Sep 3, 2012

What Can Writer's Block Teach You About Writing?

You know what’s ridiculous?

My motto for this blog is “beat the tar out of writer’s block,” yet I’ve never written about writer’s block or suggested specific strategies to overcome it.

You know what else is ridiculous?

Dancing hippos.

I believe in the existence of writer's block; oh, yes, I am an ardent believer in it. Writer’s block is just as real as a couple of hippos stomping through Swan Lake.

So… how do you overcome something that doesn’t exist?

Protip: You don’t ignore it. You can’t wish your troubles away. The world would be a terrible, meaningless place if you could.

You know, that thing of ill-defined contours we call ‘writer’s block’ is nothing but a straitjacket you put on when you’re afraid to express yourself. When you’re afraid of making decisions. There’s no ‘block,’ there’s only reluctance.

You can work your way out of the straitjacket. There are dozens of tips, tricks and workarounds but, before we proceed, let me ask:

Are you at peace? Are you OK with yourself?

The Fabled Sasquatch of Despair

See, I don’t buy into the myth of the tormented artist and I don’t find suicide or self-destruction inherently ennobling. While I am in touch with my inner turmoil, there’s a vast difference between expressing chaos and letting chaos take over.

Yeti at Night
by Ryan Snook

Sometimes this shaggy beast that sucks the words right out of your head, this ‘writer’s block,’ is only trying to do you a favor. But the road to the blank page is paved with such excellent favors. Writer’s block is a warning:

a)      That you haven’t done proper research
b)      That you don’t know your characters/plot all that well
c)       That you have no idea what you’re trying to say/what you want to say
d)      That something outside of writing, some factor in your life, needs urgent attention
e)       All of the above and more

d) is the most concerning of all. It means that you need to probe a little deeper and find out why you're not writing.

The first thing you need to do is to take charge of your emotions. Depression and other mental ailments provide these really attractive holes that you can fall into and, when you find yourself down there, it's all you can do not to dig down to China. Trust me: there's nothing down there for you.

Take care of yourself first. Word processors can wait and there will still be stories to tell when you come back.

If you feel that your day job is keeping you from your passions, and this is getting you down, you should read this. Chances are, a better path is laid out before you right now, one that allows you to support yourself and follow your dreams at the same time. Do you want to see it? Because the key verb is want.

You’re not going to beat writer’s block – sorry, reluctance – unless you want to. And you have to want it bad enough to make a decision. Bad enough to choose writing over something else, every day.

Just don’t beat yourself up if you don’t meet your quota on any given day, because willpower works like a muscle. Strengthen that muscle over time. Baby steps, baby steps.

Now -- time to give the wild man of the woods a close shave.


Showing the Sasquatch Who’s Boss

More than writer’s block, you need to worry about stumbling blocks:

·         Does this plot development make any sense?
·         Can my protagonist walk away without major consequences?
·         Does my dialogue flow? Is it tight and meaningful?

These are common difficulties everybody faces. Everybody. I have yet to meet anyone capable of banging out a perfect first draft; works of genius only appear effortless. The Gate of Ishtar wasn’t sneezed into being, you know.

Fixing broken plot points. The 5-question method. Written for a business audience, it applies to people — and plots! — without significant modifications. If you want to get to the root of a problem, ask why five times. You can use it as a soul-searching tool; you can just as well employ it to find out why a scene in your story didn’t quite unfold the way you intended.

Breaking out of a rut. In one of his wonderful videos about the writing life, Yuvi Zalkow mentions a helpful block-busting method I’ve tried myself: writing lists. Whenever he’s stuck, he just writes a list of the things that need to happen in a scene, or a list of the characters that need to be there – any kind of list, really. That's how he coaxes a stalling engine to life, and you can do it too.

Yuvi's the master of self-deprecating humor.
Click to enlarge

Breathing life into the way your characters talk. Nathan Bransford has come up with seven keys to writing good dialogue. From this point on, don’t you ever forget his number seven, “Good dialogue is unexpected.” Print it up using a slab font, point size 200, and keep that printout where you can see it. Nothing murders a story the way predictable dialogue does. (Granted, there’s worse than “predictable.”)


There are no dancing hippos.
Writer’s block could signal a larger problem in your life, which you need to take care of before you can write confidently. Peace of mind is a writer's greatest asset; without it, your head asplode.

There’s a wealth of advice out there. Some good, some bad, and some beyond the pale. Pay attention to the people who help you see farther, even if you disagree with them. No, scratch that. Especially if you disagree with them.

What can they teach you about writing? -- is a weekly series of articles drawing on public statements by talented people, and how such statements apply to the act of writing. “Talented people” does not mean they’re entertainers, nor do I expect you to agree with my definition of talent at all times. In early 2012, I decided to expand the scope of these articles to include remarkable characters in works of fiction. And now, it seems, even abstract concepts are grist for my mill. 

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