Writing Advice #5: Writer’s Block

A couple of years ago, I wrote a blog on MySpace devoted to writing advice for teens. Over time, it evolved into a general blog on writing advice for everyone. I blathered on and on, answered questions, etc. Since then, I’ve pointed people to that blog when they’ve sent me questions on writing, but I know that MySpace isn’t always the most, uh, reliable repository for such things. Plus, if you’re not on MySpace, you can read the blogs, but you can’t comment on them.

So once a week (probably on Wednesdays), I’ll be reprinting my writing advice blogs here on barrylyga.com. I’ll go through and edit them a little bit, too, and I might make some merges/changes, so they won’t be exactly like they were on MySpace, but they’ll hopefully still be helpful to people who are interested.

Here we go!

 


Ah, yes, writer’s block. That scourge of writers everywhere! Shouldn’t we have a telethon to look for a cure? Shouldn’t there be a car ribbon for Writer’s Block Awareness?

Nah, not really.

Here’s the thing: Writer’s block isn’t something you should concern yourself with. Why? Because it’s really no big deal.

See, writer’s block is only as bad as you allow it to be. Once you understand the types of writer’s block and a few easy tricks, it’s fairly easy to avoid it and/or conquer it.

There are really two kinds of writer’s block:

“I don’t know what to write.” — This is when you want to be a writer and you want to write and you sit down at the keyboard and you can’t think of a damn thing to write about. Fortunately for you, we’ve covered this already. Refresh your memory here if you missed the last blog.

“I’m stuck on my current project.” — Now this is a whole different thing.

This particular flavor of writer’s block occurs when you already have your idea and maybe a rough outline and a few chapters that hold together pretty well and a general ending in mind and then…

Everything…

Just…

Stops…

Dead…

That REALLY sucks.

I’ve been there. We’ve ALL been there. It’s part and parcel of writing. But it’s OK because there are some tricks and techniques and even a cheat you can use to get around this.

So, let’s pretend. You’re working on your latest book, the modestly titled The Greatest Book Ever, Even Better than My Last One (TGBEEBTMLO for short). You’re six chapters in and the main character, Lance deGoodguy, has just learned that his wife is cheating on him with an ocelot. Lance is distraught. He drives all night to dull the pain, eventually winding up at the bridge where he proposed to his wife, all those years ago.

And…

And…

Well, he can’t JUMP. Lance is the good guy, in case you haven’t noticed. He’s the main character. And besides, you already know how the book ends — Lance discovers new love AND the secret formula for calorie-free chocolate sauce when he stumbles upon a hidden chemistry lab in the ruins of a Bangladeshi temple. (His faithless wife, tragically, dies when she falls from a tree, unable to cope with the ocelot’s arboreal lifestyle.)

But in the meantime… You’ve got nothing. You’re blocked. Poor Lance is on the bridge and he hasn’t even bought his ticket to Bangladesh yet. What the hell do you do now?

OK, here are the options:

Work on something else
Seriously. Don’t go banging your head against the wall. It’s not like there’s someone standing over your shoulder, forcing you to write TGBEEBTMLO to the exclusion of all else. You read the blog on inspiration, right? There are roughly ten duotrigintillion ideas floating around out there at any random moment in time — grab one and start working on it. Your mind will become preoccupied with the new project, freeing up your subconscious to work on the problem of what to do with poor Lance on that bridge and how to get him to the travel agency and how to make him choose Bangladesh as his destination. Next thing you know, you’ve solved your problem. (And, as a bonus, you now have a new, second story to work on!)

Play “what if?”
This is a tried-and-true solution that I’ve heard many authors swear by, though I confess I’ve never used it myself. Basically, you just spitball a bunch of ideas, trusting to the machinegun effect — if you fire enough bullets, one of ’em is bound to hit the target. So think of every possible thing that can happen to Lance on that bridge: He jumps, but someone has tied a bungie cord around his ankles. He jumps, but a giant bird snatches him out of mid-air. He forgets to put the parking brake on and his car rolls down the street, causing him to chase after it. His car gets rear-ended by an SUV piloted by the bastard step-child of Rosie O’Donnell and Grant Morrison. Whatever. No idea is too outlandish or too stupid and one of them just might lead you to your solution. Like I said, I’ve never actually used this one (because I prefer the last item in the list), but I have writer buddies who swear by it.

Back up
The theory here is that the point at which you’re blocked isn’t REALLY the problem. The problem came a few pages or chapters ago, when you set yourself on the path that LED you to this impasse. Basically, it’s like running down a long, dark alleyway and being trapped. The problem isn’t the wall at the end of the alley — it’s that you were stupid enough to run down the alley in the first place. So back up and try again. Maybe Lance doesn’t get in the car when he finds out about his wife’s infidelity; maybe he goes down into the basement and digs out old photo albums instead. Or maybe he gets in the car, but drives to his best friend’s house instead of the bridge.

Skip ahead (cheat)
This is actually my favorite solution and the one I use all the time. It feels like cheating, but it really isn’t.

Here’s what you do: Since you already know what’s going to happen later in the book, you just skip to that part. No, really. Seriously. Do it.

“But, Barry,” you say. “Don’t I have to write the book, y’know, in ORDER? Like, from beginning to end?”

Uh, no. You don’t. I hereby give you permission to write the damn thing backwards or diagonally if that helps. (If you figure out how to write diagonally, tell me — I want to see that).

So do what I do: Skip over the scene that’s giving you trouble (Lance on that bridge) and move on to the next scene you already know has to happen, the next scene that’s solid in your mind. (Say, Lance in that travel agency office.) Now you can keep writing because you’re not jammed up on that old scene any more.

What will happen is this: As you keep working on the new “future” scene, you’ll slowly come to realize how to connect between this new scene and the one you abandoned. It may take a little while, but it WILL happen. In the meantime, keep writing from your new starting point — yeah, you’ve left a little hole that you’ll have to patch later, but in the meantime, you’re still making progress on the book, right?

The most important thing to remember about writer’s block: Don’t panic. Honestly, if you panic, you’ll just make it worse. Don’t get all emo about it — just take a deep breath and use one of the techniques above. This isn’t swine flu or a terminal illness — you’re in charge.

The other most important thing: What you write is private until YOU decide to make it public. Don’t be afraid to write the suckiest, crappiest piece of sucky crap in the world. You can always delete it later. What matters is keeping your fingers on that keyboard, which — I swear — is the best way to break through that block.

Comments

  1. Is skip ALL the time when working on a story. (As I read through your blog I’m probably going to come up with questions and comments on problems and solutions ect… Soooo you’ll hear a lot from me. :->)

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