Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Writer's Block

I got an upsetting email from a client not too long ago. She was suffering from writer's block and asked if I knew of anything that might help or if I had ever had other clients experience something like this. Unfortunately, while I'm sure I've had many clients experience writer's block, I didn't feel I had any really good advice to offer. Since I knew some of her personal interests I gave a few writing assignments that I thought might appeal to her, but I wasn't too sure my advice was anything different from what she'd already tried. So now I'm going to ask you for help. The next time a client calls with a similar problem, I want to know that I actually have some good advice. So, what do you do when your writing has hit the wall or you feel you have nothing left to say?

—Jessica

35 comments:

Pam said...

If I hit a wall, I shut down the computer, walk away from the book, and go immerse myself in a day/week of movies and good books. I take long baths (where I do my best brainstorming), long solitary walks, go somewhere I can people-watch. I go to bed early/sleep late (sometimes the problem is just plain old exhaustion).

When the well runs dry, the only thing you can do is get out and fill it back up.

Nonny said...

Honestly, it depends on WHY she is blocked.

Almost every writer has to deal with getting stuck at some point in the story, whether it be in the actual writing, the plotting, revising, whatever. I've seen a lot of writers try to push forward anyway, but sometimes this is the wrong thing to do. It can easily result in the writer spinning her wheels and getting nowhere but even more frustrated.

Which can easily result in "writer's block."

In that case, the writer needs to sit back and let the project percolate until it's ready. A good brainstorming buddy can help a lot with this, but even then, sometimes what the project (and the writer!) needs is a break.

Sometimes taking a wrong turn in the story can also cause a block. Depending on how nitpicky the inner editor(*cough*demon*cough*) is, a crit partner may or may not help. If it's an obvious problem, they're immensely useful.

However, I'm prone to feeling very down and depressed about a project if I so much as start the scene a couple hundred words too late. y CPs will look over the scene in question and find nothing "wrong" with it. Truthfully, it's not that there's something "wrong," it's that it's not quite right. Self-analysis comes in handy then; for me, it usually takes anywhere from 20 minutes to a few days to figure out what's wrong.

Other sources of block are real life stresses. I know a lot of moms, for example, who manage to be productive despite staying home with five kids. I don't know how they do it, but then, most of them don't know how I manage with a chronic pain disorder.

If the block is due to RL, then the situation causing the stress needs to be looked at. If it's something temporary, trying to wait it out and manage may be the best course of action. If it's something long-term that can be changed (such as a crappy job that sucks up all your time and energy, even when you're NOT working), then it may be worth looking at other options.

If it's not something that can be changed (like kids or health issues :p), you're left trying to cope. That can take time. A lot of time.

The worst writer's block I've ever experienced, though, wasn't due to any of the above; it was a pervasive psychological issue I hadn't dealt with. I had/have a strong need for external approval and validation. When I joined a writer's community several years ago, I got that from the established semi-pro and pro authors who were there. The community had a serious problem with power-abusing admins, though, and I left to form my own community. Problem is, the dynamic shifted, and I was no longer just one of the members. Without that source of validation (involving much betrayal on the parts of the people who had mentored me), I ended up with a block that lasted years.

Sure, I could write, but I felt like utter crap about every word I put down, certain it sucked. Some writers get used to hating everything they put out, but that's not normal for me. As such, I started a lot of things that I never finished.

Once I figured out that the psychological problem was also affecting my writing (I knew that it did in other areas of my life), I was able to work through it. I've had problems since, sure, but they have been nowhere near as overwhelming and all-encompassing as that.

... dear gods, was that long. O.O

Michele Lee said...

We writers "put out" so much. When I get in a funk I "take in". I look at art. I read what other people have written. I lay in bed as much as possible under my fake satin (but yummy feeling) blanket and just sort of explore the world. I watch tv too. Generally that gets me irritated at the lack of good entertainment out there so I start something new. I try to poach my dreams for ideas as well.
Take in, absorb. Enjoy someone else's toil instead of fighting yours.

December Quinn said...

Good advice already! I generally do what Pam does. I've also heard writing the ending helps--just any ending, you might not use it, but it gives a psychological boost. Once I tried copying a chapter of a book I enjoyed--don't recall what book it was, but I just sat and typed it out. It actually did help--it got the brain/hands thing going again and made me feel like I'd accomplished something. Odd, but it did help.

Starting a new short or doing some editing helps too.

Shawn said...

If I get stuck it's usually for one of two reasons. Sometimes it's that I'm not writing the story the right way - I'm forcing it in the wrong direction it. I stop writing and do some brain storming on possible scenarios and sometimes that knocks things loose.

More commonly I find that my problem is that I simply don't know my MC well enough. I almost always know my secondary characters better (does anyone else have that problem?). So I talk to my MC. I have him/her actually tell me the story (I write/type this all down) and it is extrememly revealing. I end up finding out interesting things about him/her and that gives me a fresh look at what should be happening in the story.

Virginia Miss said...

For me, the best thing is to switch gears.

If you're halfway through a novel and get stuck, work on something else. Queries or synopses. Research. Write character sketches for another project. Go back and line edit the first half. Organize your files/workspace.

If this doesn't get the juices flowing, a complete break might help. Gardening -- especially pulling weeds, walks, meditation.

Mark said...

I'm not sure I believe in writer's block, per se. I'm a fulltime freelance writer and novelist, so I don't really have the luxury.

On the other hand, though, I do find that if I'm having problems with my fiction (like now) there are a couple things I can try to help.

1. Open a Word file and talk to myself. I have a conversation, free-associating about what I think the problem is and why and just let things come to mind. I often find that this helps me. In other words, I KNOW what's wrong, but I need that brain to fingers to keyboard to monitor connection to articulate it.

2. Most of my "writer's block" situations revolve around my belief that something I'm working on won't get published either because it's not commercially viable (ie., marketable) or it just plain sucks. My biggest issues usually revolve around marketability, so I try to give myself permission to just write something for fun, not publication or money. This can be a real treat at times.

3. Over-thinking, which is probably what's happening in my current WIP. I was fretting about this last night, doing that chess player thing where I say, "If you do this, then this and this and this will happen, but this won't, so you should do this, but then if this and this happens, this will happen and I don't like..." So I had to kind of give myself permission to "Just write, idiot. Cut loose and see what happens." Hopefully it'll work.

4. Do it anyway. Back to my freelancing lifestyle. Deadlines are deadlines. Sit down and write. If it's crap, at least you'll have something to rewrite.

Best,
Mark Terry
www.markterrybooks.com

Kimber An said...

I don't believe in Writer's Block. From what I've seen, it's really one of two things.

One - Tired Brain. The writer needs to get away from writing, go for hike in the woods, stroll through the waves on the beach, play with the dog, get some real sleep and wean self down to only two cups of coffee a day, design and put together a craft project, volunteer at child's school, read to kids at the library. Play. Creatures with higher-order thinking skills, like humans, NEED to play.

Two- Real Life has become exceedingly stressful. My family was homeless for almost a year once. Couldn't write anything at all. In that case, take a break from writing without guilt (agents should be understanding) and get through the personal crises before going back to it. After we found a new home, my writing took off like a rocket again.

Best of wishes and chocolate to your client.

Maria said...

Go for a drive with favorite music. Go for a hike. Swim. Garden. Quilt. Cook.

Then sit down and write a short story or whatever ideas hit. Jot down notes on possible avenues for the current story line, but don't try to write them for a couple of days.

Maria said...

and tell the client that writer's block is no big deal--nothing to get upset about at all. It happens. (No need to add fear to the mix!)

Wilfred the Author said...

I wrote this article about my method of beating writer's block. Maybe it will help.

Walk Your Way To A Better Novel

Have you ever plopped down in front of your computer, ready to work on your great fiction masterpiece only to stare at the monitor with your brain disengaged? Or, how about this scenario--you sit down with a great idea and your eyelids immediately droop like lead weights are hanging on them? Don’t grab for that cup of Joe just yet, try something new. Take a hike!

Last year, while working on my first novel, a thriller with a complicated plot, I struggled to keep my enthusiasm and plot moving forward. I literally stumbled onto a solution: It’s called exercise. Well, not only exercise, but a method of exercise that helped me finish my novel and lose fifteen pounds to boot!

So here’s the secret...

First off, you’ll need an mp3 player filled with hard driving, mindless music with a steady beat. You know, the kind the aerobic instructors use. It’s important that the music you choose has a beat that pushes you into a fast-paced walk or run and that it does not include words that you’ll tend to focus on. The Hamster Dance by Hampton the Hamster is a good example. Another good idea is to download dance music.

Next, read the last chapter or section of your project-du-jour, then do a little warm up and stretch those muscles out real good. Finally, put your headphones on and take off.

As you’re walking, the music needs to be loud enough to drown out distractions, but of course, not so loud as to be unsafe. Keep up a brisk pace letting the music set your cadence and focus your gaze on the road or path in front of you. Start retracing the last bit of writing in your mind and before you know it, you’ll be moving your plot forward, and your characters will come alive, too, filling your mind with dialogue. You may even want to carry a voice recorder with you to remember everything your mind conjures up.

If your mind starts wandering, quicken your pace and re-focus your gaze. Remember, you’re not out on a nature hike or social outing; this is a business trip. Concentrate on the task at hand and before you know it, you’ll have covered several miles while accomplishing considerable work on your writing. Depending on your pace, you’ll have burned several hundred calories and the blood flow to your brain will have increased, stimulating your mental alertness and making you more productive when you return to your keyboard. You’ll also receive some health benefits by lowering your LDL (bad cholesterol) and raising your HDL (good cholesterol) and walking decreases your risk for Type 2 Diabetes.

You can use this method on a treadmill, elliptical or stair stepper, however, I find that my eyes and, eventually, my mind starts focusing on the timer or clock when I use machines. The point of this method is to focus on writing. If indoor exercise is your only option, try placing a towel over the display and fix your eyes on something else in the room, and by all means, not the television!

Try this over the course of several weeks and you’ll find yourself making significant progress toward a completed manuscript. Not only that, but when it’s time to take the photo for your jacket cover, you’ll be fit enough for a full length portrait, rather than just a headshot.

Kate Douglas said...

Mark nailed it. When I'm blocked I write anyway. I tend to "role play" as I write, thinking in my character's point of view, so once I've ruled out the obvious blocks: too many distractions, not enough sleep, major plot problems or character issues that need an overhaul, I just write whatever crap comes to mind. Then I can go back and fix it later. When all else fails, I get in the car and go for a drive, take a long walk, pull weeds or, in extreme cases, cut my hair. (yep, it's short again, but the manuscript got mailed on time...)

Anonymous said...

Frankly, I think writer's block is a crock of shit. It's just an excuse to give in to the mental exhaustion writing causes. It's happened to me, many times and finally I understood that what I needed was a kick in the ass to stop whining and get back to work.

Ask yourself this question: Which of these brain farts makes you feel worse?
a) Writing crap
b) Not writing.
c) Not writing and whining about it.

So instead of thinking that writing is an activity that requires divine intervention, treat it as a workout, a job, housework, etc. Treat it like anything else you HAVE TO DO (and laugh about your silliness later.)

Good Luck.

2readornot said...

One of my favorite methods, other than to read a lot, is to work on an older ms, something that I know isn't ready for submission. I play with it and try to add interesting twists -- and inevitably, it frees up my creativity and new ideas start bubbling to the surface.

Anonymous said...

Hmm. I'm a little surprised your client sent you an email about her struggles with writer's block. If I was having trouble getting the words down, I sure wouldn't want my agent to know about it!

Liz Wolfe said...

Lots of good advice already!
When I feel blocked, it's usually because I'm headed in the wrong direction with the book. I keep a scene outline as I write so I go back and look at that to see if I've taken a wrong turn somewhere. Once I find where I've headed off in the wrong direction, I can correct it.
I also keep a type of journal for each book I write. That's where I can 'talk' to myself until I figure out the problem.
I think there are different reasons for being blocked, as others have mentioned. Being tired, creatively depleted, disinterested in the project.
Talking to others helps sometimes. The trick is to determine the cause of the block in order to fix it.

Sheila said...

All good advice here and the writer just needs to find out what works best for her.

My usual is to do something else, usually outdoors, for a little while...go for a run, walk, hike...

Then go back and just write - even if its crap (you can always delete it later). Just write and usually something good will come out of it.

Also, I find I get more ideas when I'm journaling/writing by hand - rather than on the computer. Half of my MS's are handwritten first.

Jolie Mathis said...

I once heard Sue Grafton give a talk on writing. She had suffered "writers block" and had gone to counseling for several years, I think, before she realized the only real solution was: "Put your ASS in the CHAIR and WRITE!" (I'm quoting her). I've always remembered that. :)

Eliza said...

I'm going to assume the writer in question has a basic idea of the sequennce of events, beginning to end.

I grab my writing-only journal (not for grocery lists or budgeting or anything like that, just ideas and character sketches and notes on places). I write down the following questions:

-- What has to happen to move the plot along?

-- What has to happen next, in sequence?

-- Why?

-- Who is involved, and what is their point in the scene?

-- What do the characters want?

-- Where should this take place? Can I plausibly set it in an interesting location?

-- What's going on in the subplot? Can I build that up without detracting from the central story?

-- What's on my POV character's mind right then?

-- What's he reacting to, how will he react to it, and what will the outcome be?

-- What is the conflict? Is it suitable for that point in the story?

-- What are the side characters thinking, and how will they react?

...and so on. If I need ideas in general, I read non-fiction.

If I do this cause and effect Q&A thing while pouring down oversugared espresso drinks, the story start to flow again. I do this at least every few chapters.

Demon Hunter said...

I can honestly say that I have never had writer's block. I do have distractions if I want to see something on television or go shopping.

If she is stressed, she may want to participate in an activity she likes. Go shopping, out to eat, catch a movie, visit a family member or friend. Or perhaps take a much needed vacation.

spyscribbler said...

Awwww, I just write pennies per word erotica, so I have to write fast if I want to pay the bills. Everyone is different, but here's some things to try:

1.) Skip around the manuscript, jotting down single words or phrases as they occur. Don't try to make them into sentences or story. Sometimes the brain can only handle images. Tomorrow you can fill-in. You'll be surprised at what you have.

2.) Sit in the shower and pretend you're the character living their life, and see what happens.

3.) I'm terrified of it, so I try to prevent it by NOT believing in writer's block.

4.) Also, I only take one day off a week. Whenever I take a day off, things gets ... bad. And make sure it's fiction you write every day; non-fiction doesn't help.

5.) Never face a blank page. Close your eyes and write.

6.) Mark Terry's conversation file is awesome. I combine it with Barry Eisler's question suggestion. After all, if you're having trouble and you don't ask a question, how are you going to find the answer? I write down two pages of questions when I'm stuck, and then see if any answers come.

7.) Just write. I know, I know, but sometimes if you've taken a few days/weeks off being stuck, then the writing muscle is kinda flabby. Just force yourself to write crap for a couple weeks until the muscle feels strong again.

8.) Personally, whenever I start to 'dry up,' I notice that I'm not digging in deep enough. I have to slip myself deeper into the character and what they're thinking and feeling. If I'm completely in their shoes, then I'll know what I, as my character, am going to do next.

9.) Use fear. When all else fails, I over-dramatize how bad it'll be if I don't write on time and get paid. Make the fear of something else bigger than the fear of writer's block. (Use carefully. This method can make matters worse, LOL.)

Sorry so long, LOL, and please send *hugs* and well-wishes to your author.

Julie Rowe said...

I, too, wrote an article about dealing with writer's block. Here it is with compliments. (#8 is my personal favorite!)

12 Ways To Break Through Writers Block
By Julie Rowe

1. Go for a walk or other exercise. Medical studies have shown that people 30 and up who regularly exercise have denser more active brain matter than those who don’t exercise.

2. Do some housework. Some of my best ideas come when I’m ironing.

3. Call a friend, sometimes an objective view point is all you need to hear.

4. Read a book. Get your mind off your WIP with someone else’s words. Let them inspire you!

5. Cook something you’ve never cooked before, the creative process is the same and it may jump start your writing.

6. Eat chocolate! (I don’t have to explain this one do I?)

7. Watch a movie you’ve seen before and try to find details you missed the first time.

8. Write the scene from a different Point Of View.

9. Have a hot bath. The increased blood flow to the brain gives you more thinking power.

10. Change your scenery. Sometimes all you need is different sensory input to help unblock your mind.

11. Read the newspaper. Truth really is stranger than fiction. Take a real life event and add it to your plot, it may be the new direction/diversion/twist that you need.

12. Switch writing gears. Write a letter to the editor of your newspaper or an article for your local RWA chapter. The change of pace can revitalize you!

BookEnds, LLC said...

Great comments everyone. Thanks!

One quick response to Anonymous...you expressed concern that my client sent an email about her struggles with writer's block and I wanted to comment quick.

Please refer to yesterday's post. I see this relationship as a team and would hate to think that one of my clients was afraid to tell me something about their writing or career in general. My job is to support and assist and I'll do that in any way possible.

lainey bancroft said...

In summary, there are a lot of very fit, very clean writers out there, with exceptionally tidy houses and computer files of the conversations they've had with themselves/their characters. Interesting.

Also interesting that no one admitted to blog-hopping when they were blocked. Particularly considering the number of comments today. :)

EGP said...

I'm going to guess that if a writer is telling their agent about writer's block, it's at least a medium term kind of thing, not just difficulty for a few hours. A few more thoughts:

1.If the problem is plot/character related, talk it through with someone. Anyone who will listen. Call your- ah, wait scratch that one. Anyone EXCEPT your agent. This method has never failed me when plot is the problem.

2.A lot of people suggested taking a break. A lot of others suggested just to get off your ass. The problem with both of these is that they aren't solutions for something that has been lasting days or weeks and has taken on a life of its own. Therapy - a la Sue Grafton - is one option in this case. But I have another suggestion. Take a book that you have read and like but don't love. Pick a chapter somwehere and edit it. Treat it as if it was your own work and make it better. Since the initial work is not your own, it is a bigger pattern break than switching genres, editing your own work, or just slamming free-association words down on a page. Doing this focuses you as much as possible on the mechanics of writing, removing creativity and personal hangups to a large extent.

3.This won't work for everyone, but try setting an intention to write down your dreams when you wake up in the middle of the night. Keep a pen and paper (and flashlight if you share your bed with someone who doesn't want the light on at 3AM) next to your bed. You are rarely in a better place to avoid blocks than right when you wake up from a dream. As I said, this won't work for everyone - exceedlingly sound sleepers, etc.

Lexi said...

I read. When that doesn't work I whine to my CP until she gives me permission to walk away from my story for a while. That usually gets me back on track within a day or two. Just having someone say, "It's okay to walk away" is extremely freeing. Actually, she also dared me once to never pick up another pen, which got me writing that night.

Ann(ie) said...

I don't experience writer's block, per se, but if I'm not into one particular project, I just work on something else. I always have 2-3 projects simmering, one in front of me and one or two on the back burner that I can poke around with until I feel charged up about my main WIP. I also have two serial projects that I'm writing for my websites.

So I'd say just sit down and write SOMETHING. Never mind what. Just get your groove on until you remember why you love this job. I wrote a whole novel that way.

Karin Tabke said...

I have two types of writer's block. The first is when I do everything I can to avoid opening the file of my current wip. This type of writer's block for me is my subconscious telling me what I have written or think I'm about to write is crap and that I need to rethink my project. The other form of writer's block affects me the most. It begins like the one mentioned above, and when I'm perfectly honest with myself this writer's block can be easily named and addressed. It's called LAZY.
Both are handled the same exact way. I put my ass in the chair, open the file and write forward.

Tessa Radley said...

For me writer's block is simply another word for procrastination. Karin Tabke is a little more blunt when she calls it laziness. But I don't think she's wrong.

The problem is that after several hours it can turn to a wild, blind panic--mostly because I have a deadline, and the screen is still blank.

For me, the solution is to stop mucking around and start writing. Not always easy. Sometimes days have passed and the writing habit is hard to kickstart. Sometimes the panic rot has set in so far that it becomes paralyzing.

Tessa

Lisa, Amy, Hannah & Lynne said...

I went to a writers' workshop with Jamie Cat Callan last night and she has just what your client needs. In April, Chronicle is releasing Jamie's Writer's Toolbox, an actual kit filled with exercises to inspire and motivate the writer. Sometimes we as writers are overcome by the business side of our lives and forget why we chose this path in the first place. I know April is along way off, but get the Writer's Toolbox, gather your writer friends for a night of brainstorming and wine, and learn to love writing again.

Amy

Anonymous said...

Hi, folks. I'm the client in question, and I just want to say, many thanks for the suggestions, the good wishes, and the hugs.

There is a happy ending to this story. I'm writing again, and enjoying it more than I have in a long, long time. The block in question went a lot deeper than a story-specific issue, and was a lot more worrisome. However - there is hope!

chris

Nichola said...

I was surprised and pleased to note there are a few commenters who've said (in varying degrees of politeness) that they don't believe in writer's block. Neither do I. I think it's an excuse not to write (bordering on laziness), and oftentimes to whine about not writing.

You'd never catch a builder saying, "I have all these bricks but I just can't bring myself to build!"

You have the tools for the job. A command of the language. So just...write. You can't edit what you haven't written. Telling people you're blocked achieves nothing. It doesn't get the book written, does it? The only 'cure' for the ailment of believing you cannot write, is to...write.

I've often heard it said all writers suffer from writer's block at some point - well, that's simply not true. I never have, and I'm not the only person to say that. What's my secret? I refuse to let the computer or my notepad beat me. The words are there, inside my head, so I let them come out, and I put them on paper. Some days I'm not happy with what I produce, but at least I have something to edit at the end of each 'session'.

Complaining about writer's block seems to me, a bit like saying you're hungry and refusing to prepare food.

Copy-and-pasted from my blog:

I've often said there's no such thing as writer's block; instead, it's laziness or lack of forethought - so how does this square with my anti-outlining stance? Good question. I think, when it comes to outlining, if you plan everything on paper, you're telling the tale without writing it properly - as a first draft. The story becomes stale. Your characters lose the ability to surprise you. Many say it's pretentious to speak of them as real people, but this way makes one's characterisation more vivid. If a writer thinks of them as real, the reader will too. I believe outlining is the same as trying to edit the story before it's written.

What do I mean by suggesting I don't get writer's block because I think ahead? Simple. I don't write anything down but I have an idea in my head of what to write. I start with an idea, a character, a situation and this initial thought carries me - as a rule - to the halfway stage. However, I don't know the details before I write them. You could say I start off with a character and a 'what if'. "What if so-and-so were to do this? What (would so-and-so do) if that happened?" Once I reach the halfway point of the novel, I've familiarised myself with the characters and know what they would do in most situations, so writing blind for another 35,000 words is a doddle; sometimes it's even easier than the first half because by that point, I've more than likely written something that lends itself to events unfolding in a particular way. I like to say, "I have an idea and a vague image of the end, but no idea of how to get there when I begin."

Pam said...

Good for you, Chris. Congratulations!!

Someone posted this poem the other day, and I thought it was appropriate for this topic.

"CREATIVITY" by Martha Graham


There is a vitality,
a life force,
a quickening that is translated through you
into action,
and because there is only one you in all time,
this expression is unique.

If you block it,
it will never exist through any medium and be
lost.

The world will not have it.

It is not your business to determine how good
it is;
it is your business to keep it yours,
clearly and directly,
to keep the channel open.

You do not even have to believe in yourself or
your worth.

You have to keep open and
aware directly to the urges that motivate you.

Keep the channel open.

No artist is pleased.

There is no satisfaction whatever at any time;
there is only a strange, divine dissatisfaction;
a blessed unrest that keeps us marking and
makes us more alive than the others.

Steve Axelrod said...

When you're "blocked", it's often because you haven't thought the material through sufficiently. There's some contradiction, some error or inconsistency that you can't quite formulate. That's the puzzle you have to solve. And figuring it out always makes the book better. So being blocked is a good thing, a message from your subconscious, if you can make sense out of it and put it to use.

Deanna Lee said...

I've been writing for 23 years and I'm of the firm belief that writer's block exists- though some might call it different things or refuse to acknowledge it.

I do not believe, for an instant, that someone who professes to have "writer's block" is lazy.

I'm a die-hard plotter and a fairly prolific writer. I've written well over 30 full length novels since I started writing. Granted, my very early work will never see the light of day. :-).

We all get stuck, our well runs dry, our muse takes a trip to Vegas without us and hooks up with a hottie from Italy who doesn't speak English but loves her... oh wait, was that just me?

I'm glad to hear that you are writing again, Chris.

As one of Jessica's clients--- I wouldn't hesitate to tell her if I was stressed beyond hope, blocked, or geniunely perplexed as to what to do next. I have absolute faith in her ability to guide me in my career.