Breaking Through Writer’s Block

Last month, one of my editing clients emailed me a panicked plea for help with writer’s block. And although we’ve talked about this a bit on the blog already (How Do You Tune Out Online “Noise”?, Ideas to Hack Down Writers’ Blocks, 4 Ways Winged Pen Writers Get WordsPerfectionism and Pomodori), it can’t hurt to share the tips I gave my client for breaking through writer’s block:

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1. Writing exercises can help. NaNoWriMo started on November 1 and the @NaNoWriMo and @NaNoWordsprints Twitter feeds will be full of daily inspiration and prompts. I have used these in the past to map out aspects of my story that I know need to be written even if it means writing out of order. Sometimes just writing a scene or a short sketch will get the creative juices flowing in other areas.

2. Don’t be afraid to write out of order or to use brackets to leave place-holders when you feel stuck. My first drafts often say stuff like [Something needs to happen here so that MC feels this or does that] and then I go back and fill in the blanks on revision, or later on whenever I have an ah ha moment.

3. If you know, for example, that you need to write a love scene and you’re not feeling inspired, read a few of your favorites from other authors. I was struggling to add life to my Seattle-based setting in my current ms (some of my other settings have been more far-flung or exotic, so the urban scene felt blah to me) so I read some urban fantasy to get a good feel for what I could do. Even though my MG is a far cry from gritty urban fantasy, it really did help shake some things loose.

4. Just keep writing, even if you know what you’re writing is bad. You can’t wait for inspiration to come to you–you have to write yourself into inspiration. And that only happens with regular sessions of butt-in-chair.

5. Have a conversation with one or more of your characters. This often goes something like this: “OK, MC, I don’t know what’s supposed to happen here. How would you react if Love Interest does X? What if he does Y? What do you WANT him to do?” It sounds cheesy, but if you can get out of your head and into your gut, I think that’s the place from which your characters will start to tell you what needs to happen to move the story forward. Some writers call this getting into “flow” and it’s a truly beautiful feeling (although I spend hours writing when I’m not in flow–it’s not something that you can maintain for an entire draft).

I asked the rest of the Pennies for their tips and here’s what they said:

Richelle Morgan: Fresh air! I find walking the dog to be my most productive “writing” time most days — as long as I remember to write down all my insights when I get home! Sometimes I even record them into my phone as I walk…there’s something about using my whole body that gets my sluggish brain moving.

Also, when I was in college, I took some random class that ended up being primarily about lucid dreaming and how you can make your brain work for you when you’re asleep. Ever since then, if I’m stumped about something, I tell my brain to find an answer right before I go to sleep. Usually, within 24 hours or so, I’ll have it figured out. Works like a charm with writing — though sometimes my brain wakes me up mid-sleep to tell me the solution!

Gita Trelease: Once, when I was working on a hard part of my dissertation (19th century British lit), I took a nap. In my dream, I saw a hand writing out, in perfect 19thC boilerplate script, a paragraph in which the argument I needed to make was made with exemplary clarity. Woke up and wrote it down! I just want to make this happen more often.

Reading something truly excellent (regardless of genre) or watching a movie set in the place or time period I’m working with. Here’s something new I discovered: When I’m struggling to uncover what my characters are feeling, I find I can access the thoughts and emotions more authentically if I write them out by hand. Maybe this connects to the feeling of writing in my journal, which I’ve been doing since I was in 4th grade? Or maybe it connects to the unconscious, like walking or dreaming does?

Gabrielle Byrne: Long walk. Long shower. Stop pushing and read a book. Give yourself permission to breathe for a day.

Mark Holtzen: I love the quote about writers block that says simply “lower your expectations.” And for me getting outside it is vital. Going for a bike ride we’re going for a long walk. Also reading something completely out of genre is really helpful for me. Even if it has nothing to do with my topic it always shakes something loose.

Laurel Decher: Motion! Getting your brain to relax is key. Asking the “boys in the basement” to send up the answers (like Richelle’s lucid dreaming up above.) Lowering expectations.

National Novel Writing Month can be a transformative experience because you learn to feel the abundance of words and story and inspiration. Being amazed at how much you can write makes you hold those precious words much more lightly.

How do you cope with Writer’s Block? Have you tried any of these tips? 

Ready… Set… WRITE!

running-498257_640If you read Julie’s post, you know it’s National Novel Writing Month again, which means a whole bunch of us are sweating through each day trying to write 50,000-ish words by the end of November.

While I’m not participating this year, I am still trying to keep up my own momentum on my current WIP.

But time has been so very tight for me this fall, and my normal writing routine wasn’t working for me. Instead of getting frustrated, though, I decided to try something new: sprinting.

Here’s how it works for me: I set my timer (generally for 15 minutes, though you can aim for more time if you have it), shut down the Internet, put my document in “focus mode” and start typing. I do not stop until the timer dings.

When I first started sprinting, I would get 250-400 words down each session. But as I got more used to it, I started hitting well over 500. Two fifteen minute sprints a day gets me back to my old goal of 1,000 words a day – all in a lot less time.

Of course, sprinting can be a little scary. I still sometimes have a moment of panic before I start my timer: what if I can’t find the words? But that fear is offset by the freewheeling joy of writing without second-guessing, without going back to edit, without stopping to ponder this word or that one.

There are a couple of different ways to approach sprinting. I like to keep working from where I left off – I find that sprinting forces me to be more focused about where I’m going with each scene. I have to know what’s going to happen each time I sit down to sprint, which means I have had to plot out each scene – and know what its purpose is in the overall story – beforehand.

If that’s too daunting or you’re worried about getting stuck, you can also plan out sprints for specific scenes. Some writers like to sprint through difficult-to-write scenes, knowing that sometimes getting something down is better than getting it down perfectly. Others sprint through character sketches or other important background writing.

I’ve always done my sprints solo, but there is a whole writing subculture devoted to social sprinting. This month, the NaNoWriMo Word Sprint feed (@NaNoWordSprints) will run periodic group sprints, some of which might include prompts or challenges to help you get unstuck.

There are even apps you can download, like WriteOrDie!, which rewards (or punishes!) you for reaching (or not reaching) your goals.

I think my favorite thing about sprinting is that it doesn’t allow me time to go back. I could easily spend half my writing time re-reading and tinkering with the words I’ve already written instead of writing new ones. With sprinting, I’m saving that word-shining for revisions.

I don’t know that I’d want to write an entire novel in sprints. But I’m enjoying the sense of accomplishment I have each day after my sprint is done. And I know that as I race one kid to volleyball practice and my husband shuttles another to soccer while I text instructions to my oldest on how to put the rice on without burning down the house, that even if there’s chaos all around me, my writing is still getting done.

I’d love to hear about your sprinting techniques – please share them in the comments!

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Happy NaNoWriMo!

NaNoWriMoToday marks the beginning of the frenetic bundle of amazingness that is National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). This month, thousands of writers around the globe will try to write a 50,000 word first draft of a new story.

With an all-star line-up of NaNoWriMo Pep Talks, and hashtags on Twitter for both writing tips and daily sprints, this month is a great time to start writing that novel that you’ve been meaning to write for ages.

Here’s what the some of the Pennies have to say about their own NaNoWriMo experiences:

Julie Artz: I first learned about NaNoWriMo in 2012. And even though my story that year unraveled at 22,000 words, I was hooked. I came back in 2013 with a little bit more advanced planning and claimed the winner’s badge a few days before month-end. In 2014, I used the month to finish a story I started earlier in the fall. And in 2015, that manuscript made it into Pitch Wars. It was that 2013 story–a middle-grade post-apoc with steampunk elements–that first caught my agent’s eye. She offered a revise and resubmit on the manuscript, but, with her permission, I sent her my newest story instead. And the rest is history. This year, I’ll be cheering you all on from the sidelines as I revise for her instead of drafting, but it will be with a pang of envy, because I’ve got this new story idea that’s just itching to be written…

Jessica Bloczynski: In the fall of 2013, I ran out of every episode of Star Trek Netflix had to offer. I even suffered through Enterprise. I was bored. Climbing the walls bored. Honestly, finding NaNo was a fluke. I stumbled upon a Facebook group of folks doing NaNo together and an idea that had been riding around in my head for about a year spoke up and demanded to be written. And I figured, why not, might as well put my creative writing degree to use. I started writing, did writing sprints with friends and shared snippets of my WIP with other newb writers. Basically, I found this amazing, encouraging community and instead of writing my book alone, I wrote it with thousands of others. That’s a powerful feeling. At the end of November I had a very messy draft, that would, in the fullness of time, become the sci-fi novel that earned me a spot in PitchWars 2015. My advice? Do it. DO IT. Do it for the confidence it builds, the community you find and 50,000 words you can shape into something wonderful. And remember, it doesn’t have to be perfect, it just has to be finished. Go Nanokids!

Mark Holtzen:  I first participated in NaNoWriMo when I was stuffed in a room with gobs of swarming third graders five days a week and I had two kids under five at home. I had no time and even less energy, but I figured if I was ever going to write a children’s novel in a more efficient way than my first one, I’d have to find the time somewhere in the day. O’dark thirty seemed as good a time as any. The timing wasn’t great–after three days of getting up early I’d pass out at 8:30pm, but that month did get me into the habit of staring at my computer screen for an hour each day. Sometimes I only managed forty minutes, sometimes ten, but I learned the important part was visiting the story once every day. It turned out to be a great thing to share with my students as well.

The Shadows We Know by HeartJennifer Park: My up-coming debut, The Shadows We Know By Heart, was a NaNo project in 2014… I didn’t win, but it jump started the draft and I got a lot of work done on it… I’m going to use this Nano to finish possible book 2. Definitely start strong and surpass your daily word count when you can, because I always lose the week of thanksgiving because of kids and traveling and just being busy… we’re moving this month, so I’ll be surprised if I make the 50k… but there’s always hope! And what I love the most about NaNo is that the momentum really carries through into the following months… I probably get my highest word counts in the months following NaNo because it’s so motivating, and you get to the point where 3000 a day is easily attainable. And I’m competitive, so if friends are doing better than me, I’ll work that much harder. And, no matter whether you win or not, we’re all doing it together. So it’s good to know that when you sit down to get that word count out, so is everyone else.

Kristi Wientge: I’ve participated in NaNo in 2012, 2013 and 2014. I won each of those years. Part of it I attribute to my inner drive that will NOT let me NOT do something I say I’m going to do. The other part I attribute to organization. I use notecards to map out my days. I also jot down notes and names and things I know I’ll forget later on, but don’t want to waste the time to scroll through finding. Usually, I have the first seven cards mapped out. So, my first week goes smoothly. Then, I do the next week and so on. It gives me structure, but still allows me to be flexible. Typically I use a Save The Cat type of beat bullet point to keep me on track and to ensure I actually complete the story. But, if I really find myself stuck, then I take the day to free write from one of the character’s POV’s. It’s words and it counts!

Happy NaNoWriMo writing friends! Share your NaNoWriMo story in the comments below.

Why You Need to Try Writing Prompts

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I’ve never really been one for writing prompts. Like everyone else, I am busy, and so have always felt the writing time I had needed to be as productive as humanly possible. If I wasn’t adding to my word count, I was wasting time. It will probably come as no surprise to those of you who have been writing for a while that I got pretty burned out by that strategy. The joy of writing was gone, and without that, there was no point.

This summer, I’m giving myself the opportunity to play with my writing. My commitment is not to a number of words or chapters or books finished, but rather that every morning, first thing, I will write for fifteen uninterrupted minutes. It is Morning Pages, basically. I journal, write, brainstorm new works, or even draw.

Inspired by a class I took with Jo Knowles, I’ve also been trying writing prompts. I am amazed at the way they spark creativity and deepen my prose. They’re great practice, in the way that a sprints workout can goose your running program. Best of all for my purposes, they’re fun. I’ve been having a ball.

There are different kinds of prompts. Some are designed to inspire you into a new story, like this list or this one. Others can help you flesh out your work in progress, like this one on character development and this one on setting. For plot, I love the ideas in this article. Jen Malone also suggests writing a synopsis of your story and asking writing partners to come up with twenty “what if” questions based on it (e.g., “What if the best friend is a boy instead of girl?” or “What if she never finds the necklace?”).

Of course, because this is my summer of decadence, I prefer the prompts that are not designed to help me with a new or existing work. I like that ones that are just about fun and practice, like this calendar of 365 writing prompts, and this list from Writer Magazine. Prompts don’t have to be some formal thing, either; as suggested in this Lee & Low post, a good prompt might be a headline, a passage you highlighted in a book, or what you see outside. Another idea is to do flash fiction, where you give yourself five random words and have to write a 100-word story using those words. Janet Reid often has contests like this on her blog, but you don’t have to wait for her to post one, or to share your work if you do use her prompts. Finally, Kate Messner hosts a wonderful summer writing camp. It’s aimed at teachers and librarians, but anyone can play along. She has an impressive roster of writers lined up to provide lessons, and every Monday, Jo Knowles (the very same!) will give a writing prompt.

You can peruse these lists and choose a prompt that appeals to you. Consider, however, picking one at random, or purposely choosing one that feels difficult. In this TED Talk, Tim Harford discusses the power of discomfort to unlock creativity. Composer and music producer Brian Eno uses a deck of cards with different prompts, like “Everyone switch instruments,” or “Make a sudden, destructive, and unpredictable noise. Incorporate it.” Musicians with whom he is working have to pick a card and must try the prompt it contains.

The musicians hate it. Phil Collins threw beer cans, apparently. The work that comes out of these experiments, though, is often creative and new. When Eno instead used a list of prompts posted on the wall and let the musicians choose, the work was not as exciting. He believes that the random selection of an uncomfortable prompt—the struggle with something difficult—is what leads to creative breakthroughs. His work, with musicians from U2 to Coldplay to David Bowie, appears to hold that up. If you want to try Brian Eno’s cards, you can pick one here. Some are specific to music, but some work for writers, too.

Ready to dive in? Here is a challenge for you, inspired by the contests of the sharkly Janet Reid. Write a 100-word story that contains the following words: girl, orange, piano, pitcher, mulberry. There are no winners or losers in this, it’s just for fun, but if you’d like to post your story in the comments, I’d love to read it!

Katharine Manning has written two middle grade novels–a contemporary fantasy about a girl who saves unicorns and a contemporary on what happens when a new girl upends a girls’ soccer team. You can see her recommendations for middle grade readers at www.kidbooklist.com, and you can find her at www.katharinemanning.com and on Twitter. She also recently discovered Instagram and would appreciate any tips you have on the care and feeding of it.

March Writing Prompts

Although I’ve been hard at work on my next manuscript (a middle grade magical realism story), every once in a while I like to free write on a totally different project. It boosts my creativity and helps me come back to the daunting task of drafting with a sense of energy and purpose.

My free writing sometimes starts with something that happened in real life (for example, this week I wrote a flash fiction piece about anxiety after spending a nerve-testing hour in the dentist’s chair!). Sometimes I let an upcoming contest or call for entries determine the topic, genre, or word count of my writing. But when neither of those inspires me, I turn to writing prompts.

One of my favorite recent craft books, and a surprisingly good source of writing prompts, is Donald Maas’s Writing 21st Century Fiction. 

In addition to providing a great overview of the current market, Maas ends several  chapters with a series of questions and exercises that generated a flurry of ideas as I read through them.

Here’s an example. This month, spend a little time listing the common tropes in your genre. Then see if you can take one or two of them and write something that is the opposite of the trope. For example, the “handsome prince saves the princess” gets turned upside down when a feisty princess saves herself, and a useless prince, in one of my favorite picture books, The Paper Bag Princess. Another recent example is the way Sarah Prineas questions whether the “fairy godmother” (a common fairy tale trope) is really the good guy in Ash & Bramble.

If this prompt doesn’t appeal to you for whatever reason, check out some of these other great resources. Remember, the important thing is to keep writing!

Did these prompts inspire you to write something? Tell us about it in the comments below!

 

Photo credit: Gail Werner
Photo credit: Gail Werner

 

JULIE ARTZ blogs at Terminal Verbosity, writes about local Washington history for Gatherings, and contributes regularly to From the Mixed-Up Files of Middle-Grade Authors. You can also follow her on Facebook and Twitter.