Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Getting over the block

By Joe Moore

I don’t believe in writer’s block. The reason is twofold. First, I’m a professional writer; my job is to come up with ideas. I’ve never heard of a mechanic suffering from mechanic’s block or a doctor suffering from doctor’s block. When I’m faced with an issue in my story, I come up with a solution. That’s part of being a writer.

writers-blockSecond, when I do get writer’s block, I turn to my co-writer for the answer. OK, so the second reason is not something every writer has to fall back on. Lucky me.

I think that writer’s block is about being stuck with coming up with ideas, not words. If I can’t come up with the words, I’m in serious trouble. It’s like that mechanic saying he can’t come up with the correct wrench. A master mechanic has a kit full of tools (words); his job is to come up with the correct procedure to fix a problem.

So writer’s block is really a matter of a writer getting stuck for whatever reason. It’s frustrating but not a show-stopper.

First, you need to focus on why you’re stuck.

The most common form of writer’s block is not knowing what happens next. This is basically a plotting issue. The solution can be found in 5 words: What does the protagonist want? If you backtrack to the last point in the story that it was clear what motivated the protagonist’s actions and how it drove the story forward, the answer to what happens next will usually be revealed. Think about the story question. Did you stray from the process of answering it? Chances are you created a scene that does not contribute directly or indirectly in answering the main story question—the big conflict. Starting a rewrite from that point will usually get you back on track.

Another common issue that will derail your story is facing the dilemma of why anything matters. Who cares? This usually deals with the question: What’s at stake. Whether it’s an internal or external struggle, the protagonist must realize that fighting the fight is worth it. If she loses, what’s at stake? What does she stand to lose? If it’s a high concept thriller, what does the community, country, or civilization stand to lose? Reexamining the stakes can help to put you back on course.

A third issue in suffering from writer’s block is facing the crippling question: Is this story logical? In other words, why would it even happen? You might have a really cool idea, but the reality is that no sane person would follow the path laid out by the plot. It’s just not something the reader would buy into. If this is the case, rethink the story in terms of how it relates to HUMAN BEINGS. Don’t get me wrong. Even the most outrageous science fiction or horror stories still have to relate to human emotions and logic. Otherwise, they become 2-dimensional. If your story is so out there that the average reader can’t relate, try reexamining the human aspects of it. Many writers including me believe that there are only two emotions in the world: love and hate. If your story lacks either, then it becomes hard if not impossible to sell the reader on an outrageous, illogical plot. And writer’s block raises its ugly head.

How about you, my Zoner friends. How do you overcome writer’s block?

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Coming soon: THE SHIELD by Sholes & Moore

“THE SHIELD rocks on all cylinders.” ~ James Rollins, NYT bestselling author of THE EYE OF GOD.

29 comments:

  1. Like you, I don't beleive in writer's block. The best definition I've seen is from (I think) Stephen King: Writer's block is what happens when you try to be a better writer than you are. That's not meant as a pejorative, as it can happen at any level of writing if one tries to do something one is not yet capable of, or confident in.

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    1. Thanks for the comment, Dana. Something I didn't mention but I believe is true--another way to avoid writer's block is to outline your story, even in the most basic manner, before you start. It's tough to travel cross country without a map and it's even tougher to write a book without a plan.

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    2. I agree Dana, re the King comment. But I do think block is a real thing. Maybe, to extend Joe's metaphor, you can get blocked when you've been working on old Chevy Vegas your whole life and suddenly you're asked to fix a Mazerati. You might know the basic of how an engine runs but some of the high-tech stuff is over your pay grade.

      I think a writer has been doing the same stuff for years and then tries to break out, you can get blocked. You should always stretch yourself but when you do, you can talk yourself into being intimidated by the challenge.

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  2. I love this, Joe. I don't believe in writer's block either. Your tips are spot on.

    For some reason my mind strays & I slow down in my daily word count goal. That's when I know something isn't right. Rather than forcing it, I take a break & let my mind find a resolution. Usually I watch fav movies or TV shows. That can trigger ideas because I believe my brain is my team mate (similar to your co-writer). If I'm really stuck, brainstorming with others helps me. By talking it out, I usually come up with my own solution.

    Bottom line is that I listen to my instincts that something isn't right.

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    1. Thanks, Jordan. For me, the flow of ideas is like a water facet. If the flow slows to a trickle, I need to shut it off for awhile and let the pressure build.

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  3. Good observations, Joe. Another form of writer's block is just plain fear. Fear of not being good enough (along the lines of what Dana suggested). Fear of failing in the eyes of someone (or a group).

    The most virulent form of it sometimes occurs when a writer has had a smash debut novel. The "second novel syndrome" is well known in literary circles.

    A little b book called The Courage To Write by Ralph Keyes may be of help for the writer out there suffering from this particular strain of block.

    Keep writing. Journal about the fears or the block if you must. At least, with a journal, you're producing words.

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  4. Great additional tips, Jim. As always, you place the periods at the end of our sentences.

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  5. I don't believe in writer's block but I do believe in fear getting to the point that it can block all progress - so I second Jim's comment about facing those fears, either in a journal or any other means that works. I have a writer friend and we Skype regularly -it's our forum for expressing our fears and talking through issues with our current WIPs. I find it invaluable. For me, ideas are never the problem, but fears that I won't be able to do those ideas justice - that can stop me dead in my tracks!

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    1. Good points, Clare. Having a trusted colleague to brainstorm with and get past the fear is invaluable.

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  6. I see Writer's Block differently. Since I plot out my story and write a synopsis, I always know where I am going even if I don't know how to get there. But your words, "Why does it matter, or Who cares?" can affect the writer himself. Life events, bad reviews, being orphaned at a publishing house, getting rejections can all lead to a loss of confidence or motivation. And these pits can be more deadly to fall into than plot holes.

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    1. Nancy, what you describe makes me wonder why everyone I know wants to be a writer. There are much safer jobs out there.

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  7. I think the notion of writer's block comes from people who, for whatever reason, think writing should be easy. They try it, find they get stuck, and assume they have writer's block, because they can't accept the idea that it's hard damn work and they're not working hard enough. I am reminded of Gore Vidal's comment about people who complain about writer's block – "Fuck 'em. Plenty more where they came from."

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    1. Love this, John, and I agree. I'm never blocked, but I occasionally lack discipline.

      If the words don't flow, if there's no magic, I just keep on writing.

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    2. Agreed, John. The problem is that great writers make writing look easy. When a new writer realizes that it's not, it's easy to claim writer's block.

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  8. Personally, I think writer's block is a form of laziness with a fancy name. I must confess it is for me. But that doesn't explain why writing so much damn fun. I guess I not sure why we avoid it.

    I break blocks with a question I got from James Scott Bell. What is the worst thing that could happen to the MC right now?

    I usually get the next three chapters from the answer.

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    1. Good additional points, Brian. I think laziness probably affects new writers more than those who make an income writing. Dealing with deadlines usually takes care of being lazy. Now, procrastination, that's another story.

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  9. What I'm thinking about is, not Block--maybe more like Writer's Jungle With Heavy Undergrowth? When I'm struggling, I have a tendency to fill endless pages with false starts. I try different ways into the story, different opening scenes, only to abandon them. I'm writing the entire time, but the publishable output is, well, basically nil.

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    1. Yes, Kathryn, but at least you keep writing. That's different in my way of thinking than coming to a halt. One of your tangents could prove true and provide a new twist.

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  10. Joe--
    What you say is so true and clear, it's close to foolish to add a thing. A three-point checklist to put on the wall--thank you. And I certainly agree with Nancy Cohen: bad writer's luck in various forms can lead to a sense of the absurd--what the hell am I doing this for? But that way lies madness, so it's time for some tough (self) love that answers with, "What else did you have in mind?"

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    1. Thanks for the kind words, Barry. I'm here to protect and serve. :-)

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  11. This is something I'm learning to do outlines and plot out my stories to avoid. Whenever I have trouble, it's definitely because I've fallen off-course.

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    1. Mention the "O" word and you'll get trouble from some writers. But I agree, having a road map always helps to not get lost.

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  12. Great post. I agree with Barry - not much to add. I have found that often when I'm stuck the answer comes in the middle of the night. Sleep - to reset the computer.

    Thanks for all the great ideas.

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    1. Thanks, Steve. For me, my ideas come in the shower, but only with Irish Spring soap. :-)

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  13. If I find myself with writer's block on the weekend, I will go to the flea market and walk around. There's lots to observe at an outdoor flea market.

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    1. Relaxing suggestion, Diane. A good environment for the subconscious to work while your conscious mind takes a breather.

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  15. I'm new to writing. Whenever I get to a point in my story where I can't seem to move forward, I will stop and put the computer down. I'll pick up the latest novel I'm reading and immerse myself in the story. Sometimes I need a break from my writing. It may be a few hours or a few days, but the words eventually come. I have discovered I need a balance between writing and reading. If one lacks, the other is soon to follow.

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