Blue Steel 2009-Present
Hydra MiniSub (M) Captain America: The First Avenger 2011

To choose the best of these, I considered these criteria:

  • Vividness. How detailed was the description, or how thoroughly was it depicted on screen? Did the audience form a clear mental picture of the sub?
  • Technological Advancement. How much more advanced was the submarine when compared to typical submarines of the era in which the work was produced (not necessarily the time of the story)?
  • Necessity to Plot. Did the plot of the story require a submarine at all, or would the story have worked if set aboard a different kind of vessel?
  • Coolness. Was the depiction of the submarine aesthetically pleasing?
  • Memorability. Does (or will) the submarine in this fiction work stand the test of time? Can you recall details of the submarine and the story years later?

Here’s my list of the 7 best science fiction submarines:

  1. Fenian Ram S1881. This is the submarine from Frank Herbert’s 1956 novel The Dragon in the Sea (also published as Under Pressure). The novel is intense, and focuses on the psychologies of the characters, and how the submarine setting affects them. The Fenian Ram is a nuclear-powered “subtug” that sneaks into the underwater oil fields of enemy countries, pumps out the valuable oil, and tows it back home. Herbert took the name of his fictional vessel from the submarine built by John Holland for the Fenians in 1881.

 

  1. Proteus/Voyager. Most will recall the submarine from the 1966 film, and Isaac Asimov novel Fantastic Voyage. In the book and movie, the submarine was known as Proteus, but in the 1968-1970 cartoon it was known as Voyager. It didn’t go underwater, but was miniaturized and injected into a human body. You’ve got to love the many windows, and the bubble window on top. The movie version was designed by Harper Goff, a movie prop man I’ll mention again later.
  1. Sea Trench. Here is the submarine from the 1978 novel Aquarius Mission by Martin Caidin. The novel is not well-known, but I like that the book contained a foldout picture of the submarine, a complete side view depiction of its interior. This sub was huge, and well equipped for both exploration and military missions. Nuclear-powered, it had an observation deck with a window, an observation bubble that could be lowered, a mini-sub, torpedoes, nuclear missiles, and a handball court.

 

  1. FS-1.You’ll recognize the flying submarine from the 1964-1968 TV Show “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea.” Nuclear-powered, it had windows, a manipulator arm, and room for two operators, plus perhaps a passenger. It launched from and returned to its mother sub, the Seaview. Oh yeah, and it could fly. It could land on water, on an aircraft carrier, or on a runway ashore.
  1. Seaview. Now we’ve come to the submarine from the 1961 movie “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea,” and the 1964-1968 TV show of the same name. In the movie, it was USOS Seaview, for United States Oceanographic Survey, but in the TV show it was S.S.R.N. Seaview, apparently to indicate it was part of the US submarine fleet, but still a research sub. Nuclear powered, it could deploy the Flying Sub, as mentioned. It had observation windows near the bow. The bow had a distinctive shape, reminiscent of a manta ray. The stern looked like the back end of a 1961 Cadillac.
  1. SeaQuest. The second-best SF submarine is from the 1993-1996 TV series “seaQuest DSV” (or “seaQuest 2032” in the final season). Measuring over 1000 feet long, the sub could move at 160 knots thanks to its twin fusion reactors. Its shape resembled a squid, and its hull had a bio-skin coating to repel sea organisms. It could dive to 29,000 feet. Seaquest travelled with a cloud of unmanned undersea vehicles, with sensors and other capabilities. Its armament included torpedoes, missiles, and lasers. One member of the crew was a genetically enhanced dolphin that moved throughout the sub in water-filled tubes.
  1. Nautilus. The best science fiction submarine could only be the Nautilus, from Jules Verne’s 1870 novel Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. Verne also mentioned it in his 1874 novel, The Mysterious Island. The story has been depicted in at least six films and there have been several spin-off novels and films featuring the submarine. With a length of 230 feet and a maximum speed of 50 knots, the vessel used a bow ram as its weapon. It could deploy divers as well as a small rowboat. It had a large “living room” with a pipe organ. Despite Verne’s meticulous description, there have been numerous different depictions of what the Nautilus looked like. The best, in my view, is the version Harper Goff created for the 1954 Disney movie.

There they are, the 7 best science fiction submarines. Did I miss your favorite, or would you have put them in a different order? Leave a comment for—

Poseidon’s Scribe

My Weekend at Chessiecon ‘16

What a great weekend! I was at Chessiecon, a science fiction/fantasy conference near Baltimore. In case you missed it, here’s the recap:

I moderated a panel on “Gadgets in Fiction.” We discussed how it’s easy to get too passionate about your faster-than-light drive or the workings of your hand-held ray gun, but your audience doesn’t want a textbook. How do you share your geeky idea without straying into too much? When does over-reliance on gadgetry start to take away from the plot and characterization?

The talented and knowledgeable panel members were Martin Wilsey, Nicole “Nickie” Jamison, and Steve Kozeniewski. They had some great ideas about how to discuss and describe gadgets in your fiction without boring readers.

chessiecon16-gadget-panel-2-2
Martin Wilsey, Steve Southard, Nicole “Nickie” Jamison, and Steve Kozeniewski

 

Later, I moderated another panel called “Care and Feeding of Critique Groups.” The blurb for that panel was—participating in a critique group can be a great way to improve your writing. Not all such groups work out well, though. The panel will discuss ways to keep a critique group helpful, vibrant, and long-lived.

My willing and able panel members were Danielle Ackley-McPhail, Jay Smith, Margaret Carter, and J.L. Gribble. It became obvious to me that critique groups come in all sizes, shapes, rules, forms, etc. The keys to success appear to be setting expectations, actively participating, being fair in providing critiques, and being thick-skinned in receiving them.

chessiecon16-crit-panel-5-2
Danielle Ackley-McPhail, Jay Smith, Margaret Carter, J.L. Gribble, Steven R. Southard

 

All that was Friday. On Saturday, I moderated yet another panel, this one called “Dive! Dive! Submarines in Science Fiction.” The idea of this one is that not all SF takes place in outer space. Panelists will discuss their favorite undersea fiction and undersea vehicles.

I called myself the Captain of this panel, and my crew was D.H. Aire, Leslie Roy Carter, Kelly A. Harmon, and Martin Wilsey. Sorry, no picture of this one. We had a great time discussing favorite science fiction submarines, and what sets submarines apart from other story settings.

catseye_final-72dpiAt my book reading, I read the entirety of “The Cats of Nerio-3,” my story from the recently published anthology In a Cat’s Eye. I hope the audience enjoyed the story at least half as much as I loved reading it.

chessiecon-16-book-signing-4I had a fine time at the book signing later Saturday night. For one of the copies of In a Cat’s Eye, the woman asked me to sign it to her two cats. First time I’ve done that! I hope her cats enjoy the story. I sold another copy to a young girl who just loves cats. I forgot to tell her and her mother that the stories in that anthology are a bit on the dark side. Oh, well…

All in all, a delightful weekend! It’s fun to gather with fellow authors who write, and with readers who love, science fiction. It just warms the heart of—

Poseidon’s Scribe

My Chessiecon Schedule

Those of you who’ll be in the Baltimore, Maryland area during Thanksgiving weekend might want to stop by the Radisson North Baltimore Hotel and drop in on Chessiecon. Chessiecon is the science fiction convention formerly known as Darkovercon.

I’ll be speaking there this time, and here’s my schedule:

Date Time Topic Location
Friday, Nov. 25th 3:00 – 4:15 Gadgets in Fiction Greenspring 1
Friday, Nov. 25th 6:45 – 8:00 Care and Feeding of Critique Groups Greenspring 2
Saturday, Nov. 26th 10:00 – 11:15 Dive! Dive! Submarines in Science Fiction Greenspring 1
Saturday, Nov. 26th 1:45 – 2:15 Book Reading Greenspring 2
Saturday, Nov. 26th 6:45 – 8:00 Book signing Atrium

chessielogoThat schedule is subject to change. I’ll post any changes here as I find out about them. There are many other things to see and do at Chessiecon, other than attending my panels, readings, and signings.

Why do they call it Chessiecon? Chessie is a huge beast thought to inhabit the Chesapeake Bay environs, but few have seen it and it may be mythical.

Hmm… that describes me!

Anyway, I’d love to see you at Chessiecon. Please attend. You could get a priceless selfie taken with—

Poseidon’s Scribe

The Cure #2: Writer’s Block

Long-term readers of this blog will recall I’ve written about writer’s block before, both here and here. I divided the difficulty into two types, major and minor. I’ve discussed the symptoms of both types but only discussed the cures for minor writer’s block.

writers-block-2Today, I’ll delve into major writer’s block (MajWB) and its cures. I define MajWB as the state of being unable to start writing a new work, a condition of long duration. It can last for years and can end a writer’s career.

I’ve never suffered from it, and hope I never do. It must be especially devastating to those for whom writing is their primary source of income. One thing we can rule out in discussing MajWB is the current work in progress; it’s not a matter of being stuck in a plot hole, or being dissatisfied with certain characters. MajWB is the state of not being able to perform any creative writing whatsoever.

With Minor Writer’s Block, I considered that the block was most likely a symptom of something else, an effect. To resume writing, the blocked writer should work on the cause.

Although the causes of Minor Writer’s Block can be large or small, the root of MajWB can only be large. Nothing but a significant event or condition can cause you to be unable to write.

If we assume a writer has MajWB, then presumably there was a time when he or she was writing, and then a later time when not writing. In between, something happened; some significant change occurred. These changes include:

  • A major illness or disease
  • Major depression
  • An ended relationship, whether by death or other cause
  • Financial straits
  • A feeling of failure
  • A feeling of inferiority in comparison with previous success

Whichever of these it is, it must be addressed, not the inability to write. The writer needs to examine what it is about the cause that is resulting in a block. I have no magic pill here, no universal cure-all. Each of these causes will be different, as will the writers involved.

Some authors may be able to resume writing by remembering why they became a writer in the first place, and returning to that frame of mind. Others may find it useful to use the event causing the block as an inspiration for further writing. That is, they could seize the raw emotions of the disease, depression, lost love, etc., and incorporate them in stories.

If some perverse writer’s demon told me I had to endure major writer’s block, but I could pick the cause, I’d choose the last one—the belief I couldn’t live up to past success. This can afflict writers who produce best-selling first novels. It might be difficult to recapture that achievement. At least that one presupposes there has been past success!

You can find out more about writer’s block from reading this post by Ginny Wiehardt, this post by Jeff Goins, this list of famous author’s comments compiled by Emily Temple, and this Wikipedia article.

I believe cases of MajWB are rare, so you should never have to deal with it. Still, forewarned is forearmed, and now you’re both. Although I’m no doctor, I am—

Poseidon’s Scribe

When Is Your Story Ready?

On one hand, you’re anxious to send your story to an editor and see it published after its many revisions. On the other hand, you’re not sure it’s quite ready yet.

How do you know when you’ve truly finished a story?

writing-vs-sculptureWe could seek advice from accomplished authors. Unfortunately, the various quotes I’ve compiled run the gamut from the ‘don’t edit at all’ extreme to ‘seven revisions might not be enough.’

  • Robert Heinlein: “They didn’t want it good; they wanted it Wednesday.”
  • Laura Lippman: “You have to be able to finish. The world is full of beautiful beginners.”
  • Michael Crichton: “Books aren’t written—they’re rewritten. Including your own. It is one of the hardest things to accept, especially after the seventh rewrite hasn’t quite done it.”
  • Isaac Asimov (paraphrased from my memory): I write a first draft and never change a word. If they want a five-thousand-word story, I type five thousand words and stop. With any luck, I’m at the end of a sentence.

Thanks, Famous Writers! Great quotes, but not particularly helpful. Next I turned to the blogosphere and came up with some useful posts on the topic by Chris Robley, Dr. Randy Ingermanson, Bryan Hutchinson, Jessica Clausen, and James Duncan. I recommend you peruse those posts at your leisure for more in-depth advice.

Here’s my distillation of guidance from those blog posts, mixed with my own experience. It boils down to your attitude toward the story:

  1. Are you proud of the story? Are you proud enough of it that you’d be happy to see it in print, with your name as the author? If so, it may be ready, so long as it’s not a false pride, and instead stems from the confidence that you’ve done all you can to make the story good.
  2. Are you tired of, or even sick of, working on the story? Your creative muse is aching to move on to something else, and the thought of spending more time on this story is depressing. If this is truly a reaction to working on the story, not the story itself, it may be ready. If you’re sick of the story itself because you think it’s terrible, or you can no longer summon up the enthusiasm you once had for it, it probably still needs work. In that case, it may be best to set it aside for a few weeks or months so you can look at it fresh later.

At some point, you need to decide: (1) submit the story for publication, (2) shelve it for a while and edit it later, or (3) abandon it. Sometimes circumstances will force your decision—things such as an editor’s deadline, the desire for publication, the fickle muse’s yearning for a different writing project, etc.

Sometimes, there’s nothing forcing you to decide and you’re still stuck in limbo, wondering if the story is ready. At that point, you might want to ask yourself whether it’s the story’s readiness that’s in question, or yours. Has the story become a sort of child, one you’re trying to protect from the harsh world out there?

If so, remember: you’re a writer, and writers create stories for readers to enjoy. Time to let that story out, and let it find whatever acclaim or obscurity it will, while you move on to write the next one. You can do this; take it from—

Poseidon’s Scribe