Monday, October 8, 2012

Tackling writer's block: how to turn a stop sign into a speed bump

Writer's block: invisible, silent, and about as unsympathetic as ants to a picnic. And just like those pesky ants, it marches away with your plot/dialogue/character and drops it down a hole too tiny for you to follow. It's easy to glare at your screen, to consider the blinking cursor a traitorous bully. But I've noticed that any writing I muster with my face twisted into a pretzel typically comes off just as snarky and sluggish as I feel.

This debut novel of mine took me three years to write - and in those three years, I've faced down a lot of dead ends. Some successfully, and some not so much. During a particularly long stand-off with myself, I went on the hunt for a proverbial jackhammer. I read (a lot) and I google-searched til my finger cramped from scrolling. I've provided a list below of a few exercises I found most effective, but the key word is: exercise. I had to take time out from moving forward with my plot and stretch new muscles in my creativity. It meant slowing down my pace, but if I was being perfectly honest with myself, I had to admit I was at a complete stand still. So slowing down was actually an improvement.

1. The empty picture frame: Can't figure out how to get out of a scene? In Anne Lamott's "Bird by Bird," she describes an exercise she gives in classes that she teaches. She tells her students to find/make/buy an empty picture frame and to write these words inside: What do you see in here? Forget about the action that you can't force forward, and instead make notes about what you see - no detail too small to notice. Top to bottom, horizon to horizon. Paint the picture. Live in it. What do you smell? What do you hear? This helps me 99% of the time that I use it. My picture frame is green, by the way.

2. Who ARE you? When my dialogue starts to err on the side of a polite conversation in a church sanctuary, it takes my whole scene down with it. The ho-hum banter paves a path straight to somewhere fiery. Usually what's happened is that I've lost track of who my characters ARE. What are they all about? What makes them tick? In a separate file/notebook/etc, create a complete - and I mean crazy complete - description of the inner workings of your character. Ask yourself asinine questions about what he/she might do in every day situations: found a lost dog, made a cup of coffee, answered the door to religious zealots, found a fifty-dollar bill, got behind an extreme couponer in the 10-items-or-less checkout line. What would your character do? What would they say? Does their inner dialogue have a catch phrase? What word do they typically use to agree or disagree? Considering these questions seems like the long way around, I know. But knowing how they speak in every day circumstances will make their dialogue read in a way that feels meaningful and authentic to your reader without weighing down the whole page.

3. Plot stall: Your main characters are standing around staring at each other. Cocktail hour is over and the main course is still thirty minutes away. Awkward. Instead of sending your characters for another round of free drinks, try this: kill off your main character. Seriously. Copy the section/chapter/whatever and paste it into a new file. Then, write a quick story from the point where the engine fell out of your plot and kill off your protagonist. This exercise makes you look through the eyes of all of your other characters and consider their integrity (and their resourcefulness.) Or maybe your leading hero succumbs to an unknown food allergy or a moment of tragic clumsiness. Either way, I promise your original scene won't look the same upon return.

4. Back track: sometimes, I have to level with myself and embrace the fact that I HAVE written myself into a corner. Somewhere along the way, I chucked the spare tire to cut down on weight and now I've got a flat. Then I have to do what every writer dreads: search back to the last place the story was breathing on its own, and pull the plug on the rest. I'm a huge advocate for the delete button. To be fair - and honest - I always start a second document file where I paste the bigger pieces I've cut from my work-in-progress just in case I need them again. But I very rarely go back for them. Our stories are in our minds - not in our key strokes. A scene can always be recreated, even with some well-earned grumbling.

Please feel free to leave your own tips - or links to your own posts on the subject. Thank you for reading and happy writing!


  1. Solid advice Jadie. When I'm in a rut I tend to read or watch something new that I wouldn't normally. It's that whole getting outside of my own head, then I'll stumble back in later.

  2. I've noticed that the hard part for me is getting my butt in the chair and ignoring all distractions and just write. Once I'm writing, I'm golden. But when something veers my attention...

  3. @E. Arroyo - I can absolutely relate! I get so distracted by anything remotely shiny. And @Summer - what I didn't want to admit in this post: sometimes when I'm feeling particularly sulky about whatever scene I can't write my way out of, I get some snacks and watch a couple of episodes of whatever trash reality tv show I can find. I zone out, and then I realize: why the HELL am I wasting time watching these people? Then I race up to my desk with a whole new wind.

  4. These are such great tips! I read "Bird by Bird" and I had forgotten about the picture frame technique. Thanks for the reminder :)

  5. Thanks Julie! I seriously go hack to Bird by Bird at least once a week - especially when I'm feeling sluggish and snarky :)

  6. This is just what I needed to read today. Thanks for the advice. Time to stop fooling around and get down to knowing my characters.

  7. Hi Norma! I'm so glad it helped. These exercises are great tools for me, and I'm happy to share them.


Ramble on, y'all.