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Fighting Writer's Block


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I just had a conversation with a friend of mine in email who admitted to me he was suffering from a bout of writer's block.

I told him I had gone through the same sort of thing for the last couple of years, where I was stalled on starting a new novel. I was just able to overcome it a few weeks ago (and in fact, will probably be posting the first chapter here in the next few days). Below are my suggestions to him as to how writers can work around the problem. In my case, a lot of it was work-related, where I had been affected by a bunch of upheavels at my day job (including one company shuttering, a freelance stint 600 miles from home, and another job 7000 miles away in Europe). I think I've finally gotten a handle on the personal issues, and I'm kind of easing out of the black cloud for the moment.

Anyway, here's my short list of ideas:

1) start writing the story in the middle. Forget about the build-up -- try writing chapter 6 or chapter 8 or whatever first.

2) Make some notes. Create 3x5 index cards with specific plot points, jot down one sentence on each, like, "Joe gets shot in a robbery attempt," or "Jack gets the flu." Use these as a jumping off point: what if your lead character got terribly sick? What if he (or she) got robbed? And so on. You can always throw it away if it sucks.

3) By that same token, DON'T BE AFRAID IF WHAT YOU WRITE SUCKS. Don't worry if the first draft isn't perfect, or isn't even good. This is my main problem. If I sit down and dash out a few paragraphs, and what I read isn't what I want, I get depressed, discouraged, and go to bed. I think a better attitude is: keep writing, knowing that you can always delete tomorrow what you write today. Nobody ever has to see it but you. Rembrandt probably threw away 20 paintings for every one he kept. Just keep the ideas flowing and the keyboard clicking.

4) Make an outline. Come up with an opening, jot down some major plot points, and see if an ending strikes you. Bear in mind that some of the greatest novels ever written were done by authors who had no idea what the ending was going to be. I remember an interview Stephen King once gave, where he explained why he wrote 12 hours a day for six months on one of his major epics (it might have been THE SHINING): "I couldn't wait to see how the story was going to end."

5) try to come up with a regular writing schedule, and at least write a page or two a day. Don't try to push yourself beyond that. I figure if you can a good solid 500 words a day, life is good. I like to end what my writing session smack dab in the middle of a thought, rather than at the end of a scene, so I can come back to it days later and say, "oh yeah, then the guy says such-and-such, and we go to the next scene."

6) when all else fails, READ. Go out and get a good book, not just free stuff on the Net (and I readily admit that some of it is good, just hard to find). Check out a real novel by a good,

mainstream, published author -- either an established classic or a new best-seller, whatever is your preference -- buy it new, get it from a public library, find a paperback, grab a used copy from Amazon, borrow one from a friend if you have to. Take apart what the author does, figure out how he or she crafts each sentence, paragraph, and chapter, and take a good hard look at "the machinery behind the story." Once you understand what's going on, it's like standing backstage at a magic show: you can see how all the tricks are done, while at the same time appreciating the magician's skill at fooling the audience.

Anybody who's also suffered from writer's block, please feel free to add your thoughts. It's a terrible thing, having creative ideas, yet being somehow prevented from getting them down on paper. I can see why some writers are driven to drink (or worse), and what a struggle it can be. But with luck, you can find a way to break through it and keep going.

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Anybody who's also suffered from writer's block, please feel free to add your thoughts. It's a terrible thing, having creative ideas, yet being somehow prevented from getting them down on paper. I can see why some writers are driven to drink (or worse), and what a struggle it can be. But with luck, you can find a way to break through it and keep going.

Amazingly, I'm not the one with writer's block this time. It sucks, I can say that.

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I've had it, too.

I use a variation of point 1) that The Pecman wrote. If I'm stuck on something, I write a scene that I know is coming up. Sometimes it's for a future chapter and I'll drop it in when needed, and sometimes it's in the same chapter. If it's the later, I'll then start working backwards until I get to the 'block' and it has usually disappeared by then :icon1:

From what I've read, the two major causes of Writer's Block are:

a) Outside influences make it difficult to produce the concentration required for writing.

b) The story just doesn't want to continue. This is often because the writer is trying to make the characters do something illogical or out of character. Once this is recognised and addressed, the story starts flowing again.

I've had both of these happen to me at various time. The second one is the tough until you recognise what is going on.

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As I just wrote in another forum:

" I have found that writing more than one story at a time is not the distraction I thought it would be. Switching from one story to another seems to allow me to get on with writing instead of sitting waiting for inspiration to occur. Of course this also means that it will take longer to get a story finished."

I can see that what I write as an alternative to my main story may be totally worthless or a germ of good idea. It doesn't matter. I think the danger lies in abandoning the story but for me so far this trick has only worked to encourage and inspire the creative process.

I often hear people say that they are holding back a certain idea so as to have something for the future.

For me creativity does not work like that. The more I can put in to my writing, the more creative it becomes.

Creativity begets creativity. If you hold back for whatever reason the creative impetus stops.

You can always go back and remove what does not work or put to better use elsewhere, later.

That's my thoughts anyway.

On outside influences it is painfully obvious to me that we live in times of people wanting to control others.

This control is I believe the single most demoralising, soul destroying activity that can cut off the creative process. It does this by removing the creative person's self esteem and self respect. Freedom to explore our individual creativity is essential. It is also something we can give ourselves, but that is another line of thought for each of us to consider.

:icon1:

Ps: None of the above means I can write anything but a shopping list, by the way. :icon1:

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b) The story just doesn't want to continue. This is often because the writer is trying to make the characters do something illogical or out of character.

I don't necessarily agree with that. To me, that implies the characters control the story, not the writer.

On the other hand: I've personally had the experience of writing a character out of a novel, and then been shocked when the character finds a way to sneak back into the story. I was amused when it happened, and realized, "maybe I'm not done with this character yet," and added an extra chapter just to bring him back for awhile. Weird experience. But my gut feeling was, the character was still reacting logically, even though it wasn't what I planned.

But I do agree that there are instances when the story reaches a dead-end. To me, though, that won't happen if you've worked it out in your head before you start.

I would add three other good ways to fight writer's block:

7) try writing in a completely different environment. Sit on a park bench with a laptop, hike up a hill, go to the beach (weather permitting), sit in a public library, visit a coffee house, and try writing there for a change. J.K. Rowling has written most of the Harry Potter novels at a neighborhood coffee house (who has been kind enough to give her a private room upstairs, where fans won't bother her). Surrounding yourself by a completely new environment is bound to stimulate you in a radically new way.

8) if you're stuck on a specific scene, try writing it from a completely different point of view. (I recommend this only for those writing in 3rd person.) If it's a murder scene, how would it look from the victim's POV, vs. the killer's? Or what if a witness is hiding and sees (or overhears) the whole thing?

9) Get away from the computer, and try using a pen and paper as a change of pace. Stephen King wrote several novels that way (including the best-seller Dreamcatcher), and J.K. Rowling's first drafts of all the Potter novels are all written entirely by hand. Sometimes, just forcing yourself to try something drastic is enough to shift gears in the creative process.

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I don't necessarily agree with that. To me, that implies the characters control the story, not the writer.

It depends on the type of story. I tend to write character-driven stories, where, once the situation has been created, the story evolves from the interactions of the characters. This doesn't mean that they control what's going on -- I have an ending I aim for and I make sure that when there is a choice of actions that their choice is consistent with where I want the story to go, but sometimes I can't make the characters do something I'd like (to advance the plot) because it would be wrong for that character.

In the book on creative writing where I first read about this topic, the author gave an example of where he was working on a story about how a neighbour, who the lead character became good friends with, turned out to be in the witness protection program, and the mob arrived during a kids football match. The lead character's son was killed, and the neighbour disappeared. The plot was then going to be the lead character (who was ex-CIA) chasing after the neighbour to find out what was going on... but the author got stuck. He eventually realised that the plot just didn't make sense -- with his son dead, and his wife distraught, why would he chase after the neighbour? He would be staying with his wife instead. He solved the problem by making the neighbour female, with an apparent romantic interest in the lead. The lead became single and so after the neighbour disappeared, there was nothing to keep the lead from chasing after her, wondering if she had been pretending to be interesting in him or if she really did like him.

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...From what I've read, the two major causes of Writer's Block are:

a) Outside influences make it difficult to produce the concentration required for writing.

b) The story just doesn't want to continue. This is often because the writer is trying to make the characters do something illogical or out of character. Once this is recognised and addressed, the story starts flowing again...

I think there's a third major cause of Writer's Block, at least there is for me. I'll be writing a story, and if it's a long story I might have a lot of chapters written (and posted, even), and suddenly I find that I've written myself into a dead end. There's no way to extricate the story from where it is, and it's obviously not finished, but I don't have a clue about how to get it re-started. This has happened to me twice. Once I solved the problem by seeing something on TV that gave me an inspiration. The second time, well, I'm still there, with a lot of external reasons, 'nuff said!

Colin :icon1:

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I think there's a third major cause of Writer's Block, at least there is for me. I'll be writing a story, and if it's a long story I might have a lot of chapters written (and posted, even), and suddenly I find that I've written myself into a dead end.

That's a tough situation. I have a couple of close friends who are writers, and occasionally I'll talk "story" with them, and go over a couple of points I'm mulling over. They're the first to slap me upside the head and go, "hey! That makes no sense!"

Once I see that, I can come up with a solution. But even great writers have stories they abandon and throw back into the trunk. To me, my spare time is so valuable (and so rare), I have no choice but to be very careful about using it. I do two things to avoid dead ends:

1) I try to make a time-line for the story so that I can see exactly when and where key events happen

2) I make a list of story points, like a bullet list, of things that have to happen in order to get from Point A to Point B.

I think there's a risk with #2 to "over-outline" a novel to the point where it's no longer fun to write. I almost had that happen with Jagged Angel, and I resolved never to do that again. With the new story, I just have about a two-page synopsis, and I have a vague idea of what has to happen in each chapter. But I already have the ending in my head, so the dead end shouldn't happen.

If you don't already know the ending, then I would suggest this:

make 3x5 index cards of the highlights of the novel so far ("Joe gets shot," "Joe meets Larry," "Larry wins the Lotto"), and pin them all up on the wall. When you can see the key plot details, all at one time, then I bet you'll have a better chance at figuring out the next step.

That, plus having a group of writer/friends who can suggest solutions. In my case, the friends don't necessarily come up with the right idea, but often they'll force me to re-examine a scene, and I come up with an entirely new way of doing it that's better than what I did originally, and also (to me) better than what they suggested.

As long as the story is improved, I don't care where the idea comes from, provided it's original and entertaining.

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That's a tough situation. I have a couple of close friends who are writers, and occasionally I'll talk "story" with them, and go over a couple of points I'm mulling over. They're the first to slap me upside the head and go, "hey! That makes no sense!"

Once I see that, I can come up with a solution. But even great writers have stories they abandon and throw back into the trunk. To me, my spare time is so valuable (and so rare), I have no choice but to be very careful about using it. I do two things to avoid dead ends:

1) I try to make a time-line for the story so that I can see exactly when and where key events happen

2) I make a list of story points, like a bullet list, of things that have to happen in order to get from Point A to Point B.

I think there's a risk with #2 to "over-outline" a novel to the point where it's no longer fun to write. I almost had that happen with Jagged Angel, and I resolved never to do that again. With the new story, I just have about a two-page synopsis, and I have a vague idea of what has to happen in each chapter. But I already have the ending in my head, so the dead end shouldn't happen.

If you don't already know the ending, then I would suggest this:

make 3x5 index cards of the highlights of the novel so far ("Joe gets shot," "Joe meets Larry," "Larry wins the Lotto"), and pin them all up on the wall. When you can see the key plot details, all at one time, then I bet you'll have a better chance at figuring out the next step.

That, plus having a group of writer/friends who can suggest solutions. In my case, the friends don't necessarily come up with the right idea, but often they'll force me to re-examine a scene, and I come up with an entirely new way of doing it that's better than what I did originally, and also (to me) better than what they suggested.

As long as the story is improved, I don't care where the idea comes from, provided it's original and entertaining.

I write an outline for each story. The outline starts with five questions: Who, What, Where, Why, and How, and the answers to each. I outline the start and close of the story, a timeline describing what happens when. Then I try to write one or more starting paragraphs, and flesh out the close. I include a character outline, describing each character and their motivation and their relationships with other chacters. This ends up being the most important part of the outline. The outline is a living document, as things change as I'm actually writing the story I try to update the outline. Except for my character outline, eventually I stop updating when it starts distracting me from writing. I use an Excel spreadsheet for my outline because it's easy to modify.

That's when I have run into a problem. Sometimes a story takes on a life of it's own. Events and characters seem to invent themselves and stick themselves into a story.

Usually that's a good thing. I wrote a story about hurricane Katrina, Escaping Katrina, where a very minor character became a major character despite my outline. This character, Patrice, is probably my favorite non-protagonist character.

A couple of times that was a bad thing, and I ended up writing myself into a dead end. Going back to the outline didn't work because I'd deviated too much from the outline, and the outline and my inspiration weren't in sync any more. That's when I needed inspiration. In one story, it was a TV show that gave me what I needed and I was able to insert a new idea into the story and finish it. I haven't solved the second one because the story has a major external influence that's out of my control.

Thank God that I've only had the dead-end problem twice. I sure hope I never run into this trap in the future!

Colin :icon_geek:

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The outline starts with five questions: Who, What, Where, Why, and How...

Hey, they taught us in Journalism class, "who, what, WHEN, where, why, how," as the six questions. Maybe they're teaching things differently today. :icon1:

Be wary of over-outlining your story. I think it's possible to get too anal about this stuff, and it winds up taking a lot of the fun and discovery out of the writing itself. I think having a very basic outline (like with just one or two sentences per chapter) works fine.

I don't bother to update the outline, because in my case, things start snowballing so fast, the chapters go far beyond what I had originally come up with for the outline. I keep the original outline just to jog my memory when I realize, "hey! I forgot to mention such-and-such in the story." I do agree that making a timeline is important, and I do update those constantly. I'm crazed enough that when I say a certain date happens on a given day in the story, it's actually correct on the calendar. (I have a little program on my desktop that lets me check this; I've already had to use it several times on my current story, part of which takes place in 1864 and 1865, so keeping that straight has been a challenge.)

That's when I have run into a problem. Sometimes a story takes on a life of it's own. Events and characters seem to invent themselves and stick themselves into a story.

Yeah, that can happen. I think this can be a powerful technique, and can improve the story, or at least take it to places you didn't originally imagine. I haven't had this become a drawback yet, but I have yet to have to throw an entire chapter out and start over because it went to a weird place.

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Hey, they taught us in Journalism class, "who, what, WHEN, where, why, how," as the six questions. Maybe they're teaching things differently today. :icon1:

But I'm not writing Journalism articles! The WHEN isn't as important in the stories that I write. My timeline is usually not date-specific, it's more like 'here's when the story started, this event is important and it happened when school was out' etc. etc. In my story Escaping Katrina the dates were important, when Hurricane Katrina struck, when people were evacuated to Houston, and so on, so I included them in my timeline and that timeline was based on real dates.

Be wary of over-outlining your story. I think it's possible to get too anal about this stuff, and it winds up taking a lot of the fun and discovery out of the writing itself. I think having a very basic outline (like with just one or two sentences per chapter) works fine.

That's what I do, and they usually aren't full sentences, either! :icon1:

I don't bother to update the outline, because in my case, things start snowballing so fast, the chapters go far beyond what I had originally come up with for the outline. I keep the original outline just to jog my memory when I realize, "hey! I forgot to mention such-and-such in the story." I do agree that making a timeline is important, and I do update those constantly. I'm crazed enough that when I say a certain date happens on a given day in the story, it's actually correct on the calendar. (I have a little program on my desktop that lets me check this; I've already had to use it several times on my current story, part of which takes place in 1864 and 1865, so keeping that straight has been a challenge.)

Yeah, that can happen. I think this can be a powerful technique, and can improve the story, or at least take it to places you didn't originally imagine. I haven't had this become a drawback yet, but I have yet to have to throw an entire chapter out and start over because it went to a weird place.

I find that for a long story I like to update the outline as I go, especially when things develop that vary from what I had in the outline. I keep the original, and add an update. That way I can see how the story is changing. Later on I stop updating the outline when it starts interfering with my writing.

I don't write a story in predefined chapters. I write it as a single document. Then I go back and break it up into chapters. I'm not tied to having my chapters all the same length. I break them up where it makes sense and where they aren't too short.

Then I go back and edit and in some chapters do some rewriting, maybe creating two chapters out of a long one or combining two short chapters into one. Then I go back and edit again, mainly for consistency.

If the story is a single "chapter" I create a short outline (more of a story synopsis), a timeline, and character outline.

Colin :icon1:

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