On Writer’s Block

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My friend posted a status on Facebook asking for fellow NaNoWriMo participants to form an accountability group. I sporadically attempt NaNoWriMo– well, I do my modified version of NaNoWriMo, which really means that I cheat– so I scrolled through the comments. Someone mentioned that she had a great idea, but chronic writer’s block. Which got me thinking about how I might solve writer’s block on my own projects.

As I’ve mentioned rather recently, I try to write 250 words every day, which is one good way to keep going when you’re hitting the wall.

There are a lot of opinions about writer’s block. To oversimplify, the “butt in chair” school tends not to believe in it; the “muse” school does. My thoughts fall somewhere in between. I believe in writer’s block, but I think that timing can lie at the root of the issue. If you keep hitting your head against a wall, you start to ask “why?”

Sometimes an idea– even a great idea– is not yet ready. It needs to marinate for a little while longer. It needs another element. It needs a different narrator, a switch from first to third person, a plot twist, a transition from A to C.

I come across this problem all the time in my own writing. I’m a longform writer. I like novels; I like television. But even long projects come from a single germ of an idea. I once wrote a novel from a title. I’ve written from a line of dialogue, from an image, from a scene. I’ve finished these projects. But there are a lot of ideas I’ve had that sit in a notebook. I let them rest. Sometimes, another idea pairs with them down the road.

Here is how I write. Everyone has a different process; everyone should have a different process. (Additional strategies for combatting writers block that I do not use will be detailed below).

I need to know where a story is going before I get into it. I’m a planner, not a pantser. If I don’t have an outline for where the story is going, I get stuck, usually around the 1/3 or 1/2 mark.

When I have an idea I want to play with or a premise that I love, I allow myself to write 5,000 words with no guarantees. By the time I hit 5,000 words (which falls anywhere between 1 and 3 chapters), I force myself to write an outline.

I start slowly with novels. My word count per session grows the closer I get to the end. By then I know my characters, I know what’s happening, and I’m exhilarated by the final act. So while I write my 5,000 words, I’m usually jotting down notes. Plot points, scenes, characters, great lines I need to jam in somewhere. By 5,000 words I take a step back. I spread out my notes and figure out how to structure this novel. I make a chapter-by-chapter outline– not extensive, anywhere from one line to a paragraph about the action in each chapter or the problem it needs to solve–just something that I can look at when I get stuck. I don’t always stick to the outline; often, my best plot twists are the ones even I don’t see coming.

My brain thrives on structure. I like to think I can inflict structure on any chaos. Every time I start something new, I believe that my idea is so sound, it’s going to fall into place flawlessly.

A lot of the time, I fall flat on my face.

The outline has a way of pointing out flaws.

I’ll give you a couple examples.

  1. I was writing a YA novel about a girl who decides to carry out her dead sister’s bucket list. It pains me to admit that I thought this was a fantastic idea. The first two chapters flew out, but I started to get stuck on the third. I had some notes: characters to introduce, bucket list items to check off. Then I spent three weeks promising myself to write an outline. I couldn’t get past chapter five. I knew my three acts; I knew the climax and resolution of each one, but I couldn’t fill in the middle. I couldn’t come up with more bucket list items that would fit into the story. And after three weeks, I admitted that I needed to put it aside. I would have another idea. And I did.
  2. I’d been playing with an idea based on a short news article about a dead body in the LA River (which is not strictly a river). I wrote a great prologue/first chapter. Really. I remain immensely proud of that page. Then I tried to figure out the rest. I had a couple characters, some ideas for who this man was, how he ended up there, but it just wouldn’t gel. I decided to let it sit and hope that it would untangle in my mind. Months later, I had a breakthrough. I had the wrong main character; it needed to be told from two perspectives. I was energized, but as I tried to parse it out, I became stuck again. Someday, I think, it’ll work out. But for now I’m moving on to other things.

This is why I have a rule: if I can’t make an outline work after some serious effort, the novel isn’t ready. And that is okay. Ideas take nurturing. You have to trust them to grow.

I think that a lot of writer’s block can come from not being ready or from being scared. You need to know when to push through and when to rest.

Here are some other ideas for writers block:

  1. Try working on the most vivid scene in your head. Even if you’re working in order. The more you exercise the writing muscle, the more in shape you get.
  2. Write about your day. The logistics, thoughts, feelings, your plans for tomorrow. The story doesn’t need to spring from your imagination, but it will get your brain thinking about writing.
  3. Take a walk. Listen to music. I like to get into my Spotify Discover playlist. Go through a few songs. Sometimes I challenge myself to pick a random song and imagine a scene around it.
  4. Read a book. Copy down a page you really like. What do you love about it?
  5. Don’t write. Seriously. If you’ve been trying and hitting the wall for several days, take a couple days off, then come back to it. Sometimes taking a step back is what you need.

I hope this is helpful. Do you have any tips for combatting writer’s block?

250 Words a Day

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Photo from 2012, taken at my favorite table at Les Deux Magots

I am a person who loves lists. When I feel overwhelmed, I write down everything I need to do in 10-15 minute increments. It calms me down. Makes me feel like I am accomplishing something. Makes me feel like I have a plan.

Today, for instance, I wrote that I would work on this post at 8:15. So here it is, 8:15 and I am parked on the couch with my laptop.

I make lists for everything, but my favorite list is the one I devise every year for my birthday. New Year’s Resolutions have never worked for me; monthly resolutions seem short-sighted. But I wanted a way to track what I accomplished in any given year in line with my goals. I have one item for every year of my life. This year, I’m working on my 25 at 25 (I started this several years ago, inspired by this 101 in 1001). Most of the goals are arbitrary, and I usually figure out which during the course of the year (how important is it to me to visit every New York City borough? Do I really need to learn how to make five cocktails?), and if I’m really honest, I usually don’t achieve the majority of them. It feels like failing every March.

I have recurring items on the list; I just keep writing them down until they happen. I read a certain number of recreational books every year; I (try to) write in my journal weekly (I’m lucky if I manage monthly).

This year, I have a new addition as item two: to write 250 words every day. This works out to 1,750 words a week and 91,250 words a year. But the goal is to manage to get 250 words down every single day, no matter what.

It worked really well from March-June. Then I got busy in July, and I got tired in August, and overwhelmed in September. But it seemed fine, because from March to June of this year, I’d written about 50,000 words. I was well on track to my yearly goal.

I’ve always loved to write; like most people, I found publishing and editing by writing. But last year, I felt like I was struggling to get things down. Writing became a slog. I put a post-it up at my desk at work that reads, one word in front of the other. And I thought, if I can do that every day, I could easily write a novel-length project every year.

I chose 250 words because it seemed manageable. That word count is small when I can devote a day to working on a larger writing project (I’m partial to novels), but it’s something I can achieve even when I’m swamped with work. Even on my most blocked days, I can knock out 250 words in 15 minutes.

Somehow, I still fell off the wagon.

This month, I’m recommitting to writing 250 words a day. It doesn’t matter if it’s on this blog (can check that off today!) or in my journal or on one of my other two major writing projects. Writing 250 words a day is about discipline. It’s not really about how quickly I can knock out a project or how many words I can write in a year. It’s not even about writing anything good. It’s about sitting down and doing the work every day. Forming a habit. Making it essential. Making time.

Back in college, I took a creative writing class with Richard Powers. We had a meeting to discuss one of my stories in his office. He knew two major things about me: that I wanted to be a book editor and that I wanted to write novels.

He asked if I had a daily writing routine. I said I didn’t. I was a college student. I wrote when I had the time (which, in retrospect, was often). No, I didn’t write every day, but I could finish a novel project in a year. That seemed good enough.

The conversation nagged at me over the years. To do anything you care about, you need to prioritize, and you need to make it routine. So this year I decided to do just that.

I still don’t have the kind of daily writing routine he was referring to. I don’t write from 5:30-6:30 every morning or from 8-9 every night; I fit in my 250 words whenever I can. But there’s always my 26 at 26 (eek!) next year.

And if you have any tips for habit-forming, please let me know!