Monday, June 15, 2009

Getting unstuck: Dealing with writer's block



I thought about titling this post Coming unstuck, which lets you know how I feel about today's topic: Writer's block.

I never used to understand what people meant by "writer's block." I 'd always felt immune to that scribe's disease. When I wrote the first two books in my current series, I had a machine-like discipline. I'd get up at four a.m. every morning and write for at least two hours. No. Matter. What. My progress was always slow but steady. I wrote almost the same number of pages every day. My writing group members were in awe of me.

But then along came Book Three, and I went into a bit of a slump. Actually it felt more like an avalanche. Even though I loved the story I was working on, sometimes I'd find that days would pass without any progress at all. I eventually had to ask for--gasp!--an extension from my editor, who graciously granted it to me. But even then I kept running behind. Ultimately I made the new deadline, but barely. Now I have a recurring nightmare about missing the deadline, which has replaced my old nightmare about discovering that I've missed an entire semester of a class, just before the final exam.

So what exactly is writer's block? I think the term is a bit misleading. It implies that the writer doesn't know what to write about -- such as a lack of inspiration, perhaps. In my case I knew the story I wanted to write, but I seemed to have lost the daily writing rhythm along the way. Maybe what I had was actually energy block. Or focus block.

So here were a few of my cures for The Block. All of them proved to be helpful at times:

  • Write 15 minutes a day
    You can write for at least 15 minutes today, even if you're the busiest person on the planet. Doing that small amount per day helps you get the habit and rhythm back. Over time, your progress will add up.
  • Write at the same time each day.
    I think this is the single most helpful habit that will enable you to break through writer's block. If you sit your butt down in a chair at the same time every day, your body starts to learn that this is the time for writing. Your writing flow will start to kick in at that time.
  • Free writing
    This technique is where you grab a couple of random words and "free write" them into your WIP for a set amount of time. Actually, this one has never worked that well for me. Whenever I try free writing, I get stuck at the same damned spot that I'm stuck in my regular writing. And then I get even more depressed about my writer's block. But I know that free writing works wonders for some people. For great tips about free writing and other ways to break through The Block, I recommend Barbara DeMarco-Barrett's book, Pen On Fire: A Busy Woman's Guide To Igniting The Writer Within. (Guys can pick up a few tips too!)
  • Put your writing first
    I have many acquaintances who have endless reasons for not writing. Anniversaries, birthdays, conflicting deadlines, vacations, relatives visiting...you get the idea. Unsurprisingly, these people are frequently blocked writers. Your writing needs to be a first priority in your life, or you'll be doin' time inside The Block.
What about you? Have you ever wrangled with writer's block, or energy block? Any solutions you can share?
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Coming Sunday, June 21, Paul Kemprecos tells us what it’s like to collaborate with Clive Cussler. And future Sunday guest bloggers include Robert Liparulo, Linda Fairstein, Julie Kramer, Grant Blackwood, and more.

11 comments:

  1. Those are great suggestions, Kathryn, because sometimes writer's "block" is really an advanced form of writer's fear (which itself has a variety of causes). Simple disciplines (as you have laid out here) are the way you train to meet those times.

    The earliest and most valuable advice I got as a writer was to write first thing (when possible) and get a certain number of words done each session. Sometimes the words flow, sometimes you have to pull teeth with tweezers, but they get down there and, as you point out, "add up."

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  2. Good subject Kathryn. For me right now energy block more aptly describes what I'm going through.

    Having been RIFed (Reduction in force) by A-B Inbev in December, it took me a couple of months after the holidays to find a new job. Now I'm starting a brand new environmental department for a large company which keeps me at the office for 10 to 12 hours days. In the evening, I'm more worried about the next day's meetings than my work in progress.

    The voices have left me for the moment. I'd like them to come back.

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  3. Good comment, James! I tried setting myself a certain number of words per day, but I found my anxiety level ratcheting up on the "slow" days. So then I set myself a rock-bottom goal of doing 15 minutes of writing per day, and built up from there. I figured that even if I got only a paragraph done in those 15 minutes, it was helping me rebuild the habit and discipline, which in my case was the real issue. Wilfred, I totally understand the energy drain of a new job. Looking back, I was also dealing with some energy-draining upheavals. To turn it around, I had to treat the 15-minute rule of daily writing like I do brushing my teeth or taking a shower--a nonnegotiable item on the schedule.

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  4. Interesting post, Kathryn. I’m not a big believer in writer’s block. I think a lot of what blocks writers is a combination of distractions and lack of direction. Distractions are only a click away, whether it’s a mouse click or a TV remote button. And of course the biggest distraction of all: life. But lack of direction can also cause a writer to hit a wall. Few of us pack up the car then sit at the end of the driveway and wonder where we’re going on vacation. Some pre-planning must take place. I believe that’s true with writing a book. I’m not even talking about outlining, although that is a sure-fire cure for writer’s block. Just a general set of directions dealing with plot and character can help. And trying not to think in a linear fashion also helps. Try jumping around in the story. You can always change it later, but try writing a scene that might take place in act 3 even though you’ve just started act 2.

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  5. Great topic and suggestions Kathryn! I too find that just forcing myself to write - even if it's a scene totally out of context for where I'm at in the manuscript helps. Research is also a good way back into my books but it can also be a big black hole to fall into!

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  6. I think "energy block" is a much better term. There are times when I know what I want to write, but it's not coming as easy as I'd like, and I don't feeling working that hard. This can go on for quite a while.

    I've found a good way around it--for me--is to allow myself to write shit. I know I'm going to make several edits, and that I never get editor's block, so I don't worry about it. I'll fix it later.

    This plays into what Stephen King says about writer's block: It's what happens when we try to be better writers than we are. Which also plays into the anxiety comment you made.

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  7. I do what Dana does - write shit. But then, for me, it isn't always edited out...

    But anyway, another trick I've found is have your character do the exact opposite of what he or she should do. Might not work in the end but you are sure to get some "different" stuff. This is particularly helpful for me as I tend to "connect the dots" as I write and sometimes getting to the next dot is difficult.

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  8. Oh, thank you, thank you, thank you!!!

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  9. Great suggestions everyone! I haven't tried the out of context writing technique, but it sounds interesting. I'll give it a try!

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  10. Kathryn - I usually write out of context sex scenes - always helps:)

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  11. With me it's daily distractions creating writer's block.

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