The Cure for Writer’s Block?

I’ve known for several days what I wanted to write about this week, but this is the fourth time I’ve begun the blog post. Each time I wrote something, it stunk and I deleted it and started again. How fitting, then, that my idea for this week is to talk about Writer’s Block.

Have you ever seen a baseball game in which the pitcher is going through a bad stretch and just can’t throw a decent pitch? Or a golf tournament in which the golfer who was just recently at the top of his or her game now can’t seem to make even one good shot? That’s what I imagine to be the athlete’s equivalent of Writer’s Block.

Writer’s Block is something that lots of writers fear, and that a few actually embrace. Why would anyone embrace the temporary inability to write?

I can’t really answer that, because I’m one of the writers that fears it. But I know I’ve read stories (I like to call them “legends”) about authors who don’t mind Writer’s Block…they know that they’ll come out on the other side a better writer.

The way I see it, there are two different approaches to Writer’s Block. The first is to keep writing and the second is to stop writing. I have tried both approaches, and I’ve actually had success with both.

Keep Writing

The advice I’ve heard many times is to keep writing no matter how awful your words are. Eventually the words will straighten themselves out and you’ll find a thread to latch onto that isn’t totally terrible. You’ll then be able to write your way out of your funk. This really works…sometimes. Once I’ve picked up that thread and I’m back on track, I find that I like to copy the bad stuff I’ve written, delete it from the main document, and put it in a separate document. I refer to the bad stuff occasionally because (once in a while) I can go back and resurrect ideas from it and transform them into ideas that actually work.

My advice? Keep writing until you can’t stand it anymore, then try a different approach.

Stop Writing

This can be broken down further: either stop writing permanently, or stop writing temporarily. I can’t in good conscience recommend that any writer stop writing permanently because in my opinion this is a rather drastic way of dealing with the problem.

So that brings us to a temporary break in your writing. A “temporary break” can mean different things to different people. For a writer with a deadline looming, the break is going to have to be short, maybe an hour or two. For someone who has a little more time, the break may be a little longer, perhaps a few weeks or more.

The important thing to remember is that during the break, do something that’s going to help you with your writing.

This may mean reading a book outside your preferred genre or a book within your preferred genre (whichever is better for you personally).

Or it can mean getting outdoors for some fresh air and a little while away from the computer.

It can mean writing something else, maybe a short story if you’re a novelist or an essay if you’re a poet.

It can mean taking a nap, if you’re so tired that the words on the screen in front of you have stopped making sense.

It can mean getting up and having lunch if you’ve forgotten to eat. Again.

The point is, you have to find out what works for you and then get out there and do it. It may take a while to figure out what works, but keep trying. Something will work.

I’ve now rewritten this post several times and it’s taken much longer than usual to write. That’s okay, because my deadline (which is self-imposed) isn’t until tomorrow morning at four o’clock. What do you do to combat Writer’s Block? I’d love to hear your solutions.

Until next week,

Amy

Writing Habits Revisited

One of my first blog posts was about the habits of a writer. Do you like it quiet? Can you work in the middle of a three-ring circus? Do you drink water? Tea? Something stronger? What time of day do you do your best writing?

Today’s post is a bit like that early post, but with an emphasis on a writer’s writing habits, rather than his or her surroundings and physical environment.

I’ve read a lot recently about the discussion going on among writers about the differences between being “plotter” or a “pantster.” So I’m going to jump in and add my two cents.

For those of you who may not be familiar with those words, a plotter, as you might expect, is a writer who plots out the details of her story before writing. A pantster, by contrast, is a writer who writes without plotting first; in other words, one who flies by the seat of her pants.

Which are you?

I am a card-carrying plotter. I outline a story to within an inch of its life. I’ve tried flying by the seat of my pants, and I find that I experience much more writer’s block and frustration when I don’t have an outline to follow.

There is one book that was instrumental in helping me to organize my thoughts and ideas into a coherent story. That book is Phyllis A. Whitney’s Guide to Fiction Writing. For anyone who is unfamiliar with Ms. Whitney, she was a prolific writer who wrote for many of her 100-plus years. She is my favorite romantic suspense writer, and I aspire to be half as good as she was. She was a plotter. She kept a notebook for each story, which she outlines beautifully in the book, containing all her notes, outlines, plotting ideas, character sketches, chronological information, research, and so on. Her reasoning for such a notebook, in part, is that it helps keep a writer organized and it helps one avoid writer’s block. I found that to be true. When I wrote my first novel, I kept a notebook religiously and I rarely dealt with writer’s block.

But I’m a plotter in real life, too. Maybe that helps explain why I’m a plotter as a writer. I like to know what’s going to happen. And when. To the minute. If I try to go to the grocery store without a list, trying to remember what I need by the seat of my pants, I’m a complete mess. When I have my list, I’m like a grocery-shopping machine. I’m in and out in a matter of minutes. I plan weekly menus, too. Without a menu, I never know from one day to the next what I’m making for dinner. Or whether my kids will have something edible for lunch. Making a menu helps me plan my week. And as long as we’re on the subject of menus, you may as well know that I follow recipes to the letter. “A pinch of this, a dash of that” is so not me. I’ve been known to visit four stores in search of lemongrass rather than doing without it if the recipe calls for lemongrass.

I’m not suggesting that being a pantster is bad. It’s just not for me. There are writers who can write amazing, cogent stories without an outline. They’re my heroes. They are the same people who can probably go to the grocery store without having a list that looks like it was generated by NASA.

The important thing for plotters to keep in mind is that there are times when a writer has to listen to her characters and be willing to deviate from the outline if it’s necessary to the development of the story. It happens. In the novel I’m currently working on, it took me quite a while to realize that I was missing a character. Once I was willing to admit that the story had to change to accommodate a new character, it got much easier to write.

So what do you think? Are you a plotter? A pantster? Are you like that in real life, too? I’d love to know.

Until next week,

Amy

Lemons Become Lemonade

Mother Nature threw New Jersey a curveball this week in the form of snow (six inches where I live, to be exact).  We don’t normally get that much snow here, and when we do, people quickly divide into two groups:  those who hate the snow and those who love it.

I’m proudly in the latter group.  Sometimes.  There is nothing more beautiful than snow falling and evergreens with their boughs bent gracefully under the weight of the white, fluffy stuff.  Don’t get me wrong, though: I want the snow to melt immediately once it gets gray and dirty, and I don’t want my ability to drive or walk anywhere to be affected.

And don’t even talk to me about ice.  The only way I like ice is in a beverage.

When snow comes to our neck of the woods, there are those who act as if the unthinkable has befallen us.  It’s winter in the mid-Atlantic, though, so what should we expect?  Snow is a distinct possibility.  And this week’s snow got me thinking about things that happen – things that we didn’t necessarily expect or want- and our reactions to them.  These things happen all the time, really.  They can range anywhere from winning the lottery to catching a cold to losing one’s job to a death in the family to being late for a dentist appointment.  Unexpected events run the gamut, in other words.  And not to get all preachy, but the way we react to these events can have a strong bearing on our outlook, our attitude, our health, and perhaps most importantly, our loved ones.

A very mundane unexpected thing happened here last Friday.  My kids had a snow day.  Earlier in the week, I had expected them to have school on Thursday and Friday, but nature decided otherwise.  I could have been angry that I wouldn’t be able to accomplish what I needed to do on Friday, but I’ve been down that road before and believe me, we were all the worse for it and the snow day stunk.  I took a different approach this time:  I told my kids that I needed some time to myself to work and that I would take them sledding later in the afternoon.  You know what?  It worked and everyone was happy.  Frostbite notwithstanding, my kids had a blast sledding.

Here’s another example:  last August we went on vacation to California.  I was waiting for a very important phone call while we were there and when it didn’t come and then it didn’t come the next day or the next day or the next day, I turned all Mommy-Dearest on everyone and very nearly ruined the vacation while I wallowed in my own misery.  I had a headache everyday and I’m sure I gave my family their fair share of headaches, too.  I hope I’ll remember that and respond better the next time something doesn’t happen when I want it to.

Here’s another example, and then I’ll be done.  I promise.  Two weeks ago I was working on my second book when I realized I had some problems that were becoming increasingly difficult to solve.  I was getting frustrated, but I am learning to step back a bit when that happens, and that’s what I did.  I eventually realized that I needed another character in the story…just like that, problem solved.  I could have insisted that no one bother me or that everyone go outdoors so I could think, but instead I’m the one who went for a walk outdoors.  Like I said, I’m learning.

So the next time life hands you lemons (or a snowstorm), do what your grandmother always told you to do.  Make lemonade.  Or go sledding.

Until next week,

Amy

P.S.  How are you doing on those New Year’s resolutions?