Kay: Busting through Writer’s Block

writersblockGoing to a writers conference, as seven of us did last week, can leave participants tired but fired up to get things done. We’re inspired, we’re motivated, we’re hopeful. So when writer’s block hits, we can be sideswiped. And writer’s block hits most of us, sooner or later.

Hillary Rettig, in The 7 Secrets of the Prolific, says that procrastination (and its evil twin, writer’s block) is disempowerment. She’s outlined reasons for not writing, starting with problems with the project (you’re sick of it, you wrote yourself into a corner, you’re overwhelmed by it), fear of failure or success, perfectionism, and competing priorities for time. She has a lot of good strategies for problem solving so that you can do the work you want to do. First up: don’t go to a place of shame (“Don’t be so lazy!” “You’ll never get published, anyway!”), but understand that productivity is constantly under siege from many directions.

If you’re just momentarily stumped—and not shivering in a corner, clearly needing a therapeutic intervention—you might be able to jump start your process. Thinking out loud can clarify your ideas. Explain your book as if you were describing it to a person you don’t know very well. Talk into a tape recorder so you don’t lose track of your ideas. (In fact, one of our members got help at the conference by describing her problem to a stranger she sat next to at a session.) Then transcribe what you taped. You might generate enough sentences that you can move on.

To find a writing rhythm, some people recommend retyping well-known writers—such as Gertrude Stein or Ernest Hemmingway—or well-known works—such as a Keats poem or Winnie the Pooh. The stuck can benefit by “finding the music” of someone else and use that to find their own rhythms.

Sometimes just reading a good book can do it. Music can help, too—something that floats your boat rhythmically, whether that’s the Beatles, B.B. King, or Beethoven.

A change of scene can work wonders. E.B. White wrote Here is New York in a hotel room during a hot, humid New York summer. Margaret Drabble has said:

A featureless room can be liberating. I’ve good memories of the Station Hotel in Peterborough and the Westin Harbour Castle, Toronto. I wrote a lot in both of these buildings.

Whatever you do, don’t give up just because at this moment you can’t see where you’re headed. J. Alastair Frisby (who’s he again?) once told P.G. Wodehouse that the humorist would “never [finish] a book” and suggested Wodehouse “get a job selling jellied eels.”

Ted Scheinman, writing in the Pacific Standard, tells a great story about how he hibernated on a friend’s farm, trying to get his writing done, but finding a wall wherever he looked and terrified he’d never again write anything longer than 3,000 words. A friend gave him a gift: three small wedges of balsa wood, labeled “Writers’ Use Only.” The note that accompanied the balsa pieces read, “If you get writer’s block, just toss one of these in the woodstove.” If nothing else works, burn that writer’s block in effigy!

So—what about you? If you have writer’s block, what do you do to unleash the creative forces again?


9 thoughts on “Kay: Busting through Writer’s Block

  1. Sara Gruen (Water for Elephants) has her husband convert their walk-in closet into a writing room, which she plastered with vintage circus pictures. Without the ability to look out the window, or anything but circus pix, she was able to get back on track.

    I’ve managed to break through a year-and-a-half long siege of writers block (I think, it’s early days to be bragging) by changing POV. I get that close third is what sells, but it isn’t what speaks to me. First person is what speaks to me. I don’t so much get in the heads of my protagonists, apparently, as channel them. Fingers crossed that this new approach keeps working, because this is the first time Dara has talked to me since I started the McDaniel program.

  2. Jeanne, some of my favorite books are first person! There’s such an immediacy to it . . . . I don’t think it’s third person that sells, it’s good that sells. And you are good!

    (-: And Kay, I was just thinking about this on the train ride back to the airport (I’m heading to my mom’s place for a week before going back to Japan). I’ve gotten so many good ideas, and seen so many beautifu1 gardens that I am fi11ed with inspiration — and sudden1y I got stage fright or something. I don’t have time to do things at home. How am I going to put this inspiration to work?

    I sti11 have another week to think about schedu1es, so I can figure it out.

    (Sorry about the weird 1 thing — sudden1y my key between k and ; stopped working. A new thing to worry about . . . . !!! But it’ll be OK. (Oh, look, it got unstuck!!))

    Vacations. Full of sudden, random happenings. Gotta enjoy it, then when I get home, channel and focus. These tips are going to help!

    • I’m a newbie at writing fiction, and I haven’t been afflicted yet, but I do get stuck sometimes. I usually take it as a sign that I’m going wrong and my subconscious wants me to stop. I’ll try to think my way out of it. If that doesn’t work, I’ll try going back to a point in the story that I feel good about, and brainstorm different ways forward from there – maybe borrow the Emma Coates/Pixar Rules suggestion and make a list of things that wouldn’t happen next. If I’m still stuck, I’ll write something else – a blog post, or a couple of tweets, or a new scene, or some ideas for a new story, or a different title – anything just so long as I keep thinking and writing rather than walking away or sitting in front of a blank screen, getting stressed out. I’d rather write dreck knowing I’ll have to delete it later than do that.

      Very glad your muse is talking to you, Jeanne, and I don’t especially think close third is what sells. I like both sides of the story, so I’m not a fan of first person unless it’s done incredibly well, and when I’m checking out sample pages on Amazon, I find it a lot, especially in paranormals and fantasy. Close third seems to work well for contemporaries and historicals, and I love reading it, but I think first could work brilliantly for your story – and I’d buy it in a heartbeat 😀

      • Jilly, that’s a great point about when you’re stuck, it might be a sign that you’ve gone off course. This has happened to me numerous times, much to my distress. And right, doing other things while the Girls work out the issues keeps you in the game. Also brainstorming can help! Sometimes a fresh perspective can help you pinpoint when you went off the rails.

    • Charlaine Harris sold a ton of Sookie Stackhouse books, and those were in first person, so I think if you create a character that people identify with and have a story to tell, readers will enjoy the first person. It’s so immediate; you feel like you’re BFFs with the character. It’s just seems harder to write.

      I know what you mean about time, Michaeline. For the last many weeks I’ve written first thing, and it’s been great to see my progress. Now my work-for-pay has really picked up and I’ve slacked off on the writing time, so now my momentum is shot. I too am hoping to get a schedule figured out!

      • I loved the Hunger Games and that was all first person. I thought the author (whose name escapes me right now) did a great job of letting us see things from Katniss’ POV, but even then, we the reader could infer some things that Katniss didn’t acknowledge (or didn’t want to believe). Jeanne, I’m with Jilly…I’d buy it in a heartbeat.

  3. Pingback: Kay: Shocking news about quiet reflection | Eight Ladies Writing

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