Writer’s Toolbox

Author Q&A

Here we present our exclusive collection of Q&As with a long list of illustrious authors.

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John Dobbyn

John DobbynJohn Dobbyn is the author of mystery novels such as Black Diamond and Frame Up.

What is your method for overcoming writer’s block?

Some thoughts on how to overcome writer's block. First, what is it? My experience is that it comes in two delicious varieties: 1) What to say, and 2) how to say it.

First one first. If the block is on WHAT TO WRITE—i.e., subject matter, I've usually found one or both of two causes. The first, and most common, is that my research is incomplete. That usually results from innate eagerness to get words on the screen. The solution there is painful but obvious. Go back to the books.

The second reason in my case is usually that I find I'm trying to express too many ideas at once. That results is a mental log-jam. My solution there is simple. It's based on the premise that novel writing is nothing more nor less than the ancient art of story-telling. That said, I picture myself at our dining room table with guests. I actually TELL the story orally—sometimes out loud—to my imaginary guests. Almost always, the ideas fall into a logical, spread-out sequence. Then I'm ready to write.

The second cause of writer's block in my case is HOW TO SAY IT. The solution to that problem runs deeper. It has to do with the fact that, unfortunately, novel writing is an art to be learned after many attempts and corrective rejections. It's not for the weak-at-heart. It's only after mastering the hidden secrets (not rules) to telling a story well enough to sell it to a publisher that you can make it "look easy" to the reader - when in fact it is not easy. Steven King once said that the average time for a first time novelist from beginning with "Chapter One" to actual publication is TEN YEARS. I had written twenty-one short stories for Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine and Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine before I wrote my first novel, and that only shortened the time by two years (eight years in all).

What you are doing during those ten or less or more years is developing "a voice." That's what gives your telling of a story a style different from very other writer. I can't be forced or it will be obvious and not work. It must be natural to you and yet carefully developed over many pages of writing. Once you have it, you will have pretty much solved the writer's block problem of HOW TO SAY IT.

What are your favorite or most helpful writing prompts?

The best writing prompt I ever received came from Sandra Brown. It was so good that I printed it out and attached it to my computer screen. If you don't know where the plot should go from here, ask yourself this question: "What's the worst thing that can happen?" It has worked for me every time.
An accompanying suggestion is to ask yourself what should logically happen next in the plot - and then DON'T do it. If you want to keep the reader surprised, do something else.

What is the most valuable advice you received as a young writer?

Most Valuable advice I received as a young author.

I'm going to do what my students do and answer a completely different question. What's the worst advice you received? It was WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW. The problem was that I didn't really know anything. That will close you down before you start. To make it the best advice, I just turn it around: KNOW WHAT YOU WRITE. That opens up the world. It means get to know your subject before you start writing about it. And you can learn anything these days, especially with the internet.

Very best wishes, writers.
Once last bit of advice: DO NOT EVER QUIT!!!!!!