I don’t believe in “writer’s block.” Sure, there are times a writer doesn’t want to write or isn’t happy with what they’re writing or is simply distracted by life from getting the writing done. But it’s been my experience that if you listen to that bit of your brain that tells you, for whatever reason, that right now isn’t the time to be trying to squeeze words out of it onto the page, you’ll be a much happier and, ultimately, more productive writer. If it ain’t coming to you, stop, get up, walk away, and don’t think about it. Take a walk, read a book, go see a movie, browse internet porn, watch some episodes of Father Knows Best (well…he did!)–do anything except try and force yourself to write. Odds are, when you come back to it a few hours later or the next day, you’ll be just fine and the words will, if not flow, at least come without all the angst and teeth gnashing.
Your mileage, as the kids say today, may vary.
In fact, in the case of my Crazy 8 Press novel The Same Old Story, my own mileage varied somewhat from the “few hours later or the next day” average. By several years.
It all started more than fifteen years ago, sparked by stories I had heard over the years of a, shall we say, bit of financial hanky-panky involving a certain editor at a particular comic book company. It was, not to give away too much of the story, an ingenious bit of bookkeeping legerdemain that allowed said certain editor to repeatedly bill his employer and get paid for the same stories, over and over again, without ever having to worry about having to produce those stories for publication. There’s a mystery novel in that, I thought; I just had to wait for it to reveal itself to me.
Unless you’re a comic book fan like me (and most of the rest of the Crazy 8 crew for that matter), you’ve probably never heard of Joe Maneely or Robert Kanigher. Maneely was an artist known mainly for his work at Marvel Comics from 1949 until the time of his death in 1958, when he accidentally fell between the cars of a moving commuter train on his way home to New Jersey from New York. Kanigher was a writer, predominantly for DC Comics, beginning in 1945 and going on to become one of the industry’s most prolific scripters until his death in 2002. Other than both laboring in the same industry, Maneely and Kanigher had little in common; Joe was, by all accounts, well-respected and liked. Bob was, as I knew from personal experience, pedantic, pompous, unpredictable, and often unpleasant. He was also one of the most interesting characters I ever met and I had spent hours in my younger days being talked at by him in the halls of DC Comics.
It occurred to me that Maneely’s death was a great jumping off point for that mystery novel set in the world of the comic book biz. It also occurred to me that, from all reports, no one would have wanted to kill this guy. I could, however, imagine many people having numerous reasons for wanting to throw Kanigher under the wheels of a train. So….I had the aforementioned financial hi-jinks, Maneely’s accidental death by railroad, and a great victim in a fictionalized version of Kanigher.
(And please let me stress here that neither Kanigher nor Maneely were in any way, shape, or form involved in the real-life editorial fraud. The Same Old Story is a total fabrication that uses bits and pieces of actual events and people to create a whole new story.)
The last piece of the puzzle fell into place when I figured out book’s structure, a way of telling a story within a story that allowed me to dive into the mind of my point of view character, pulp magazine/comic book writer Max Wiser and play with the idea of how writers build fiction from fact and, in the process of cooking up that creative stew, sometimes lose sight of which is which. At that point, maybe a dozen years ago, I started writing. I figured I had my story, its structure, my characters and their motives all worked out. How tough could it be?
The first 15,000 words or so weren’t tough at all. But after that, it was like I’d slammed face first into a translucent glass wall. I could kind’a, sort’a see where I wanted to go, but I was damned if I could find a way over, around, or through that barrier to actually get there. Disregarding my own advise at first, I sat there for a lot of hours looking at the blinking cursor and trying to imagine what word, let alone entire sentences or paragraphs, should come next. Finally, I shoved those 15,000 words into the metaphorical drawer and decided to just let it marinate in my mind for a while longer. It wasn’t that I was having trouble writing–during this time I wrote a couple hundred thousand words on other projects, comic books, short stories, articles, essays, non-fiction books, even a couple of other novels, both based on licensed properties (although neither were ever published, not because of any quality issues but due to financial reverses on the part of one publisher and congenital stupidity on the part of the other). I just couldn’t write this book. And I tried and tried again. And again. I’d periodically open the file and reread those 15,000 words, searching for the flaw, plot hole, or misstep that I thought just had to be there and was keeping me from moving on. But I couldn’t find the problem. Nor could I find the next words to move the story forward.
What I had started with such enthusiasm and high hopes had turned into this obnoxious little creature that gnawed at my creative bone, whittling it down to a thin, fragile strand with all the tensile strength of a piece of No. 2 spaghetti. It was like an insect that buzzes around your ear that you never quite see and can’t swat away. I started to believe that if I couldn’t write this book, my first really serious go at an original novel (as opposed to those licensed properties in which the emotional investment isn’t anywhere near as high), I’d probably never be able to write one. I even considered just deleting the frickin’ thing and forgetting about it. It wasn’t happening, so why spend any more time torturing myself with the sad reality that I just wasn’t up to the task?
I was feeling really sorry for myself. I kept it to myself, but deep down, The Same Old Story was a crushing disappointment that I couldn’t shake.
And then, in the summer of 2007, came unemployment. I had left my editorial position at DC Comics in early 2006 to become Executive Editor of the fake news tabloid Weekly World News, but a year and a half later, the paper folded (see “congenital stupidity, corporate”) and I was thrown, for the first time in seventeen years, back into the freelance life. I had freelance work to do, thank goodness, but I also found myself with a lot of free time on my hands. Enough, I decided, that I should devote a certain amount of it every day to working on something of my own. No deadline, no pressure. Shoot for a measly five hundred words a day on it. Just something I wanted to write, for myself, with no expectations for it beyond the doing of the thing.
At first I resisted going back to The Same Old Story. This sumbitch had already had years to mess with me and I’d be damned if I was going to give it another chance to hurt me.
What harm could one more look do? My self-esteem couldn’t get much lower.
When I came again to that glass wall that had been blocking me all those years, I found that all I had to do was give it the barest little shove and it toppled and shattered. I started typing and the first day’s five hundred words came as easily as anything I’d ever written. The same with the next day’s five hundred, and the next, and the next, until, within a week or two, I was pounding out a thousand or two thousand a day and, in less than two months, I had a finished manuscript.
What had changed? Damned if I knew, but what had been for years the creative bane of my existence was now a finished book…one that I was enormously proud of, not just because I had at last gotten it done but because it had turned out to be the book I had always believed it could be.
The saga of getting it published is a whole other story…as is that of Trout Fishing In Canarsie, another novel, which I started in a white hot burst of enthusiasm several months. Only to find myself racing towards another wall…only this time, I’m hoping I learned something from my experiences with The Same Old Story and won’t plunge into despair over what I now known isn’t really a barrier at all so much as it is a bump in the road. This one, I’m sure, will get written.
No matter how long it takes.