Overcoming Writer’s Block

I’ve been thinking about writing a post on how to overcome writer’s block, and while I was working on my long post about procrastination, it sort of flowed into beating writer’s block (because procrastination and writer’s block are often interrelated). So here is (hopefully) some help if you are a sufferer:

The Writing Center at UNC-Chapel Hill has a nice long article on procrastination and how to motivate yourself to write. They mean writing term papers, but it’s 100% applicable to writing and editing your novel or short stories.

One of the great things about National Novel Writing Month is the idea that the word count–not the quality of the writing–it what’s important. Editing is something for later. If you have trouble writing term papers or novels, try that approach: write x number of words or pages every day, no matter how sucky they are. I think you’ll be surprised, by the end, at how little of it is actually sucky. (At the very least, you’ll end up with a poor grade as opposed to the 0 you were going to get if you didn’t write it at all.)

Wait, I need to do more research!

No you don’t. There comes a point when more “research” actually translates into procrastination on the real task: writing. Trust, me, I know how you feel; I did the same thing with my senior history thesis. In fact, I knew so much about my subject going into my thesis, I had no idea how to condense it into one coherent idea.

Writing novels can be the same way; you may spend so much time researching that you can’t stand to waste all that info, so you cram unnecessary or boring information into your books. (I love Jean M. Auel, but I will confess I skip over her long paragraphs on flint napping all the time; I care only about the characters.)

While I do some research on the front-end for my novels, I do more on the back-end. For instance, while writing The Flames of Prague, I had no idea where my main character was living, other than it was a village a half-day’s ride from Prague. I also needed a small city which was within several hours’ ride of that place. When I needed to reference a city in the text, I just wrote __________ and highlighted it in yellow. After I got the story written, I went back and printed off a map of the area around Prague, plotted off a 15 mile radius around the city, and began researching the cities within the circle until I found one which most closely matched my hitherto fictional village. Then I also found a city which matched my needs for size and distance from my village. Now, when I do my edits, I will enter the place names and I will alter my compass directions (e.g. instead of riding east from Prague to go home, they will ride northwest).

I did the same thing in my trilogy. When I needed to know the name of a road, or school, or how long it takes to get from Knoxville to Israel by plane, or when Oak Ridge was founded, I either put in a blank line or wrote in what I thought was accurate and then highlighted it so I would know that I needed to go back and check my fact.

It takes less time to look for the information your story needs than it does to look at some of everything. It also saves time to do needed research in a large block of time as opposed to breaking your writing rhythm to look something up, then get distracted by blog articles (like this one–you know who you are!)

Likewise, do some general research prep for a term paper, then start it. There will be places where you are almost certain something is true, but you don’t have a source or quote to back you up. Just highlight your point and add a footnote and leave it blank. Then, once you have your first draft printed off, go back to the library and look for books or articles which are likely to contain the supporting material you need. If you have a good, general knowledge of a subject going into the paper, you are much more likely to find sources after the fact which support your position than you are to find out that your position is wrong and you need to rewrite.

If you’re stuck writing a novel–if your plot has stalled or your characters seem wooden and one-dimensional–try this trick: imagine you are being interviewed and think of questions someone might ask you (common questions asked of authors are: what was your source of inspiration? who do your characters resemble? where did you get the idea for x? what do you want your readers to take away from your story?) and answer them. You can speak them, as if you were being interviewed in person (something I will admit to doing when I’m alone on my commute to work), or you can write them. You can also look up interviews of authors online and copy some of the questions that were asked of them and answer them on paper.

Just trying to explain your plot, characters, and purpose to someone else (even if imaginary) will have you making plot connections and getting ideas.

While I didn’t write my character biographies until after I had the first draft of my first novel completed, some people do better if they put the character down on paper first, then write.

I also recommend writing a throw-away chapter. In this chapter, your main character will live a perfectly normal, boring day. What does your MC do? Where does your MC work? Where does your MC live? Can you draw a floor plan of the house (something that’s always handy to have in mind when you’re describing your character moving around the house)? What color is the bedroom? Does your MC have pets? What did your MC do before this book started?

I spend some time writing little snippets of background stories for my characters which will never appear in a book (although I might find a way to reference the incident) and this allows me to get to know them better–especially characters who are not my main character. It’s easy for secondary characters to be flat and without personality because you spend little or no time in their head and some or even most of the action doesn’t revolve around them. So spend some time in their head writing some of their life story, and you’ll find that they become much more lively on the pages of your actual novel. (For examples that I’ve done, see Joshua vs. McCarthy, Anselm and Micah Meet, Joshua’s Past) In fact, Joshua became so lively, I couldn’t bear to put him back into the background after the first book, so I specifically wrote him into the second book (not once, but twice) and he becomes one of my main characters in the third book.

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