Why I don’t believe in writer’s block

Susan DeFCreative Writing, The Story Behind the StoryLeave a Comment

When people talk about “writer’s block”—or depict it in television or movies—it’s treated like some mysterious ailment that descends without warning, effectively paralyzing the writer for no obvious reason.

Or perhaps for reasons that are a little TOO obvious: The writer has suddenly become insecure about their abilities…

or is stymied by their fear of failure (often with a second book)…

or is facing a terminal case of envy due to a colleague’s success.

Any of those things can pose impediments to your progress with a novel, for sure.

But 9 times out of 10, I’ve found, these sorts of issues aren’t what holds writers back from writing—and they have nothing to do with why it is that work that was going just SWIMMINGLY a few days ago suddenly feels like trying to slog through 500 miles of mud.

The truth is, writers don’t just get stuck because they’re battling their inner demons.

They get stuck because they don’t know enough about their stories.

This tends to manifest in 3 key ways, which I’ve explored in my latest post for Jane Friedman. You’ll find the full article here.

If you’ve been beating yourself up about not being able to write, I hope this post inspires a little more kindness toward yourself—and a little more insight into your current WIP!

On the other hand…are you on track to actually finish your current WIP by this fall? If so, go, you! 

If you’re interested in working with me on a full manuscript evaluation, I have slots opening up in September and October. Tell me about your work, and let’s see if we’re a fit. 

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Something special to share: In Floating Fields

Susan DeFCreative Writing, fiction, Reading, StoryQuarterlyLeave a Comment

Sometimes a story emerges from deep inside your bones—from your deepest childhood memories, from the architecture that shaped your imagination. 

“In Floating Fields” is such a story, and I’m pleased to share that it’s now available in the online edition of StoryQuarterly. (It will be featured in the print edition later this year.)

It’s a story set in part in my grandmother’s house in rural West Michigan—in the sandy soil of Oceana County, once known as the Asparagus Capital of the World. 

It’s a story set in part in the house of the Russian witch Baba Yaga, which rests on four stout chicken legs, deep in the heart of the dark woods.

The architecture of the imagination is such that these houses may in fact be the same house, as my memory appears to have superimposed what I was reading (fairy tales) and the place where I was reading them (an old farmhouse in West Michigan).

This story comes from a time in my life when my parents were heading toward divorce. A time when I was just starting to make sense of having parents with two different skin tones, and two different cultures.

A time in my life when I was beginning to understand, to paraphrase a line from the story, that I was two, and not one like everyone else. Beginning to understand that in order to save myself from fracture, I would have to write my own story.

This week, we swing together through the bright apex of the year, the summer’s solstice. It’s a time of year that always feels like a gift to me.

What a pleasure it is to offer you this gift of my own this week: A story forged in the dark, in the deep, in the nebulous knowledge of my own becoming. 

A fairy tale, for everyone who’s ever had to find their own way through the dark woods.

And today, I’m sending a little wish your way, like a falling star in a summer sky—a wish for such a story to find you, to push its way free from your own memory and marrow, and show you your own way home.

Ready to give yourself the gift of professional feedback? I’m currently booking 50-page consultations. You can find out more here.

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Ursula Le Guin’s legacy is progress, not perfection

Susan DeFCreative Writing, fiction, ReflectionsLeave a Comment

Recently I woke up to a Google alert pinging my name in connection with an article in the Washington Post about Ursula Le Guin.

My quote, pulled from an article I wrote for LitHub, was basically intended to serve in this essay as an example of the over-the-top adoration that has made Le Guin a sort of “secular saint.” 

The author of this article, B.D. McClay, goes on to unpack all the ways that Le Guin is more interesting than all that hero-worship would imply—as exemplified by the reissue of Le Guin’s The Language of the Night: Essays on Writing, Science Fiction, and Fantasy.

Specifically, McClay finds interest in the way that Le Guin goes back and argues with herself over her earlier position and thoughts on, say, the use of the pronoun “he” for the androgynous denizens of Gethen, and on why there are no female wizards in Earthsea.

I read this essay with interest, but I’ll admit I found the tone—even the stance—off-putting.

Yes, Le Guin argues with herself. Yes, Le Guin changes her mind.

In The Language of the Night, Le Guin goes back and takes issue with her position on pronouns and gender in The Left Hand of Darkness

And the author did so much serious rethinking of gender in Earthsea that she wrote a whole second trilogy to address why people in this fantasy archipelago had been led to believe the lie encapsulated by the phrase “weak as women’s magic, wicked as women’s magic.”

In truth, all this “breathless” adoration Le Guin enjoys from rubes like me and…Ken Liu? It’s not because we think Le Guin was infallible.

We love her because she took big risks and didn’t always land them.

We love her because she tried to create work that was true to her ideals, like so many of us—but unlike most of us, she had the temerity to own those mistakes publicly, and then do her best to address them. 

That’s why Le Guin is a secular saint.

Not because she was perfect, but because she evolved. (Which is in fact addressed by the rest of that essay I wrote for LitHub—but perhaps that part didn’t help this particular author set up their argument in the desired fashion?)

A perfect agreement between our ideals and our creative work strikes me along the lines of world peace, in terms of a goal, as per an anecdote one of my clients, Scott Snibbe, shared in his recently published book How to Train a Happy Mind: A Skeptic’s Path to Enlightenment.

Scott notes that someone once asked the Dalai Lama, “Is world peace actually possible?” And the Dalai Lama basically said, practically speaking, no—there will always be some kind of conflict somewhere. 

But is working toward the goal of world peace important? Yes, because doing so will improve the quality of life on earth for the vast majority of people. 

Doing so will change the world.

Le Guin was all for world changing, but she didn’t write utopias, because she understood the idea of perfection—the idea of a perfect world–was a lie. And a dangerous one at that.

But progress? She believed in that—and most importantly, she modeled for us what that looks like, as people, thinkers, and artists.

That’s why she remains one of the guiding lights of my work. The anthology I edited, Dispatches from Anarres: Tales in Tribute to Ursula K. Le Guin, is full of fabulous SFF and literary writers paying tribute to Le Guin’s legacy in their own creative work. You can check it out here.

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Two critical questions for any novel

Susan DeFCreative Writing, fiction, Writing resourcesLeave a Comment

It wasn’t so long ago I confessed to you I’d never actually written a first draft of a novel based on an outline, but that’s not entirely true.

The novel I’m writing now started off as a short story—so my first draft wasn’t much of a draft at all. 

And now that I’m actually writing this novel? Man, I am SO glad I took the time earlier this year to work out the fine details. 

Meaning, I’m glad I took the time to develop a sturdy structure for the novel. To figure out what the characters were hiding and why. To fine-tune my two protagonists’ character arcs, and to flesh out the backstory on my world and its characters.

Because now that I have, I can really stretch my creative muscles, live in the world of the story, and enjoy the sense of a real story unfolding beneath my fingertips each day.

In the creative writing world, much is made of simply applying “butt to chair.” But just forging ahead with a novel you haven’t done this kind of work on is a recipe for wasting years of your life. 

I know: I’ve done it myself, and I’ve helped more clients than I can count untangle the convoluted results of this approach.

In my course on big-picture structure, Anatomy of the Novel, I guide students through the sort of big-picture work I consider critical to avoiding years of rewrites—the exact work I did this spring, in developing the outline for this novel.

Here are two questions you’ll find explored there, and why answering them BEFORE you apply “butt to seat” will save you a whole lot of time and frustration in revision. 

  1. What is hidden from the reader’s view?

Many stories contain a series of developments or reveals, and/or one big revelation at the end. And while it might be fun as you’re writing to hint at big things you haven’t actually worked out, your story will fall flat if it doesn’t ultimately all fit together at the end.

In order to work that out, you have to figure out for yourself what is hidden from the reader’s view—which often means working out the story from the antagonist’s point of view, starting at whatever point in the past the story really began and working through to the point where all is revealed.

Once you’re clear on that, you can not only build your trail of breadcrumbs more effectively, you can make sure that they actually lead somewhere that feels revelatory…rather than somewhere that feels like a letdown.

  1. What is the essential backstory?

There are times when you may have a sort of vague or amorphous understanding of what happened in the world of your story before that story started. And that can be fine if you’re just writing a discovery draft.

But once you know where your story is going, you’ll realize that what happens in the present timeline actually started in the past—and that some parts of what happened in the past are essential for your reader to know.

If you don’t find a way to include that essential backstory in your novel, you’ll wind up with one of the most common situations writers face: a story that makes sense in YOUR head but not in your reader’s.

And if the backstory you have included doesn’t clearly set up what happens, you’ll find yourself in another: a story where the reader expects things to happen, based on that backstory, that never do.

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