How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Block

Posted: 12/05/2011 in Books, Fiction, Horror, Writing
Tags: , , , , ,

On really good days, writing doesn’t feel like work, it feels like a slot machine paying off – the right words come tumbling out and fill the pages so rapidly that I am no longer certain who is in control of the story – me or it.  On really bad days, I feel like I am on a literary snipe hunt with a flashlight and gunnysack with a hole in the bottom.  I’m starting to discover that there is a vast range of variables and contributing factors to writer’s block, but in the end, the only way to fight through it is to write.  I’ve also discovered that naming my fear – referring to myself as having writer’s block – can be a self-fulfilling prophecy, or at least reinforce and exacerbate my fear that the words have dried up like the blood spatter from a zombie headshot in the Mojave.

Writing, particularly fiction writing, is a labor of love – a commitment to breathe life into a story from a flash of an idea, or a skeletal outline.  Sometimes we’ve got to rob some graves and piece together the exquisite corpse, and then jumpstart the monster’s heart with a surge of electricity.  I’ve recently been feeling a whole lot like I’ve been robbing the wrong graves, prying the words out of my skull and examining them in the harsh light of day – and finding them inadequate.  But writer’s write, and so I persevere.  I don’t wish writer’s block on anyone who has a love affair with words, but in case you ever find yourself wrestling with this brain-sucking, inertia-inducing hydra, here are some of the strategies that keep me sane enough to pass in society and producing creepy crap.

Write something, every day.  Even if it is 250 words, or just a sentence – move your story forward.  It may require revision or editing later, but advance the story with what you know of it, and don’t wait for the perfect words to manifest if it feels like they are holing up drinking tequila, trying to outwait you.

Jump to a new scene or POV.  Sometimes approaching the story from a different angle can loosen the block.  Jump ahead to a different scene, try a flashback, or relay events from another character’s perspective. 

Watch the movie.  That is, play it out on the big screen in your mind.  Imagine what the characters are saying, what they are thinking or doing, just as if you are watching a blockbuster film of your story after optioning rights to it for mega-millions.  Then write what you saw.

Ask the characters.  Discretion here is important unless you want to end up experiencing the world of psychotropic medication, but ask your characters wassup.  Ask them why they did or didn’t do something.  Ask them what they are going to do next.  Let them tell you.  Jot down their dreams, desires, and motivations.  The more real they are to you, the easier it might be to get in their head as the action unfolds.

Up the ante.  Ratchet up the tension, introduce some horrible, unanticipated barrier, kill somebody, raise the stakes, put your character through the wringer and see what they do under pressure.  It’s cathartic.  It’s fun.  When you’ve painted yourself into a corner plotwise, or need to get out of the mire, Raymond Chandler advises “when in doubt, have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand.”  Modify as needed for horror fiction:  “when in doubt, have a zombie stagger through the door and nosh on someone.”

Moonlight with another project.  Spend some time on another story, and give yourself a break.  It can also be fun to try your hand at story prompts or writing exercises – anything to spark your creativity and get the words moving.

Location, location, location.  Change up your writing space.  Try writing somewhere new or unusual.  Or try writing differently, not harder.  If you usually type on a laptop, switch to pen and paper, try dictation, or tell your small child or family pet the story and stop worrying about using the right words, just articulate the essence of the tale. 

These are just a few of my favorite strategies for getting unstuck; what are some of your favorite tricks, tips, or techniques for battling the block?

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Comments
  1. Jo Eberhardt says:

    Great post. These are all fantastic ideas for getting past the dreaded block. I hadn’t thought about some of them before, but may need to try them in the future. I particularly like the idea of pretending it’s a movie, and writing what happens. Great suggestion.

    I’ve written about this topic a couple of times as well, most recently as a guest post about keeping motivated throughout a project. I also wrote my own tips for overcoming writer’s block here — although mine are a bit less all-encompassing than yours! 🙂

    • blackalchemy says:

      This is fantastic, Jo, thank you for sharing these links! I am hoping this post will encourage sharing of ideas on this issue like you’ve done, so when I am faced with a blank page in the pit of despair, I have some tools from others, as well as words of support and encouragement, at hand! 🙂

  2. Paul D. Dail says:

    Great post. Although for me as of late, it’s a matter of enough time to write all the things I want, I still like posts like these because I know I’ll be there again someday. I like the “moonlight” idea. Flash fiction has been one of the best things to happen to me. Helps me feel like I’m being productive even when I’m not working on my next novel.

    I also did a post like this if anyone is interested.

    http://pauldail.com/2011/10/07/five-tips-to-beat-the-block-writers-block-that-is/

    p.s.- Love the title of your post. Big Kubrick fan.

    Paul D., Dail
    http://www.pauldail.com- A horror writer’s not necessarily horrific blog

    • blackalchemy says:

      Hi, Paul, I totally agree – I read as many posts as I can on this topic for the same reason – just in case. I’ve been struggling a little with it lately so I figured exposing it to the light of day might dispatch it like a vampire. Flash fiction is wonderful, isn’t it?” I feel like even if I get stuck or don’t have time for a longer WIP, I can always tinker with some flash and create something! Thank you for sharing the link – this is an excellent post on beating the block, and (stuck or unstuck) I am going to try your suggestion of going back a few pages and making a character make a different choice – love that! 🙂

  3. Joe says:

    When I get stuck, my natural inclination is to go off and think about it for a long time. I’ve slowly realized that this never works. What I really need to do–what works *every time*–is to write another word, then another, then another. Just write SOMETHING, and I get through it. It’s no fun, and it feels like I’m writing crap, but often when I go back I can’t find where I was stuck by the writing alone–it’s purely a problem with my emotional state or something, not the actual writing.

    • blackalchemy says:

      Thank you, Joe, that is quite possibly the single best strategy from moving forward and beating the block – start with one word, and just write something! Sometimes for me the block isn’t overall, it is just a stuck point, a sense of being unable to articulate what I want to have happen at a specific point, maybe a scene, maybe a paragraph, in the story. As you said, writing something gets us past the speedbump and back to telling the tale! 🙂

  4. epbeaumont says:

    All good advice, which I’m taking.

    One other strategy: take a walk. Exercise is a natural anti-depressant and it also gets the ideas percolating. I’ve gotten some of my best story ideas while on routine urban rambles.

    • blackalchemy says:

      Very, very good suggestion! I’ll be adding that to my arsenal – it’s good exercise, a nice mental break, and I like how you put it – a way to get the ideas percolating! 🙂

  5. Keith Parker says:

    I went through a 3 or 4 years of writer’s block. As you well know, it’s very real and also very baffling. The way that I broke through was taking all the short stories I wrote back in the 90s and started editing them. I actually enjoy the editing process (yeah, I’m that cracked), so this actually helped pull me out of the doldrums.

    I like your suggestion of writing 250 words per day, too.

    BTW, do you write a flash fiction piece each Friday?
    It’s one of my favorite styles.

    In fact, the flash fiction I’ve written has been darker than most of my fiction.
    I’ve been heavily influenced by Bradbury, Ellison, King, Gaiman, Oates, et al, so my fiction can have a dark component to be sure.
    But I also cut my teeth on golden age SF (my older brother was big into that) so my fiction can take an optimistic turn at times, depending on how the characters want the story to go.

    Great blog you have going here. I’ve really enjoyed perusing it!

    • blackalchemy says:

      I like that idea of editing to dislodge writer’s block – I would have never thought of that, but always have plenty of material in need of review and overhaul – thank you for this suggestion! I don’t enjoy editing (possibly because I am not good at it and don’t have confidence in editing my own work), but anything is better than being blocked. Too many stories to tell, so little time. I try to post some flash fiction every Friday, but I think I’ve missed a couple of days since I started the blog. The plan was that by making that commitment, I would have 52 stories within a year. I am uncertain if that plan is actually viable (especially since I started serializing a short story), but it is fun nonetheless. We have many similar writing influences, and although I do not remember the authors, one of my cherished books as a child was a SF anthology circa the 60’s/70’s – it was the first time I’d read The Veldt, and it excited and horrified me! Thank you for your kind words, Keith, about my blog – but your blog will help me learn to be a better writer, and so it is a true gift!

  6. subtlekate says:

    I write something ridiculous. It has to be change of course, but it moves me forward, gets words on the white screen and something comes of it in the end.

    • blackalchemy says:

      I think this suggestion is excellent! Sometimes, when I try to write with intention or purpose, or on a project I am passionate about, the block can be daunting – writing something, anything, even if ridiculous – loosens the floodgates of creativity and infuses writing with what it is supposed to be about – fun! 🙂

  7. Keith Parker says:

    Another trick, in keeping with your POV suggestion, is to write those 250 words in second person. In fact, I was thinking about expanding on that notion in my own next blog entry. I rarely see a second person story that works, but when it does it’s pretty cool.

  8. Jon Vagg says:

    Nice ideas. The one that usually works best for me is to move the action on and start a new scene

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