Robot 6

A writer writes! But it’s not quite that easy …

Bendis SketchingIt started with a simple question on Brian Michael Bendis’ Tumblr:

what advice do you have for someone that has had writers block for the past 6 or 7 years?

His response was terse:

this will sound harsh but you’re probably not a writer.

writers write every day. it’s ok, not everyone is.

but if you consider yourself one, get off your ass and get back to work!! write about why you haven’t been writing . anything. just write.

… and then it made its way around Tumblr, getting blogged and reblogged and commented on. Here’s a pretty good string of responses and responses-to-responses at Warren Ellis’ Tumblr, and Paul Constant compiled more Tumblr responses in a post at The Stranger, which then accumulated a pretty long comment string of its own.

This particular discussion resonated with me because I was in a similar situation: I wanted to be a writer for years before I actually wrote anything worth reading. It’s true, a writer writes, but when you are just sitting there all alone in front of the keyboard, it can be hard to know what to write or if what you are writing is worthwhile. I wrote great articles in my head but they seldom made it onto the computer, and when they did, I never seemed to be able to finish them. I picked at different things, but with no deadlines, I had no urgency to wrap anything up, and with no one to read my unfinished bits, I got no feedback. It’s one thing to write when you have assignments and deadlines and editors yelling at you; it’s another entirely when you’re sitting there in a vacuum.

So here’s the advice I would have given Bendis’ inquisitor:

1. Find something to write about. When I was trying to write for myself, everything was sort of vague and formless. Once somebody asked me to write a specific story, everything fell into place. Narrowing down your focus in a very concrete way is one way to banish writer’s block. Presumably someone who is writing to Brian Michael Bendis wants to write comics stories. Fine. Pick some characters and a story, but also think about where that comic would fit in — Marvel, DC, Image, Fantagraphics — and write as if you were writing for publication. Think about page counts and story arcs. Or make a minicomic — again, this will force you to think concretely. If you want to write nonfiction, start a blog about a specific topic or volunteer to write for a nonprofit. The key is to give your writing a form and a purpose.

2. Don’t be afraid to write something imperfect. The best book I have ever read on the topic of writing is Anne Lamott’s Bird By Bird, and the most useful piece of advice, for me, was to embrace what Lamott calls “the shitty first draft.” I always seemed to be carrying around a brilliant article in my head, but when I wrote it down it would become stiff and awkward, and I would get discouraged and give up. What I learned from Lamott is that most writing starts off terrible and gets better when you revise it. So lean in and just write, then set your work aside for a little while and return to it with an editor’s eye.

3. Finish the damn story. I see a lot of starting points and character designs on people’s blogs, but if you’re serious, you have to go beyond that and write a complete story. Even if you think it’s not very good, go ahead and finish it just for the experience. It’s easy to while away all your creative time on preliminaries, but real writers finish their projects and move on to new ones.

4. Make the time. Most writers who have day jobs do their writing on the fringes of the work day — in the morning, in the evening, during their commute. I get up at 5:30 and write for at least two hours every day. Schedule your writing time, and make it a priority. The longer you have that habit, the more conditioned you will be to write during that time.

5. Get a writing job. Money is a great motivator, but beyond that, if you’re being paid to write, you probably have a deadline and an editor as well. A good editor can help you become a better writer by pointing out omissions, unnecessary passages, and verbal tics that you might not be aware of. A deadline forces you to finish up and move on to the next thing, rather than spending years polishing and re-polishing the same piece. That paying job doesn’t have to be your dream job—many fiction writers started out as newspaper reporters. A good non-paying gig can provide many of the same benefits, if you and the other parties are serious about it and you don’t feel you are being exploited.

6. Write, dammit!: Don’t wait for the mood to strike. Sit down at the keyboard at your allotted time and write. Do some free-association, respond to something you read on the internet, or just bow your head and write that shitty first draft, because even a shitty first draft is better than no first draft. That right there is the difference between being a writer and a dreamer: A writer writes, even knowing that what she is writing is terrible, because writing is better than not writing.

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33 Comments

Great advice, Brigid. As a writer, I like to submit short stories (less than 1,000 words) to webzines like THE WERE-TRAVELER or FLASHES IN THE DARK; the time commitment for shorter writing projects isn’t intimidating, I get feedback from the editors, and, for better or worse, my writing is out there, which provides powerful motivation to write better.

Fact is everyone thinks they can write and most of them are wrong. That’s life. Anyone who thinks they have ‘writers block’ lasting more than a year is deluding themselves and wasting everyone’s time.

Yeah it seems like the outrage wasn’t the substance of Bendis’ advice so much as the “terse” (or I would say flat and condescending) tone, from a guy who is constantly seeking online attention on three or four tumblr accounts for his ability to advise people on the art of writing.

While I respect that Bendis didn’t back down or bother to apologize, The Stranger piece makes a good point that it’s a bit goofy to take the writer of All New X-Men (or whatever Marvel book they mentioned) as the last word on the subject. Just because he teaches a community college course doesn’t mean we’re talking about John Cheever here. You ask a guy who writes five all-ages corporate superhero comics a month and you’re gonna get a “quality over quantity” reply FOR SURE.

Good advice all around.

As I graduated high school, I wanted to work in magazines — specifically, long-form essay work. It’s what I do now, but I spent several years doing freelance work and newswriting. I wasn’t nearly skilled or educated enough at the time to jump into the detailed, extensive kind of work I do today. The best way to become a better writer is to write. If you can’t do that, then you aren’t a writer. I’ve put in my 10k hours but I’m still working on my craft; that’s just what an artist does.

As for fiction writing in particular. Your #3 is spot on: finish. There are plenty other books and bloggers who can articulate this better than I can, but if you don’t put everything you have into your story, if you don’t care about it enough to finish it, then why would an editor, publisher, or reader?

A writer writes. If you are not writing, don’t say you are a writer. If you “like” to write, you are a hobbyist.

The best story I read, was about a newbie violinist who caught a maestro and ask him for advice. He played for him. The maestro told the newbie, “You lack the fire.” Crushed, the newbie gave up the violin and went went into business. Years later, he ran into the maestro and they caught up. The young man asked the maestro how he could tell the young man lacked the fire in playing. The maestro replied casually, “Oh, I tell every one that.”

My take away, if you have a fire inside to tell stories, nothing can stop you. You won’t even listen to naysayers, you will find a way to tell your story.

Let’s face it, the original question writer did not want practical advice and neither did his sympathizers – tumblr is just overly sympathetic towards timewasters.

Im an aspiring writer but i guess ive been either too lazy or more importantly too afraid to put something out there for fear of rejection so i think thats a big part of writers block.

so thanks for the advice.

Guess what? Whether you don’t like Bendis’s “terse” answer or not, he’s correct. You may not like Bendis for whatever reason, but there’s a reason why he has multiple paying gigs at Marvel: He produces the work.

If you don’t write, you’re not a writer. You’re someone who *wants* to be a writer. You don’t have to be writing the next great american novel. You could be writing short stories. You could be writing journal entries. You could be writing scripts. There’s no reason for you to NOT be writing if you think you’re a writer.

Write one professional comic book script per month. It will change your life. I’m the new writer on SURVIVORMAN. Excelsior!

If you need to *find* something to write about, if you don’t already have a head full of things that you want to get into written form, ideas that you want to express …. WHY do you want to be a writer? Writing isn’t an end in itself, it’s a means of getting those things out. Without them, you’re missing the point.

It sounds like wanting to be a rock star but not having any music running in your head. Or wanting to be a lawyer but not seeing any legal issue that interests you. Or wanting to be a teacher but not knowing what to teach. Or wanting to be a traveler, but not having any idea where. Don’t focus on something you want to BE, focus on something you want to DO.

In reply to the comment above me (Jason – -)

I get what you’re saying… but -
Everybody has to start somewhere. I imagine there are plenty of rock stars and songwriters that chased that dream initially without any music running in their head. Sometimes you have to start doing what you want to do before you find what form it will take. Sometimes people start a cover band with their high school buddies, and it turns into a band with original music, and then 5 years later they’re a touring band. Some people find a vocation they love with a detailed plan and minimal doubts. Some people find a vocation they love by stumbling into it.

I’d even say there are pitfalls with having a head full of ideas you’re dying to get out, especially when these are ideas you think about for a long time before you actually start seriously writing. This can lead to a state where one is not open to new ideas that come while writing, and it can result in people working on their 1,2000 page fantasy epic, when their creative progress and current skill level would be better served by working on a 33 page short story.

Jordan T. Maxwell

December 28, 2013 at 7:56 am

you know what all of your perfectly valid bits of advice boil down to though, right? “WRITE!”

1. Write something.
2. Write anything.
3. Write until it’s finished.
4. Sit down and write.
5. Write for money (if you can).
6. JUST WRITE ALREADY!

he may have taken fewer words to say it, but that’s the underlying truth of it all. writers write. if you can’t face that truth and embrace it, then you’re already doomed and no further advice, regardless of how true and wise it may be, is going to make a lick of difference.

Ron Marz said something similar once, that too many people confuse “writing” with “typing.” Actual writing is mostly mental prep before the fingers hit the keyboard, so I think it’s a lot more nuts n’ bolts than a “writers write” blanket statement.

@Jason A. Quest

Exactly. I’ve been working on some stories I just need to see realized, all these ideas that just need to be put on the page. If you don’t already have dozens of ideas for stories (or non-fiction work as well) then the best way to go about finding subjects to write about is read. Read anything you’re interested in and get inspired!

As the old joke goes, “I have this idea for a novel, I just need to write it down.”

I work in television as a writer and I have to say… Bendis is correct. There are a lot of people up in arms over his response and the lean word count used to do so. The psychology involved in this thread alone makes me chuckle. While one would view his response as condescending, I view it as beautifully truthful.

Here’s the thing: Everyone in the world cannot be what they want to be when they grow up. Some due to a higher mountains to climb, while others just don’t have the skills to professionally do what they love. And you know what? That’s OKAY!

You don’t need to make money at what you love. That are what hobbies are for. Go out and get a career that supports you and your loved ones and find happiness in your life. Have those hobbies to round you out.

Now the above response is directed at others who have taken this whole thing to the next level of becoming a writer professionally. Now on to the original post, which never makes such claims, but just states that they have writer’s block.

While you might not be a professional writer, writing is about re-writing (Yes. The cliche is true). I have a million people come to me with the same sentiments of writer’s block, or not having enough time to write, and I tell them all the same thing– Something I’ve learned from Steven T. Seagle (comic, stage, and television writer):

For 3 months write for 15 minutes on ONE project, every day, at the same time of day.

If this means waking up 15 minutes earlier or going to bed 15 minutes later, so be it; write every day for 3 months (EVERYONE should have 15 minutes to spare in their busy lives. If you don’t, then you should probably pick another hobby.). This does not mean edit. This does not mean re-write. This means write. If you forget a character’s name, a setting, or where you left off last, it doesn’t matter. You write for 15 minutes straight through. This isn’t about perfection, this about finishing THE MARATHON. You do not give up until you cross that finish line of 15:00 on the stopwatch.

Now once a week, go to your document and read what you wrote for that hour and forty-five minutes (yeah. you wrote for an hour and forty-five minutes!), digest it in your mind, close your document, and continue writing the next day (i.e. the following week).

At the end of 3 months, you will have amassed around 21 hours of writing on ONE project. Now hopefully by then you’ve met your project goal of finishing that comic or that script. If not, continue on until done.

Congratulations, you’ve finished your SHITTY (probably) first draft!

This, by the by, is the hardest part! You’re so in your mind when writing, that you often stalls out before moving forward. Everyone always wants to perfect things — we’re creatures of perfection when it comes to our art. But hopefully, if you’ve stuck to the marathon rules, you plowed through to that 15 minute mark. Every day. Without looking back. If you’ve done that, you’ve completed the hard part.

Now the fun part! The re-write. Go through and fix all the obvious errors. Names, misspellings, grammar, etc. Do that FIRST. Ease into the re-write. Don’t go full-bore. Now read through it all and with a separate pad of paper, jot down notes on what you think you should change or new ideas, etc. (Write down page numbers, etc. to easily find where the note should go) . Finally, go through, tweaking and incorporating the notes.

Once you are finished, save it (hopefully to a cloud or make multiple back up copies!), and close out. Come back to it 2-3 days time and read through it again. Now take out your metaphoric red marker and be your harshest critic and really lay into your work.

Hopefully after all of this you like the way things are shaping up and you have a fairly competent draft. Now, and this is important if you want to make a go of this professionally, send this current draft to a VERY CRITICAL and STORY-DRIVEN PERSON. Do not send it to your girlfriend or your mom. No. Send it to a person that will not handle it with kid gloves, but give you an honest assessment of what you’ve slaved away months for.

Harden your emotions, this next part is rough the first go round. The notes!

Read through, have yourself a good cry and wallow at how shit of a writer you are. Walk away from it and have a couple of drinks or go watch a movie (one that is close to your script’s subject matter the better!) and come back to it. Read the notes again. Look at them with that Red Marker’s Eye from before.

Implement the notes that you think are sound, sometimes they’ll be off-base (often times they’re not and you’re just being defensive of your own work. Get over this!) and not need to be added.

Put it all together and give it a look. You’ll be surprised that your THIRD DRAFT (yes! It’s your THIRD DRAFT?! HTF DID THAT HAPPEN?!) is pretty sound at this point. It’s probably not Chinatown, but it’s better than what you had 6 months ago… NOTHING.

And that’s it, in a nutshell. In 6 months time, you’ll have done SOMETHING. And I can tell you from experience that it gets easier as time moves forward.

For me, it started with 15 minutes a day and eventually grew into a full-time career. And if you got the gumption, the skills, and most importantly the RELATIONSHIPS, you can really go far once you get going.

Good luck!

PS – If you’re trying to work in Hollywood – MOVE TO HOLLYWOOD!

Brigid and posters: great advice. I am not as motivated as I thought I was. And that’s okay.

I just want to say I wish everyone who wants to write (and who does write every single day), the best of success.

I do not write fiction/screenplays every day and only seem to be motivated during classes and the occasional inspiration. When I was doing amateur film/comic journalism etc. that was every day and I really enjoyed it for a long time. My mistake was not going to school for journalism when I had the chance to do so. When my finances change, that might change.

But I am beginning to understand maybe I am not one who writes fiction. This is not as fatal an idea as it may have been even a couple of years ago. In fact, I know whatever I do creatively will be fun and work out.

I look forward to discovering whatever the new creative is and to continue to get lost in other people’s characters/worlds (and maybe even start writing about them again.)

I think Brigid’s post is very, very positive and I appreciate her excellent article/sources.

Write on!

Writers can write in their heads, and create entire universes. they do not HAVE to write it down, as most writers change the stories in the final versions anyway. Bendis is a hack. he got lucky with spider-man. now he thinks he can tell someone who writes everything in their mind, instead of on paper that they aren’t writers in a free society. wheres the law that states writers “have” to write it all down on a computer or on paper? its easier to edit, and revise in your head, than it is to throw away a ton of paper, or end up deleting most of what was written anyway.

as for writers block: one needs to let ones sub conscious mind work on the problem once in a while. play a video game, read something that has nothing to do with your works. this way your conscious mind can play a bit, while your sub conscious mind works out the writers block.

On the one hand, I get what people are saying about Bendis coming off as kind of a dick with that quote, I said the same thing when it was originally posted and ended up getting cyberlynched by Bendis acolytes on twitter.

But at the same time, saying you want to be a writer, and actually being a writer are two different things. if you’re not writing anything, regardless of whether it’s paid work or just for submission, then you aren’t a writer, you’re just someone who wants to be a writer, you’re one of those dullards at parties who thinks they’re got a novel in them.

Writers block is one thing, wanting something you don’t have the talent or ability for is another entirely. The quote from Bendis does seem to imply that not writing because you’re too busy with an actual job to pay rent and feed yourself means you’re not a writer. And whether he intended to suggest that ignorant, sheltered and spoilt opinion, or not, it’s wrong.

Before he hit it big, Bendis had plenty of day jobs. He used to draw caricatures at birthday parties in addition to his day jobs. He didn’t stop doing this until Ultimate Spider-Man was on its sixth issue or so. But before that comic hit, he had produced Jinx, Goldfish, Fire, Torso and God knows what else while holding down a day job and side jobs, so can we please dispense with the idea that Bendis is, was or will ever be coming at this from a spoiled perspective? Whatever you think of his work, the guy worked his ass off to get where he is today.

And if someone can’t handle his terse advice, there is no way they will make it through the YEARS of rejection they will face on their way to becoming a professional writer.

Seems like we are forgetting that this person says he or she has writer’s block. A lot of great writers had it for ages and then broke. BMB really seems to ignore.

The writing vs. typing bit came from Truman Capote, who was asked what he thought about Jack Kerouac’s writing. Capote said, ‘that’s not writing at all; it’s typing.’

Because Kerouac didn’t really edit and wrote novels on toilet paper rolls like it was some kind of zen simplicity or something. Anyway, it’s a good supplement to the guy’s point above about the importance of rewriting. I think Stephen King describes an identical method for writing in his book ON WRITING.

Oh come on. Writer’s block that lasts for half a decade isn’t “writer’s block” (which, honestly, I think it a myth perpetuated by people who need to believe that writing is magic). It’s not writing. And these defenses, “maybe he’s too busy”, “maybe he “writes” in his head but doesn’t write it down on paper!”, etc. are all silly. Everybody’s busy. Most working novelists ALSO have day jobs. If you want to write for a hobby, but can’t make yourself do it, it’s probably the wrong hobby for you, hobbies should be fun. If you want to write professionally, you’ll have to act like a professional, which means sitting down and getting to work on a regular basis without SEVEN YEAR vacations.

The word writer means “one who writes”. I don’t care if you write micro flash on cocktail napkins that you later throw in the fireplace, if you write– you’re a writer. But if you DON’T write, you’re NOT a writer. This outrage is the perfect example of the common belief that anyone can be a writer. Further, if you let things that people say, or excuses, or anything else get in the way of writing, you should either leave it completely or call it a hobby and stay out of discussions on the craft. It’s not easy to publish work and it’s even harder to make money at it. The world will fill your life with reasons not to write. The difference between someone who thinks they want to write, and a writer, is that the writer says “screw you” to those reasons and writes.

You’re not a hockey player until you learn to skate and play the game. You’re not a pilot until you fly solo. You’re not a musician until you learn how to play music. You’re not a writer until you write. I don’t see what is so hard about the concept. I can picture a bunch of Millennials that wish they had the success of an established comic writer whining if someone points out to them that they’re not writers just because they want to be, though.

Time handles foolishness expertly and without the expenditure of argument.

All Bendis said is you can’t be if you don’t do. Seven years is a long time not to do something and still consider yourself a practicianer of whatever that something is whether it’s writing or dentistry or firefighting.

In high school, I was a football player. That was 25 years ago. I no longer consider myself a football player even though I am as enthusiastic and more knowledgeable about the sport than when I actually played.

If the inquiry had come from one who had writer’s block for 7 weeks or even 7 months, I might agree Bendis’ response would have been terse, but 7 years? Really? Under the circumstances, His answer rings of sound advice to me.

all of the above
and read stephen king’s on the craft
best brutal book ever

I totally agree with Bendis! If you want to be a writer, then write. If someone said they were a singer, but hadn’t sang a song in 7 years you wouldn’t call them a singer. Also John Doe… You rock! I’m a screenwriter and I have to say I agree with your notes 100%! Writing is like a muscle, it gets stronger the more you do it. If you want want to write, then I think he’s suggestion is a really good wake of building up your writing muscles.

Another thing is, and BMB did say something along these lines on a podcast I used to listen to, when asked a similar question about giving writers advice BMB said and I paraphrase why would I give you advice when I know that someday you may come up and take my job from me.

My point being his advice whether you agree with it or not sounds to me like he is protecting his job by discouraging the future generation of writers. If that is indeed his motivation then for shame on him for depriving the industry of the next possible superstar.

My advice for any up and coming/ aspiring writer is yes to write and stop looking for that dream project at the two big publishers. Those days are unfortunately past us as their publishing model has changed. Best advice if you love writing comics find an artist make your own dream project and publish independently. Maybe you won’t be a “household name” but then again if you think of certain indy creators and indy titles that stood the test of time they had to get their start somewhere.

So really take BMB’s advice with a grain of salt and just keep doing your thing and eventually the writer’s block will fade.

“The quote from Bendis does seem to imply that not writing because you’re too busy with an actual job to pay rent and feed yourself means you’re not a writer. And whether he intended to suggest that ignorant, sheltered and spoilt opinion, or not, it’s wrong.”

Can you point to what part of it you are misinterpreting to create this inference of yours? Because it sure ain’t there. It’s pretty straightforward and simple; the question was *not* “I don’t have time to write.” It was “I have had writer’s block for seven years.” Even though both “I have writer’s block” and “I don’t have time to write” are, ultimately, excuses which people use to not write, they are opposite ends of the spectrum as far as excuses go and I honestly can’t understand how you read the one as the other.

“Now the fun part! The re-write. Go through and fix all the obvious errors. Names, misspellings, grammar, etc. Do that FIRST. Ease into the re-write. Don’t go full-bore. Now read through it all and with a separate pad of paper, jot down notes on what you think you should change or new ideas, etc. (Write down page numbers, etc. to easily find where the note should go) . Finally, go through, tweaking and incorporating the notes.

“Once you are finished, save it (hopefully to a cloud or make multiple back up copies!), and close out. Come back to it 2-3 days time and read through it again. Now take out your metaphoric red marker and be your harshest critic and really lay into your work.”

Not to disagree, but up-and-coming writers already have a pretty flawed idea of what the re-writing process is supposed to be, and telling them the first thing you do in a re-write is copy edit, then sit on it for 2-3 days and read it through once to figure out what to re-write, that’s really going to give them the wrong impression of how to re-write anything. Tell them that by the time they’re done with the second draft, they should have completely trashed approximately 50-65% of the first draft. That’ll give ‘em some kind of idea of what re-writing really is.

A long time ago, I realized something. When I was studying for (and earning) my BA in English Lit, not once did I ever give/hear a student give a prof an excuse of ‘writers block’ as grounds for not turning in an assignment. Pleading extensions for being swamped with work/realizing that the paper had gone of on tangents/family emergencies, yes. But “my muse wasn’t talking to me”? No. I think it was because we realized that assignments HAD to be in on time or there would be penalties. And when something HAS to get done, it gets done.

Once that thought hit me, I made up my mind: every night, I will do something writing-related. I may write a scene. I may rewrite. I may research. I may bounce ideas of a writing buddy. But I will do something writing-related every day.

And once I stopped sitting back and waiting for inspiration to hit, once I pretty much adopted the attitude “inspiration is nice, but with or without it, I’m doing a scene tonight,” stuff got written. Good, bad, indifferent? It’s on the page where it can be worked at, which is a lot better than being in my head.

“difference between being a writer and a dreamer: A writer writes, even knowing that what s\he is writing is terrible, because writing is better than not writing.” best advice i read, i have to go back to drawing again.

“My point being his advice whether you agree with it or not sounds to me like he is protecting his job by discouraging the future generation of writers. If that is indeed his motivation then for shame on him for depriving the industry of the next possible superstar.”

This is the kind of delusion many fans entertain: look, if you are so discouraged that some writer whom you scorn is going to destroy your dream with a momentary chastisement to get off your ass, quit whining and produce, you are not cut out for a future of the kind of public excoriation you’re in for after you actually get published,

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