Writing Tips: How to Hurtle Your Writer's Block

October 21, 2019

Here's the text of an article Janice Hardy was kind enough to let me post on her excellent Fiction University site.
 

I’ve never really had long-term writer’s block. But short-term? Far too often. The daily race to pen at least a page or two is almost always littered with obstacles, some of which trip me up on a regular basis.

Here’s how I get over them.

Reconsider Motivation

A lot of times I’m stuck because my characters are acting against type, and I just haven’t realized it yet. Or worse, I haven’t realized what a character’s type is yet. So when my writing stumbles in a particular scene, one of the first things I do is interrogate each of the principals’ motivations.

The first question is always What? Specifically, What is his/her goal in this scene? Ideally, that scene goal will tie into the character’s larger story goal, but I’m looking for something more granular here. (Yes, I know Amadi wants to help Isaura get her son back, but that’s Point Z. We’re only at Point M. What does he want to do at this particular moment to get him to Point N? Acquire a boat? Nautical!)

The second question is How? That is, How is he/she planning to achieve this goal? The plan should fit the character. (Because while Chase might weave—and then tangle—an elaborate scheme to con some fisherman out of his boat, Amadi would probably just punch Chase, steal the boat back, and pay the fisherman for it.) If you’re not sure what a fit would be, try a few things on until one feels right.

A bullet point or two for each question is about all you need (and often all it takes to learn something about your characters). Next, now that you’ve got those goals and plans, look for ways they conflict. Injecting tension into a scene is a great way to get things moving.

Hack Your Process

But it’s not foolproof. Sometimes I know exactly what my characters are trying to accomplish and how, but I still can’t get the scene across the finish line. This is when I start coming at my writing sideways. Basically, I shake stuff up until something breaks loose.

If I’m fiddling with my commas and adjectives and self-editing away my momentum, I’ll shotgun the entire chapter (by which I mean spraying out words without touching the Delete key … but that sounds violent, and this is an extended running metaphor, so let’s pretend I said “sprint for the entire chapter”). The results will largely be junk, but I’ll at least have an idea of what works and what doesn’t. Then I’ll rewrite the chapter from scratch. This second draft usually flows much more smoothly.

If it doesn’t, I might start counting my steps (more running talk!) and switch back to outlining, but get really detailed, stacking bullet point upon bullet point until I’ve essentially planned my way into prose.

If that’s still not enough, I’ll occasionally toggle my medium (ahem, “change my shoes”) and whip out a notebook and pen—but not a pencil; no erasing! This should be slower than typing, but sometimes it’s easier to write longhand, and it’s certainly faster than staring at a blank screen.

If all that fails, I might call it quits … for an hour or two, not the day. I tend to write better at certain times—like midmorning and early evening—but that’s not a hard-and-fast rule. Every so often, late afternoon gets it done.

Sleep!

Generally, one of these tricks gets me over the hump. But if I keep falling on my face no matter what, it’s usually time to admit that I sabotaged myself the night before by staying up too late. (That book was so good, though! I had to keep reading. And those episodes of Mindhunter weren’t going to watch themselves … Nope. Shut it down. You’re a slug of a writer when you’re tired.) The solution is obvious: go to bed earlier.

And then run it all back tomorrow.

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