Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Dealing With Writer's Block

Suppose you're writing along, and the well runs dry.  What can you do?  The best thing, of course, is don't get stuck:

    1.  Believe in yourself.  Respect your work, and insist that others respect your work, too.  Don't let people diminish you by saying things like:  "So you want to be a writer?"  They don't mean to spit in your face.  What they think they're saying is, "So you hope to be a successfully published writer?"  If you write, you're a writer -- a real writer -- as real as James Herriot or Harlan Ellison or Erma Bombeck or Margaret Wise Brown.

Don't be discouraged if what's coming out of you is a poor echo of the concept in your head:  an idea shines with potential; when you begin to put that idea on paper, you have to make choices, and every choice limits that potential.  Writing down a story is like catching and chloroforming and pinning and mounting a butterfly, with these differences: When you write, you end up with an endless variety of mounted specimens, and the real butterfly is still alive.

     2.  Permit yourself to succeed.  Every time you turn out a piece of work that's as well done as you can do it, you're a success.  You don't have to earn a nickle.  You don't have to be slapped on the back and congratulated or asked for your autograph or even asked to try again.  Above and beyond and anything else notwithstanding, a writer writes, and a good writer writes as well as possible.

    3.  Don't talk so much about your book before you've finished it that you don't need to write it anymore.

    4.  Work in the way that works for you.  If you need a rough plan, or a detailed plan, or a physical object for inspiration and no plan at all, go with it.  Feel free to experiment with advice, but use what works for you.

    5.  Don't mistake the blueprint for the house.  You have to be open to letting your characters and story line surprise you. You have to be willing to think those surprises through, and decide whether the changes will make a better book, or should be filed for another book.

    6.  Hemingway, among others, suggests you should never stop writing at the end of a scene. Always stop before the end or just after the beginning of the next scene.

    7.  Set a goal.  So many pages a day, or a week, or by the end of the school year.  If you don't meet that goal, so what? It's just something to aim for; an incentive; a little extra oomph.  If goals blank you out, do the reverse; remind yourself that you're not on a timetable.

All right, too late, you're stuck already.  Now what?

    1. Drop back and punt.  Re-read the last page you wrote, or the last chapter, or as much as you have to, to get back the feel of the writing.  Some writers recommend re-typing a few pages to prime the pump.

    2.    Do something else for a while.  Read, or process pickles, or take a walk.  Work on an alternate project.  Do a crossword puzzle.

    3.    Have a chat with your characters. Ask them questions you know the answers to, and questions you don't know the answers to. You might learn some surprising details. If this happens to you, please don't forget that these surprises are still under your control and, if one of your characters reveals that he is a transvestite lounge-singer, you have the power to say, "No, you're not."

    4.    Start someplace else.  Try writing a scene from a different point of view; maybe you've chosen the wrong viewpoint character.  Choose a different place to start, or a different type of opening.

    5.  Writer's block is your friend. I have been known to get stuck, but I don't call it writer's block, though.  When I feel myself heading into a strong resistance, I stop dead the water; I've learned that, when my subconscious resists writing, I'm doing something wrong.  I stop and take a look at what I'm doing:  Am I letting a character dictate to me? Am I bulling along with my outline, when I've stumbled on a better alternative?  Am I forgetting to answer an important question?  Am I making a character do or say something he or she wouldn't do or say, just to get through a scene, or in order to put in a line of dialogue I like?  When I've identified and corrected the problem, my block is gone. 

I've formed a habit of making a mental note of places in my writing that felt a little "iffy" when I wrote or re-read them, then paying attention to what my beta readers have to say.  It was always those "iffy" bits that bothered them; now I know I can trust my instincts. Maybe your block will be your instincts trying to tell you something.

Marian Allen
Fantasies, mysteries, comedies, recipes

1 comment:

Beth Barany said...

Marian, I like your last tip. I hadn't thought of that before so clearly! I'm always looking for new ways to help myself and my authors overcome writers block! Like you, I don't believe that a block is just a wordless wall, but a symptom of something else lurking below the surface. I also recommend timed writing. Here's a post i write for the Breakfast Blogging Club about how you can write a lot in those 15 minutes!