Tag Archives: writer’s block

Got Writer’s Block? Take the Creative Pause

When a group of writers gathers to share their experiences, the conversation inevitably turns to writer’s block. This was the case recently and I shared with a group of colleagues what I wrote in a guest post on Writer Unboxed. My contention is that most of what we call writer’s block stems from a gap–either in the story, the characters, a scene, or the overall work. You can read the post here.

If you buy the”gap” theory, this begs the larger question: once you know there’s a gap of some sort, what do you do about it? I experience writer’s block primarily at the scene or character levels. At the scene level, it happens when a scene just isn’t working. I can’t seem to create any tension or excitement. It’s a chore to write the scene. When this happens I usually slog through and finish the scene, even though I know I will probably cut it later. A bigger challenge is when I discover I don’t have enough scenes to get from one pivotal place in the story to another. This is the price of being a pantser rather than a plotter.

Writer’s block that stems from character issues is a daunting challenge. It’s a sinking feeling when the writer discovers his main character isn’t strong enough, or perhaps doesn’t deserve to be the main character. This requires an intense assessment of the character’s flaws. Does he have enough depth? Are the challenges you have placed before him important and serious?

When I think through either scene or character issues, what I like to do is get away from my writing space. Take a walk. Go for a run. Put on my ear buds and listen to music. Brainstorm solutions. It usually works and there is a body of research that indicates such “creative pauses” can unlock the brain’s creativity. There’s the work of Edward DeBono, described here. DeBono, a physicist and author, defined it as a deliberate, self-imposed pause to consider alternative solutions to a problem.

In an article in Fast Company, Martin Lindstrom’s take on the creative pause is that boredom might unlock creative solutions, but in today’s fast-paced world, there is little time for boredom. Cameron Moll suggested one might do some productive creative thinking in the shower. Read his post here.

For me, it’s a walk or a run or just some peaceful time away from the laptop. I let my mind ponder the problem and consider all possibilities. Try it sometime.

How do you unblock yourself? What are your strategies for overcoming writer’s block?

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Guest Post on Writer Unboxed

It was an honor to be selected for a guest post on the popular blog, Writer Unboxed. My post was featured on July 7. Started by two writers, Therese Walsh and Kathleen Bolton, who wanted to share their journey as they each wrote their first novel, Writer Unboxed features a diverse group of contributors, ranging from agent Donald Maass to former publisher Jane Friedman. Make Writer Unboxed one of your favorites. It is a fantastic blog. Check out my post on writer’s block:

Read my post on Writer Unboxed

 

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The Breakthrough Moment

It was one of those special moments that make it all worthwhile. I was working on my NaNoWriMo novel a couple of weeks ago. My story was far along, headed toward its climax, but I only had 20,000 words written. I had to get to 50,000 words. That’s the deal: a 50,000-word novel in 30 days. I was stuck. I did what I always do when facing such a dilemma. I took a step back. I got away from my laptop. I did some intensive brainstorming.

What else could happen to jump-start the story? A new subplot? Add a new character? The story needed something else to happen, but I wasn’t sure what that was. Meanwhile, the clock was ticking. Did the story need more action? Yes, that was it. How about another murder? Yes, that would work. After all, I was writing a murder-mystery and the first murder occurred way back in Chapter 1.

So the second murder was the kernel, but it couldn’t just be a gratuitous killing. There had to be a link between the second murder and the first one. This got my mind going. What was the connection? Ah, the same person committed both murders and both times for the same reason. So what was the reason? Once I figured that part out, I decided I needed to write the ending first. I guessed it would gain for me about 3,000 words. As of today, the ending scene has turned into several scenes and has clocked in at more than 7,000 words.

Once I developed the basic sequence of the “whodunit” part, I went back to the point where I got stuck and started filling in scenes. The milestones fell quickly: 25,000 words, 30,000, 35,000, 40,000, etc.

I reached 50,000 words on Friday, November 25, but I needed to keep going. The story wasn’t done yet. I’m at nearly 52,000 words today.

What’s the lesson? Let’s look at what I did when I got stuck:

  • Take a step back.
  • Get away from my work space.
  • Do some intensive brainstorming.
  • Consider all the possibilities.
  • Identify the best solution to breathe life into the story.
  • Develop the structure girding this new plotline.
  • Work on the ending first.

In his excellent book, Writing the Breakout Novel, agent Donald Maass wrote about how to brainstorm a “breakout premise.” His advice was to “steer away from the obvious, seek inherent conflict, find gut emotional appeal, and ask, ‘What if…'” That’s great advice for any writer.

It doesn’t happen every day, but that breakthrough moment was magical. I felt giddy. Writers suffer a lot of angst and loneliness. Breakthrough moments make it all worthwhile.

Have you experienced a breakthrough moment in your work in progress or earlier works? What was it? What did you do to make it happen? 

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Sue Miller to the Rescue

It must be the NaNoWriMo effect, but writer’s block is on my mind these days. Last week, I wrote about the “creative pause,” the positive effect  a short break can have on stimulating your creativity. Stepping away from my work in progress when I’m stuck has worked for me. Try it sometime.

Another winning strategy for unlocking my creativity is to have a “go to” author to read. I have several, depending on the nature of the story in progress. In my NaNoWriMo novel, there is a romantic relationship between the main character and a woman who, years earlier, was accused of murdering his baseball teammate and best friend. Through a series of circumstances, the main character tracked down the woman years later and they ended up in a relationship. I was having trouble writing the scenes where the two characters were together. I turned to author Sue Miller.

There are few authors better than Sue Miller at writing these types of intimate scenes between two people involved in a complicated relationship. A lot of writing coaches and bloggers talk about authors who pay attention to the small, precise details that make a scene come alive and propel a story forward. That’s one of Sue Miller’s greatest strengths.

An author and creative writing professor, Miller has written a number of best-selling novels. These include The Good Mother (1986), Inventing the Abbotts (1987), While I Was Gone (1999), The Senator’s Wife (2008) and The Lakeshore Limited (2010). She writes in the genre I like to read and the one in which I like to write. Her stories focus on families in conflict.

In an online interview, Miller lamented the decline in the number of novels that centered on families. “It seems both a more fragile and more important institution than it ever has been, more multifarious, more invented, as it goes along, more necessary. It’s been too easily dismissed as the subject or setting of serious fiction. American fiction in particular was for awhile pleased to think it had moved beyond the family, left it behind as a kind of low topic, suited only to women and children. But it comes around again and again…”

When I got stuck writing a scene for my NaNoWriMo novel, I drove to my local library and checked out While I Was Gone. The protagonist is Jo Becker, a veterinarian who is happily married to a minister. They have raised three daughters together and finally have an empty nest. Jo is content but feels somewhat unsettled, when a man from her past re-enters her life. He triggers memories of a time of personal upheaval, capped by the mysterious murder of her closest friend.

Read more about Sue Miller here.

Miller is among several “go to” authors I read, a list that includes Richard Ford, Michael Chabon, Jonathan Franzen, Alice Munro, and Alice McDermott. I have read and re-read their work, with an eye toward how they set up scenes, develop characters, move the story along, and deal with large themes.

Eight days to go and I’m at 46,200 words.

Do you have a ‘go to’ author you read when you get writer’s block?

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The “Creative Pause”: Rx for Writer’s Block

Reading an e-newsletter recently, I came across the term, “the creative pause.” This term may have been popularized by Edward deBono, a physicist and a leading authority in the field of creative thinking. He described it as a deliberate break from a problem-solving activity to consider alternative solutions.

de Bono described it as a deliberate, self-imposed pause to consider alternative solutions to a problem — even when things are going perfectly fine — for “some of the best results come when people stop to think about things that no one else has stopped to think about” (Serious Creativity: Using the Power of Lateral Thinking to Create New Ideas). He suggested these pauses can be as short as 30 seconds.

In his paper for International Journal of Psychoanalysis, Professor Lajos Székely described creative pause:

“The ‘creative pause’ is defined as the time interval which begins when the thinker interrupts conscious preoccupation with an unsolved problem, and ends when the solution to the problem unexpectedly appears in consciousness.” (“The Creative Pause”, 1967)

In other words, deliberate interruptions, whether short or an unknown period of time, may help scientists, mathematicians, business leaders and writers solve problems

Numerous articles and blog posts recommend some form of the creative pause as the cure for writer’s block. When the words are not flowing, take a walk or leave your work space for a short interval of time. It’s worked for me. When my brain is locked up, there’s nothing like taking the dog for a walk or going for a vigorous run to get the juices flowing again.

You’ve heard people say, “I do some of my best thinking in the shower.” In a 2008 blog post, Cameron Moll posits the idea that thinking in the shower may be an ideal way to experience the creative pause. Moll cites several reasons: little opportunity for distraction, minimal mental engagement required, the white noise effect, and the change of scenery as a way to spark new ways of thinking.

BBC producer and blogger Hugh Garry talks about the science behind the creative pause in this post. Garry wrote that when we come up with solutions by using the creative pause, we are using the unconscious part of our brains:

“When we solve problems we not only use different sides of our brain, we are also using different bits of memory: our ‘working memory’ and our ‘unconscious memory’. Because we are more familiar with our working memory we tend to give it more credit for problem solving than our ‘unconscious memory’. Let me explain how they differ. Our ‘working memory’ is used to solve simple mathematical problems like simple addition, multiplication and conversions: calculating the cost in dollars of a £5 meal (if the dollar is $1.60 to the pound) is something our ‘working memory’ can cope with without having to resort to using fingers, a paper and pen or calculator. Change the cost of that meal to £5.37 and all of a sudden the ‘working memory’ is beginning to struggle. In fact, for most people it has probably fallen over.

Your ‘unconscious memory’ has an incredible ability to call upon stored information to help us complete challenges way beyond the capabilities of the ‘working memory’.”

–Hugh Garry, blog post, October 13, 2011

What’s the lesson here? Sometimes the best solution to writer’s block is not to sit at the computer and stew. The best solution is to simply walk away and come back later.

Do you use the creative pause? Where do you do your best creative thinking?

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What Do You Do When the Thrill is Gone?

B.B. King’s classic, “The Thrill is Gone,” is one of my favorite songs. It brings to mind a dilemma many writers face: what to do when you’re in the middle of your work in progress and the thrill is gone?

Most of us start a novel with enthusiasm. You begin with a great story and a complex protagonist who has a concrete goal. The protagonist encounters some early obstacles. So far, so good. Then, you hit a wall. You have a clear idea how the story ends, but you don’t know how you’re going to get there. You’re a hundred pages or so into your first draft and you don’t know what to do next.

How do you scale that wall? I find it helpful to take a step back from your work. Go for a walk or a run. Take a drive. Do whatever works to clear your head. Conduct an honest self-diagnosis of your work. What’s not working for you? If you’re simply having an off-day and nothing’s flowing,
get back to it tomorrow. However, it could be something else, most likely a problem with either the story or the character (or multiple characters). Here are some common problems:

  • The story has taken off in an unexpected direction and is not going where you intended it to go.
  • A secondary character has taken over the story, overshadowing the main character.
  • You need a “bridge” to get you from one major milestone/event to the next one.
  • The main character is in a dire situation and you can’t figure out a way to get the character out of it.
  • Your main character just isn’t working (this could be a fatal flaw).
  • A scene requires some research or subject matter expertise you are not prepared for.
  • The narrative voice doesn’t feel right to you.
  • Your story isn’t working; it’s not believable, it doesn’t hang together, or events just don’t logically flow from one to the next.
  • There isn’t enough tension or conflict to sustain the story (again, this could be a fatal flaw)
  • There are too many story lines, subplots and/or characters
  • You have a scene in your head, but you  figure out how to write it.

The wall could consist of any one of these problems or it could even be multiple problems you’re facing. Let’s talk first about story-related problems. If a story is going in an unexpected direction, ask yourself whether this new direction will enhance the story or detract from it.
There are a number of renowned writers whose technique is to begin a story without the end in mind because they find it limits the possibilities. If the story doesn’t hang together, you need to decide whether it’s worth your time and effort to go back and make revisions. Many writers advise it’s best to keep moving forward on the theory that if you start revising your first draft, you’ll never finish it. If there are too many characters you can always kill a few off. That would also ratchet up the tension level.

As for the problem of a secondary character overshadowing the main character, an author at a writers’ conference I attended said she solved this problem by killing off the secondary character. The character’s death also lent a new dimension to her story.

In many cases, a good self-diagnosis followed by decisive action to fix the problem will surmount your wall and the thrill will return.

What do you do when you get stuck? What works the best for you to overcome writer’s block? 

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