Friday, October 26, 2012

Five Tips for Overcoming Writer's Block

Yesterday I spoke with a Paranormal Romance writer friend who was struggling with the dreaded 'Chapter Seven Blues'.  What happened, she asked, to the easy thrill of seeing her scenes appear on the screen as if by magic? She'd been in butt-in-chair, hands-on-keyboard mode for days, yet had written nothing.

Was her Muse on vacation--or had she left for good?

While my friend is an accomplished woman--successful in everything she's attempted in life--she's fairly new to writing. Her first book came easily. She got tons of requests at her first conference, has sent manuscripts to several agents, and will no doubt sell very soon. She'll be a success--as long as she keeps writing.

But the worry in her voice was bone-marrow deep, and it was real.

I can relate to that fear. In the five years I've been writing, I've had moments of soul-grinding doubt: About my writing ability, about the story I'm working on, about my willingness to keep going as the rejection letters pile up.

It's impossible for me to be creative when I'm fearful. For me, fear is the underlying cause of writer's block.

Oddly, the rejection letters provided a great lesson on how to regain creativity. Which brings me to my first tip:

1) Write what you're excited about.

After the first rash of rejections I nursed my wounded ego for a few days, then emailed a well-known author, asking for her take on things. Should I begin the second book in a series I hadn't sold yet? Spend my time revising the rejected piece? Keep everything the same and send it out to more agents?

She wisely advised not to give up on the first piece, but to set it aside temporarily and dig into a project I'm really excited about.

I did, and after a week or two something strange happened: While immersed in the new manuscript, I realized what changes would strengthen the earlier piece. With my new perspective, revising the first piece is a snap. This week I'll finish revisions, query more agents, and then get back to the new manuscript.

2) Skip the (blocked) scene and write another.

If a scene isn't flowing, maybe it doesn't work. (More about that here.) Rather than pound against a brick wall, I've found it helpful to skip past a scene that won't cooperate and write the next one in my head. The skipped scene might be wrong, or it might be 'filler'; a scene that conveys information without adding to the story.

Some editors recommend identifying your weakest scene and finding a way to delete it. Better, perhaps, not to write the darned thing in the first place!

3) Write a scene you won't let anyone see.

If this sounds weird, you're probably right. But sometimes I'm so focused on writing for my perceived 'audience'--usually an imaginary agent or hypercritical editor--that I play it too safe and get bored. And if I want to write bored, I'll go to work composing insurance brochures (and make a lot more money.)

But what if I throw caution to the winds and write that graphic death scene? (Ewww...the blood dripped where?) What if I get inside my killer's head as he plans his next abduction?

If I have the courage to write what I'm afraid to, chances are it'll be exciting. Maybe I'll use the scene, maybe I won't. But at the very least I'll jumpstart my creativity--and maybe find it's fun living n the edge.

4) Put a (limited) moratorium on writing.

I don't know if this works for anyone else, but when I'm writing a lot and accomplishing little, I'll sometimes force myself to close the lid and step away from the laptop. This may be terrible advice for those with twelve unfinished manuscripts under the bed, but if your problem is fear (and it's ugly twin, perfectionism) a little fresh air and perspective might do wonders for your Muse.

For me, trail running opens a channel to the infinite possibilities in the universe, and when the (short) moratorium is over I'm eager to capture all the great ideas flooding my brain. Obviously, the only way to become a bestselling novelist is to FINISH THE NOVEL, so these enforced breaks have a definite start and end time (or date.)

Speaking of overcoming writer's block by not writing, here's my next tip:

5) Read a book by a great author in your genre.

If my Muse is out to lunch, I feed her beautiful words by authors I admire: Elmore Leonard's amazing dialogue, Harlen Coben's strong emotions, Dean Koontz' ever-tightening coils of suspense, Dick Francis' condensed, twisting plots. And for dessert: Scott Turow's multilayered characters, whose backstories melt on your tongue like sweet creme brulee.

When I read wonderful writers, I try not to compare my own crude attempts with theirs, but instead to appreciate the variety of voice and style; to celebrate how each of these authors succeeded by getting very good at being themselves. And when I finish a good book, I'm somehow inspired to pour myself into my own manuscript, to listen to my characters and tell their story to the best of my ability.

If fear is the poison that causes writer's block, the antidote is love. Love of story, love of my characters, love of the process of telling the stories inside my head. And there's one truth that works when fear keeps me frozen.

By writing today, I'll be a better writer tomorrow.

Cheers...and Happy Writing!



  1. Lovely post! BTW, I hear that author's muse FINALLY showed up, slightly jet lagged and grinning like she'd had a sinful rendevue with a sex god--that naughty minx.

    1. I'm so glad to hear that. Slippery muses have to be handled with care--and sometimes wrestled to the ground and kept in a headlock. ;)
      Now make her pay for her little vaca.

    2. So happy she returned! Hopefully she'll relate the story of her adventure for the rest of us!



  2. Great job today, TD. Can I borrow it for the Smart Women Blog? :)
    I've never heard it called the Seventh Chapter Blues, but I have heard it called a few other not-so-nice names. ;)
    I think the trouble is often that we've learned just enough to put ourselves in real pain.
    Our internal editors are hardest on us. We write and the IE says, "That's just stupid. NOBODY wants to read that drivel." So we rewrite, and re-rewrite until we're sick of our characters, our plots and ourselves.
    SOMETIMES it helps to do something different, such as Nanowrimo. That little practice is amazing. It can open the writer's eyes to a lot of interesting things about herself and their work. At least it did me.
    Write on, baby!

    1. Susan,

      I'd be delighted for you to use anything you find helpful. I've had to learn everything the hard way, it seems, but I'm happy to share what didn't work (and then what did!)

      I've never felt I had 'time' to do NaNoWriMo, but maybe this is the year!




  3. Wonderful advice, T. "Step away from the computer and no one will get hurt" is one of my mantras. Trying to write when it's not working just ramps my frustration level beyond belief, and the only way to let my mind solve the problem is to go do something relatively . . . well, mindless. I've come up with some of my best ideas while mowing, walking or watching TV.

    1. Marilyn,

      For me, the TV has to be good-quality writing. My favorite: JUSTIFIED of FX. Sometimes I rewind the DVR just to catch the dialogue, which is classic Elmore Leonard--funny, sharp, and often sad.

      I love football, but it puts my brain on hold.



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