Writer’s Block: Over a Dozen Solutions to a Non-Problem

Written by A Guest Author

By Ken Finley

I was sitting in the audience of a writer’s panel at WorldCon in San Antonio when the subject of writer’s block came up. Gail Carrigher was the first to speak, saying there was no such thing. Not one writer on that panel disagreed with her. Several chimed in to express their usual response when they heard someone blaming a lack of productivity on writer’s block. Most were not very charitable.

I was delighted because – I don’t believe in writer’s block. It’s an oxymoron. Writers write. Now, maybe authors and novelists might suffer from a productivity block, but writers? No possible way. If you aren’t writing, you aren’t living. So, what about those other folks – the ones that have somehow lost their way? What can those of us who are blessed with a well overflowing with verbiage suggest to help the less fortunate?

1.   First – Don’t Stop

As a High School coach in Academic Decathlon, I meet a lot of bright young people who say they want to be writers. I tell them “You don’t want to be a writer. You either are or aren’t. Have you written your thousand words today?” Far too many of my students wander off thinking that I’m out of my mind. I’m not saying that you have to be born with an innate talent for writing to be a writer. You just have to decide you want to write and do it. Elmore Leonard in his 1982 interview with Writer’s Digest said “… The writer has to have patience, the perseverance to just sit there alone and grind It out. And if it’s not worth doing that, then he doesn’t want to write. …”

The single most important element of being a writer is the ability to give yourself permission to write, and never ever giving yourself permission to not write.

There’s something to be said for developing the habit of writing. If a thousand words a day seems daunting, Roger Zelazney had the following tip.

“I try to write every day. I used to try to write four times a day, minimum of three sentences each time. If you try that several times a day you’re going to do more than three sentences, one of them is going to catch on. You’re going to say “Oh boy!” and then you just write. You fill up the page and the next page. But you have a certain minimum so that at the end of the day, you can say “Hey I wrote four times today, three sentences, a dozen sentences. Each sentence is maybe twenty words long. That’s 240 words which is a page of copy, so at least I didn’t goof off completely today. I got a page for my efforts and tomorrow it might be easier because I’ve moved as far as I have”.

The longer you stop, the harder it is to get going again, so just don’t stop. I often find that the more I write, the more new ideas I discover. I have a huge backlog of ideas waiting for development.

2.   What’s next on your outline

I have no intention of getting into an argument about whether or not to outline. Some stories flow so fast and smooth that I never get around to the outline. Sometimes the ideas flow so fast they get in the way of the story. When that happens, I need some sort of tree to hang them on until I get around to them. Sometimes the story grows so complex that I need some structure to sort out what is happening when. The resulting document could be called an outline. In its richer form I call it by a term I learned in my script writing days – the storyboard. A description of the environment of the action, the key players and their characteristics and baggage becomes what TV series screenwriters call the bible. Think of it as an expanded storyboard. This document captures all the little tidbits and fragments that accumulate during story development. It’s very handy to help keep your characters and actions consistent. Two great examples available online are the bibles for Tales of the Gold Monkey and Firefly. There are some fantastic free programs to help the working writer develop such a bible. I carry three programs on a jump drive so that I can have access to them wherever I am working.

File Commander

 an excellent organizational tool for file management.

Treepad

a wonderful little program with a linear organizational structure that allows you to open each node and add as much detail as you want. You can expand and contract nodes as you need to see what you are doing.

Free Mind

Designed for the less linear writers, it is a Java-based program that allows you to do cognitive mapping of your ideas, creating a spider diagram or web of your ideas.

These programs are available for computers, Android tablets, and I can even find them that will run on my smart phone. Bottom line, if you aren’t writing, and you don’t have an outline, storyboard, or bible, it isn’t because of writer’s block.

3. Carry a recorder

A great quote in Terry Brooks’ ‘Sometimes the Magic Works’ explains that when the muse strikes, you can’t say ‘come back later’.

The muse may not return.

If at that time you cannot stop to write down your moment of brilliance, grab a recorder and rip off a few words. I have a great little micro recorder made by Sony. You can dump the files to your computer as mp3’s and transcribe them at your leisure. Anyone who has a stack of recorded texts is in no danger of a stoppage of ideas … and on the days the ideas don’t flow, transcribe a voice file and integrate it to its intended story. Oh … wait … that’s writing.

4. Carry a notebook

I can tell the writers. They are the ones with the notebook. I carry mine everywhere. “But wait,” says the observant reader, “didn’t you just tell me to carry a recorder? Why would I need a notebook?” For just words, the recorder may be sufficient. However, let me suggest that sometimes words aren’t enough. When working on the short story Logic’s Luck, my hero finds himself infiltrating a German prison camp. I had a rough sketch I drew in the notebook. I significantly revised my drawing when I visited Auschwitz and Buchenwald. All the drawings went into my notebook. Can’t do that with an mp3 player, and the drawings showed perspectives the camera didn’t. Plus, I couldn’t put pace counts in my pictures. I often read through the random notes in my notebook to help organize my thoughts on a project.

Notebooks with pockets are also handy, but the pockets aren’t necessary. When travelling, I’ll often pick up city maps with attractions and restaurants and stuff them in the notebook for later filing.

A near constant companion is my Android tablet. Again, I’ll avoid the argument of Android vs. iPad vs. Microsoft tablets. I only speak to my experience. I’ve loaded the free office suite from KingSoft and use it for creating, updating, and editing files. The same versatile package is available for the Android phones, and I have a copy there as well. Anything to honor the muse’s visitation.

5. Watch people

Don’t just watch, write what you see in your notebook. Describe the people, the setting, the situation, their conversations. I was sitting in a cafe next to the river Seine in Paris, and watched an attractive couple have lunch and step to the edge of the awning to have a smoke. We were all trying to stay back from the rain. When she tried to light his cigarette, she had the flame set too high and burned the tip of his nose. Naturally their reaction to that went in the notebook. Ask yourself how those people got to that place. Better yet, what did they do afterwards? What is the simplest you can imagine? What is the most complex? Before you know it, you’ll have written a thousand words, and probably won’t stop there. Once you are done decide if it fits a current story idea, or if you should save it for another project.

My notebooks are full of people I’ve seen, sometimes just a short descriptive line like “Two overweight people who were obviously comfortable with each other, holding hands on the escalator.” Others are longer. Develop a code for body shape, coloring, expression. For example, a guy may have broad shoulders, narrow waist, sandy brown hair and piercing blue eyes. (I’d like to have a nickel for every time that description is used.) Another example is the Dirk Pitt variation – whippet-thin swimmer’s body with black hair and piercing green eyes. You get the drift. It’s funny how fat men are either jolly, round or evil.

While watching people, listen to what they say. Conversations are priceless. Josip Novakovich, in Fiction Writer’s Workshop, advises that you keep a journal of conversations you hear. Document where you heard it – city, state, country as well as time of day. It allows you to develop a sense of local dialects. Some are just funny, like the girl and her mother walking down a mall. The girl is on the phone, with mom listening. “Tom, on the second level, in Perfumania, there is a red bottle – Berry Mist. Mom likes it. You can use some of the money she gave you to buy that for her for Christmas. We’ll meet you at the food court.” Don’t edit yourself by deciding not to write because you can’t figure out how to use it.

6. Complete a conversation

You ever have one of those confrontations where the really devastating or clever come-back doesn’t occur to you until after the event? How should that argument have gone? Write it down in your notebook. Write down what happened leading up to it. Write down what happened afterwards. This is a story. Think about what you said, should have said, and shouldn’t have said. How do you feel about which? Each of these creates a chain of thought and action you can write out for later use. What are the consequences of each, and how can you invite the desirable consequence while avoiding the undesirable? What happens when you get the undesirable? Bear in mind that the undesirable could be the way more interesting story. Bullet points can be your best friend. You don’t have to write it out in script yet.

7.  Read a book and revise a story

Remember what I said about constantly trying to improve your craft? I was attending a writer’s conference in Plano Texas where one of the authors commented that he read a book about writing every month.

Just reading can be a trap. What I do is read and then look at a story under development. Based on what I have read, what can I do to improve the story? If I don’t have one under development, I can pull a short story and rewrite it. I don’t have to read very far before something comes to mind and I set the book aside to work on the story.

But, don’t stop with the reading. Create a summary form for each book or article read. Record at the minimum: what you liked, what you didn’t like, surprises and key points. More about that later.

The late Roger Zelazney was known for picking what he thought was one of his weaknesses as a writer and writing a story to develop the strengths to offset the weakness. A couple of his short story collections describe the process for each story. I often reread his Unicorn Variations for that very reason. Great insights and great stories.

8. Alternate endings and beginnings

I got this idea from a Writer’s Digest article years ago. The author was much more polite about the subject of writer’s block than I am. He started with what is a universal wisdom – writers need to read. Read a story, it doesn’t have to be your own, and develop an alternative ending. Then, go back and develop an introduction that fits your ending. Now you have a whole new story. Maybe you can change more than just the names of the characters and the location. What if you changed genres as well? For example: I wrote a neat little series of stories about characters in Southeast Asia in the 1930’s. Love the characters and the stories. One day (actually it became months), as an exercise, I decided to steampunk the stories. That suggested all sorts of changes. I’ve had to invent new technologies, research the language, practically develop a whole new universe. I built a dictionary to go with it. And, the characters got way more interesting.

9. Change the Point of View

The other day, while thinking about how characters impact the story, I had (for me) a revelation. I’ve always known most of what I’m about to say, but not really thought about how it related to story – even though I’ve seen it as a plot element any number of times. Lois McMaster Bujold used the device in one of the Vorkosigan Saga stories, having the point of view shift from the main character to one of his newest and least significant guards. It shows how a different character colors your description. Conversely, how our characters look on the action changes the tone of the story. This changes the story in many ways, and each character has their own story about the same events. We all know that. For what I’m about to say, we need three categories for your perceptions of your current characters.

Filter 1: A piece of meat – this character is barely alive to you. You may not care if they live or die – they fill a space in your story. Think about a chorus line director surveying a batch of new candidates. His or her feeling about each dancer is impersonal, professional, neither critical or forgiving. As a director with a show to put on, the director has absolutely no personal involvement with the character except for whether or not they can move the story forward in the desired fashion. Assessment will be balanced critically.

Filter 2: A loved one – When you love someone, you tend to forgive or overlook negative traits and accent the positive. Take a man who has been married to the same woman for 40 years and loves her very dearly. The waist may be thicker, wrinkles may spiderweb the face, and grey may lace the hair, but when she smiles, he sees the same beautiful 18-year-old face he first met. Oh, excuse me … we were talking about your characters. Whether it is a partner you’ve worked with for years, a friend who has always been there for you, this filter will always present the character in a more favorable light.

Filter 3: Someone you detest – I don’t like the word hate. My rule is to hate things but never people. However, this filter is driven by such strong negative feelings. This is a character you dislike so much, if they walked on water, you’d accuse them of not being able to swim. When you present this character to your readers, you don’t give them an even break. Kindness becomes weakness, courtesy becomes manipulation, and confidence becomes arrogance. There is no balance to the assessment.

Now, what happens when a person from any of these three classifications becomes the Point of View for a story you have written or read. As a writing exercise, what happens to the story. Allan Dean Foster once told me about a book that was supposed to be one of a series with a favorite character. Part way through, two of the ‘piece of meat’ characters took over and changed the direction of the story. His usual main character became a minor supporting character. I’ve had it happen to me in a story where a servant girl’s mimicking of her mistress totally changed the tone of the story. If you are fighting the story, change the point of view and see what happens.

Orson Scott Card makes the following suggestions for when the Point of View (PoV) character is not the main character (the most frequent choice). The PoV character must:

  • be present at the main events.
  • be actively involved in those events, not always as a chance witness.
  • have a personal stake in the outcome, even though the outcome depends on the main character’s choices.

Changing the point of view allows you to tell a different story with different observations about the main character that they might not want you to tell. That is fun to write.

10.  Keep the files open

To me, all fiction and nonfiction files are active files. I visit each from time to time to see what should be updated, or what I can modify based on something new I have learned (you are constantly learning, aren’t you?). Technology changes every day, new events slot themselves into history, and reflections on these will change your perspective on what you have already written. A regular review of old and current projects to update creates the very serious danger of generating a cascade of words which you, as a writer, should capture. By the way, don’t worry if the new words don’t fit what you planned to write, or what you consider your current project. Stick them in a file, or on a notebook page and in time your new story will emerge. Over 25 years ago I wrote the opening line:

 “He walked across the harsh snowy landscape without changing it to Spring. Some would say it was because he was a white wizard and used no unnecessary or selfish magic. Others would say he was a charlatan and couldn’t if he wanted to. He would say it was to give the damn fools something to argue about.”

I had no idea what I was going to do with it until I met the dragon H’mphry and his rider Mike. H’mphry had raised Mike from a baby and chose the name Mike because he liked it. The fact that Mike is a girl never mattered to him. I’ve got 25,000 words on that story. Can’t wait to see how it turns out.

11. Describe a closet

In other words, what do you know about the characters that won’t appear in the story, otherwise known as the back story. In the great little book The Weekend Novelist – A Dynamic 52-week Program to Help You Produce a Finished Novel, Robert J. Ray has you describing the closets of the characters. I looked in one character’s closet and found three titanium right legs. I hadn’t realized he’d lost a leg, he was so natural on the one he wore. I keep wondering why there are three right legs and one left leg. I know he only lost the one, right below the knee from a meteoric rock fired through his ship while fighting pirates in the asteroid belt. One of the right legs clearly shows where a bullet smashed through during a police investigation. Something tells me there are a couple of stories just in the closet, let alone the fact that this was his grandfather’s house originally.

12. Research a related topic

I was talking to a young aspiring author when she confessed, she was suffering from writer’s block. So, I asked how her research was going. “Oh, I don’t need to research. I’m writing fantasy.” Really? If you’re writing fantasy you don’t need to do any research? I’d think the biology of the world would be relevant unless the hero is traversing a ping pong ball. In my fantasy story “God Killer” the hero marches across a snow-covered landscape to answer the “poor widow’s son” and his need for assistance. So, we have psychology, planetology, and communication.

Roger Zelazney said this about his first book –

“I sat down and made a list of everything I felt I should know more about. Astrophysics, oceanography, marine biology, genetics… Then when I’d finished the list, I read one book in each of these areas. When I’d finished, I went back and read a second book until I’d read ten books in each area. I thought that it wouldn’t turn me into a terrific, fantastic expert but I’d at least have enough material there to know if I was saying something wrong. And I’d also know where to turn to get the information I want to make it right.”

Today, this is even easier than when Roger first did it. You can find great electronic copies of books on the web – many for free. But, don’t stop with the reading. Use your summary form for each book or article read. Record at the minimum: what you liked, what you didn’t like, surprises, key points. Something I like to do is right next to the key points include where and how I think I can use it. I copied a simple summary sheet I received from an instructor in college and modified it. It might look like work, but it’s really just writing.

Even fantasy doesn’t occur in a vacuum and the more reality you integrate the more likely the reader will go along with the unbelievable. Pick an aspect of your unreal, compare it to the real and prepare to explain in writing how they are different. You’ll be surprised how much will migrate to your fantasy story. It does wonders for the texture of the story.

13. What’s in your briefcase/purse

In today’s survivalist terms – what’s in your Bugout Bag? Unless you have a magician with an infinite bag of holding (a real treasure in Dungeons and Dragons and Harry Potter) your characters can’t carry everything. (If you do have an infinite bag of holding, due diligence requires a back story for how each item was acquired. Think about it.) What are you going to have them carry, what are they going to have to find, and what story links to that?

I have a character named Kurt who works for the FBI. In his personal car, he’s eliminated the back seat and has a long flat case. What can I reasonably put in that case for the purpose of legalized mayhem? It’s a long case about four feet long and 18 inches wide.

According to the story it has a custom-built .270 rifle, a 12 ga. pump shotgun, a .45 ACP National Match Colt and three knives. They all fit quite handily. I know because I have the case.

As a Scouter I’ve had fun figuring out what can reasonably go in a pack, or when traveling, what goes in the luggage. Seriously, have you ever loaded a pack with what you thought you needed and tried to walk a mile with it? There’s a backpacking rule of thumb that an ounce at the beginning of the day feels like a pound at the end of the day.

Resources can’t just magically appear when needed. Good writing requires you to plan what is carried, what is left behind, and where to pick up what the story requires. When you figure it out, write it down. Use a brainstorming tool like FreeMind to figure it out. Finally, what does it say about the character when the reader discovers what they carry and what they don’t? What do you say about a woman who never goes anywhere without a Boy Scout pocket knife? What about the man who never carries a weapon? There’s more than a thousand words in each.

14. Take something apart and describe it

Tell me in 400 words how a retractable ball point pen works. Ever tried it? How about the valve for the spigot on the side of your house? These are great writing exercises and you would be amazed at how such silly little details can worm their way into a story. I’ve seen several stories where someone pulled the trigger on the pistol or rifle and it fired. Think about the dramatic difference when you read – he consciously applied the 6 pounds of pressure needed to move the trigger back, sliding off the sear, allowing the waiting spring to drive the hammer forward to strike the firing pin. You could as easily say his startled motion was sufficient to move the trigger back, falling off the sear, allowing the waiting spring to irretrievably drive the hammer forward and so forth. Either allows the reader time to think Oh No! or Wait! Sure, this is an exaggeration, but you can see how knowing how something works allows you to add a rich detail to your stories. You learn a lot just taking a lock apart to see how it works, so long as you write your discoveries down. While you’re at it, describe how you feel at each step of the process. Such insights can be attributed to your characters for a better story.

15. Change what you’re writing

Writing isn’t just stories – there’s how to’s, poems, lessons and scripts. These are all opportunities to write. How many limericks or Hallmark cards can you write? The worst crime a writer can commit is to limit what he or she will write. I knew a young lady who was making a real effort at writing. Her main problem was that she wasn’t making a living at it. I saw an opportunity for a Technical Writer and suggested she apply for it. Her response? “I can’t do that. That isn’t writing.” Really? As someone who for years made a really good living writing educational manuals and technical manuals, I had to shake my head. It has always been my belief that writers write. I think the greatest example of this is Issac Assimov. He could and would write on any topic. There is a compulsive writer. When asked what vacations he liked to take to get away from writing, he turned it around to explain how much he had to write to build up the endurance to take a vacation from it.

16. Ignore those who say you can’t

It comes back to what I said at the beginning about avoiding situations where you give yourself permission to not write. While I agree that you need to be practical, and make sure you have the income to keep a roof over your head and food on the table, there are several opportunities to be impractical. How do you spend your lunch breaks? I spend mine with a notebook. How do you spend your time commuting to and from work? I spend mine with a micro-recorder. Don’t take a rejection letter as permission to quit. A rejection letter, of which I have a few, is encouragement to try again. Look at your story and ask yourself what you wanted to do differently. Work it through and try again.

There are so many people who don’t write who are perfectly willing to tell you that you can’t write. They’ll tell you about the depth of the slush piles. They’re real experts on how hard it is to get an agent to take you on as a client. Ignore them.

Robert Heinlein had five rules for writing – You must write. You must finish what you write. You must refrain from rewriting, except to editorial order. You must put the work on the market. You must keep the work on the market until it is sold. When asked why he didn’t fear competition, his response was that most would never make it to step four. He is sadly right, and most of those who fail will be talked out of taking the chance. Here, I will quote me – “The worst story ever written is better than the best story that is never written.”

Conclusion

Ooops! I overran my goal. Just thinking about all these ways to write can bring on a rather serious condition for which I have found no cure –Writer’s Effervescence.  If you aren’t writing, it’s only because you have given yourself permission to not write. It’s not because you have a “writer’s block.” Good writing isn’t about putting words on paper when the mood strikes you. Good writing is about good practices and good habits that lead to great ideas and captivating stories.


Bio: Ken Finley has contributed chapters to four books on transferring learning to the workplace and virtual teams. He’s written articles to the Performance and Instruction Journal, and published the Trinity Newsletter for Performance and Instruction. He’s also published a variety of poems and papers on learning. He’s written and produced over 150 educational films. In his spare time he writes some fan fiction and original works. You can find several of his pieces under kwfinley at the Fiction Press and Fan Fiction web sites. He lives near Paris, Texas with his wife of 45 years, Dorothy.

 

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