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Words for Writers: Different Ways to Get Over A Block

Words for Writers: Different Ways to Get Over A Block

 

 

Q: Hello there! How about: what are some good tips (read: not commonly stated) that can help overcome writers block?

 

Jeeze, louise there, Dear Reader. You sure go for the big guns, don’t you!

So, okay, here’s the thing. Confession time…. ready for it?

I don’t believe in Writer’s Block.

I know, okay? I know. I’ve heard it all.  But see, the thing for me is that I think Writer’s Block isn’t a real disease that affects creators. Like “Hysteria” of old, I think it’s made-up boogie-man name for a bunch of symptoms that people have decided to bundle together simply because they all have to do with the same thing. Only this time, it’s being creative as a writer, instead of being female.

When someone is unable to write – whether that is because they can’t think of ideas or because they just can’t force themselves to sit and put pen to paper or fingers to keys – it’s not because some mythical muse in a flowy toga has turned off the taps to divine inspiration in their brain. That’s not how this works.

So, ways to get over a Writer’s Block, dearest reader? My best advice is to call it what it is:

Some sort of issue or concern that is keeping you, as a writer, from being able to write that particular story at that particular point of time.

Name the monster under the bed, and take away its power.

Sure, that’s easy for you to say, J.M., you may think. But don’t you think that if I knew what it was I would do something about it already?

Possibly. Probably. But sometimes writers get so stuck in their own heads (and we are an imaginative lot, so I bet we can think of lots of great doomsday scenarios for ourselves) that we sometimes forget to take a deep breath and analyze why it is that we’re not able to write.

So do that, right now. Step away, close your eyes, lift your face to the sun and expand your chest to the sky, and just breathe deeply.  

Back? Feeling relaxed and oxygenated? Great.

Now close your eyes and ask yourself, “Why Can’t I Write?” You have three answers to choose from.

Is it…

  • Mental?
  • Physical?
  • Emotional?

What is the root of this problem? Where does it sit in you?  In your chest, around your heart? In your head, between your ears? In your shoulders, and back, and hips, like an ache?

If it’s Mental, consider that you may be:

  • The story isn’t working, and you subconsciously know this.
  • Characters aren’t communicating with you, you don’t know who they are or what they want.
  • The Plot is too convoluted or too simple; you’re confused or bored.
  • You’re lost the thread of what you were doing.
  • You’re being too picky and perfectionist about the book. Are you using the excuse of wanting it to be ‘perfect’ to go over the same sections over and over again and not add anything new?
  • You’re overwriting it because you’re afraid of letting it go. Are you building the plot out (like a deck) instead of up (like a ladder)?
  • You don’t trust your audience is clever enough to understand what you’re putting down. Are you bogging the plot down with exposition, backstory, detail?
  • The narrative isn’t working in this medium. You’re having a hard time jamming all the story into a short, or coming up with enough stuff to fill a novel. The story is too visual and dialogue heavy, it really would make a better script or comic.
  • Stopping the flow of writing to research too often.
  • Writing in the wrong order. There’s no rule saying you have to start at the beginning and finish at the end.
  • There are outside pressures getting in the way, like stress at work, or no specifically carved-out time for your writing?

If it’s Physical, consider that you may be:

  • Sick, and it’s fogging up your brain.
  • Sore or injured, and it’s making it hard for you to sit and write.
  • Have chronic pain or acute conditions from bad ergonomics or lighting.
  • Missed your meds, are dehydrated, haven’t eaten, haven’t slept.
  • Writing in the wrong space – is it too loud? Too quiet? Too bright? Too dim? Smells funny? Too overstimulating? Too sleep-inducing? Not inspirational enough?
  • You don’t have your own space to write in, and that’s keeping you from dedicated time as well.
  • Writing in the wrong medium. Pen-and-paper is poetic, but too slow to keep up with your brain. Maybe keyboards are frustrating. Maybe you should be looking into dictation. Maybe you need to consider different writing software, like Scrivenr, or Celtx, or something more aligned to how you like to tell stories.

If it’s Emotional, consider if you:

  • Have lost the passion for this particular story. (Perhaps just for now, perhaps forever)
  • Don’t love this story as much as you thought you did and your “meh” feeling is making it hard to commit.
  • Have another project you’d rather pursue.
  • Hate, or don’t connect with your protagonist / POV character
  • Imposing “fake” limits on yourself, which is caging in your story. Such as: “All YA must be written in the first person and I hate writing in the first person.” Not actually a Real Rule (™)
  • Burned out or exhausted, either by your writing schedule, or Real Life, or the pressure you’ve put on yourself

Of course, it’s not always as simple as just one of the above. It could be multiples and mixes, or something I haven’t listed here. But the point is that you figure what the real roadblock is.

Now, what to do about it?

If it’s a small “Block”, then changing something up or shaking up your routine might be what’s necessary. You could:

  • Take a break – go do something physical if you’ve been stationary for a while, like walking the dog or going to the gym. Go relax in a bubble bath or a hot shower and let your mind wander. Get a massage or have dinner with friends.
  • Have a conversation with your characters – do some acting or improv character-finding exercises while you do the dishes. Come right out and ask your characters why they’re not cooperating, or why they’re acting out of character, or why they’re resisting. Think through the answers you get back from them.
  • Address your physical or medial concerns – figure out a more ergonomic solution to your writing location, or get a stand up/treadmill desk. Go see a doctor, or your therapist, or your local massage clinic. Take your meds, have some water, take a nap, stretch, do yoga.
  • Try some fun writing exercises or challenges to discover different parts of your worlds, character, or stories that won’t necessarily end up in the book. Trust me, it’s not wasted work if it freshens your approach.
  • Write the ending right now. Write out of order. If you usually write out of order, then write in order. Shake up how you get it on the page.

If it’s a bigger problem, then build yourself a solution to it:

  • Take some time out to replot the novel – write it all out on a whiteboard, use the “Castle” method and string it all up so you can see the whole book at once, gets some note cards and highlighters and start color coding. If you take a step back and look at the structure, you may find the issue that’s keeping you from being able to move forward.
  • Suck it up and send the book off to a trusted beta reader if you’re having trouble letting go of it.  You’ll get as many cracks at it as you want after. There’s not a set limit of how many times you can edit. But get it out the door at least once, first.
  • Join NaNoWriMo, or a similar contest to push yourself into turning off your editing brain and just write the whole darn book.
  • Hire a researcher, or stop writing until you’ve put together a massive pile of resources for yourself and organized them in a handy way which means that when you have to look something up it won’t interrupt the flow of your writing time.
  • Say goodbye to something that isn’t working. Stick it in your morgue to Frankenstein into something else another time, or put it on a shelf to come back to in a few years. There’s no shame in realizing that the story isn’t working, or working right now.
  • Carve out some writing time and space, get yourself into a routine. It doesn’t have to be an elaborate office, it can just be those forty minutes of your commute every day, in a notebook. Or a corner of the living room when the kids are napping. Or vocally dictating it as you drive around on errands.
  • Consider whether you can change the POV character or swap out protagonists. Rewrite.
  • Go on a vacation
  • Go on a research trip
  • Ask for an extension or revise your self-imposed timeline.
  • If you’re having trouble finishing, impose a deadline on yourself. Tell friends and family so they’ll keep you accountable.
  • Go write in public. Or stop writing in public.

There are a hundred thousand different reasons why you’re unable to write. By giving it a mythical source and a made-up reason, you’re ignoring all the little ways that you’re actually telling yourself that something is wrong. When you figure that out, you can address that.

Treat the disease, not the symptoms.

And for goodness sake, stop believing in the wrong sorts of fairy tales so you can start writing some of your own.

*

Got a question about the craft or business of writing? Ask it here.

Read other Words for Writers blog posts here.

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JM FreyWords for Writers: Different Ways to Get Over A Block
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Guest Post on Katie Hamstead’s Blog

Guest Post on Katie Hamstead’s Blog

I wrote a post over on Katie Hamstead’s blog about finishing a novel series!

Click here to head on over and give it a read.

Excerpt:

It takes a lot out of a gal to write a trilogy. What a lot of people don’t realize is that writers aren’t only just writing while they’ve got the pen in their hands, or their fingers on their keys. They are thinking about their stories constantly, playing mental Jenga with scenes as they do the dishes, and composing the perfect opening line in a boring office meeting, and brainstorming how on Earth they’re going to get themselves out of that corner they wrote a character into while doing the bedtime routine with the kiddos. They are making notes everywhere – scrap paper, receipts, notebooks in purses, on whiteboards and chalk walls, and sticky notes bristling from the edge of their computer screens like a lion’s mane. And the moment when you hand that final manuscript in, that moment when it stops being your burden is… wonderful. And Scary.

 

 

JM FreyGuest Post on Katie Hamstead’s Blog
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WORDS FOR WRITERS: When Does Style Get in the Way of Story?

WORDS FOR WRITERS: When Does Style Get in the Way of Story?

The one and only creative writing class I took was in third year of my undergrad studies. I was taking play/screenwriting from the Drama department at the same time, but I wanted a rounder view of storytelling to accompany learning how to construct a script. I signed up for a short story writing course – where, let’s be honest, I handed in a lot of thinly-disguised fanfic – and looked forward to finding the deep, intellectual, creative camaraderie that one sees in films about groups of writers.

There were eleven of us, and I remember four other people from the class distinctly. Two, because they were fanficcers like me (and friends to this day), who also like me learned some things from the class but mostly had been taught all the basics of storytelling and grammar from the online fanfic community.

There was an older woman who really should have been in a memoire writing class over a short story class. I always got partnered with her because I seemed to be the only one who bothered to take the time to explain to her that just because “that’s how it happened in real life” doesn’t mean that’s exactly how it should happen on the page, especially when you only have 5 000 words and no space to waste them.

And then there was him.

You know who I mean.

That Guy.

The self-important, ego-centric, hipster (though we didn’t have that word yet) cis straight white guy who idolizes Hemingway and reads Mein Kampf in public as a deliberate act of protest and discusses Hitler’s wordcrafting as if his politics were never the problem, and doesn’t believe that Writing is a skill you have to practice and improve upon. Someone who doesn’t use an editor because “every word out of my pen is perfect the moment I set it down” and who thinks the publishing industry is just a sad money-grab for hack writers getting suckered by greedy agents, but still not-so-secretly desperately wants to be an Oprah Selection, a New York Times best seller, and Nobel Prize winner.

At the end of the semester, we had to write a short story using some set of elements, which we would all then spend the last few classes critiquing for one another. I left That Guy’s for last because I know I would enjoy it least.

When I finally got to it – printed out, typeset in courier new and bound with a brass brat –  looked like this:

Onceuponatimetherewasacircusclownwho jumped all day upand down ona trampolinemadeoutof thehair of a beautifulgray mare whoneverletanyone brusherhairbuttheclownHelloOldGirlthe clownsaidto heronedayas he pushedbacktehdustyredflap of the circustentinwhichthe oldgraymarelikedto spendhertimebetween herperformances

But it looked like that for five goddamn pages.

When it came time to discuss That Guy’s story, everyone looked around the table, not wanting to go first. Someone said something about the metaphor of the clown, someone else said something tentatively about the color of the prose, and then everyone looked at me.

It was awful, their eyes said. You do it.

(I had, at that point, garnered a bit of a reputation for being a bit of a Stone Cold Bitch when people were Trying To Be Clever in class. At that point I was writing, reading, and critiquing for two creative writing courses, as well as somehow writing a play for the theatre department and maintaining a mildly successful fanfiction series on Fanfiction.net, and providing Beta Reads for other folks in the fanfic community, keeping up with homework for three other courses, and working part-time at McD’s and another job postering for the Centre for the Arts. I think this was also the Year of LARP. I had No Time For Shenanigans.)

I hesitated, and then I finally said, “To be frank, I never read the damn thing.”  There were gasps around the table, and the professor murmured something about it being part of the course. I held up the page – more black than white – and said, “It’s unreadable. It might be a great story, but I will never know because he has intentionally made it a frustrating, difficult experience. I got eye strain trying to figure out the sentences and fatigue from the mental work of understanding. I was so caught up in translating the text that I missed what the story is completely.”

There was some bluff and bluster about the story maybe just being too clever for me from That Guy, and the professor smirked and then looked away quickly.

And I said: “Listen, you ever wanna make money on this? You never will. Not if you pull stupid stunts like this. It feels like you’re condescending to your audience, you’re trying to trick them, and it’s too hard to read. Nobody will pay for you to laugh at them.”

“But the story is good!” someone else in the class protested. (I was perhaps being a bit too harsh, and I think they were trying to soften the blow.)

“I never found a story,” I replied. “The text wouldn’t let me into it. I was locked out by the style. I’m sure there’s a story on the other side of this brick wall of words, but I couldn’t get access to it. And if it’s that hard for me, and I am paying for the privilege of being in this class and reading these stories, imagine how much less inclined a paying audience will be to spend the time to understand it.”

The Guy huffed and crossed his arms and slumped and said, “So, I should dumb down my work?”

And I said, “No, you should work on your work. Standardized punctuation and grammar exist for a reason. They exist so the words don’t get in the way of the story you’re trying to tell. Not knowing the rules and not even trying to learn them is not the same as making a deliberate stylistic choice to break them.” (I might have had a chip on my shoulder from earlier in the semester when I had to teach the fool what a bloody hard return was actually for in dialogue.)

That Guy starting pouting and everyone looked to the Professor. He shrugged and said: “She’s not wrong.”

I don’t know what mark he got on the story, but I do know that he was made to rewrite and hand it in again.

So what does this anecdote illustrate? Why did I bring this up?

Because when I think back to that story, when I think back to what happened, I still get angry and frustrated. I feel like a child trying to express the way-to-big-emotions that are filling up my still-so-tiny body and just crying and screaming because that’s my only tool of communication. I hate the story, and I hate that writer, and I hate the fact that he was trying to trick me in some way and it was all just so weakly obvious and condescending.

Now do I really hate his story? No, I never read it so I don’t actually have an opinion of it. Do I really hate That Guy? No, of course not. Do I really think that he was trying to deliberately trick me? No.

But it feels like it.

I don’t remember his name. I don’t remember his story. I don’t even really remember what he looked like. But I remember how he made me feel.

And for readers, how a book makes them feel is so much more a part of the experience of reading than the wordcrafting. People talk about how stories make them feel all the time – in reviews, in blurbs, to friends and neighbors. Writing sells because of how it makes people feel.

But a story can’t make anyone feel anything if they can’t figure out how to read it.

Now, I’m not advocating for ‘lowest possible denominator dumb it down’ writing. I’m advocating for clear, easily understandable communication.

“Style” is word choice, and imagery choice, and how long your sentences are and where you break up paragraphs. It’s about how you write out dialogue and accents, and what parts of the story you choose to tell, and whose POV you tell it from. It’s about how you play with the musicality of the rhythm of the words. Its about which rules you decide to break, and how, and how consistently you do so in order to convey something extra and beyond in the prose. (Breaking a rule should always be a consistently-applied deliberate choice that adds something to the reader’s understanding of the story, rather than taking away).

I’m not saying don’t have style.

I’m saying that the moment style gets in the way of story, then it’s gone too far.

Style should always add, and not detract.

Think of a story like a set of stairs. Style should be the escalator going up, helping readers get to the destination smoothly. It shouldn’t be an escalator going down, so your reader has to huff and puff and fight against it to get to the end of the book.

When figuring out a style for your tale, build an uppy escalator. Not a downy one.

*

Got a question about the craft or business of writing? Ask it here.

Read other Words for Writers blog posts here.

JM FreyWORDS FOR WRITERS: When Does Style Get in the Way of Story?
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I Stole A Time Lord and Ran Away

I Stole A Time Lord and Ran Away

I wrote an article about the #Steampunk #TARDISGown for the #SiliconWebCostumersGuild newsletter “The Virtual Costumer” for this month!

Click here to read the full article.

This is a members-only newsletter until the Patreon readers have got their advanced copies, but as a special treat editor Philip Gust has agreed that the public can get a crack at my pages. I had a lovely time meeting the Gusts at  #ConVolution2017 in San Jose this past October, and I encourage every #cosplayer I know to check out the magazine.

Happy Reading!

JM FreyI Stole A Time Lord and Ran Away
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WORDS FOR WRITERS: What’s the difference between YA and NA?

WORDS FOR WRITERS:  What’s the difference between YA and NA?


Board Books, Picture Books, Chap Books, Middle Grade Young Adult, New Adult, Adult, Erotica.

These are the age-range/maturity range book categories that I’m aware of, starting from least to most mature. These aren’t genres, like science fiction, or romance, or crime thriller, but the assumed reading level of the audience.

Most books have both a genre and an age market, which are two different things. You can have a Middle Grade Western and an Erotica Science Fiction, or a Board Book Psychological Drama if you really wanted to.

Young Adult and New Adult, however, are the two categories where the age market also comes freighted with assumed themes and plot styles. It’s not saying they have to explore those themes and plots, but that they usually do.

And because the age range is so similar (teenagers & early ‘adults’) I’ve seen this question floating around Tumblr a lot recently: What is the difference between YA and NA?

While there’s no real hard-and-fast rule, there is a difference between Young Adult market books, and New Adult market books, from conversations I’ve with authors, publishers, and agents, I think at it’s most basic and simple it can be broken down as:

Young Adult

  • YA protags are one or two years older than the intended audience (so 15 to 18)
  • YA is about the protags’ firsts (first kiss, first time being responsible for themselves, first time they realized what’s really happening around them, first time they killed someone, etc)
  • YA is about the protag figuring out who they are and what their morals are (internal growth)
  • There can be romance, kissing, and even sex, though the latter is usually not too explicit and often “fades to black”.

New Adult

  • The protag is the same age as the intended audience (19 to 30 or so)
  • NA is about seconds, or what happens after, and the emotional impact of that. It answers the question “so now what?”
  • NA is about the protag figuring out their place in the world and their relevance to their school/employer/loved ones/dystopian regimes/fantasy rulers (external struggle).
  • There can be romance, kissing, and sex, which is generally more explicit, but may not be a central plot point like it is in erotica.

Basically, YA is Bilbo in The Hobbit coming into his own as an adventurer and hero. NA is Bilbo in those “Everybody Lives” fics  on AO3 where he stays in Erebor and becomes the Prince Consort and has to figure out how to help and not harm the ruling of The Lonely Mountain. That’s not to say that all NA is domestic and about setting up house – you can still have mystery, action, tension, etc. it just happens at the same time and pushes the protag into figuring out their place in their world.

Have more questions that you’d like me to answer for my Words for WRiters series? Shoot me an email.

Want to read more Words for Writers? You can find the full list of articles here.

JM FreyWORDS FOR WRITERS: What’s the difference between YA and NA?
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