Writer's Block Exists to Stop You From Writing Shit

An Interview with Octavia Cade

conducted by Jack Windeyer
science fiction painting
Image copyright John Harris, c/o

If a person that you care about came to you for advice about becoming a writer, what is the first thing you would tell them? What makes that particular piece of advice so important? When and how did you learn it?

I’d tell them to read. More than anything, read—and read both in the genre that you’re writing, and well outside of it. I always felt that was important, but I only really understood how much when I began editing other people’s short fiction. I can’t say that I’ve vast experience as an editor, but I’ve edited a book of horror stories, Sharp & Sugar Tooth, for Upper Rubber Boot Books, and I was fiction editor for the recent ocean-themed issue for the environmental justice market Reckoning. I’ve read through hundreds and hundreds of slush stories, is what I’m saying, and it’s glaringly obvious when the writers submitting aren’t readers. It’s just as obvious when they’re limited readers and their literary heroes all died decades ago, at which point they clearly stopped looking for other things to read. When I say it’s glaringly obvious, I mean it’s also surprisingly so. I was genuinely surprised how obvious it was.

Short speculative fiction today is outstanding. It’s broad and diverse and exciting. It’s often structurally interesting. It’s challenging, and the prose is gorgeous. If you want to crack the big short fiction markets, it’s simple common sense to be familiar with what they publish. You can’t do that if you don’t read. And if you don’t read, you won’t make it out of slush.

Tell me about a writing technique that you're currently excited about. What interests you about it? Where does it fit in with your existing understanding of craft?

I had a story published in Clarkesworld earlier this year. It’s called “Happiness,” and it’s a choose-your-own-ending type of story, with a structural twist. I read those choose-your-own-endings books as a kid. Not often, because although I enjoyed them it was a little nerve-wracking. It wasn’t having different endings that upset me. I liked the choices. I was just always worried that I’d never quite finished the book; that there was an ending in there that I’d missed somehow and so my experience was somehow incomplete. Which is completely neurotic, but then I was the type of child that, when taken to the playground, played quite solemnly on each piece of equipment in turn, from right to left, so that the playground had been properly explored.

So when I wrote “Happiness” I made sure to put in choices. There are twenty-nine ways to die happy in that story, and the reader gets to pick. There are links and everything. But the way that I read the story, and the way that other people seem to be reading it (the way that I intend them to read it) is straight through. It’s designed to be read out of order. My playground self would be appalled. But read out of order, that story of choices develops weight, and this weight of bad choice after bad choice undermines the idea of choice to begin with. Read “Happiness” through straight, read it through improperly, and the narrative develops differently than if you read it the way you think you probably should. You’re meant to read it wrong.

I find that sort of experimentation deeply interesting. I think that’s one of the strengths of short fiction as well, that you have such opportunity to experiment with form and structure. You can do that with longer work too, of course, but my patience with stylistic experiments runs out the more that word count ticks up.

I’m still writing another one, though. It’s fun.

Practice figures prominently in the process of many artistic disciplines. A painter may make a few studies of objects before they begin on the real painting. Do you make time for practice in your writing routine? What does it look like?

I suppose that practice, when it comes to writing, is drafts. Basic sketches, outlines, stuff like that. I do this very rarely. Occasionally there’s a story that takes an age to get right: “Pollen and Salt,” a recent Asimov’s story of mine, took seven bloody years to write, but that’s not the norm for me. The vast majority of my short story sales are first drafts. They’re often written over several weeks.

This isn’t because I’m a naturally good writer. It’s not because I think drafts are worthless, either. They’re not. Drafts and sketches and outlines are valuable tools for many writers, but no tool works for everyone. Writers have to figure out what writing technique works best for them; there’s no right or wrong way to get the job done. For me, that’s writing a single sentence and not moving on to the next one until that sentence is right. The downside of this is that it can take forever. Some of my writer friends zip through three drafts by the time I’ve plodded my way to one. I suppose you could say that I do practice, but that my practice is concentrated at a sentence level. That works for me. It doesn’t work for everyone, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

When you encounter difficulty in the creative process, how do you respond? What techniques have you found to "get unstuck?"

I’m not a big believer in writer’s block. It exists, but in my experience it’s not some terrible affliction that stops you from writing. Quite the opposite: it exists to stop you from writing shit, not stop you from writing at all. For someone like me, who hates rewriting, that’s actually really helpful.

I’ve discovered that when I get stuck, it’s because there’s something seriously wrong with the story. I just haven’t discovered what that is. My subconscious certainly knows something’s up, though. It should. I’ve had approximately seventy stories published at this point in time, so if I can’t recognise a disaster in the making it’s because I’m not paying attention.

Let me give an example. That Asimov’s story, “Pollen and Salt”? It started out as people building park facilities on another planet. It ended up as a story about a scientist mourning a dead spouse as sea level rise affected a salt marsh. These are two very different stories, but when I first got stuck, it was because I was trying to inflict the elegiac tone of the final version onto the activist adventure of the first. Now, I’m sure that someone out there can write an excellent activist adventure about grief, but “Pollen and Salt” wasn’t the place to do it. I spent far too long trying to shove those elements together and ignoring why I felt so stuck.

Getting unstuck is easy. It means going to work on a different story. It doesn’t mean abandoning the first one; it just means I need time to think about why my brain’s put up a “Just stop, you’ll only have to redo it if you keep this up” sign. You know how builders always say “measure twice, cut once”? Writer’s block says I’ve only measured once, and it’s about to bite me.

In the long run, getting stuck saves me work. I’ve learned to be grateful for that.

What does success as a writer mean to you? What would constitute failure?

I’ll be blunt about this: success means paid publication. I’m never going to get rich off short fiction—my preferred writing form—but I’ve no interest in piling up unpublished manuscripts so they can moulder in an attic after my death. I like writing, but I want what I write to be published. And writing is work, so I want to be paid for it.

That being said, while this is a definition of success it’s still a very limited one. It doesn’t take into account the experience of creativity, and using that experience to grow as an artist. That’s also a very necessary part of success as far as I’m concerned. I want to write interesting things. I want to feel challenged in my work, and I want to feel proud of what I produce. That’s why I work so hard to write in different forms and genres and styles. I’m honestly quite a lazy person, and if I weren’t careful it would be easy to get into a rut, and write the same sort of story over and over.

That’s what would constitute failure for me. Getting so comfortable at writing that I no longer bother to try new things.

Octavia Cade is a New Zealand writer. She has a PhD in science communication, and likes using speculative fiction to talk about science. She's had approximately 70 stories published in various markets, and her second collection, You Are My Sunshine, is out in September from Stelliform Press. She's currently finishing up a position as writer in residence at the University of Canterbury. You can find her at