More often lately, I get emails and messages from new writers asking for advice and/or for me to read their first novel. And while I rarely have the time to read, I don’t want to turn anyone away either, because who doesn’t remember being new and uncertain about how the industry works?
As an avid list-maker, I can think of no better assistance than compiling lists of my own go-to advice for when things go south one way or another. Writer’s block is one of those things, so I thought I’d start with that.
I have a handful projects that’ve left me completely stumped. I can’t write a single word on those stories. Some projects aren’t meant to be; some are meant to wait until I’m in a different mental space or period of my life. Those characters simply have to be patient. But most of the time, really, I can shatter that block. Because sometimes I have to admit to myself that the reason I have a writer’s block is because I’m lazy and have half-assed something in the writing process, like character development or a plot point. Therefore, a writer’s block is a good indicator for me to go back and see what I can do different. Like a built-in radar saying hold up, this doesn’t pass the test.
1.) Give your character a personality test. Sometimes I haven’t taken enough to time to get to know my character, and if I’m struggling to write them, I go to www.16personalities.com and answer as the person I’m writing. Is he a leader type? Is she introverted? Does he work with his hands? Will she cancel on that party because she’s drained after a long day? Is she the kind of woman who will lose three hours doing Buzzfeed quizzes? (If the answer is yes, I go to Buzzfeed too.) Giving my character more layers kick-start the writing more often than not.
2.) Music is a big part of writing for me, as it is for many authors. If I fail to connect with my character, I make sure I’m listening to the right music. The book isn’t about me, so I shouldn’t be listening to music I like. I should go for the music my character enjoys. Sometimes the Sadist comes home and finds me blasting some obscure metal band, and he’ll just stare at me like I’ve lost my mind. And I’ll yell, it’s not for me! It’s for a character. And the funny thing is, that makes sense to him. He’s so used to my writer quirks by now. 🙂 Either way, it’s another helpful way to become one with whoever I’m writing, and it doesn’t stop at music. If you gotta walk a mile in your character’s shoes, go ahead. Cook their favorite food, watch their favorite TV shows, etc.
3.) Time to go back. Many times when I can’t seem to type another word in a story, it’s that radar going off. I’ve done something wrong. Something is messed up with the story. So I go back and figure out what part I’m not completely satisfied with. If my characters are alive and kicking in my brain, chances are they will let me know. Hey, woman, what you wrote here is out of character for me.
4.) No, I mean it, the book isn’t about me. Occasionally, that block gets slammed into place when I realize I’ve inserted myself into the story. I go back and reread my words and see that they’re my opinions, my views, not my character’s. That’s a big no-no. Casey as a secondary character in Path of Destruction is one of them. I loved writing that guy; he was so sweet and funny and equally insecure and ballsy, and it sort of swept me away. I began writing musings that reflected my own person, and then I stopped. I couldn’t write more. I also couldn’t figure out why because I liked this dude! I could relate to him. And of course I could. As I went back, it was clear as day. He’d taken over the story that wasn’t even about him, and the words he spoke were mine. I rewrote every word in the scenes he was in. I was mildly freaked out too, and felt the need to distance myself from him. That’s why I made him a Pepsi lover. #TeamCokeZero.
5.) Push it. A story has to flow naturally to be good, but it’s important to see the difference between the story and the writing. Being an author is still a job, and no job is 100% “go with the flow.” Sometimes I have to push myself to write. Some scenes and chapters are less fun but necessary, and if I always followed the “only write when you want to” rule, I’d never finish a book. Imagine telling a businessman to only do what’s fun. Imagine telling a factory worker to only work when he felt like it. It doesn’t work that way. A cocky wiseguy pops up in my head and goes, nah, motherfucker, get outta hea’ wid’at shit. (His name is Dominic, and he is loud.)
6.) …but sometimes, you gotta walk away. Take a break. Watch TV, go shopping, head out for a long walk. Clear your head. Staring at a document all day, without the ability to add more words, will only make us blind and pissed off. This is how certain items get chucked at the wall. So spare your phone or the nearby remote control and step away. Sometimes a few hours are enough, sometimes you need a week or more. Come back with a fresh perspective and perhaps new impressions and events to add to the story.
7.) Which brings us to…PLOT TWIST. This is sort of a final resort for me, and it has to make sense; it has to be what was missing. But every now and then, a plot twist is the right answer and will bring the writing back to life.
Last but not least, I have some advice on how to prevent a writer’s block. As everything else here, the advice is highly individual, and what works for me might not work for you.
1.) If you find yourself staring up the hill of Mt. Writer’s block frequently, it might be a good idea to change your writing process/strategy. Speaking from my own experience, I used to have the entire story mapped out in my head. And I got bored. I got so freaking bored because I already knew what was going to happen, and I need the writing to surprise me with twists and turns too. So I stopped mind-mapping and figuring it all out before I started. Now, before I begin, I know the gist. I know the beginning, I know the ending, and I know the major plot points. The rest…I let the characters lead the way. This is why my two closest, Lisa and Eliza, laugh their asses off whenever I claim, I’m gonna write a short novella! Let’s just say, Dirty Chef was supposed to be a short story. Their Boy(!) was supposed to be a novella. Same with We Have Till Dawn, We Have Till Monday, and The Job. Safe to say, my head bitches in charge don’t trust me for shit.
1.5.) Or you could need the opposite. If you get stuck because your mind is a chaotic mess and you can’t untangle the web you’re weaving, perhaps you’d do better with a mind map or a list. A quick summary of each chapter could help you stay on track.
2.) Is writing your full-time job? Do you have kids running around you all day? Is life busy? My rule of thumb is to finish a first draft fairly quickly. That way, the story is the only thing that exists in my head, and I don’t sidestep or forget what I’ve written. It stays fresh in my memory, from start to finish. But with this approach, I have to adjust my writing to fit my personal life. If life is busy and I’m juggling one too many projects, I’ll write a shorter and simpler story. I save the monster projects that require months of research for when I have the time to sit down and really get into it. No book deserves to be half-assed, amirite?
There you have it! I hope at least some of it was helpful and that you can crush that writer’s block.
Until next time,