Tuesday, March 13, 2012

A Cure for Writer's Block: Value Writing--A Surprise Post by One of Mary's Editors

Mary is off writing, which is a good thing for a writing teacher to do every now and then. News flash: many writing teachers don’t actually write all that much. Of course they used to. There were the novels, the plays, the essays, the articles. And better yet, payment for their writing. They were “real writers.”

Then …for quite a few of them, the writing sort of dwindled. This may be your story, as well. It’s definitely mine. (I am a former publisher/editor who is hard at work NOT working on a book about Montaigne the writer who invented the personal essay.) 

I have got good excuses. Life gets in the way—there’s all that family, health, laundry. You know, "issues." And in the grand world of employment, writing often does not pay that well. Writing can start to feel like you are building a house on spec, where you use your own hard-earned cash to build a snazzy house in the hopes that when you sell it you will recoup your money and make a pile in royalties. The thing is, I don’t have the money or patience to write on spec. Does that qualify as writer’s block? Not really.

Spec is short for speculation, a noun that can mean “contemplation of a subject” and “engagement in a risky business transaction in the hope of profit from changes in the market price.”

Know anything else that calls for the mutually exclusive acts of contemplation and engagement in an activity in the hopes of big payout from market changes? Hint: it is what I am trying to do right now.

So I got to thinking… why don’t more of us go off and sink some time into our writing like Mary? For the same reason most of us don’t buy shares in a gold mine in Peru. You could make a bundle, but chances are you would lose your shirt. Why? A gazillion reasons--the mine is about to be nationalized; the mine is lying on a fault line; the mine doesn’t even have gold in it, it has silver. When you are trying to sell spec stuff, there is no way to know all the variables. The same goes with writing.

Writing is a risky business. You invest gobs of time, and the upside is a book contract with the six-figure advance. Great! Ah, but the downsides are huge, and here is the kicker: you won’t know why your book didn’t pay out. The reasons are just as specious as the Peruvian mine. For example, the publisher you sent it to says it now wants vampires not zombies, the editor “just” did a book like yours two years ago, the one agent who got back to you said your main character does not have enough “fill-in-blank” adjective, the book group who read it said it was too long, another group said it was too short.

No surprise when risk does not get rewarded, it leads to risk aversion and money gets stuffed under the mattress. When it comes to writing, risk aversion leads to something known as …. wait for it… writer’s block.  How many of us have a book stuffed under our bed? This is not necessarily your fault. It is simply the price you pay when dealing in an unregulated publishing market.

What to do? How do you turn speculation into safety? There are lots of answers, but it has occurred to me recently that maybe it pays to actually discover what the market wants to read. That means attending publishing conferences, marketing seminars on how to sell books. Learn the business from the publisher’s point of view. Learn who their customer really is. Hint: it is not you.

Now here is where it gets weird: while publishers claim they want safety, they secretly pine for the new, the different, the unknown. They want a piece of that risky Peruvian mine. They just want it to be really well written.

What’s a smart writer like you to do? There are a ton of ideas out there, you probably have read all the do’s and don’ts like me. But here is a new “do” idea—do what the most successful investor of all time does. Ignore the market. Warren Buffet could care less about the market’s ups and downs; he invests for the long haul. And only in those companies that have a significant competitive advantage over its competitors. He calls this advantage the "economic moat," and the wider a company’s moat, the more valuable the company. The trick is figuring out what a company has going for it that sets it apart from its competitors. For Warren, his value investing called for a new type of analysis that requires some number crunching and a whole lot of gut checking.

Value Writing--The Cure for Writer's Block
The cure for writer’s block could be something remarkably similar: value writing. Perhaps the problem is not with the writing, but the way we analyze our writing. Maybe all we need to do is to start asking better questions about our work.

Start with the basics: what you like to read and why. Do you read to escape from the everyday drudgery? Do you read to learn something new? To be moved by the actions of complex characters?

Before you can write to be read, you need to start asking tougher questions about your story. What moved you so much it you found yourself writing it down? Was it the drama? The complex characters? Solving a mystery? Wanting to share family legacies? Does this come across in your own writing? If not, why not? What does come across in your writing? If you are answering these questions truthfully, you should start to feel a little buzz of energy about now.

Now get ready for the really big value-illuminating question: what is the question your book is attempting to answer? (I can see your eyes starting to cross. Knock it off!) For a book to have value it needs to ask at least one really compelling question and then answer it. Will Oliver Twist grow up to live a long and healthy life? Can a white would-be writer manage to tell the story of two black maids in the deep south in the 1960s? Does knowing the personal history of Henrietta Lacks shed new light on how we look at cancer research? Yes, yes, and yes.

Does your opus have a compelling question? If you stopped writing it midway through, I can almost guarantee that it doesn’t. Hence the writer’s block.  Get on our knees, and dig out your manuscript from under the bed. Blow off the dust bunnies, and see if you can’t find that question. Once you do, the drive to answer it will fuel your writing and add a whole lot of moat to your work.

Our guest blogger is a former editor with a large book publishing company.  She was also the editor for Mary's newest book, Your Book Starts Here, for which Mary is eternally grateful.