The Need for Speed:
Writer’s Block – What Is It and How to Avoid It
by Jim Denney
Earlier this week Jim Denney blogged about how to write fast and why it’s important. You can see his previous posts here and here. The last tip in the SEVEN STEPS TO WRITING FAST was to avoid writer’s block. Today Jim is going to teach what writer’s block is and how to overcome it.
In essence, writer’s block is simply not knowing what to write next. The ideas, scenes, and words you need are just not there. Fortunately, writer’s block is quite treatable. You just have to know a few techniques to become re-inspired and re-ignited as a writer. Let me share with you a few “block-busting” techniques I use to punch through writer’s block. I’m sure they’ll work for you.
Writer’s Block-Buster Number 1: Withdraw briefly. Sometimes pushing too hard can block your imagination. To write, you need to be relaxed, free, and uninhibited. So take 20 minutes away from your keyboard to adjust your focus. Lie down and put your feet up, close your eyes, clear your mind, pray, meditate, or daydream. Or get some exercise. Or take a hot shower. Or listen to music.
As you relax, your subconscious mind will keep working on the story. You’ll find that inspiration and ideas will seem to pop up in your mind out of nowhere. Suddenly, you’ll know exactly what you need to do—and you’ll have to hurry to your keyboard to set it all down. When your conscious mind withdraws, you give your subconscious mind freedom to play. Try it. You’ll be amazed at how creative you become when you simply take a short mental break from your writing.
Writer’s Block-Buster Number 2: Leave a gap and move on. Sometimes I find that a section of a book or story just seems insoluble. I can’t make it work. Rather than get stuck at that point in the story, I write a note to myself right in the text: “To Come: Brilliant Section About Such-and-Such.” I just leave a placeholder to remind myself go back to it later.
Then I move on to a section that I have a better feel for, a section I know I can write. Days or weeks later, when I come back to that section that had me stumped, I often find it’s easy to write because I know how things turn out later. And sometimes I find that I didn’t need to write that section after all—if I had forced myself to write it, I would have had to delete it anyway.
Writer’s Block-Buster Number 3: Write garbage and move on. If you know roughly what needs to happen in that section, then write it roughly. Just sling the words around, knock out a crude approximation of what you want to say, and tell yourself, “Hey, I’ll fix it later.” Don’t agonize because the words aren’t pretty. You know you’re a good writer, so trust yourself to nail it in the next draft.
In Telling Lies for Fun and Profit, Lawrence Block observes, “Books have bad patches. . . . The important thing is to get through them, to get the words down however ill-chosen they may seem. . . . I tell myself that I’m going to do my five or ten pages no matter what, and that I can always tear them up the following morning if I want. I’ll have lost nothing—writing and tearing up five pages would leave me no further behind than if I took the day off, and I’ll have avoided guilt and at least kept my fingers limber.”2
Writer’s Block-Buster Number 4: Stop while you’re on a roll. Picture this: You are writing along and suddenly come to a scene that stumps you. You say to yourself, “This is too hard. I’ll tackle it in the morning when I’m fresh.” Morning comes—and do you feel like tacking that problem scene? No way! You’ve set yourself up for procrastination, avoidance, and writer’s block. I always make sure I stop while I’m on a roll, so I’ll be able pick up where I left off with plenty of enthusiasm and inspiration.
Writer’s Block-Buster Number 5: For long projects, build your story on an outline. There are essentially two kinds of writers: outliners (those who plan out or “pre-write” their fiction before they write) and “pantsers” (those who write “by the seat of their pants,” not knowing where their story will take them). Famous outliners include my friend Randy Ingermanson, inventor of the “Snowflake” method of outlining (http://www.AdvancedFictionWriting.com), thriller writer Robert Ludlum, and historical fiction writer James Michener.
Mystery writer Earle Stanley Gardner devised a unique method of outlining. He made notes on 3×5 cards and taped the cards up on his office wall. Then he went from card to card, dictating finished prose into a tape recorder. His secretary would later type up a completed manuscript from the recording.
Famous “pantsers” include Ray Bradbury, Dean Koontz, Nora Roberts, Anne Rice, Theodore Sturgeon, and Stephen King. “I don’t take notes,” King once explained. “I don’t outline, I don’t do anything like that. I just flail away at the thing.” And science fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon once explained his rationale for writing without a plan: “If the writer has no idea what happens next, the reader certainly won’t.”
I don’t know about Stephen King, but I do know that Sturgeon was chronically afflicted with writer’s block throughout his career—because writer’s block, as previously noted, means not knowing what to write next. What King refers to as “flailing away at the thing” is also known as the “narrative push” approach. According to this approach, as you “push” the narrative forward in an unplanned way, you make surprising plot discoveries. Some very successful writers swear by this approach. If it works for you, and you have no problem with writer’s block, then push on!
But if you are frequently hampered by writer’s block, you might want to consider having a plan on paper as you write. You might even want to think of your outline as a “first draft.” As you write your outline/draft, you can flesh out characters, fill in dialogue, and write actual narrative whenever the ideas are flowing freely. In sections where your ideas are a bit sketchy, just jot a few notes. Write your outline/draft quickly, freely, without editing or analysis.
Try it—and I think you’ll make a surprising discovery. You will experience the adventure of the “narrative push” while you are rapidly, uninhibitedly creating your outline. You’ll experience surprising plot twists, you’ll get to know your characters, and you’ll probably stumble onto a totally unexpected ending. As you outline, you’ll gain a panoramic view of your story arc.
When you write your second draft, remember that your outline/first draft is merely a plan on paper, not commandments carved in stone. A good outline is sufficiently structured to give you a sense of direction as you write, but flexible enough to allow for discovery and surprise along the way. Trust your intuition and your subconscious mind. Even though you have outlined your tale from beginning to end, there are plenty of surprises ahead of you.
When I wrote my Timebenders stories, a series of time travel adventures for young readers, my publisher asked me for outlines of all the books in the series. So I came up with a four- or five-page outline for each book. I didn’t consider myself bound by the outline. In mid-process, I often introduced new characters, added subplots, and changed endings—but I never once experienced writer’s block while writing that series.
Some writers claim that outlining is too confining. I say you always have the freedom to depart from your outline and go in a totally new direction. The advantage of an outline is that it can keep you moving past obstacles that would stop a “pantser” in his tracks. An outline is not a straightjacket, it’s just a piece of paper. Follow it when it works for you, depart from it when a better idea comes along. Above all, keep moving forward, write quickly, and stay in the flow.
One of the fastest, most prolific writers of all time was arguably the greatest novelist in the English language. I refer to Charles Dickens. At the height of his popularity, Dickens’ novels were a cultural phenomenon, much like the Harry Potter craze in our own time. Published in serial installments, the works of Dickens were followed by audiences of devoted fans in Great Britain and the United States.
In 1841, readers on both sides of the Atlantic were hanging on the fate of Dickens’ heroine, Little Nell, in The Old Curiosity Shop. As the ship carrying copies of the final installment approached the dock in New York City, thousands of people lined the wharf and shouted to the ship’s crew, “Does Little Nell die?”
Charles Dickens published 23 novels and numerous short stories from 1836 until his death in 1870. Some of his novels were as long as four or five popular novels in today’s market. David Copperfield, Bleak House, and Dombey and Son were each more than 350,000 words long. Dickens’ 34-year career produced a total output of more than 6 million words—an average of 175,000 words per year. And he accomplished this in longhand, without a computer. Imagine what you could accomplish with that high-speed computer of yours!
So unleash your imagination. Let go of your inhibitions. Write like the wind—and be brilliant.
Jim Denney is a professional writer with more than 90 published books to his credit, including the Timebenders science-fantasy series for young readers.
Jim’s writing career has introduced him to many fascinating people. “I’m a big Star Trek fan,” he says, “so one of the great joys of my career was working with actress Grace Lee Whitney on her autobiography THE LONGEST TREK. I’ve also written books with supermodel Kim Alexis, Orlando Magic co-founder Pat Williams, and two Super Bowl champions, quarterback Bob Griese and ‘The Minister of Defense,’ Reggie White.
The first two titles in the Timebenders series are now available in Kindle editions: BATTLE BEFORE TIME (http://www.amazon.com/Battle-Before-Timebenders-Novel-ebook/dp/B008NZ1HDI/) and DOORWAY TO DOOM (http://www.amazon.com/Doorway-Doom-Timebenders-Novel-ebook/dp/B008NZ1I0K/).
Thank you Jim Denney for guest posting this week! Follow him on Twitter here
If you’d like to learn more of Jim’s writing tips please visit his blog here
Jim’s Timebenders blogsite here.
To learn more about Jim’s Timebenders books, Battle Before Time here.
and Doorway to Doom here.
Jim also has a book on writing for a living, Quit Your Day Job here.
1. Ray Bradbury, Death Is a Lonely Business (New York: Knopf, 1985), 192.
2. Lawrence Block, Telling Lies for Fun and Profit (New York: Morrow, 1981), 102.