#TheWriteThing: Beating the Block
Nina Milne, Christy Kate McKenzie and Trish Wylie are taking on that most vicious of experiences: Writer's Block! Read on to find out ways to keep adding to that wordcount...
Nina Milne - How to Beat Writer's Block
First up I need to start with a caveat. I know some writers who don’t believe in writer’s block – I do. I am lucky enough never to have experienced what I believe is true writer’s block which can result in weeks, months, years of misery where you just cannot produce anything ‘worth’ reading or perhaps anything at all and I won’t pretend that I know what to do about that.
I have however experienced times where writing is a struggle and that is the type of writers block I have evolved some strategies to combat.
So here’s how I envisage writers block:
A block with little cartoon legs/ arms and on its head is the hat of procrastination. Each side of the brick is emblazoned with the word fear.
Because for me when I can’t write it is usually down to fear of one type or the other
1) Frozen Fear: this is the Fear of Failure – the fear that I can’t do it, that I am not good enough. This is a big one for me. I really really want to try a new project (and just admitting that makes me scared). I have an idea – I even think it is quite a good idea. But I can’t seem to write it. Oh I jot down ideas. I think about it. But I cannot make a start. Every time I clear some time for it, miraculously I find myself doing something else….anything else… even the housework…
So what is the answer? I just need to DO IT. I need to force myself to sit at my desk and I need to tell myself I cannot leave that desk until I have started. Be it 50 words or 500. I HAVE to START.
2) Panic Fear: this is Deadline Fear, the fear that I will miss my deadline. At the start of every book I have a plan – a nice simple plan to write a certain number of words a day. Inevitably, with every book, life gets in the way and I get to the point where I am so far behind that it doesn’t seem possible I can catch up. Cue the domino effect…the worse it gets…the more I don’t write…
In this case panic battles with professionalism, the latter (so far, at least, wins) and I force myself to sit at my desk and remind myself I CAN do this. Then I need accountability which is where #1k1hrs come in. These writing sprints are brilliant not just because of the motivation – it is also the support of fellow writers. (If anyone wants to hook up for a #1k1hr please shout - @NinaMilne509)
Also I set my laptop up in the kitchen and I snatch ten minutes here and five minutes there and it all adds up and then everything becomes more manageable.
3) Beat Myself Up Fear: this is the fear I am not doing enough/ I should be more productive/ everyone else is doing so much more than I am…..
This is something that haunts me – I WANT to write more, but sometimes the more I want to do the less I actually do and the worse I feel about myself and then self-doubt crashes in
Sometimes what helps is to make a colour-coded timetable – this shows me exactly how much time I realistically have in a week when I take all my commitments other than writing into account. This way I can at least try to be realistic about what I can achieve and set REAL goals.
And once I do that then…that brings me to acceptance. I have to accept that my process is my process – I am not as fast a writer as others, because of other things that are going on in my life I can’t write much more than I am, and I need to be proud of what I am achieving rather than beating myself up about what I am not.
So really the only way to beat writer’s block is to write, however terrifying it is, even if it’s only a handful of words but accept that sometimes it is all going to go pear-shaped, because we are only human after all…
Trish Wylie - Outwit the Bastard
Upfront warning: I’m way over the word-count for this. That’s what happens when you give me a topic I’m passionate about. Got coffee and a comfy chair? Good. Then we’ll begin.
People who say writers block doesn’t exist, piss me off. If they’ve never experienced it, good for them. But don’t tell someone who has its laziness or just a case of sitting down and getting on with it because, as we all know, writers, write.
To me, it’s like depression (or in my case, closely linked to it) and how you get through it is as individual as the person suffering it. Once you realize it’s a problem and not just a temporary glitch or a story which is proving sticky, you must try different ‘work arounds’ to reboot your mind. Because yes, it is all in your mind. Just like depression. And how many people would dare to suggest that doesn’t exist these days?
I stupidly ignored the early warning signs of impending writers block because I’d discovered early in my career if one story flowed off my fingertips like water and I couldn’t sleep until it was done, the next invariably felt like wading through taffy. If I got two of the former in a row, I knew the third would be the equivalent of giving birth to a pineapple, complete with spikey head (I have the copyright on that analogy, circa 2005).
Back then, I simply gritted my teeth and got on with it because, y’know, writers, write and like every professional writer out there, I had contracted deadlines. Then, something more insidious crept in. I found it harder to keep the stories inside the word-count (still do, judging by this Blog). Secondary characters got louder. I was still focused on the characters’ emotional journey but the wasted opportunities for more plot to test them was eating me up inside. Worst of all, I’d stopped reading the kind of stories I wrote. I wanted more from my fictional worlds and felt guilty for feeling that way when they’d given me so much over the years.
Looking back now, I can see I was changing. Trouble was, I fought it. Then, after attempting to push my way through it by upping my work commitments and never saying ‘no’ to anything, I turned on my computer one day, looked at the blinking cursor and had nothing, nada, not a single damn word.
So, with some hard-won experience, I have the following advice to offer:
1) Give yourself time. Not easy, I know, particularly when you have deadlines and are reliant on the income from your writing. But you must view it as a long-term investment. If you want to continue writing, like I did and still do, it’s sometimes necessary to take a step back and weigh-up your options. In my case, it coincided with some real-life drama, so I needed time to deal with that shit. I made the incredibly difficult decision to cut some soul-sucking people out of my life, allowed myself time to mourn the loss and fought through a deep depression which, at its darkest point, made me suicidal. Some people can, but there was no way in hell I was writing happily-ever-afters when all that was going on.
As I started to come out the other side, I discovered the importance of putting my own needs first and could view my writing career with more emotional detachment. Trying to push through the block made things worse because nothing had changed. Now I had, it made sense my writing would, too. So, I rolled with it. And I re-organized my life so I had time dedicated solely to writing because I wanted to write, not because it was the only way I could eat.
2) Shake things up. I’d always been a pantster. There would be a few clear scenes in my mind but I forced myself to write the story in a linear fashion, treating the arrival of those clear scenes and how fast I could get through them as a reward for wading through the sticky stuff. By shaking things up and writing the clear scenes first, regardless of their order in the storyline, I unblocked the imaginative flow and discovered more about the characters, which in turn made their story easier to tell. Sometimes, I’ll write pure dialogue, Movie script style, which with hindsight makes perfect sense since dialogue has always been my thing. Either way, it’s words on the page. Hoorah!
3) Go retro. That blinking cursor became the bane of my writing life. I could stare at it for hours. So, I dumped the little shit and went back to pen and paper. They’re much easier to carry around (I have dozens of little notebooks which fit in my bag), don’t require a power outlet (which means I can write anywhere) and remove any obsession you might have with word-count. It took me back to what matters: The story. And by focussing on that, I rediscovered my joy in writing. Add this method to tip 2 and when I typed everything up, I often discovered my daily word-count was huge.
4) Don’t fight it. If the characters are leading you in a different direction to the one you’d planned, let them. The story might not ‘fit’ a traditional publisher’s criteria or resemble anything that’s currently on a best-sellers list but at the creative stage, that’s Okay. With the market changing at the pace it has over the last few years and everyone looking for the next big thing, trying to predict what will sell is a rabbit hole you really don’t want your creativity to disappear into. I’ve made this analogy before but I’ll make it again: Think of romance writing as milk and authors as cows (no offence meant!).
When it comes down to it, we all produce milk. Some people will prefer full fat, some semi-skimmed and some skimmed. Some will like it in any number of different flavours and/or different sized cartons. It can be a basic ingredient in something else like butter or cheese or yoghurt and what sells best can be influenced by packaging and marketing and current trends but ultimately comes down to the consumer. So, we start out with milk: The story. Then decide where and how to market it: The pitch. If we want to sell it on the same shelf as a pre-existing product, we might have to make major changes: Revisions. Or smaller ones: Edits. And we need to consider how much we can produce of the same thing in the future and how often: Output and demand/deadlines.
But without a finished product, we have nothing to sell. Once you’ve found your niche, you’ll get better at the quantity part of the equation but if a story point blank refuses to fit a pre-existing corner of the market, either set it aside or go with the flow and take a closer look at what it could be turned into when it’s done, which brings me to my last tip…
5) Forge your own path. You are unique. You might write stories like someone else’s. You might be telling a story which, technically speaking, has been told a thousand times. But no-one writes that story like you, in your voice. Putting a little part of ourselves into the stories we tell is unavoidable. What we must remember is, until we choose to reveal it, we’re the only people who know which part. So, dig deep, put your hopes, dreams, fantasies, failures, heartbreak, personal experiences and beliefs into the story and if necessary, think of it as therapy.
Alternatively, you can re-write your past, travel the paths you didn’t take and say the things you wish you’d said. If it isn’t something you’ve experienced, imagine how you’d feel. We all have author envy when we read a story we wish we’d written but trying to imitate something which already exists is selling ourselves and the reader, short. Write your story, your way, regardless of guidelines and trends. You can use the latter as a road map but don’t be afraid to explore uncharted territory. And don’t be afraid of what the people who know you will think of what you write!
Of course, now I’ve said all that, I’m going to finish up by saying the only way to beat the block is to find what works for you. Some of the advice offered by the other authors here might work better for you. I know I’ll be taking notes for future reference. The most important thing I’ve learned is we all evolve along the way. We need to embrace change, grasp the opportunities it brings and don’t let writers block get in our way. Keep moving the goalposts. Outwit the bastard.
I’m still writing, so it can be done.
Christy Kate McKenzie - Striking Back at Writer's Black
I am not ashamed to admit that I have knowledge of writer’s block… intimate knowledge. I’ve found myself staring at a blank screen more times than I want to think about, but, just like anyone else who puts words on a page and finishes a story, I persevere. Screaming, crying, swearing, and perhaps indulging in a glass of wine or three, but I get there in the end. Because you have to, right?
When I’m staring down a blank page and my ADHD has me watching birds and humming The Macarena, there are four ways I strike back.
Plot & Prepare
All you pantsers out there feel free to skip this one… unless you are curious.
I often find I get blocked most often in the middle of a story. I know how it’s going to end and I had a fantastic time getting it started while the idea was still fresh and exciting, but by the time I get to (don’t laugh) chapter five I can sometimes forget what all the fuss was about. That’s where preparation comes in.
Before I sit down to start writing a story, I mean really writing not just brainstorming, I draw up a rough outline of what will happen in every chapter and every scene. Once that’s done I take about 25 or 30 minutes on each scene and free write as many actions and details I can think of to flesh my outline out a bit. I also find that when I am blocked or don’t feel I have the mind-set to truly write, I came add to these to make them even more meaty.
Now when I need to write scene 13, I have a little roadmap to guide me. Do all of my scenes turn out the way I planned? Of course not! But it doesn’t matter. If I find that my scene summary isn’t right, it’s usually because I’m actually inspired to write something else.
Put On The Pressure
This one is easy. I tend to write better (or work better in general) when my deadline is ticking away, so if I’m stuck I’ll whip out my iPhone and turn on the BeFocused app. BeFocused is based on The Pomodoro Method (pure genius!). It features a clock set to 25 mins which you can customise to tick or stay silent as it counts down. After your 25 minutes are up, it automatically offers you a five minute break.
I find that racing that clock to get to the end of a scene or through the next 600 words makes me write a lot quicker. Sometimes when its break time, I am in the flow and don’t even stop! Not bad for a free app, huh?
Okay, Pinterest can be a massive time-suck. Especially if you are as addicted to it as I am, but it can also be a source for inspiration. I have… ahem… a lot of boards, many of which are devoted to the many stories I have waiting to be written. When I’m not writing, I like to surf Pinterest and pin anything that relates to a story. Sometimes that’s a picture of someone for character inspiration, sometimes a quote.
When I find myself blocked and the ticking clock isn’t working, I pull up the story board and flip through the pictures. Often, this quiet reflection on where I want the story to go and the mood of it will help me find my way back.
ADHD can be a curse, but when I find myself completely blocked and unable to move forward in my WIP, it can also be a blessing. Because I struggle to focus on one thing at a time (I have to write or craft in order to watch TV or I fidget so much Mr M threatens divorce, lol), at any given time I have at least four stories on the go.
When one has me finishing up what’s left in the wine bottle, I switch. There is always another story nagging at me, so I find it easier to move to the one demanding my attention until my original one calls to me. My stash of WIPs are all suitable different stories in various stages of completion—from barely brainstormed to freshly plotted to wrapping up loose ends—so it helps if I find myself stuck in a saggy middle to type The End on another.
Christy is an aspiring author, fairy tale fanatic, peanut butter connoisseur, and wannabe mermaid. To find out more about her and her writing, check out her website and follow her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and Instagram.
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