On Writer's Block

"Writer's block is a myth."  Bullshit. No it's not.

First off, this is geared towards us hobby writers.  All you professional writers need to get back to work...

Even if you've scratched the surface of what's out there on writer's block, you know the cliches on both sides of the argument.  You probably even have a favorite top ten list on how to cure it.   How are those working out for you?  They haven't really helped me much.  A lot of them are pretty heady things about your mindset, identity, standards, goals, and blah, blah, blah.  But I've learned some practical things from adjusting my process that have helped a little.  

Dragon Festival, Harvest Fire (<--- read it, it's quite good) started with world building (there'll be a blog on that process fairly soon).  From the get go, I knew that there were going to be multiple story lines that wove in and out of each other.  That wound up being my favorite way to break a block.  After I cleared the first chapter, I wanted to start to explore the other worlds that I had worked hard to create.  Chapters two and three happened at the same time.  But I didn't want to lose the momentum from Tsukiko's story, so four snuck itself in there when the others got difficult to finish.  At any given time, I'm writing three chapters at once.  It's sort of like hedging my bets, in a way.  When one gets blocked up, another one typically starts to flow.  Sometimes, just letting one story rest is enough.

I'm finding that I have somewhat of a unique process.  I write start to finish in almost every way.  My writing begins at the very place I want the story to start.  I don't jump ahead to write later scenes until earlier ones are finished (even within the same chapter).  I usually don't even skip a sentence.  Even though I write multiple chapters at once, each story line is written in order and in real time against the other two.  Mostly, its because the characters have a tendency of changing things along the way (see blog #3).  I'll have rough ideas for ending points that will come into focus as things progress, but I tend to keep them pretty fluid.  When I get stuck, I let myself go to another chapter, so long as its not about the same story line.

Believe it or not, there are times when all three story lines block up.  That's when the real work starts.  So what then?

The first thing is not to panic.  (This will be my only 'heady' one).  Embrace writer's block and how you learn to work through it as part of your process.  Again, this is to the hobby writers... Stay true to what you are writing and why you are writing it.  No one else can answer that for you.  Its 'OK' to take a break, but always be mindful that you are having a block.  They don't go away if you forget about them; you need to attack them.  My grandmother always said, the best way to deal with a screaming child is to change his mind.

Try writing something else.  Hell, right now Michio is in a bit of a rut in the midst of a pretty cool training sequence... That's why I'm writing this.  Enough said?  If not, some other ways that I apply this is by going back to world building, playing around with later outlines (to figure out what is on the other side of the block), taking the time to get into the character, etc.  If its your style, skip ahead and write a later part of the same chapter or scene and then ease your way back.  Write the really vivid stuff and then design what needs to support it.  It's helped me to look at each chapter as a stand-alone vignette. 

During the times away from DF,HF, I've written some short stories that I'm pretty proud of, with some of my favorite, most whimsical language.  They may even materialize...some day...

One of my favorite tactics comes from a local New England author by the name of Ernest Hebert (author of the Darby Series).  I'm paraphrasing here, but his suggestion is to drive.  We always scheme when we drive.  I caught his interview on the New Hampshire authors series this past summer and that was advice that stuck with me since.  Kudos to Ernest for getting me out of quite a few tough blocks.  It's been harder to go off on solo drives with two kids and a wife that works weekends.  Sometimes, though, you just have to strap them in and drive past the close Target to the one a few towns away...

Get a hobby.  If this is your only hobby, refer back to "try writing something else."  I play guitar and bass.  Sometimes that'll do.  Other times, I find it to be the ritual aspect of other hobbies that can be quite meditative.  Going back to why driving works, hobbies help you scheme.  Take the time to lose yourself in another expressive art form and you may just find yourself wandering back.

Find some real world inspiration.  My book is an epic fantasy set in an imagined Asian world.  But it's heart and soul is folk tradition. Food is often the name of that game.  The way through the block sometimes means sitting down to a meal that your characters would eat.  Hard work...I know... But take in every detail: the way the sushi chef wipes his knife; the wet cloth cooling the head of the grill cook; the smell of whatever dish just flew by on an overhead tray; the body language when the couple at the next table orders.  If you're so inclined, write about them.  But what helps me with a scene is to track my characters' eyes.  Look for that in an inspired setting, and you may be back on track.

When I get stuck, I need something immersive.  Sometimes I read, sometimes I watch a movie.  I try to match it with what I'm aiming for emotionally.  Don't shoot for exact matches here, but think about what you need to convey.  For instance, sometimes I need to feel awkward, uncomfortable tension, so I'll watch something like, say, Dinner for Schmucks.  If it puts me in that mood, I know how my character should feel.  In that moment, I'll write a line or two of reflective dialogue as one of the characters in the scene.  Maybe I'll use it, maybe I won't, but it usually helps to get me unstuck.

Last, and one that's not for everyone, I smoke a pipe.  I've found that there is not a better way for me to break a block.  No, I did not start smoking to break a writer's block, and no, it's not to be like Tolkien or Hemingway, who are two of my favorite pipe smoking authors.  The hobby can be super immersive, especially when its social.  The key is, its unlike 'smoking for a fix.'  If it's rushed, it won't be enjoyable, and trust me, tongue bite sucks.  It's part ritual, part relaxing, and for some crazy reason, gets my literary juices flowing.  That is literally my one, go-to, last resort secret to get out of the thickest hold ups.  (For those of you not into it, I've found nearly as much success in a pot of tea).

Obviously, these things are geared towards me and my writing style.  The secret is: it's not about smoking a pipe or watching a movie. It's about finding that one or two things that work for you... 

Embrace the block, look it in the eye, and when you can, change its mind.


P.S. Gawith Firedance Flake
P.P.S. Video of Ernest Hebert's talk: http://video.nhptv.org/video/1944670099/.  Good stuff.