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Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Hitting the Wall

If any of you are hardcore readers, you may have read this already. This is a blog post I wrote about writer’s block but it was before I launched my site or opened my blog to the public, so here it is for the world to see!      
I stare at the blank page and it stares back, mocking me. My deadline is looming behind me and reading all the emptiness over my shoulder while silently judging me. The characters cry out for resolution and I suddenly feel like I’m on trial, about to be charged guilty on four counts of being a terrible writer. If I was good at this, I wouldn’t feel like this. Right?
Wrong. Did you know that writer's block was first recognized as a condition in 1947? And almost every writer experiences it at one time or another. It doesn’t have to mean that you just can’t think of anything else to put on the page in front of you; it can be anxiety about your writing to such a degree that you don’t feel like you should even finish it. Hundreds of authors experience this every year. Not just struggling, aspiring writers, but published authors who make a living through their works. Neil Gaiman calls his agent nearly every time he’s 75% of the way through writing a manuscript. Their conversation consists of Mr. Gaiman saying the book is terrible and his agent saying that this happens every time. There are lots of reasons writer’s block exists, and you can either find the source and fix it there or you can try curing it through intervention strategies.
Causes of writer’s block are as numerous and varied as the people who write. It isn’t just a mentality. If you’re under a lot of stress your brain will shift control from your cerebral cortex system to your limbic system, essentially from higher reasoning to fight or flight, and that’s not because of how you’re thinking, it’s because of the environment you’re in. If you’re too stressed out to write, then write. Put pen to paper in a stream of consciousness manner and talk to yourself through your writing about what is upsetting you. You might be surprised what you learn about yourself.
Sometimes I begin this with a thought paper. I write down the first word that comes to my mind. Then I read that word and write the next first word that comes to mind, and draw an arrow from the second to the first. I repeat this over and over until I return to the first word again.  Then I read it, and almost always something that I didn’t even realize was bothering me keeps popping up. And it’s great way to get the writing juices flowing, because I have been writing.
Another common cause of writer’s block is the broken story. A broken story happens when a writer has been writing but the manuscript has a flaw that your subconscious has recognized but hasn’t let you in on the secret yet. In my rough draft for “The Darkest Lie,” I was over 100,000 words in and couldn’t go anywhere. I was frustrated and trying to push through anyway, but it just wasn’t working. With the help of some feedback and a Writing Excuses podcast I realized the problem wasn’t me, it was my main character. He was broken. In early chapters I’d had him behaving in a way that was contradictory to who he was, and it was draining the power from later revelations. I had to fix him. Once I did that, we went merrily along for another 15 chapters.
Writer’s block can also be caused by feeling sick, feeling overwhelmed, or being too conscious of your audience. You need to write with a genre and an audience in mind, but if you find that you’re restricting your manuscript and yourself because of what you’re afraid your audience might think, then you’re doing your story a disservice. My rule number one of writing: fix it in post. This is actually a film term, meaning get all the shots in and film all the scenes, then fix it in editing. Write your story and get it all out before you try to edit it.  Don’t worry about your audience or your genre. Be aware of them, but don’t worry about them. You can always fix it later.
Can’t figure out why you’re blocked? Worry not, fellow writer, there are lots of ways to get help. If you are a writer who has a specific and set amount of time each day that you dedicate to writing, then use it. Write something. It doesn’t have to be a continuation of your manuscript, it doesn’t have to even be good, just write something. Take your main character and put them in a completely bizarre situation and see how they react. Pick three random words from the dictionary and write a story blurb about them. Here, I’ll give you an example:
My three words: crucible (a severe, searching test or trial), octopus, space lab. Okay, so the last is two words, but it came up. Let’s see. So we have a location, a space lab. We have an object, an octopus. And we have an event, a crucible. We can take these literally, Captain Owen Boxley of NASA is called to transport a beautiful Marine Biologist, Breen Rowland, to the international space station where she will conduct tests on the effect of zero gravity on an octopus. Hilarity ensues when the octopus escapes its enclosure and travels around in a bubble of water, but danger strikes when the water causes a malfunction of key systems in the space lab. Will they survive the crucible of imminent death in space and return to earth?
Or we could take it figuratively. The octopus is the unofficial animal of the steampunk subculture (which I learned just now by typing “octopus associations” into google) so we could make our story a steampunk novel. Dr. Horatio Jason Fidelius believes that with imagination and machinery man can accomplish anything. He’s spent his entire family’s fortune trying to prove it. But now that his wife is ill and his children are nearly destitute, he has one last chance to redeem himself and care for them. Sir Ryan Gunwitch-Black has offered a sum of 2 million pounds to any man who can create a flying machine.  But not just any flying machine; a machine that can fly to outer space.
There. Two completely different stories with the same three words. And once you get your juices flowing again, maybe you’ll get some ideas for your own stuck story.
Curing writer’s block can be as easy as going for a long walk, or for me, a run. Physical activity does marvelous things for the brain, and my favorite tactic is to read through my story just before I leave, and then let it simmer in the back of my mind while I run. What does my main character want? I’m at point D and I’m really excited to get to point H, but I don’t know what needs to happen at E, F, and G to get me there. Well, what could happen? Do I really need E,F, and G, or can I skip one? What did I like about my story to begin with? By the time I get back, I almost always have something more I can write for my manuscript. It doesn’t have to be written chronologically. Some of the best stories aren’t.
And my secret writer’s block go-to? Thispodcast.  Each episode is only 15 minutes long, and they’re entertaining as well as creative.
You’re not alone in staring at that blank page. But don’t just sit there and be judged, write! Run! Play! Listen! Live! It will come, and if it doesn’t, then maybe you have writer’s block on this manuscript because there’s another one rolling around in your head.  Get that jotted down in outline or note form so it can get out of your way and you can get back to writing.

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