Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

NaNoWriMo 2018 Bonus Episode, with Mercedes Lackey

Your Hosts: Brandon, Mary Robinette, Dan, and Howard, with special guest Mercedes Lackey

NaNoWriMo 2018 is half-way over today. Are you stuck? Do you need to get unstuck? Mercedes Lackey joined us at GenCon Indy back in 2017 to talk about writer’s block, and how it’s very likely a symptom of something else. In this episode we discuss the interpretation of those symptoms, and how we go about solving the root problems.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key Points: There is no such thing as writer’s block. Usually, it’s your subconscious saying “Stop! Something is wrong!” Caveat: Sometimes what we think is writer’s block is actually depression — see a professional! Sometimes you should stop and figure out what’s wrong. Other times, you should keep going for a while, even though you know it is wrong, to find out what’s wrong. If you are stuck because you are bored — your reader will be bored, too. Find a new path, insert new action, “Two guys bust through the door, guns blazing!” To identify what’s wrong, back up, and ask the next question. What if I did something else? What if… Back up, put the old stuff in a scraps folder, and try again, making different choices. Lack of confidence? You’ve got a million bad words you have to write. Don’t let the cursor intimidate you! Try writing on a notepad, and fixing it when you type it into the computer. When you recognize that you could do better, you have level upped. If you are going to screw off, set a timer and do it. Then go back to work. Sit down six times a day and write at least two sentences. If you want to have written, you have to do the work of writing first. Don’t just ask yourself, “Why don’t I want to write?” Ask “Why do I want to write?” And then do it!

[Mary] Season 13.

[Howard] Bonus Episode Three.

[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Writer’s Block with Mercedes Lackey.

[Mary] 15 minutes long.

[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry.

[Howard] And we forgot how to write.

[Brandon] I’m Brandon.

[Mary] I’m Mary.

[Dan] I’m Dan.

[Howard] I’m blocked.

[Brandon] And we have Mercedes Lackey.

[Mercedes] Hello.

[Brandon] Awesome writer of many, many excellent books. Thank you so much for being with us.

[Mercedes] Thank you for having me. I enjoy being had.


[Brandon] We are live at GenCon.

[Whoo! Applause.]

[Brandon] So. Misty, you pitched this at us. You said you want to talk about writer’s block.

[Mercedes] Absolutely.

[Brandon] Do you remember why or are you blocked on that?


[Mercedes] No. I am… I definitely remember why. Because there’s no such thing.

[Brandon] Okay. Expand on that.

[Mercedes] Writer’s block is when you have got to a point in the story that you have decided, no matter what this is, the direction it’s going to go. Your subconscious is saying, “No, it isn’t.” You’re doing something wrong. You’ve chosen an illogical path for this particular character or this particular story. You’re doing… You’re making your character do something out of character just because you want the story to go in that direction. Your subconscious knows more about storytelling than you do. Because you’ve been imbibing storytelling since the time you were born. Your subconscious is saying, “No. Stop. I’m not going to let you do this.”

[Mary] I’m going to agree with you. I’m also just going to add a caveat for our listeners. Because I have always held that position as well. But. There are times, listeners, when writer’s block is actually a sign that you are dealing with depression.

[Mercedes] Yes. This is true.

[Mary] So I am completely agreeing with her that writer’s block is a signal that something is wrong. One of the things that you’re going to want to try to identify is whether the problem is with something that’s going on in your own head or within the story. So in this podcast, what we’re going to be focusing on is when something is going wrong within the story and the writer’s block is a signal about that.

[Mercedes] But if it happens to be depression, you’ll have other signals and it’s time to seek help from a professional.

[Howard] What I’ve found is that if I sit down and I am ready to write, I want to write, and I’m stuck and I can’t figure out why I’m stuck, it’s my subconscious telling me you are stuck because you made a mistake two or three pages back and you need to step back and figure out how to fix it.

[Brandon] Every time I’ve had writer’s block personally, it’s been what Misty just described.

[Mary] Absolutely.

[Brandon] It’s something is wrong now. The trick for me has been, sometimes the answer to it is not to go back and fix anything. Sometimes it is to continue the story in the wrong direction for a little while. At least for me. So that then, my subconscious can see me having failed. Right?


[Brandon] Like right now.


[Brandon] No, seriously…

[Mercedes] No, I know what you mean.

[Brandon] As a writer, as soon as something’s wrong, I tend to lock up and start looking for the problem. But that can lead to writer’s block for me where I’m searching and searching and searching for a problem, and I can’t find the problem. For me, a lot of times if I… Now, I’m not saying go on forever on this. But for me, if I finish that day’s writing, and I go in that direction, I say, “Okay, I know something’s wrong here, but I’m just going to keep going with what I was doing.” If I have that scene in hand, then it’s during that night or over the next day, 99% of the time, my subconscious can then fix that and say, “You tried it wrong. Good job. You failed.”


[Brandon] “Now let’s try it this other way to fix it.”

[Mary] I find that it’s like that thing where you do the eeny meeny miny moe because you can’t decide between a couple of options, and then you land on one and you’re like, “Oh. But I really wanted this one.” Well, you’ve answered that question. That sometimes continuing to go down the wrong path can do that for you, that it can allow you to identify Ooo…

[Howard] Misty, have you ever been stuck because you got to a part of the story and then… And you realized you were bored?

[Mercedes] Yup. And that means that I… If I’m bored, my reader’s going to be bored, and it’s time to do something… Either go back and find a new path or insert new action. Just like old Dashiell Hammett said, “Two guys bust through the door, guns blazing…”

[Brandon] But what do you do when you’re facing writer’s block? When your subconscious has said, “Something’s wrong.” How do you identify the problem?

[Mercedes] Well, I’ve got 140 books out.


[Brandon?] Okay… You’ve internalized a lot of these techniques.

[Mercedes] It’s a lot easier to do… To identify the problem now than it was back then. What I used to do is an old exercise from Theodore Sturgeon that he had actually made into an emblem which was a Q with an arrow coming out of it, which means ask the next question. So I’d go back into my writing about five pages, and when I came to a branching point in the plot or something of that nature, I would ask the next question. If I didn’t go this way, what other way would I go? With that answer, you then ask the next question. Well, where does it go from there? With that answer, you ask the next question. Well, what does it need? You just keep following the chain of questions. Usually, that locked… That brought… Bleh. Usually that kicked me right out of the problem.

[Mary] Nancy Kress says a very similar thing, which is that… When she’s… Because she’s a complete pantser, she does not plan at all. She says that when she runs into this, she will back up to the last point that she was excited about…

[Mercedes] That’s a good place.

[Mary] And then put everything else in kind of a scraps folder and then write forward from there, making different choices.

[Dan] That scraps folder is really important.

[Mercedes] Oh, yeah. Never throw out anything.

[Dan] Even if you never use it again, it’s a nice way to kind of trick your brain into saying, “Don’t worry. I’m not throwing this away.”

[Mercedes] Right.


[Dan] “I’m totally coming back to use this again. Look at the flowers, Lizzie.”


[Mercedes] Look at this shiny thing over here.

[Mary] But it… I do find for myself that it’s important for me to actually take the words out of the page. Because otherwise what I will try to do is to try to fix the words that are on the page instead of making different choices.

[Mercedes] That’s generally fatal.

[Mary] Yeah.

[Brandon] Once in a while, I have a student that I’m talking to, because I teach creative writing. I get the sense that they don’t actually have writer’s block. People call writer’s block many things.

[Mercedes] Oh, yeah.

[Brandon] What they do is, they lack confidence to tell their story. Meaning they have started writing, they have realized they are not as good a writer as they want to be. What is coming out on the page does not match their perfect vision of a… This idealized Platonic version of a story that’s going to bring world peace.


[Brandon] They look at what’s on the page and their skill level. They get really discouraged. Their confidence goes away and they stop writing and they go back to something else, world building somewhere.

[Mercedes] Then you tell them what Ray Bradbury told my husband. Every writer has a million bad words in him, and he just has to write until they’re all gone.


[Brandon] Do you have any strategies for getting people to do that? Because we talk about that, and that’s absolutely the right thing to do. But sometimes it still just really difficult.

[Mercedes] Stop letting that cursor intimidate you with its single finger…


[Mercedes] Flashing at you.

[Howard] For those of you not benefiting from the video feed, she has imitated a cursor with one of her fingers.


[Mercedes] Seriously, that’s it. You give them something… You tell them that, you show them that, the blan… With the flashing finger and it generally gives them a laugh, which will unlock their fear and turn it into something comedic.

[Mary] One of the…

[Dan] I like this new plan of just flipping off aspiring writers when they’re having…

[Laughter. Garbled.]

[Dan] In Writing Excuses. For everything.

[Mary] That’s not intimidating at all.


[Mary] So one of the things that I do sometimes is that I remind them that what they’re doing right now is that they are comparing their work in progress with other people’s finished drafts.

[Mercedes] That’s also true.

[Mary] One of the things that I will also see happen to writers… Especially writers who have written something and sold it, and then cannot sit down to write the next thing, because they’re afraid that they’re going to fail at it, is that they are comparing their own finished draft to the thing that they’re working on, and they’ve forgotten how many layers it goes through before it finally sees publication.

[Brandon] I’ve found… Oh, yeah. I found success in taking, particularly discovery writers, the pantsers, among my students who are having this problem and sending them out with a notepad instead of a computer and saying, “Don’t worry. It can look ugly on the page. You’ll fix it when you type it into the computer.” That actually ends… Has worked for a few of them because they allow themselves to just let it look sloppy, and they’ll tell themselves it’s not really until it’s in the computer, so it’s okay, if it’s bad right here.

[Dan] Which is basically just tricking them into learning how to revise something. Which is the real answer to that problem.


[Mercedes] One of…

[Howard] It’s often useful to remind people that there is a point… There was a point at which you would write and not recognize that what you are writing is not as good as you want it to be. You have level… You have level upped. Now that you are seeing this, congratulations. You’ve leveled upped. Writing has gotten more difficult. There are more leveling ups to do, and it’s going to take some work.

[Mercedes] There’s one other thing. You mentioned pantsers. They might not be pantsers.

[Brandon] Yeah.

[Mercedes] I pantsed my first novel and realized I was an outliner.

[Mary] I was just on a panel in Helsinki with a debut author, Erika Vik, who’s Finnish. One of the things she said… It was actually another one about writer’s block. She said that she reminds yourself to write “just for myself, not for others.” I think that can be one of the things that can lock us up the most, is when we start trying to second-guess our own writing. It’s like just remember why you’re actually writing is actually because you are writing for yourself. I mean, that’s…

[Mercedes] If you don’t like what you’re doing, no one else will either.

[Mary] Exactly.

[Brandon] Let’s go ahead and stop for our book of the week. Misty, you’re going to pitch to us the Secret World Chronicles?

[Mercedes] Secret World Chronicle, by this time, number five, Avalanche, should be out. It’s a series of superheroes fighting space Nazis. What’s not to love?


[Brandon] That’s a pretty good pitch.

[Mercedes] I know.

[Brandon] Is there anymore or just superheroes fighting space Nazis, that’s all we need to know?

[Mercedes] Superheroes fighting space Nazis mostly in Atlanta.

[Brandon] Okay.


[Brandon] Okay, yeah. There we are.

[Dan] Even better.

[Howard] In marketing terms, if that doesn’t get people to go look up the book and read the blurb on the back…

[Dan] It’s not for them anyway.

[Howard] Those people are just broken anyway.


[Brandon] All right. Let me ask you this question. When is writer’s block just goofing off?


[Brandon] Does that happen to any of you?

[Howard] When there’s a new Xcom release.


[Mercedes] When you’re trying to figure out how to get Benny to not kill you in Fallout 3: New Vegas.


[Brandon] So that does happen to you. Even professional writers, once in a while, writer’s block is there’s a new game out.

[Mercedes] Oh, shoot. It’s not really writer’s block at this point. I recognize it’s the fact that I want to screw off.


[Mercedes] Which is completely valuable. It is.

[Brandon] That’s right. That’s right. It’s very important.

[Mercedes] So allow yourself an hour and put it on a timer.

[Brandon] Oh, okay. So do you actually do this, do you time yourself and say…

[Mercedes] Absolutely. It’s on a timer. I go exactly however long I think that I am allowed to have. And then I stop.

[Mary] I just learned a really cool trick from a… Not from Roger Zelazny because he and I obviously can’t hang out.


[Mary] He’s dead. Which is why we can’t hang out.

[Mercedes] Unless, of course, you’re a medium.

[Mary] Well… Okay…


[Mercedes] Madam, I’m not a medium. I’m an extra-large.


[Brandon] You’d drop the mic, but it’s attached to your forehead.

[Mary] Anyway, apparently the bargain that he had with himself was that he had to sit down six times a day and write two sentences, figuring that at least one of those times he was likely to catch fire, and that if he didn’t, then at the end of the day, at least he had 12 sentences. But that if he caught fire earlier in the day, like in session 2, he still had to sit down the other times, the other six times and write those two sentences. Which sounds suspiciously like your timer thing.

[Dan] It is embarrassing out easy it is to trick ourselves.

[Mercedes] Oh, yeah. You gotta learn not…

[Dan] And drive ourselves.

[Mercedes] You gotta learn not to lie to yourself when you want to screw off.


[Mary] Or to lie to yourself if that will get you back into the chair.

[Mercedes] Yeah.


[Brandon] No, I often say, like, “Becoming a professional writer is really just about learning your personal psychology, of what makes you productive.” It’s why writing advice is so hard to give. On this very podcast, we’ve mentioned, yes, there is writer’s block where your subconscious is causing you to realize something’s wrong. There is writer’s block where you’re just not confident enough, and you should keep going. There is writer’s block when you really just want to play the videogame, and you really need to come up with some strategies to force yourself to do what you want. Like, these are all things that we lump under the umbrella of writer’s block.

[Mercedes] There’s one other writer’s block that I have absolutely zero patience for. It’s the people that don’t really want to write, they want to have written. They want the benefit without the work.

[Brandon] I’d say that’s very commonly kind of part of all of this. Writing is actually hard. Looking at your story and seeing that it’s messed up and realizing how much work it’s going to take to fix it is really hard. In fact, that’s the part I hate the most out of this whole thing.

[Howard] I won’t lie. There are times when… There are times when looking back at something I have written or something I have drawn, I am getting far more pleasure at having finished it than having worked on it. But there are also times when I just delight in the work. So, understanding that that’s a balance, that’s a thing that’s going to happen. If I keep going, I will get to enjoy having written, having drawn all of these things. A lot of them I will enjoy while I’m actually making them.

[Mary] One of the things that I think is useful is to flip the question. So if you’re sitting down and you’re like… And asking yourself, “Why don’t I want to write?” Is not fixing it for you, flip the question and ask yourself, “What would make me want to write? Why do I want to write?” See if you can fulfill those questions to sit down and write.

[Brandon] Well, we are out of time on this episode. Misty, you were going to give us a writing prompt.

[Mercedes] I would like you to try writing a lover’s quarrel. But the difference in this one is they really don’t want to have the fight. They really want to reconcile. But it’s almost as if they’re having the fight for the sake of having the fight.

[Brandon] Awesome. Well, thank you so much for being on the podcast with us. Thank you to our GenCon live audience.

[Whoo! Applause.]

[Brandon] And, especially true with this episode, you are out of excuses, now go write.