Tag Archives: writer’s block

Pride of the Writer

By Brian Buhl

I’d been absent from the SF/F community for many years, and I’d decided it was time to reengage.  So I volunteered for the writer’s workshop at Westercon. I was quite pleasantly surprised by one particularly engaging story about a haunted car and a repro man.  Not only was the concept intriguing to me, but the writing was crisp and professional.  I’ve been a fan of Brian Buhl’s writing ever since and hope that some day soon, more than just workshop participants will get to enjoy his stories. 

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Pride, envy, avarice – these are the sparks have set on fire
the hearts of all men. 

~Dante Alighieri~

Writers are their own worst enemy.  They wield distraction as a weapon, striking down their creativity with mighty blows.  These distractions are often external, such as video games, social media, and cat videos.  Honestly, who can resist images of adorable kittens, when the Internet is practically made of them?

Of course, not all distractions are external.  From the primordial fluid of our imaginations crawl monsters and demons.  These hideous creatures attempt to wrest the pen from our hands and shred our work in wicked fangs and claws.  One of these monsters goes by the name of Fear.  I’ve described him before, and how he tries to keep me from finishing my work by filling my mind with uncertainty and doubt.

Today, let us examine his cousin, Pride.  For purposes of this discussion, I may refer to pride by other names, such as audacity or avarice.  These are not the same thing as pride, but as distractions, they are borne from the same place.

Pride works against writers differently than fear.  Fear tears the world down around the writer, making every step uncertain.  Pride, on the other hand, blinds the writer, closing off options the writer might otherwise consider.

Imagine receiving unfavorable feedback from a writing group or editor.  Imagine yourself saying something like, “But it’s my story!  They just don’t get it!” That’s pride, my friend.  That’s your ego inflated to the point that it is obscuring your vision, concealing the merit of the critique from your more critical mind.

I struggle to suppress reactions like this from time to time.  We’ve all been there.  We pour ourselves into our stories, breathing life into characters and living with them for weeks and months.  We sow ourselves into our stories, so when our stories are “attacked,” it feels like the attack is personal.  When someone reaches out to try to improve our work, pride refracts the message and distorts it, turning it into “your story isn’t good enough, and by extension, neither are you.”

Over time I’ve learned that this type of pride is like a bruise.  If I walk away from the critique for a little while, the swelling goes down, and I’m able to see clearly again.

Fear and pride differ in another very important way.  As a monster, fear is a giant spider that catches you in sticky webs.  It ties you up, bites, and fills your veins with poison.  Pride, on the other hand, is a powerful wolf.  You have to respect them both.  But where fear seeks to destroy you at every turn, pride can be tamed.  Pride can be your ally.

Consider what it is sell a story.  You are stating with a loud, clear voice that the product of your imagination, the words you’ve sewn together to form a unique whole, is worth time and money.  You’re saying that other people should close YouTube and the world of cat videos long enough to focus on your story.  What audacity!  What arrogance!

Fear wants to tell you that your work isn’t good enough, but pride comes to your defense.  Of course your story is good enough!  You wrote it.  Instead of calling this pride, we call it self-confidence.  Instead of blinding us to what we should see, it shields us from lies designed to tear us down.

Even when we’re not crafting our stories, pride prowls alongside the writer, always ready to cause trouble.  Consider George Lucas.  Watch documentaries early and late in his career.  In the early documentaries, while his star was still ascending, he can be seen consulting with his actors and crew, looking directly at them.  Compare that to later footage after he’d reached the peak of his success.  Watch his body language, and watch the faces of the people around him.  Young Lucas looks like he’s more engaged with the people making a film with him.  Elder Lucas appears to be surrounded by people that are wary and uncomfortable, and he doesn’t seem to notice.  That is pride, filling the creator with visions of his greatness to the point that he can no longer see what’s going on around him.

To be fair, those documentaries only show us what the camera sees.  We can’t really know with certainty what ran through George Lucas’s mind, at either point in the famous director’s career.  But the tale of pride leading a creator astray is not a new one, and it makes a lot of sense in this case.

Fame and monetary success are not requirements for pride.  Pride is present as soon as the writer declares themselves as someone with more than just a writing hobby.  It becomes part of our identity in the same way we sow ourselves into our stories.

For example, an easy way to get my dander up is to call me a “young writer.” I’ve been writing for more than 25 years, with more than one completed novel sitting in a drawer.  My pride straightens my spine and inflates my lungs with air, ready to bellow loud and strong that I’m experienced, and how dare anyone insinuate otherwise.

The reality is that I am still a young writer, and it’s not an insult.  I’m slowly and methodically improving my craft, learning how to improve.  Pride may want me to strut and preen, but that won’t clean up my unsold stories.  Pride isn’t going to make me more creative.

But pride can help me put my work in front of other people, because pride overshadows fear.

And with that said, I must thank my friend Jennifer for inviting me to guest on her blog.  It is the sort of gesture that feeds pride and keeps it healthy.  For to tame pride and make it work with you instead of against you, pride must be kept on a short leash and given the nourishment of praise.

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Pride, like the magnet, constantly points to one object, self; but unlike the magnet, it has no attractive pole, but at all points repels. ~Charles Caleb Colton~

Brian is a full-time programmer living in Northern California. He plays alto saxophone in the River City Concert Band. He’s been married about twenty years and has two children. He writes science fiction and fantasy often at his local coffee shop. He’s been writing off and on for more than 25 years. His blog is mostly about writing, and his journey to changing from a guy with a writing hobby to a professional author.

The Way Forward is Sometimes the Way Back: Escaping the Labyrinth

The wind is a cat:
Angry, it hisses through the trees.
Soft, it brushes against the house
Like a friendly cat rubs against one’s knees.

The wind is a cat:
Wandering, it meanders about
Vicious, its claws rake the shingles
Like a cat’s nails scratch the carpeted floor.

The wind is a cat:
Chill, it bites with tiny, sharp teeth
Gentle, it softly tickles one’s skin
Like a cat’s whiskers may tickle bare feet.

~Carolyn Bond

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I liked this poem when I read it in eleventh grade. It fired up my imagination, so since I was on the high school lit magazine, I volunteered to do the artwork for it.  Back then, as now, I had the perfect personality for editing and line art: I was an uptight perfectionist.

Deadlines were approaching so I stayed after school. I was working in the art room with a true artist, which even then I knew I was not.  I was an illustrator, but James, he was the real thing.  As I drew my stylized picture of a cat, I screwed up…something I did a lot with my illustration.  After muttering a few mild curses, I was only sixteen after all, I asked James to pass me the whiteout.  This was for repro on a Xerox machine.  The whiteout wouldn’t register.  James picked up the little bottle, but instead of handing it to me, he put it in his pocket.

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“But I made a mistake, I need it!” I protested.

“No, you don’t,” he told me.  “It’s not a mistake, it’s an opportunity. Embrace it.  Turn it into part of your picture.”

I was not at all happy about that, but the deadline was looming.  I altered my plan and did just what he said; I incorporated it into the drawing.  I did it well enough, that I cannot tell you today where that mistake was.  It is no longer a mistake, it is art.

It was a lesson I picked up readily for my artwork and used as I minored in art in college.  But I wasn’t clever enough to apply it more broadly to my other art—writing. Not until I met Teresa Edgerton.

We used to take long walks and talk about the craft of writing.  At one point, I became stuck in my writing.  I could not find may way out of the labyrinth of plot I’d constructed for my characters.  She told me something similar to what James had told me:  Look back at your work.  What is there that you can use for your needs now?  As with James, I had my doubts, but I also had nothing to lose.  So I combed over my story and found just what she had said I would.  The seeds of something I’d not even known I’d planted were now grown enough for me to use to climb out of my maze.

The advice from James and Teresa is likely the best piece of advice I’ve ever received about my artistic endeavours.  I’ve used it over and over again.  I’ll share some examples.

First an introduction to a few characters from In a Mortal Shadow:  Falion is our hero trying to rescue the damsel in distress, Venae, a magic-wielding character.  Karill is his nemesis in hot pursuit.

My first example is about using using location you have already set up. Karill has nearly caught up with Falion at an inn.  Just as he’s about to go in, the tavern across the way has a loud disturbance. Karill goes to investigate that instead.  It was a distraction, both in plot, but worse, for the reader.  I think one of my writer’s group folk summed it up best in this comment at the point where Karill goes clambering off to the tavern over yonder: “Squirrel!”

She was so right.  I had to fix it.  I realized that the inn also had a tavern, which I’d mentioned already.  So this time, Karill goes to the innkeepress, who is in her tavern, and is distracted there long enough for our hero to get away.  The change may seem inconsequential, but the result was major. Instead of being clearly a red herring that took Karill away from Falion, this tavern visit takes him closer.  Falion nearly runs into him.  Tension is built where as before, it was dissipated…perhaps even comically so.

In this second example, I looked to what I had already established as part of a character’s talents to recycle that talent in a new way to perform a new action. Falion and Venae need to flee the city of Cete Kellen.  Originally, I made up new magic for her to walk through walls.  It never sat right with me.  It hadn’t tested well with beta readers, either.  So here I was, stuck in a city on lockdown, and I had no idea how to get out—until I remembered a magic skill I had used earlier.  Falion, through a curse, is immune to magic directed against him.  But magic can be used around him. For instance, if you were to stop the air moving about his hand perfectly, he would not be able to move it any more than he might if his hand were encased in stone.  If she can do that, then she can stop the air from moving under his feet, and he can stand on it.  Falion escapes the city by walking off the city wall.

In my third example, I found an existing character ready to take up a new role. Sharp started out a walk-on character.  I needed someone to guide Falion and Venae across the border. I was about to create a new character when I heard Teresa’s and James’s voices in my head. I looked around, and there he was, sitting in the corner, whittling away on a stick and whistling, waiting for me to discover what, apparently, he already knew.  He wasn’t some wandering merchant after all, he was much more.  Merchant was just his cover.  Good cover—it worked on me for years!

So when you are stuck.  Take time to review your work keeping your problem foremost in your mind.  Get a friend or beta reader to go over it if you can.  New perspectives can widen your view of your own work. You two can talk it through, stir up the story, which has been too staid in your mind. See what seeds are growing back where you dropped them two chapters ago, or five, or ten.  Not only can it get you out of the Labrinth right now, but it makes your story look richer and more put together.  Those incidental seeds you cast out have suddenly turn into foreshadowing. Now don’t you look clever!   And all you had to do was remember:

Sometimes the way forward is the way back.