Friday, November 4, 2011

Jungle Reds on Writer's Block

RHYS BOWEN: When I give a talk I can guarantee that someone will always ask, "How do you handle writer's block?"
And I am always tempted to tell Robert B Parker's story. He said, "If you call a plumber to your house and he takes the pipes apart, he doesn't then look at them and say 'Sorry I can't put these back together today. I've got plumber's block!."
The point is that if you want to succeed you have to see yourself as a professional writer. We all have good days when words flow easily and bad days when it's like squeezing blood from a stone. After 28 mysteries it doesn't really get much easier. I'm always in panic mode for the first half of every book.

But I have certain rules. I make myself start at page one and go through a whole first draft to page 350. No jumping over the hard parts or boring bits. I make myself write at least 5 pages a day. Cannot leave that chair until those pages are done. I always start by editing what I wrote the day before and that way I never have to stare at a blank screen and I get into the characters' voices easily.
If your story gets stuck I have a couple of suggestions:

1. You may be trying to make your characters do something that is not in their nature and they are digging their heel s in. Remember once you have created a character it is his or her story, not yours. Don't ever try to mould the character to your plot!
2. Maybe you came up with a great premise that did not turn out to be a great story. Maybe the premise has no good resolution. It was a good way to sell a book but has no satisfying outcome. Again let your characters live their lives, not your storyline.
3. Sometimes I drive around in my car, talking through scenes out loud until the dialog seems just right. Thank God for Bluetooth. Now people no longer give me funny looks!

LUCY BURDETTE:Yes, Rhys, butt to chair and hands to keyboard. And the writing comes better if I stay very very regular. Word count every day. On the other hand, a writer needs some time off too! Interesting that Rhys thinks jumping around is cheating. I'm writing the second food critic mystery right now and the deadline is coming very fast. And I have some tricky parts involving motives that are still fuzzy in my head. So to keep things moving, I jumped ahead and wrote the last three chapters--or roughed them out anyway. I'm hoping>this gives my brain time to solve the problems while I still makeg progress.

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: Lucy, I know of a wonderful author, Jennifer Cruise, who famously writes her books as a bunch of scenes in the first draft and then>stitches them together as seems best. I think we all know the only no-fail piece of writing advice is, "If it works for you, do it." That being said, my favorite technique for overcoming writers block is to give myself permission to write crap. Just get the word count up on the page, no matter how banal, meaningless and awful. I promise myself I can go back tomorrow and toss it all out Surprisingly, when I reopen the manuscript the next day, I often discover what I thought was dreck isn't half bad. A little tweak here, clean up the language there...and I'm off and running on today's writing.

HALLIE EPHRON: Where I am most likely to get stuck is on the connective tissue. Getting from point A to point B (or T to U) gracefully and seamlessly. I'm going to try to Jennifer Cruise approach and skip over the between parts and add them in later. Great idea.Otherwise, every day I try the JUST WRITE approach. Even if it's drek, some of it always turns out to be salvageable.

RHYS: If I only did the fun parts and skipped over the connective tissue, I'd lose interest, I know. For me it's like a long hike up a mountain. Sometimes you have to cross the boring part before you get the spectuacular views, but the boring part has to be crossed in order. And I can never tell in advance which scenes will be exciting and significant and which I'll just gloss over.

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: There is no writers block. As a reporter, I have to be ready at 6pm with my piece, right? I can't say--oh, could I go on the air at ten after six instead? SO I just--know my word count for the day, and do it. And Julia, I so agree. What seems horrible, derivative, clunky and wrong on Monday may marinate into being not half bad after some tweaking on Tuesday. And it's not because you're rationalizing--it's just because you were too cranky to see the potential in what was there. Secret to keeping going? One, I ask myself--what would really happen? If this were real life, because it is, of course, what would he/she really do or say? And sometimes, a wonderful answer emerges.

DEBORAH CROMBIE: I try to keep Nora Roberts's "Bad pages are better than no pages," quote stamped on my forehead. Even if a day's pages are horrible, you have something to work with the next morning. Or before bed. I can struggle with something all day and suddenly see how to fix it when I'm getting ready for bed. But I have to do it THEN, not later. I start out writing sequentially, but don't consider skipping around;cheating. Because I tend to outline in chunks, I often get complete parts of scenes while outlining and so stick them in. I'm trying Scrivener for the first time with the w-in-p, which I think will be>great for having a place to put out-of-sequence stuff

JAN BROGAN - I think those really rotten days of writing do some subconscious grunt work and allow/lead up to those wonderful days of writing. When I'm stuck, I just write the dialogue, which always comes easy to me. That generally gets right to the conflict. The connective tissue - and it is such a pain, Hallie -- eventually comes.

RHYS: So You see how very differently we tackle our work. It's a question of what works for one doesn't work for another. But just because we've sold books and become moderately successful, don't think for a moment that we've found the magic formula and now breeze through our books. It's still hard work. It's still butt on the chair and not moving until something is fixed.
Anyone out there have a great tip for overcoming writer's block (If there is such a thing?)


  1. Rhys,
    I actually think there is writer's block and i think it may have to do with the 99cent kindle!

    Joking aside, I do think writer's block has to do with the emotions involved in writing an entire book. There definitely was no writer's block in journalism.

  2. Yeah, Jan, I think --it's difficult to think about writing a WHOLE BOOK! It feels impossible. So I just think--I have to write ONE PAGE. That's all, one page.

    And since that's so doable, I do it.

  3. I'm in the ain't-no-such-thing school. You can always write something. When I'm flummoxed, I let myself write out of order (Usually, like Rhys, I start at the start and barrel straight through to the end) - for example, I may draft a big climactic scene just to get some words down for the day. It's a treat, and with that big scene written, I feel better the next day about going back and grinding.

  4. There's nothing like a career as a writer (as Hank says, and I'm sure Hallie knows from her tech writing days) to get you past the "fear of the blank page." No fear of that.

    I always tell people who ask that I don't have writers block, I have butt-in-chair block. It's the making myself keep with the routine, sit down, and know I'm going to struggle (or sail) through some number of words or pages that is the issue for me.

    I have to develop a new routing, since I've been away from it for a while now. And that's requiring great force of will!

  5. There are days when I will come up with any excuse not to write--oh dear, these shoes need polishing--but when it is your job to write a book, you get on with it. I'm sure surgeons don't always feel like cutting someone open, but they do it.

  6. What a great resource! I discovered this via a tweet from Rhys.

    It seems there are three types of writer's block. The first is "the void." It's the blinking cursor. The blank page. The nothingness.

    The second type is "the critic." That's when we think everything we write sucks. And it keeps us from finishing a project.

    The third type is vacillation. That's where we have so many options, choices & directions that we can't choose. We get stuck at a crossroads.

    Varying shades of each of these are sprinkled through what you shared. Y'all have great experience and advice!

    I have some novelist friends I can't wait to send this way!

  7. I don't believe in writer's block, but only in excuses. I also agree that if you're trying to mold your characters to the plot, then indeed you may have a problem. I find that sitting at my computer for a designated amount of time works well. I start with one sentence, and then, another, and then another. It gets contagious. I end up with some word count; better on some days than others.

  8. I have butt-in-chair block, too. It's not that I don't LOVE writing, even on the hard days. It's all the other things that seem to need doing that no one else does. I should have figured out how to deal with this on by now . . . Suggestions welcome.

  9. Love this post! Thanks to Keith Jennings for passing it on.

    I too find that "writers block" comes from my not listening to my characters and telling them to go one way when they clearly want to do something different.

    I love how each writer is unique in their process - there is no one way. I'm finding that I learn more and more and try different things with each novel too - what works for me one day, may not be so great the next.

  10. I also think it has a lot to do with how you define writer's block.

    The desire not to write today? Yes, probably, if we are honest, nearly everyone.

    The desire not to write all week? All month. Yes, sometimes.

    I consider it writer's block even when I write anyway.

  11. This is a very timely post for me. It's my one day per week that I devote to writing, because I also have a 4-day/week day job. While I sometimes write on the weekend, I also have all those other weekend things to get done. But Fridays? Writing day!

    I read this post this morning at 6:30. Then I glued my butt to the chair and just produced 3000 words on the WIP. I do get sort of antsy after a full morning in the chair, and might or might not get back up there and crank out a few more pages today, but I feel really pleased that I successfully damped down all the distractions today.

    Thanks for the inspiration. Now, if I could just asell a couple of series and have this as my profession instead of writing software manuals, I'd be all set. In the meantime? I guess I have two professions!


  12. I've had an over-long break from my WIP and it's hard to get back into the character's heads. All the different advice given was wonderful to hear. I decide I would give myself permission to write only 500 words the first few days, until I had the voices in my head again. Did the job.

  13. I've been breaking writer's block for more than 25 years in a one-time consultation for people ranging from full-time professional writers, including one who's had ten books in a row on the New York Times bestseller list, and another who is a Pulitzer prize winner, to part-time writers, graduate students, and aspirant writers.

    I identify six major forms of block (these also apply to other creative artists as well as writers, such as composers, photographers, and painters -- but not to actors -- and, actually, can apply to great numbers of people for great numbers of projects or undertakings). They are:

    1. Paralysis

    2. Avoidance behavior

    3. Last-minute crisis writing

    4. Inability to finish

    5. Inability to select from among projects

    6. Block specific (able to work on other material).

    I can't summarize a four-hour session filled with concept and technique here, but here, without going into detail about them or discussing the many subtle ways they can play out, are what I call "The Three Big Killers" in block:

    1. Perfectionism -- which is a form of all-or-nothing thinking, triumph or catastrophe, with nothing possible in between.

    2. Fear -- which is a product of the first and second Big Killers, but which can be identified as a separate entity. All fear in writer's block, regardless of where it starts, can be boiled down to the simple statement: "That I can't do it." And what is the "it" that I can't do? The simple act of putting words on paper. Period. Nothing more. Nothing less. The simple act of putting words on paper. No more magical an act than painting a board or throwing a board. (Find an equivalent analog for whatever task or project *you* have in mind or are facing.

    3. The Baggage Train -- these are all the things we wish to *accomplish* with our writing, such as I want to be rich, I want to be admired, I want to make them laugh and cry, I want to save the whales, I want to bring peace to the middle-east, etc., but which are not the *act* of writing itself. The problem arises because, while it looks like I'm trying to write, and I *think* I'm trying to write, I'm not: I'm trying to get rich, save the whales, get my ex-wife and all my ex-lovers to say 'Boy, I really should have stayed with him. Look how sensitive and insightful he is,' etc. The key is to disconnect the baggage train from the locomotive, which is writing, which is the simple act of putting words on paper, so that thing get out of the station.

    Any single one of these Killers operating in you with sufficient strength, and you'll be blocked ; any two present at the same time, and you don't have a chance.

    I hope that is of some help. I wish you the best with this problem. (Incidentally, I am not invulnerable to block myself. In fact, I have a *huge* potential case of it. The difference is, I know what to do about it. Actually, I break writer's block several times a day for myself. If I didn't, I would be paralyzed.)

    Be well,
    Jerrold Mundis


  14. I think Keith and Jerry are right, there are different kinds of writer's block (the term refers to different kinds of issues) - and a solution for one may not work for another.

    Your suggestions are great for tackling some of the kinds of block that I have experienced.

    Thank you!!

  15. For the first time in my life, I'm doing NaNoWriMo. I decided to participate to unstick myself. There's nothing like a deadline, even a pretend one, to create a sense of urgency.

    A few days ago, over on Murderati, David Corbett wrote a wonderful post. His first line: Writing problems are personal problems. I've been thinking a helluva lot about that.

    (Okay, back to NaNo...)

  16. Oh wow, so nice to see all these new friends here! thanks for sharing your insights--and now we know to call Jerry if we need a consultation. I've got his theme song in my head:

    Who ya gonna call? Blockbusters!

    (ps Edith, 3000 words, go you!)

  17. Writing makes me love laundry. Any excuse... I so don't love writing as I know other people do; but I love having written! And therein lies the conundrum.

  18. Thanks Jerrold,

    That was terrific insight. Especially the baggage part.

    Also, I think checking email is a form of, or maybe a symptom of Writer's Block!

  19. I'm in the don't believe in it camp. When I get that question, I always riff on "no such thing as lawyer's block or accountant's block or soldier's block." When writing is your job, you write. Not to say that some days aren't harder than others, as many other posters have said, but you power through.

    Edith--congrats on the 3K words!

  20. I agree with all that is said here. I've found, after 7 NaNoWriMos, that a writer learns from each experience. When I hit a wall, I go around or over it, then go back to the problem which is usually solved by then. Also being aware. When I find myself cleaning excessively, which I hate to do, I know I'm avoiding my writing so I figure out why. When I'm on a roll with my characters or a scene, I go with it because I know it's a good day...a lousy day could show up at any time. On those days, I set a smaller deadline.

    Writing teaches you so much about you the writer, you just need to pay attention.

    When I hit a wall with a short story, I either move on to another story or analyze why the story isn’t working. Sometimes the idea needs to jell more, sometimes I’m looking at the story from the wrong angle or wrong POV, but mostly I love when it just flows. I wish it would happen more often.

    We are writers and we write.

  21. Wow--Keith and Jerry--so great to see you! Please come back..wonderful insight. So happy to see you here..

    Edith! You rock.

    And wow--what a terrific list of comments..inspirational, all of you!

  22.'re so funny..I was about to write that I had writer's block that's why I didn't contribute to this piece!

  23. I think if you try and hold your characters to the mold you set for them according to a storyline, writer's block is almost inevitable. However, if you let them lead you and the story, there never seems to be a block.

    Another trick to challenge your writing self is to set shorter goals (e.g. 1000 words a day, 5 pages a day, setting a timer and seeing how much you can pump out before the "bing" goes off and then take a break and do it again to try and beat your last record).

    The most important thing is to just keep writing -- don't get stuck on one particular issue in a first can be taken care of in editing and refining process.