Jan 032010

There are great disagreements over whether writer’s block exists or not. Before discussing whether there is or there is not such a thing as writer’s block, a standard definition has to be given. The fact is, writer’s block means different things to different people.

Is writer’s block simply an inability to write?

Then it is important to figure out the reason behind that inability to write.

  • Fear?
  • Exhaustion?
  • Inability to concentrate?
  • Lack of self-confidence?
  • Stress?

These all require their own solutions. Some may be psychological, some may be medical, some may be situational. Many of these will also be affecting other areas of the writer’s life.

Does writer’s block mean the words won’t come for a particular work?

If it is piece-related — that is, the writer can work on one piece but not another — then it is important to analyze the piece.

Many writers will tell you that if you absolutely cannot continue a certain work, it may be that you’ve gone the wrong way on it. Maybe you’ve taken a turn that just doesn’t work, and your subconscious is telling you this. Maybe the piece is just wrong for you. Maybe it’s simply an absence of passion for that particular work.

In any of these cases, the writer must decide if the piece must be completed (is it under deadline? is it something the writer really wants to write?).

If so, the writer can then go back in the piece, figure out what is wrong with it, and bring passion back to the writing.

If not, the writer may prefer to file this piece under ‘maybe later’ and work on something else.

Does writer’s block mean the writer just can’t bring themselves to sit down to work?

This may have nothing to do with the writing itself, but the writer’s situation.

  • Perhaps a change in scenery is required – writing in a park, with a pen and paper, for instance.
  • Perhaps the writer has too much nervous energy, in which case a walk or a run before writing may be of use, and may help clear the mind as well.
  • Perhaps the writer’s method of writing causes pain — carpal tunnel syndrome, tendinitis, back problems; all these can make the physical act of writing impossible. There are ways around these, though, such as better ergonomic work areas, vocal recording or software, or a different means of writing.

Does writer’s block exist?

Of course it does. Is it all in the mind? For the most part, probably. Just because something is ‘all in the mind’, though, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. But it also doesn’t mean there is no cure.

The important thing to do is to figure out what is causing the block. Then the writer can decide how best to overcome it. Unfortunately, this requires either the ability to self-analyze or analytical help from an outside source.

My methods

The best way I’ve come up with to fight a non-medical writer’s block is to write.

If I absolutely cannot put one word after the other for any reason, I write around it. Maybe I’ll outline, maybe I’ll write character sketches, maybe I’ll write a story around the problem.

I’ve written stories to fill out characters and learn more about them. I’ve written plot summaries and synopses to figure out a plot point. I’ve written stories from the past to see how the past will affect the story’s present. I’ve written stories from the future, to see the long-term effects this story will have on the characters.

In non-fiction writing, I will outline, sometimes to the nth degree, until I have a theme or a flow developing and I know where I’m going.

For medical writer’s blocks?

See your doctor. These can include physical problems, such as pain when typing/writing/sitting at a desk; or mental problems, such as depression. These things must all be addressed, and you’ll feel better for it.

Happy writing, everyone!

Jun 232009

Recently, I found comments from folks regarding the use of italics when writing thoughts. I was surprised to find that some people don’t think these are necessary. Well, I suppose they’re not, really… but then, neither are quotation marks. However, both are used for similar purposes.

Similar purposes? you ask. Why, yes. Because italics are the quotation marks of thoughts.

Most people understand direct and indirect speech. Did you know that there are direct and indirect character thoughts? Understanding the similarities will help you understand when to use italics and when not to.


Indirect speech: He said he didn’t know. (in first person: I said I didn’t know.)
Direct speech: He said, “I don’t know.” (1st person: I said, “I don’t know.”)

The difference is that indirect speech isn’t the speech itself. It is the narrator narrating or reporting the speech. It doesn’t need to be the exact thing the character would say:

Indirect: He said, in his own way, that Charlie had stolen the horse and escaped.
Direct: “Charlie, that boy,” he said. “He jump the fence. Pony just standin’ there, eatin’ dinner. Along come Charlie – jump on his back! Then jump that fence! Just like that! And whoosh – he gone!”

Indirect: He said he was going to the store to buy breakfast.
Direct: He said, “I’m going down to Loblaws to get some Poptarts.”

Notice the biggest differences between the two – easier seen in the second example:

Verb tense

Because indirect speech is part of the narrative, it’s in the same tense as the narrative. Since most narrative writing is in past tense, most indirect speech wil be past tense. [note: do not attempt to write any narrative in present or future tense unless you understand verb tenses really well. And even then your readers may revolt.]

Direct speech, however, takes place in the character’s tense. Even though we write the past tense, the characters live in their own present, and so they speak from the present tense.


If the narrator is speaking in third person, the indirect speech will also be in third person:

He refused to go.

In direct speech, the speech is coming from the character, not the narrator, so the character uses first person:

“I’m not going!”

If the novel is written from the first person throughout, only the verb tense shows indirect vs direct speech:

Indirect: I explained I wasn’t going because the band wasn’t very good.
Direct: “The band sucks, so I’m not going.”


Now, how does all this translate to thoughts?

Thoughts are a character’s speech to themselves. The only difference is, you use italics instead of quotation marks.

Indirect: He thought he wasn’t going to make it.
Direct: He thought, I’m not going to make it

Of course, as with dialogue tags in speech, if you use ‘he thought’ too many times, it drags. You don’t need the tags:

Indirect: He couldn’t believe she said that.
Direct: I can’t believe she said that.

So how do you tell direct from indirect thoughts? Verb tense and person. If the thoughts are third person past tense, it’s narrative. If they’re first person present tense, they’re direct thoughts and, therefore, need to be italicized.

The best thing about this is you can usually write the indirect thoughts, then use the direct, italicized thoughts only for emphasis:

The building was dark, but he found the safe in the basement. He carefully keyed in the code he’d memorized. Or thought he’d memorized. He tried again. Come on, baby! The door opened smoothly.

Sometimes, yes, deciding if thoughts are direct or indirect can be picky, especially in sentence fragments without verbs. In cases like this, it’s often up to the author’s preference.


He turned at a sound. Dang. Where had that come from?
Dang! He had to get out of there — fast.

Two questions you can ask when trying to make this decision:

Does it feel like the character is saying this?
Does it feel like it’s in third or first person?

So, a quick overview:

Direct speech: “I have to get out of here.” (present tense, first person)

Indirect speech: He said he had to go. (past tense, third person)

Direct thought: This place sucks. (present tense, first person)

Indirect thought: He needed to go somewhere else – fast. (past tense, third person)

Hope people find this useful!

Example using question marks:

Well, I don’t think that question marks would be any different than periods, really. When the question mark is part of the thought, it will be italicized like the rest of the thoughts.

Indirect: She wondered who he was.
Direct speech: “Who is he?” she asked.
Direct thought: Who is he?

Is this what you were looking for?

Apr 132009

Style guides have their good points and not so good points. On the good side, they help a writer or group of writers maintain consistency in grammar, spelling, and punctuation. On the other side, not everyone agrees with everything every style guide says – and many guides contradict each other.

Abbeville Press, an independent art book publisher, has created their own style guide in response to inconsistencies found in “that big orange style Goliath”, The Chicago Manual of Style. Their blog, The Abbeville Manual of Style, often matches wits with this, their “formidably orange opponent”. I think anyone who has an interest in style in the English language will find these jousts informative and even entertaining.

Janet Reid
, who also follows Abbeville’s ongoing war, once suggested a T-shirt be made to memorialize this most historic battle. I think that is a great idea, and I would definitely buy such a shirt. I’ve suggested it a few times to @Abbeville on Twitter, and recently received a message from Abbeville Press:

@BJMuntain To produce T-shirts we’d need some kind of assurance of a larger market for them…can you round up an online movement? :)”

Well, folks, that’s what I’m trying to do here. I recommend everyone check out this informative and art-filled blog, especially the Duel of Style. Then, if you feel that a T-shirt commemorating their stylish disputes with Chicago is of interest to you, let them know. You can comment here, or reply to @Abbeville on Twitter, or e-mail them at the e-mail address given on their contact page.

Together, we can help this independent press bring their battle to the public eye and spread style throughout the world!