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Vintage WD: How I Built Novels Out of Writer’s Blocks

In this 1999 article, top science fiction writer Octavia E. Butler shares her secrets for overcoming the dreaded writer’s block and producing stellar work.

Writer's Digest, June 1999

By Octavia E. Butler

WD VIntage_Butler 11_12

Writer's block is a deadness.

Any writer who's had it knows what I mean. Writer's block is that feeling of dead emptiness and fear, that "can't write!" feeling that isn't quite on a par with "can't breathe!" but is almost as unnerving.

But the feeling is a lie. Can't write? Of course you can. Short of real physical or mental disability, you can research and write whatever you like. If you know your craft, you may even be able to write well in spite of writer's block. What's missing is not your ability to write, but your ability to feel any joy, any passion, any satisfaction in your writing.

But as writers, we should use everything that touches us. It's all ore to be refined into story. I'm more aware of that than ever now because I've just spent almost ten years alternately fighting and using writer's block while working on books called Parable of the Sower (Warner Aspect) and Parable of the Talents (Seven Stories Press). I've never before written so slowly. The two books stalled and stalled and stalled. Each time I thought I had found a way to tell the story that I wanted to tell, I would hit another wall—or the same wall. And usually, that was because I was unknowingly trying to do something that was wrong for the story.

The books are the near-future story of one woman's obsessive struggle to spread a belief system—a religion—that she feels will focus humanity on a specific, constructive goal and turn it away from the chaos into which it has descended.

Knowing that much, at least, I knew that I had a story. I had a character, sometimes homeless, sometimes a community leader, sometimes on the run, who, against all likelihood and common sense, was trying to do something she believed in while her world took casual, lethal swipes at her.

So, if I had a story to tell and a passion to tell it, where were the blocks? They were near the beginnings of each book. As I began Parable of the Sower, I found it difficult to develop any empathy with my main character. I didn't like her. I didn't like the fact that to do what she wanted to do, she had to be a kind of power seeker.

Power-Seeking's Moral Issues

I've written much about power in my earlier novels. It fascinates me—what it does to people, what they do with it. I've had characters inherit power or get handed power in the shape of heavy responsibility, but before the Parable books, I had never written about a powerless person who sought great power. I discovered that I found such, a person morally questionable at best. Without realizing it, I had bought into the idea that anyone who wanted power probably shouldn't have it.

On an intellectual level, I realized that power was just one of humankind's many tools—like education, like technology, like money, like a lawnmower, for goodness's sake. Power is a tool. It's what we do with it that's good or bad. But knowing this didn't change my feelings—thus the block.

I tried distancing myself from the character by writing about her from the point of view of first one, then another of her relatives. But each of these efforts dragged, then died. So, I tried telling her story from an omniscient point of view, another way of not getting too close. When this failed, I froze.

Desperately, I tried some of my favorite block-breaking tricks—writing at different locations, for instance (at the library, on long bus rides, at the beach). I tried taking a break from my writing and reading other people's work. I read several bestselling novels and some fiction and nonfiction from that ever-growing stack of books that I had always meant to read. That was good. And I tried writing as my main character, writing for practice, not for publication in my character's voice. I tried to force myself into her skin. This works most of the time. It feels mechanical and artificial at first, but after a while, it gets easier, more natural.

Not this time.

Finally, I began to write bits from my character's religious book so that I could quote them in the novels. I didn't know at that point that I would begin each chapter with such quotes. And I was surprised to find myself writing in verse. I realized that the research I had done was beginning to kick in.

Reading and Writing Religion

There comes a time for me within each of my novels when what I know from research becomes such a natural part of the story that I forget that I haven't always known it. In this case, I had been glancing through books of a number of actual religions. I needed a form for my character's religious book, and I worried about making her religion too much like one of the existing religions. I found that I liked the form of the Tao Te Ching—a slender little book of brief, seemingly simple verses. I began to write my own, quite different quiet little verses. I'd written no poetry of any kind since I was in school, and even then, I only wrote it under duress. But time seems to have eased my resistance. The stuff I came up with at first was terrible, but it was fun to write, then to rework into something less terrible.

The change of genre helped me to break my block. Suddenly, I was working on the novel in a whole different way, and it was intriguing.

One of my early inspirations helped move me along too: the news. The ugly things in the novels happen because today's dangers—drug use, illiteracy, the popularity of building prisons coupled with the unpopularity of building and maintaining schools and libraries, the yawning rich-poor gap, and global warming—grow up to be tomorrow's disasters.

At last, I began to write more successfully as my character—to write in her voice. But it was her voice as a young girl. When we meet her in Parable of the Sower, she has already come up with some of her religious ideas, but she's just a kid at home with her family. She isn't a power-seeker yet. She hasn't done anything questionable and nothing terrible has happened to her. Yet.

Terrible things do happen to her, though, and she must respond to them.

Eventually, she is stripped of home, of family, of everything except her beliefs. She rebuilds her life and begins a community several hundred miles north of where she grew up. She turns a horrible situation into a hopeful one. She begins to attract people to her beliefs. And that's where Parable of the Sower ends. I thought I was rolling. I really did know the story I wanted to tell, and I didn't expect to have any trouble finishing it in Parable of the Talents. I did a publicity tour with Sower and wrote an introduction and several after-words for Bloodchild, my short story collection. Then I began to work seriously on Parable of the Talents. I had already written a few chapters. Now, working steadily, I wrote about 150 pages. Then I realized I was going wrong. Normally, I don't rewrite whole novels. I don't do a rough draft, second draft, third draft, etc. I do one complete draft. Then I do line corrections. This works for me because I can't go on writing when I know something's wrong. I've got to fix the problem as soon as I realize it's there. If that means I have to dump 60 or 80 pages, so be it. I've learned the hard way that I lose interest in a novel if I go ahead and write the whole thing, and then go back to try to fix things.

So, after I'd written the first 150 pages and realized that there was a problem, I had to go back, try to fix it. Eventually, I had to go all the way back to the beginning. The problem was this: My plot and my character were going nowhere near where they should go. In fact, they went nowhere at all. No doubt this had something to do with the fact that I felt, at this point, exactly the opposite of the way I'd felt when I began Sower. I had gone from not liking my character at all and trying to distance myself from her to liking her far too much. I identified with her. And I didn't want to hurt her anymore. Nothing unusual about that. Character in conflict is the essence of story, but liking a character too much to give him or her trouble is one of the most ordinary hazards of writing. And this time, for me, it was the cause of a serious block. I knew what I needed to do, but every time I tried to do it, I failed somehow. The story slipped away from me and went wrong. And when it did, I couldn't go on. I wrote the first 150 pages over and over and over again, getting nowhere. I had never done that before. The worst thing was that with each repetition, I proved to myself that I couldn't get it right. It was impossible. I couldn't do it. It was as though I had forgotten how to write. Very scary. And yet, I couldn't let the novel go.

When I was little, my mother used to complain that I was hardheaded, stubborn. Good thing. If there's any single talent a writer needs, it's persistence. If you can keep at your writing and you can learn as you write, you can tell any story you want to tell. I used to say this before I began the Parable books and I say it now that they're written, but there were times while I was writing them when I wasn't sure it was true.

Victory at Last

Years passed. My life changed. I bought a house. I finally broke down and bought a computer. I loved my heavy old Adler manual typewriter. I'd written 11 books on manual typewriters, and they were high-tech enough for me. But my editor didn't much like them and I was beginning to feel left behind by the world in general. As soon as I began to use the computer, it became a nastier enemy than the novel had ever been. In fact, the computer made me forget how impossible the novel was. I found myself focusing on how impossible the computer was. And, nastily, I found that giving my character trouble got easier since I was getting so much trouble myself. Again, learning to do something new helped me break the block. My unconscious mind needed the vacation from the novel—or needed the new and different opponent. Once it had both, the block was broken.

Writer's block, then, has been a guide and a goad to me. It's stopped me from writing badly. Like power, it's been a tool. It isn't a tool that I would want to use, but writers can't always be choosers. And if we're serious, we do use everything.

Build Your Novel Scene by Scene

If you want to learn how to write a story, but aren’t quite ready yet to hunker down and write 10,000 words or so a week, this is the course for you. Build Your Novel Scene by Scene will offer you the impetus, the guidance, the support, and the deadline you need to finally stop talking, start writing, and, ultimately, complete that novel you always said you wanted to write.

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