Tag Archives: writer’s block

3 Things Stephen King’s On Writing Taught Me

One of the problems beginning writers have is everything about creative writing seems so mysterious. There’s a blank page. You’re expected to put words on it so that your would-be reader has something to look at. That much is clear. That much we understand. A beginner may have a great premise—a scene they play on repeat in their head, an entire world they are filling with characters and adventures. Maybe they’ve even written it down.

But at some point, there seems to come the big question: what next?

How do you go from premise to story? How do you make a character relatable? How do you make sure that anyone will care? More to the point, how do you make sure that once the muse has arrived, she actually wants to stick around? How do you not start but finish a story?

Writing is hard. There are so many intricacies. Description. Dialogue. Narration. One scene alone does not make a story, and even the best premises can fall short when fleshed out.

Stephen King’s On Writing is one of those creative writing guides that tops nearly every reading list, but I only recently read the book. If you’re looking for a kick in the ass—someone who can pull back the curtain and reveal that it’s only old man Oz pulling the levers—then I recommend you stop putting King’s book off for another day. Crack open that spine and get ready for the world of creative writing to get a little less mysterious (but no less magical).

Here are just a few things the book has taught me.

Writer’s Block: 23 Ways to Find Your Muse

writers-block

You’re not writing, but you know you should be. And the guilt is starting to eat at you. How do you overcome writer’s block? Here are a few tips.

1. Listen to music.

The general consensus is listening to music without lyrics is best, though something soft and poetic—The Shins, Iron & Wine, Regina Spektor—works for me too. When I’m in the right mood. Or maybe just a mood.

2. Talk to yourself out loud.

Or a friend (even an imaginary one) if it makes you feel less crazy. Turn on your voice recorder, let your mind wander. Later, listen to the recording. Follow the thread of your thoughts, and see if any of it inspires a piece.

3. Wash the dishes.

It’s the sort of mindless task that allows your mind to shut off, drifting into a meditation-like state. Keep a notebook nearby to jot down story ideas.

4. Pick a character and find out what they want.

Any character. From a story you’ve already written or one that’s yet to be realized. Now decide what their goals are—what their motivation is. Write it all down. Bullet points. Sentences. Nonsense. It doesn’t matter. You’re writing! Look at you.

5. Turn off your inner editor.

Seriously (we’ll probably add this to the list a few more times, slightly reworded, for good measure). Writing isn’t the time for perfectionism. Words. On the page. Remember: they don’t have to be good, they just have to be there.

6. Research.

Read, watch documentaries, and take notes. When one discovery carries you away, let it. But don’t forget to write it all down. Consider using a literary swipe file to organize your research.

7. Commit.

To your idea. To yourself. Is it any good? It doesn’t matter! Write a shitty first draft. With placeholders and cliches and characters who are empty shells and settings that are bland and lifeless. Let your plot meander. Create the bones of your story. Then go back and give it meat and skin and bite. Refine it and add layers. Take your time. Take years if you need to. There is no deadline, no ticking clock. There’s you and your story. You’re the only one who can tell it.

Three Tips to Beat Writer’s Block

It happens to us all – we’re in the middle of a piece of work and it is just inspired. Everything flows. The words fit perfectly. The idea is seamless and flows like the Nile forming an oasis in a desert of blank pages.

And then the phone rights. Or you get an email alert that snaps you out of the zone. Maybe someone knocks on the door. Whatever happens and then the zone is gone.

Writing all of a sudden becomes like pulling teeth – painful and extraordinarily uninspired. Things on the page that were once beautiful now turn to pure dung and nothing you do seems to redeem the words on the page or match the perfection of what came before.

Pictured: What it feels like to write after you’ve lost the flow.

I do advocate having a set time to write and minimizing interruptions during these writing periods, but that doesn’t mean that an inspired state of mind doesn’t help with the workflow, and when that streak is gone, it can seem impossible to begin to write again.

These three tips help me get back into the flow of writing once I’ve lost it, and hopefully they’ll help you too.

Wasting Time & Not Giving a Damn: The Art of Being A Young Writer

Maybe we have to waste time to be writers.

A year ago, in the car on the way back from Seattle, I had the talk with a few friends. The I-can’t-finish-anything and I’m-not-sure-where-it’s-going talk that all writers seem to have with their reflection or a peer at some point in their career, particularly early on.

Really, what I meant was that I’m not sure if I’m good enough. And that’s tough to admit.

Maria Popova tackled this topic in her recent post “The Art of Motherfuckitude: Cheryl Strayed’s Advice to an Aspiring Writer on Faith and Humility” over at Brain Pickings. Before Wild, of course, Strayed wrote The Rumpus advice column “Sugar.”

It’s self doubt. According to Popova, “the same paralyzing self-doubt which Virginia Woolf so elegantly captured; which led Steinbeck to repeatedly berate, then galvanize himself in his diary; which sent Van Gogh into a spiral of floundering before he found his way as an artist.”

The same self doubt that caused one “Sugar” reader to write to Strayed. The reader was twenty-six—a classic writer who can’t write. She tells Strayed, “I am sick with panic that I cannot—will not—override my limitations, insecurities, jealousies, and ineptitude, to write well, with intelligence and heart and lengthiness.”

Strayed’s response is beautiful and raw. You can and should read it.

Highlights for all my fellow twenty-somethings struggling with how exactly one perfects the art of being a motherfucker:

The Things We Do Instead of Writing

With no papers due and no pending deadlines for any of my writing projects, I find myself unmotivated to write on a regular basis. Even when I sit down to write – pen in hand or keyboard under finger – I start to create this long imaginary list of other things I should be doing. Soon, it’s too late for me to write, or I’m too tired, or I want a break after doing said list of things. There are some very specific things that pop into my head that prevent me from being a good writer and actually writing. I know I’m not the only writer out there to do this.

One of my professors commented that, anytime she has a book to write, she suddenly remembers that she has dirty dishes in the sink, and that her floor sure could use a mopping, and man, when was the last time she vacuumed? We all have our little ticks that prevent us from doing the writing we set out to do.

The holidays, for example, easily break up our normal routines. Even if you have a normal writing schedule, it’s hard to stick to it with the obligations of the season. It’s hard to say “listen, family/wife/kids/friends, I know we’re supposed to be opening presents right now, but I really have a writing schedule I need to stick to. It’s not that you’re not important, it’s just that if I break my schedule it might be really hard to get back on it. You understand, right?” The answer to that would probably be no.

Unless you plan to give your family disappointment for the holidays, you should probably not use writing as an excuse to skip out on the festivities.

For me, most of the gifts I give during the season are handmade or homemade. I love to crochet and bake cookies, and both activities tend to occupy my hands and my mind so soon writing is completely pushed out of there. Even after the holidays, my brain is still in crochet mode – I’m working on two bags and one hat, at the moment, instead of my poetry or my short stories.

Should You Take Writing Breaks During NaNoWriMo?

No.

That’s the end of my post.

Oh, I have to write more? Alright. I guess I can expand upon this answer.

Yes and no.

It’s dangerous to take breaks once you’ve established a set, habitual writing time. But you don’t always have to write the main part of your novel during your set-aside NaNoWriMo writing time. If you feel stuck on your story, or just don’t feel like writing, or are suffering from that (fictional?) pest writer’s block, don’t give up the time you’d usually spend working on your project and play video games or go to the movies or something. Instead, do other writing-related projects with your novel when you get stuck.

1. Further develop your characters

There’s a lot of background and planning that can go into a novel that a reader never sees. Having an entire biography for a character, along with a personal profile, is one such aspect of a novel readers aren’t often privy to. If you haven’t already developed a ton of information on your characters, this can also help you get to know your characters better and understand their motivation more within the story. I’m talking minor characters or supporting characters as well. Even if the character is featured in one character of the book, having an entire life history worked up for him or her can make them one of the most compelling characters of your novel. So pretend like you’re character is making a profile on a dating cite like OkCupid and have at it!

This is What a 30 Minute Writing Exercise Looks Like

I was about to sit down and start working on a post about the benefits of writing exercises. Doing a simple free write, one that’s about 30 minutes, can vastly improve a writer’s work on multiple levels.

First, it helps generate ideas. Free writing is writing without stopping for a set amount of time. You find you have to keep going. It’s not easy, but if you pause, you’re supposed to just repeat the last word you’ve typed until a new thought pops into your head. Head. Head. Like that. This way, your brain and your brain storming are always working in one direction – forward.

Second, it gets you in the mood to write. Mood is a big thing with writers. We call it writer’s block, we call it Netflix being more appealing, but what it really is is a lack of want to write. Forcing yourself to write anything for 30 minutes or so, nonstop, gets your brain ready and raring to continue the writing process. A free write is a great way of beating writer’s block by not only generating ideas, but by changing your off mode into an on mode when it comes to getting your fingers on the keys.

Third, and yes, this is a pretty repetitive list because I am timing myself and trying to get this all out, out, out, out, out, out, is it gets your body in a physical place to write as well. I type fast, but even I don’t come pre-warmed up on the keyboard. Doing a 30 minute free write helps get my brain in keyboard mode so I can type up a storm. Sometimes, when I get really into what I’m writing, I can go up to 80-100 words per minute. Of course, there are still typos. I never said I was exempt from typos.

There are more benefits that I will come back to, possibly, if I recall them and time doesn’t run out, but I’d like to talk about why I’m illustrating what my 30 minute free write on the topic of 30 minute free writes. I think a lot of us hear about free writing in class or in a tutoring program like the one I work for, but we don’t really put them into use, or we do them for class because we are required to and never think about it again.

And, honestly, how many of us really sit there and repeat words when we’re stuck? We pause. We think. I’m forcing myself to follow the rules laid out in general for a free write so there will be some repeats here, but when I do this on my own I often won’t follow this rule, and I know it. But I should follow this rule because it’s there for a reason. Sometimes when your mind blanks and your fingers are on the keys typing “out, out, out,” a new thought pops into your head based on your previous writing. This is a good thing, go with it.

Free writes (and if you’re counting, this would be fourth) are also great for making connections within your writing that you might not even be aware that you are making. I repeated the word “out, out, out” above not just to illustrate one of my own repetitions in this exercise, but to show that I associated that pause in thought to the thought that came after it – while I was going “out, out, out” my mind settled on the physical body for my next statement. This means I was thinking not just out, but outward, the outside, out of my own head. That’s a comma splice, I think.

Motivational Movies for Writers, Part Three

This final installation of movies for writers is brought to you by Missy Lacock, Insecure Writer Extraordinaire (at least this week). And I needed these motivational films just as much as the next poor writing sap.

First: It’s easy to NOT write—even for writers. And observing and thinking creatively is still not writing, people. Tools like these movies remind us we can’t improve or have a product to publish if we don’t actually produce it. Only writers are dumb enough to forget that.

Second: Like the editor-in-chief of this blog pointed out, writing’s the only activity with a “block” (there’s no such thing as “athlete’s block“); we need inspiration anywhere we can get it. Our jobs are to express something new, contribute something significant, but we need material and the creative fortitude to say anything at all.

And lastly: The life of a writer is a constant fluctuation between thinking we’re the best damn writers on earth and realizing we can’t even spell “attached” correctly. And since the craft is entirely subjective and—let’s be honest—doesn’t have any rules we can’t break, there’s no measurable validation we’re good at what we do. Not only that, but to write is to be rejected and edited, which means our egos are always taking a hit. That, my friends, is the life of a writer.

That is also why we need tools to remind us we’re not alone, that even the greats suffered insecurity and failure and rejection and writer’s block and lethargy, that what we do takes commitment and self-belief.

Adaptation

Synopsis: This movie follows two stories. 1) A writer researches orchids and writes a book. 2) A neurotic screenwriter struggles with insecurity as he adapts the orchid book for the big screen. And, uh, things get a little crazy for a movie about flowers.

Live vicariously: Land a screenwriting job for a major motion picture; use a typewriter; explore even a boring topic in interesting and eloquent prose; have our books optioned.

Quotes:

  • “Screenwriting seminars are bullshit.”
  • “There are no rules, Donald. And anybody who says there are…those teachers are dangerous if your goal is to do something new.”
  • “The only idea more overused than serial killers is multiple personality [disorder].”
  • “Because I’m pathetic. Because I have no idea how to write. Because I can’t make flowers fascinating. Because I suck.”

Themes: writerly neurosis, movie options, project obsession, writer’s block, insecurity, low self-esteem, writer-agent relations, and deadlines.

Motivational Movies for Writers, Part Two

This second installment of movies for writers is as much of a mixed bag as Part One. Despite their different genres, however, the films all have common themes and tap into a basic truth about writers: We’re all weird as hell.

With deep condolences to Robin William’s family and all the children of the ’90s, I’m kicking off the list with one of the greatest motivational films for writers: Dead Poets Society, the movie in which I first learned about carpe diem, sucking the marrow out of life, nonconformity, and writers like Whitman, Thoreau, Tennyson, Shakespeare, and Frost. Here’s to you, Mr. Williams, “O Captain! My Captain.” You’re a striking example of how a body of work can inspire, entertain, and contribute cultural value—even after its artist goes gently into that good night: “That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse. What will your verse be?”

Dead Poets Society

Synopsis: An English prep school instructor uses unconventional teaching methods and inspires his students to explore poetry and achieve their potential.

Live vicariously: Inspire others to love poetry; join a writing and reading group of freethinkers; write poetry; take risks; be fearless.

Quotes:

  • “You will learn to think for yourselves again. You will learn to savor words and language. No matter what anybody tells you, words and ideas can change the world.”
  • “We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race, and the human race is filled with passion. Medicine, law, business, engineering—these are noble pursuits necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love—these are what we stay alive for.”
  • “Dead poets were dedicated to sucking the marrow out of life.”

Themes: poetry, poets, carpe diem, fearlessness, independent thinking, and barbaric yawping.

Finding Neverland

Synopsis: Author J.K. Barry meets the family to inspire Peter Pan.

Live vicariously: Be famous; inspire creativity in others; be seized with inspiration; write.

Quotes:

  • “All great writers begin with a good leather binding and a respectable title.”
  • “Write about anything. Write about your family. Write about the talking whale.”
    “What whale?”
    “The one that’s trapped in your imagination and desperate to get out.”

Themes: critics, fame, imagination, creativity, and inspiration.

Does Writer’s Block Actually Exist?

Recently, Amanda Riggle wrote a post here at The Poetics Project giving our readers 99 ways to overcome writer’s block. The post got a fair amount of attention, and while there may be many reasons for that, I have come to believe it’s because writers—or aspiring writers—love to be told how to “get over” writer’s block. Or at least, they love to be given a list of ways and to be able to choose which suits them.

A year ago—hell, probably even six months ago—I would have felt the same. Then NaNoWriMo happened, as it does every November. But this year, I participated, something I had never done before. I found out about NaNoWriMo back in high school. I subscribed to all of the newsletters, and each year, I’d get vast amounts of emails, increasing in frequency as the event approached, reminding me to set goals for myself and to start sketching out my story. Generally, I ignored these emails. I wasn’t ready for that kind of commitment, I told myself. I didn’t even have an idea I liked enough to dedicate 50,000 words to.

But last year, Amanda challenged all of the contributors at the blog to participate, and because I’m competitive (really, anyone who has played Monopoly with me can attest to this), I accepted. I had an idea. It was pretty rough. I had no idea where it would go, and I was pretty sure I wouldn’t meet the goal of 50,000 words. I didn’t. Not even close, really. But you can see the results here.

What I did find out, however, was that writer’s block—that amorphous, indefinable thing I had been bitching at for years for my inability to write—wasn’t real. Let me rephrase that. I could write. I had been writing. The countless word documents stored away on my computer and the note pads shoved in boxes and drawers proved this. But everything was unfinished. I’d get a burst of inspiration, jot a few lines of a poem down or maybe even a few pages of a story, but then i’d forget about it. I’d lose momentum. I’d fall out of love with the idea as quickly as I had fallen for it.