Wednesday, April 03, 2013

Fighting Writer's Block

In the same day, I got a reader letter asking about dealing with writer's block and I came across a handout from a conference workshop about writer's block while I was sorting through papers in my ongoing office organization/decluttering project. I figure that's a sign, so today's writing topic is writer's block.

There are actually several things that fall into the category of writer's block, and they all have different "cures."

One kind of writer's block is what I call Blank Page Panic. This usually comes after you've already written at least one book (with the first book, you have no idea what you're getting into). Before you start writing, your book that exists only in your head is perfect. As soon as you start writing, it becomes a very imperfect, real thing that you have to deal with. I find that the moment before I start writing the very first words of a new book is the most terrifying and exhilarating part of writing a book, but it's very easy to get paralyzed and find any number of reasons to put off starting. A related problem is not really knowing how to start. You may know what the book's about and even what the first scene involves, but you just don't know how to start.

One thing you can do when faced with Blank Page Panic is to lower the stakes for yourself. If you normally write on a computer, switch to pen and paper. If you write your first draft in longhand, switch to something like pencil or dry erase board -- anything that doesn't feel like "real" writing. Use Post-It notes, scratch paper, crayons, or something else that makes you feel more like you're playing. Then start making up opening lines, at least twenty different ones. They can be as serious or crazy as you want -- remember, this isn't for real. If you're really stuck, make your first one "It was a dark and stormy night," and then you know that anything else you come up with has to be better. Another thing you can try is to brainstorm the opening scene. Write about it rather than writing it -- record sensory details, analyze the theme and conflict, write a journal entry by your viewpoint character about what happened. Doing all that makes the scene come to life in your head, which makes it easier to write.

Another kind of writer's block is Stuck Syndrome -- you're in the middle of a book, and suddenly you have no idea what happens next. This can happen even if you outline your books because you may know the next outline event, but you can't think of how to get there from where you are.

This can have several causes. One cause is that something has gone wrong earlier in the book that keeps you from getting to your planned next step. You may have forced a character to do something for plot purposes that's out of character, and that makes it impossible to continue. Or your planned plot could be wrong because the story wants to go another direction, and that's what's keeping you from moving on to the next part in your plan. Or sometimes you're on track but just plain stuck. This is a good time to go back and re-read what you've written so far. That will help you spot where you may have gone off-track or if the story is maybe varying from your plan. Going back and doing some rewriting or re-plotting can help you move forward. If you're just stuck, try reverse-engineering from the next thing you know needs to happen and figure out what needs to take place for that event to occur. Keep going backward, step-by-step, until you reach the part you've written. This is another time when making a brainstorming list can help. Try to come up with at least twenty things that could happen next. The first ten will be the obvious things, the next ten may get silly as you push yourself but may contain one or two gems you can work with. It can also help to talk out your problem with a friend -- just articulating your issues can help you find solutions, even if the other person doesn't offer any feedback, or that person's questions may help you come up with ideas.

Productive procrastination can be helpful when you're stuck. Review your work and your plans, make a few lists, and then go do something else. I like to say I'm getting my conscious mind out of the way so my subconscious can get to work. Physical activity is good -- take a walk, go for a run, go swimming, dance. Mindless busywork tasks are good, like housework, ironing or washing dishes. Play and fun will jazz up your brain -- play fetch with a dog, play a game, blow soap bubbles, do something childish. Or you can do other creative things that aren't writing -- knit, sew, draw, paint, bake, sing, dance or play an instrument. If all else fails, take a shower (that's where ideas always seem to strike me). Keep something handy for writing down or recording ideas that come to you because your solution may pop up when you're not forcing yourself to think about it. After your break, return to your work and see if you have fresh insight.

Then there's what I call the Don't Wannas -- I'm not really blocked in that I know what I need to write next. I just would rather do almost anything else but write. I may sit and refresh Facebook for hours in order to put off writing. It builds into a kind of dread. A somewhat related problem is the Shiny New Idea, where something new has popped into your head that has you very enthusiastic, and it makes the old idea you're currently slogging through look even more awful in comparison.

This is when willpower kicks in. I find that starting is the hard part. Once I force myself out of the Don't Wannas, I can make good progress. To jolt yourself out of the Don't Wannas, try setting an appointment with yourself. You will start writing at a certain time. Until that time, you can do anything you want, but when that time hits, you'll get to work. Changing your environment may help. If you normally work in a busy place full of distractions, find a cave to hide in. If you normally work in a cave-like environment, move to a busier place like a coffee shop where you'll feel obligated to work while people are watching you. Set a goal for a certain amount of time or a certain amount of production (words or pages) and have a clear reward for achieving that goal, like a treat or a break to read or watch TV. If things are getting really bad, you can get software that will block your access to your favorite Internet time wasters, or you can get a friend to call you and tell you it's time to write.

If you've got the Shiny New Idea Don't Wannas, set the writing appointment with yourself, and before that appointment, do a big brain dump. Write down every single thing you know or can think of about your new idea. Then when it's time for your appointment, put that aside and get back to work. I find that writing down the new idea clears it from my brain so it's not quite so consuming, and it also points out the weak spots and makes it clear that this idea is nowhere near ready to be written. I find that my more successful ideas are the ones I put aside to mull over for a while (sometimes for years) while I work on other things. Then they're truly ripe and ready when it's their turn. Every time I've dropped what I was working on to work on the Shiny New Idea, the book has fizzled and usually doesn't even get finished. And yet this seems to be the one thing that stops new writers from going anywhere because they keep getting sidetracked by new ideas and they never actually finish anything. There may be a time in your career when it really is time to switch gears, but it takes some experience to know that, and generally it's not the Shiny New Idea but rather a percolating older idea whose time has come.

There's yet another kind of block in which you have no idea what to write next -- you don't have an idea for another book. That tends to be something that only happens to really experienced authors who've burned out a bit and need a break. Most writers I know have a massive backlog of story ideas. If you don't have another idea for your next project and you've only written a couple of books, you may not be cut out for a writing career. If you're not contracted for another book, do the productive procrastination thing, read, watch movies and otherwise experience life and artistic input, and you may find yourself filling up with ideas again. If you are contracted and blank, this would be a time to talk to your agent or editor. Sometimes brainstorming with another person will spark ideas.

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