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Writing advice from leading authors

J.M. McDermott, author of When We Were Executioners and The Fathomless Abyss, on what gets and keeps him writing.

Q: What is your method for overcoming writer’s block?
A: I find healthy living habits, exercise, and a schedule are the keys to overcoming writer's block. The mind is connected to the body, and the psychic blockage that sometimes happens, in my experience, is less about the mind than about the body. Get out, and go for a walk, eat some vegetables, and drink herbal teas. Then, set a schedule where you have to be at your computer, at least trying to work, every day, no matter what. Deadlines help, if you're the sort of person that is motivated by deadlines. But, again, the most important thing is eating healthy food and getting some exercise.

If you treat writing like a job, and think of it like one, this will also help tremendously. If you told your boss, at work, that you were feeling blocked and could not complete your tasks, they would not take you very seriously. When viewed as a profession, and a job, feeling blocked is resolved by allowing oneself to do a less-than-stellar job today, and to give oneself permission to suck, sometimes. Everyone has bad days at work, right?

One of the things I like to say is that some days writing comes so easily, like drinking cool water for hours -- like being a gargoyle in a rainstorm and the water just seems to pour out of your mouth. Other days, it is like having a tooth wedged in your head of what you know is supposed to be on the page, and writing is a pair of pliers that pulls and pulls at that stuck tooth. Everyone has good days and bad days at work. Some days are water. Some days are teeth. That's okay. That's supposed to happen.

What is never supposed to happen is giving up on your job.

Q: What are your favorite or most helpful writing prompts?
A: I have mixed feelings about writing prompts. I think there can be interesting things done with them, and I think I've done interesting things with prompts in the past, but in general, they feel like a way to try and trick myself into writing something. Writing isn't supposed to be a trick, generally. I do them sometimes, but I always feel constrained by the sense that this story is not rising up out of the deep and dark places in my subconscious. Rather the story is the result of fly fishing on the surface of my subconscious with artificial lures for the easiest pickings. In general, in my opinion, the best prompts are unspecific and natural-feeling, with a simple craft problem to overcome and little in the way of narrative coloration.

Write a story in the second person. Write a story in the form of a list. Write a break-up letter for an imaginary creature. These are prompts I've done that I enjoyed and I think led to positive results.

In general, I prefer to read other books and stories, and find ideas there instead of using prompts. Reading other stories is generally the best way to come up with interesting things I would have done differently. Reading until I discover the prompt I was always looking for, so to speak, with the idea of a story appearing fully formed out of the depths of my consciousness is the only prompt that I truly enjoy and support. Read more. That's the prompt of choice.

Q: What is the most valuable advice you received as a young writer?
A: The late, great Jewish writer, Daniel Stern, was one of my professors as an undergraduate at the University of Houston, and I remember one piece of advice that I carry with me everywhere I go. The most important thing about any character is the character standing next to them. As I said, I don't like writing prompts, so much, because I don't like to trick myself into fiction. But, when I'm stuck on a scene or story, it's generally a good idea to think about who else is in the scene, and try to involve them in some manner. Put two characters in a room and let them hash it out a little while. Put three in a room and make them play a game of cards. These sorts of things rarely ever make it into the final draft, but they keep me focused on where the heart of the story I'm trying to write is, and therefore the solution to whatever problem I'm having: the characters. Fiction is a human institution. Even island-bound castaway characters tend to invent their Wilsons and Ariels with whom they might interact.

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