Friday, March 4, 2011

Writer's Block Tips

One of the questions I am always asked at school visits is how to get past writer's block.

I understand the desperate hope on these young faces quite well, because for most of my life I wrote like crazy, I would start novels, but then I would get to this point where something didn't make sense or the story had gotten too big, or too small, or too boring, but for whatever reason I just didn't want to do it anymore. I always wrote in a sort of magical, inspired way and once it got hard I was stuck, because I just did NOT understand how you moved past that part.

I still get stuck while writing all the time. And it is still a little terrifying. But through long experience I now know it can always be worked through.

When I am stuck, it's usually one of two reasons.

Reason 1: I am writing something boring.

Sometimes you don't realize right away that something is boring, because it DOES have a purpose, whatever it is. Jane and Anthony NEED to go to the boating regatta so they can see that Greg's boat did not actually sink! (Ohmigosh, it's early, forgive my examples.) Anyway, so you have this important scene with a boat but you know nothing about boats, you don't WANT to know anything about boats, AND this scene is not exactly dynamic because it's just a bunch of people watching the boats you never cared about to begin with.

This happens to me all the time. It can even happen with big integral plots that take up many scenes, or crucial characters. Sometimes you have a character who does the exact opposite of steal every scene she's in. Instead, every time they appear you want to stop writing. You might not entirely realize at first what the reason is. But if you are stuck, stop and think about whether you really LIKE this setting/plot/character.

If you don't, they need to go or change.

Example 1: Your characters are on a date at a restaurant. Maybe the setting is the problem. Restaurants are boring. Maybe they decided to go, instead, to go bowling or antique shopping or exploring an abandoned train yard or Chuck E Cheese or maybe their car broke down and they had to have a date by the side of a highway while waiting for AAA. What would give this scene a flavor?

Example 2: Oh, it's another scene with Manami, your protagonist's quiet, studious Asian friend. She's so boring. Hey, maybe she's boring because she's a stereotype. Often times I find that if I don't like a character, it's because they are some kind of stereotype, maybe even my OWN stereotype: Hey, it's another villain who is a suave jerk that didn't get along with his dad. Or maybe you were aware that you didn't want Manami to be a stereotype so she's not studious, she wants to be an artist and her parents disapprove. But it's still too boring. After all, now her PARENTS are stereotypes. Maybe Manami's mom used to be in an all-girl new wave band and she's really wild and she still plays gigs for her aging fanbase and Manami is kind of wild herself but really deep-down she just wants to be a midwife because she loves babies and she's a natural kind of girl. I just made Manami up for an example and now I can see her (and especially her mom...). If a character is sucking the life out of a scene, inject some life into them.

Example 3: This character is not working. It doesn't matter what you do. You have tried to make this woman into a vegan who plays the autoharp and raises ferrets but also hangs out at the shooting range because she actually loves guns, just not when they're shooting living things, by gum you have PILED ON stuff to make her interesting and conflicted, but you still just don't like her or buy her. She is like a friend you need to cut loose. This is a really hard part because sometimes you feel like this character/plot/scene is SO CRUCIAL you can't possibly get rid of it. This is when you might have to brainstorm wildly. This is when it gets scary because you start following a trail of "ohmigosh so much work" because you start thinking, okay, this entire book was about this girl saving the kingdom from roaming barbarians while falling in love with the prince, and if you cut out the fact of her saving the kingdom from roaming barbarians, what is even HAPPENING anymore? You'll have to change this and this and this. Okay, there's that subplot about rescuing her friend that was never quite developed, but you can't make the whole book about that...or can you? Or maybe you could do a whole new plot about her interest in astronomy and a comet approaching? Or maybe you could focus on the romance MORE and just make it a love story, but you could add this twist...? Sit down with a notebook and let your mind fly to the most wild possibilities you can think of. Talk to your friends/crit partners/boyfriend/husband/sister/whatever. Wait for the click of "ohh, that would be better..." or even a mere, "I COULD do that."

Don't be afraid of the work.

Reason 2 is that you have taken a wrong turn somewhere. The process for solving this is not dissimilar to the process for solving Reason 1. However, in this case maybe there is nothing inherently wrong with any part of your story except for one part or choice. And again, it might not be obvious right away that this is the problem. Oftentimes this is the point where I need to reread everything I've done so far. Sometimes just that is enough. Sometimes it isn't. Don't give up on it right away. Every day, sit down and try to write SOMETHING on the manuscript. Even if you just sit there and stare at the document for 45 minutes. If you've done that a few days in a row with no progress, maybe it's time to take a break. Take a day or week or month away from the story. Work on something else. Sometimes working on something else also illuminates the problems in another manuscript. Still, keep the problem story in the back of your mind. Poke at it once in awhile. Let the stuckness of it wash over you. While you are falling asleep or taking a shower, think about what isn't working. Why isn't it working? Is the plot implausible? Is that scene just unnecessary? Have you not laid the groundwork correctly? Maybe you just need to go back and do a little embellishment or shift things around.

The hardest part of this, for a new writer, is the trust. Trust that there is an answer. There is always an answer. You just need to find it. Keep working it. Keep trying even when it's not fun. The more you persist, the more you will trust that persistence pays off, and the better you will understand your own process and what does and doesn't work for you. Writer's block isn't like inspiration, it isn't some magic thing that comes and goes. For that matter, inspiration isn't quite like that either for me anymore. The more you work through the hard parts, the more you will understand how to make inspiration come a little easier, by writing in a way that works for you.

Of course, mileage will vary. Every writer is different. Every process is different. I can only tell you what works for me. Some writers sweat and writhe their way through an entire manuscript, but if you really want to be a writer, the most important thing, before you ever strive for publication, is getting to that lovely couplet of words: "Entire manuscript."


  1. Great post! I'm going through a rough spot in my WIP right now, and have been beating myself up about it for the past couple of months. I've made a little headway, but it's really sticky right now. I am going to try some of your methods to help me get out of this rut. Thanks for the suggestions!

  2. Dammit, being all sensible and encouraging when I was just working myself into a proper Writer's-Block-Tantrum! Now I've got no excuse to lie on the floor drumming my heels. *Stomps off*

  3. aratrask: I hope it helps! It is never a fun place to be... It is only through writing 6 complete drafts of books before and many revisions that I don't completely lose my head over it anymore, but I still...kinda want to sometimes...

    and Zoe I am also stuck today. Hence this post! I don't write smartypants long posts when I'm NOT stuck. And I should add, I think a day of tantruming is okay. Of course if you were tantruming yesterday then *cracks whip*

  4. This is such good advice, because it not only helps with writer's block, but it's really advice on self-editing, too. It's a polite reminder that not everything that comes from my brain is amazing, and maybe some major revisions are necessary. Well done!

  5. Great stuff--thanks so much! You write about writing in such clear, non-scary terms. It really helps.

  6. Writer's block is a considerable (and consistent) problem I encounter in any sort of writing. Usually, it can just be that I'm not saying something right and I'm not getting my meaning across (there's a quote about that, I'm sure).

    I find that if you ignore the part that is blocking and write a part you DO know can then help you have a "Ah-Ha!" moment and you can overcome your writer's block, if you aren't too engrossed with the piece you started in recovery!

  7. I'm glad it's helping some people!

    And Alex, you have a good suggestion. It's kind of like working on a different WIP when you're blocked, although closer to the story in question. I can't do this myself, as I have learned that writing out of order makes my brain hurt, although I have on rare occasion skipped a scene with a note of "such and such happens here"...

  8. I don't know how I've never been here before...but I'm here now and I LOVE THIS POST!

    I don't really get writer's block per se, but I do get 'afraid of the work' (er, lazy) during the dreadful revisions. I find myself avoiding revising when I hit a spot/plot point/character I know needs ripped out and rewritten. I dread the ripple effect and all the work I'll have to do to fix it.

    I know I'm 'afraid of the work' when I'm pulling out all my big gun Procrastination Techniques (research, organizing my desk, cleaning the tracks of my sliding doors...scooping the cat box).

    Fabulous post.