Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Writer's Block

Every once in a while someone asks me how I combat writer’s block. Truth is I don’t think about it much. But I realize I’ve developed several tools to help me cope with the problem of not knowing what to write next.

First, I think there are two kinds of writer’s block. The first is when you don’t know what story you want to write. This happens to me every few years. I won’t have a paid gig and I won’t know what spec material I want to pursue. It’s not that I don’t have ideas – I have notebooks full of more ideas than I could write in several lifetimes. But I’m not sure which idea I want to commit the next several months of my life to. This problem never seems to last that long. I’ll just start noodling with several ideas, outlining them and doing character development, and eventually one will come to the forefront and take over.

But where do I get all these ideas? I think everyone stumbles across half a dozen movie ideas every day. The difference is I recognize them and most people don’t. I see movie ideas everywhere in daily life as I meet people, read newspaper articles, etc. because I’m looking for movie ideas. If I designed furniture I’d probably get several ideas a day for new styles of chair or table.

Most of these ideas are not good. But that doesn’t really matter. Since it takes me months to write a script I only need one good one out of every couple hundred.

If you aren’t yet in the habit of seeing movie ideas everywhere you look I would recommend a technique one of my first writing instructors suggested: carry a notebook with you. Anytime you meet or see an interesting person or hear a snatch of interesting dialogue or learn about an unusual fact, exciting job or dramatic situation, write it down. You’ll have a notebook full of movie ideas in no time. And the more you do it the easier it will get to spot new ideas. Soon you won’t be able to write fast enough to keep up with all your ideas.

The other kind of writer’s block is when you’re in the middle of a first draft and don’t know what to write next. I believe strongly in having a detailed outline before I start writing, so this is less of a problem for me. I have a roadmap that always tells me what the next scene needs to be. Sometimes I wander off the path or revise my route as I’m going, but it’s rare that I don’t have some idea of what comes next.

Still, sometimes I find myself unable to conceive of how a scene will play out. Often this is due to a lack of confidence. There are a couple ways to combat this:

First, give yourself permission to be bad. This is only the first draft. Write it bad now and make it great in the next draft. People will only see the draft you give them. They’ll never know how awful the scene was in previous drafts. And frequently when I read through a recently finished draft, the material I thought was going to be bad is actually pretty good and some of the stuff I thought was brilliant when I wrote it makes me cringe. When we’re in the middle of the scene we’re not always at our most objective.

(Writer’s block only seems to happen in the first draft stage, at least to me. When I’m fixing things the answer to what needs to be done is always pretty clear.)

The second technique is to sit down at the computer or the notepad or whatever for a specific amount of time every day. This is a tip I picked up from an article by Lawrence Block. He recommended writing for an hour or two hours or whatever every day… and stopping exactly at the end of the writing period, even if you’re in mid-scene.

I don’t do that. But if I’m feeling blocked I make myself sit at my computer for at least an hour. I tell myself it’s okay if I only write a few words, but I can’t surf the web or play computer solitaire or do anything else for one hour. I have to stare at my half finished script. What always happens is I get bored and start trying different approaches to the scene in question. In no time at all I’m writing furiously and productively and invariably I blow past the hour mark without noticing. The danger is in not sitting down at the computer in the first place. If I don’t show up the ideas will never come.

Which brings me to another little technique inspired by Lawrence Block. I usually don’t stop mid-scene, but I also don’t end my writing day at the end of a scene. If it’s getting toward quitting time and I finish up the scene I’m working on, I always take a few minutes to plan out the next scene. I review my outline, make a few notes, brainstorm a few ideas and lines of dialogue. Then I walk away.

By the time I sit down for my next writing session, my head is swimming with ideas for the scene and I’m anxious to get started. What I’m doing is priming my brain at the end of a writing session. I’m setting my subconscious to work on the scene while my conscious mind is occupied with the rest of my life. And when I come back to the script I know exactly what I’m working on next.

Because of these techniques, writer’s block is simply not a problem for me.


pmottaz said...

Define "quitting time."

Doug Eboch said...

I set a specific time of the day to write with an idea of when I'm going to wrap up. When I get close I start thinking about how I want to end the day.

But sometimes I can get a little extra done if I don't allow myself to quit at quitting time! Sometimes just making myself do "one more scene" pays off big dividends.

Mattson Tomlin said...

pretty good advice, 'allow yourself to be bad'