MasterClass: Neil Gaiman Teaches the Art of Storytelling (2019): Season 1, Episode 16 - Dealing with Writer's Block - full transcript

Every writer faces times when they're stuck. Neil talks about some of the difficulties of the writing life and gives ideas about how to get through them.

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[MUSIC PLAYING]

When you're staring at a
blank page or a blank screen,

the biggest thing
that you can do

is just give in to despair,
give into blankness.

People love to talk
about writer's block.

And they love to talk
about writer's block,

because it sounds fancy.

It sounds like a real thing.

It sounds like a real thing.

It also sounds like something
that you can do nothing about.

I have writer's block.



I cannot write.

And it is the will of the gods.

Now, I must alphabetize
my spice rack.

Whatever, you can't
do anything about it.

And that, of course, isn't true.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

I have received long emails
from people with writer's block.

I have received long emails
from people with writer's block.

And I'm going, well, if you
had real writer's block,

how can you be writing
me a long email?

But what they're actually saying
is, "I'm stuck on the thing.

I don't know what's happening.

It's dead on the page."

And so what you do is
1, start one step away.



First thing to do if
you're actually stuck,

don't just sit there
staring at the page, staring

at the screen, staring at
your keyboard being angry.

at the screen, staring at
your keyboard being angry.

Go do something else.

Chop wood.

Go for a walk.

Go for a run.

Go for a swim.

Go garden.

Go play with small children.

Go explore kittens.

Go feed the chickens.

Go do whatever it
is that you can do.

2, come back pretending you
have never read it before--

the old pretend you've never
read it before technique.

Start at the beginning,
and read it through.

Start at the beginning,
and read it through.

Very, very often, once you do
that, where the story should

be becomes obvious.

Where you went off the
rails becomes obvious.

And you did go off the rails.

The problem is always earlier.

Problem's always
earlier than the place

where the car goes off the road.

And now, you're stuck there.

You actually took a wrong
turning a couple of streets

You actually took a wrong
turning a couple of streets

back or a town or two back.

But that's something
that you can see.

Normally, if you just come to
it, and go from the beginning

and come through,
you'll suddenly

go, "oh, well, hang on.

Why are we with him anyway?

She was much more interesting.

And we should be with her, here.

It doesn't matter
what happens to him."

And so I abandon half a chapter
that had led me down a dead end

and go back.

And you can do that.

Nobody but you ever gets
to read your first draft.

Nobody but you ever gets
to read your first draft.

Nobody but you ever needs
to know that you got stuck.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

I think the biggest things when
you are stuck that you can do,

and there's a whole
bunch of things--

the biggest thing of all is
remembering that you are stuck.

Sometimes, it's just
you're being shallow.

Sometimes, you actually need to
be a bit better than you are.

Sometimes, you actually need to
be a bit better than you are.

Go a bit deeper.

Get a bit more honest.

Okay, why have I
stopped writing this?

I've stopped writing
this because, if I

have to go into it, it's
a deeper, darker place.

Maybe you've stopped because,
if you wrote that scene,

you would be writing a scene
you don't want to write.

Why don't you want to write it?

Why is it painful for you?

What happens if you do write it?

What happens if you do write it?

I remember with "Anansi
Boys," I was about a tiny bit,

about halfway through,
maybe a little bit more.

And I had one character going
to see another character.

And I had a plot
that was running.

And everything was good.

And then I suddenly
thought, "hang on.

If she goes to see him at
this point in the plot,

he's just going to kill her."

That's the most efficient
thing for him to do.

That's the most efficient
thing for him to do.

Then I thought, "but
I'm writing a comedy.

People can't kill each
other in comedies."

No, there's no point
in P.G. Wodehouse

where Jeeves picks up an
ashtray and smashes it

on Bertie Wooster's head.

You don't do that.

That's wrong.

And so I had to stop.

And I did stop.

And I stopped the book
for a couple of months,

while I just thought about,
okay, this is going to happen.

while I just thought about,
okay, this is going to happen.

What does that mean for
the rest of the plot?

Where does the rest of
the plot need to go?

How can something be a comedy?

What is the difference
between tragedy and comedy?

What is the difference
between horror and comedy?

And I started to think
that actually, really,

as long as each
character gets what

they need at the end of
the story, it's fine.

they need at the end of
the story, it's fine.

And that is something that I
really tried to deliver on.

In "Anansi Boys," each of the
characters gets the thing they

need, even the appalling ones.

And sometimes, what
they need is appalling.

And sometimes, what happens
to them is appalling.

But I had to be
willing to follow that.

And I had to learn that.

And I had to stop and actually
figure it out and re-plot

And I had to stop and actually
figure it out and re-plot

and recalibrate.

And once I felt that I got
it, and it was part of me,

then I started again and wrote
it all the way to the end.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

I wrote a story once.

It's a Hugo Award nominated
story that was actually

made into a movie called, "How
To Talk To Girls At Parties."

I was asked for a short
story for an anthology

of science fiction
stories for young people.

And I had an idea.

I had an idea about
an alien tourist--

a girl from another planet.

And not just another planet
and a traditional alien,

but somebody from
almost a way of thinking

but somebody from
almost a way of thinking

that is beyond what we thought.

Visiting earth as a tourist,
and what she thought,

and her diary--

and I wrote a few
openings to this.

I wrote a few bits.

And it kept dying on the page.

It wasn't a thing yet.

I was really interested
in her voice.

I was interested in
this weird alien world.

I was interested in
this weird alien world.

But it didn't feel like a story.

It wasn't coming together.

And I phoned the
editor, a lovely man

named Jonathan Strong.

And I said, "Jonathan,
I'm really sorry.

But the story isn't
going to happen.

You won't get it in time."

and Jonathan said,
"oh, that's a pity."

He said, "you still have 24
hours to get the story in."

And another writer--
and he named her.

And another writer--
and he named her.

I'm not going to.

It was Kelly Link--

had just written a story for
him in, I believe, 12 hours.

And he mentioned that.

"You know, well obviously,
I'm really sad that we aren't

going to get your story in.

But Kelly wrote her
story in 12 hours."

And I went, "right."

And I took my notebook
with those fragments,

and I thought, "I
can't tell that story.

and I thought, "I
can't tell that story.

It doesn't quite work."

And I think it doesn't work
because the point of view

is wrong.

I need a human point of view.

So I'm going to take a
character, who's basically me,

age 16, and the idea is simply
going to be it'll be a story.

It's going to be called, "How
To Talk To Girls At Parties."

I know that.

I know that.

I don't know how I knew that.

Normally, titling
stories drives me nuts.

But this one, I had this.

The title was there.

I thought, okay, it's
going to be called, "How

To Talk To Girls At Parties."

And it's going to be
about what it's like when

you are 15 going on 16.

And girls have
suddenly become aliens.

You know, five years ago,
you all had scabby knees.

You were all part of the
same tribe of things.

You were all part of the
same tribe of things.

You were all kids together.

And now, you're 15 going on 16,
and girls are something else.

And they're wearing makeup.

And they dress differently.

And they're a whole other tribe.

And they seem to know all
these amazing secrets.

And they've headed off
into adulthood before you.

I thought, I can
tell that story.

And I can do it all at a party.

And I can just have a
character, who's basically me,

And I can just have a
character, who's basically me,

wander around and
talk to these aliens.

And because he
hasn't figured out

how to talk to girls, because
he hasn't really figured out

how to talk to other people,
and because he's definitely not

listening to anything they say,
if I get this to work right,

they will be telling him
all about their experiences,

coming here as aliens
on this planet.

coming here as aliens
on this planet.

And he is going
to absolutely fail

to understand anything
he is being told.

And that was the story I wrote.

And it took a day to write.

I went down to the bottom of
the garden with a blank notebook

and came back that
evening with "How To Talk

To Girls At Parties" written.

I was able to take the
bits that I had done

of the abandoned short story.

Nothing actually turned
out to be abandoned,

Nothing actually turned
out to be abandoned,

because those things, I gave
to the girls at the party.

And I got to write a story that
was actually about something.

And it was a better
story, I felt, actually,

than it deserved to be, given
the place it was written from,

given the need to get it
written, given the crunch.

But on the other hand,
it's quite possible

that that time crunch is
really what focused me.

that that time crunch is
really what focused me.

The willingness at the
end to just throw out

what wasn't working, grab what
would work, and put it in--

they say that
hanging concentrates

the mind wonderfully when
you're going to be hung.

And missing that
deadline suddenly

felt like a thing that was
a little bit like a hanging.

I knew that I needed
to concentrate.

And I needed to choose
solutions that would work.

And I needed to choose
solutions that would work.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

So when you're writing a novel,
there are things that you know,

and there are things
that you don't know.

But a novel is big
enough that there

are going to be a lot
more things that you

don't know going into it
than things that you do know.

Whether or not you
write an outline,

or you don't write
an outline, you

or you don't write
an outline, you

are still going to
be moving from point

to point with a lot of
things that you don't

know happening on the way.

E.L. Doctorow said
that writing a novel

is like driving through the
fog with one headlight out.

Trying to do it just
with one headlight,

you can't see very far ahead
of yourself most of the time.

And you're creeping
along fairly slowly.

But you could get from New
York to Los Angeles like that.

But you could get from New
York to Los Angeles like that.

You just have to keep going.

So again, it's about
forward motion.

It's about going from the things
you know to the things you

know, walking slowly.

And every now and again,
the mists will clear.

And you'll get a wonderful
view of the valley

on the other side, of the town
that you're heading towards.

You know what's happening.

And then the mist will
come back in again.

And once more, you're
creeping along.

And once more, you're
creeping along.

But that's how
you write a novel.

Well, that's how I write novels.