Saturday, August 11, 2018

Five Ways to Defeat Writer's Block

The subject of writer’s block comes up fairly frequently at writing panels and conferences, which suggests it’s a pretty big concern for a lot of writers. There is some debate about exactly what it is, or even if it actually exists. My position is that if you think you can’t write because of some kind of mental block, then by definition you have writer’s block.

I think writer’s block can come in many forms and have many sources. I’ve certainly experienced that feeling of being stuck, that I don’t know what to do next on a particular story or script. But I’ve also developed a writing process and techniques to get past that. I can’t remember the last time writer’s block held me up for a significant amount of time. Here are the five most common techniques I use to keep the words flowing:

1. Outline

This is potentially controversial, so let me explain. Fiction writers often divide writing processes into two approaches: pantsers and plotters. Pantsers – as in “seat of the pants” just start writing and see where the story takes them. Plotters outline first. I’m a plotter. When I talk to pantsers, most readily admit they end up throwing away 70-80 percent of the first draft, or that they often go off in the wrong direction for dozens of pages and have to backtrack. This leads me to believe that both pantsers and plotters are doing the same thing in those early stages – figuring out the story. It’s just that pantsers are doing it in draft format while plotters are doing it in outline format. (Not that plotters’ first drafts are perfect, but we typically need to do a lot less revision.)

Personally, I’d rather not spend time working out dialogue and details for scenes that have a high likelihood of getting cut later. And once I have an outline, I always know what comes next. That eliminates most instances of writer’s block. And I’m not married to the outline – if for some reason the story takes me in a new direction, I’ll often pause to re-outline the remainder of the screenplay.

But there are plenty of successful writers who are pantsers, and I feel that writing process is a very individual thing, so if pantsing it works for you, go right ahead. However, if you’re a pantser who often gets writer’s block, maybe you’re not really a pantser. Maybe you just fell in love with the romantic idea of “letting the story guide you.” Maybe try outlining and see if it makes your life easier.

2. Try It Both Ways

Sometimes I get stuck because I can’t decide which way to go with a character or story. For example, do I want the love interest to be an ex-girlfriend coming back into the hero’s life, or someone the character is meeting for the first time? One of the advantages of outlining is I can try the story both ways. I’ll do a quick-and-dirty outline one way, and a quick-and-dirty outline the other way. These outlines may only be a page or two, just to follow through on the reverberations of each choice. Then I can decide which way I like better. Usually I know the answer before I even finish the two outlines. One just feels right. Even if you’re a pantser, you can try this technique when you get stuck – it won’t kill you to think ahead a little bit!

3. Let It Be Bad

Sometimes I get intimidated by the scene to come and kind of freeze up. I think this is common for writers. We’re imagining this great scene, but we’re afraid we won’t be able to pull it off. Or we know the plot point we have to deliver, but don’t have a good idea of how to realize it. My way to solve this is to just let myself write a bad version of the scene. Then I’ll have something to rewrite later, and I’ll be able to keep moving forward. I tell myself that I'll make this scene great in the next draft. This helps me get over the intimidation, and often the resulting scene turns out to be pretty good. And if it doesn’t… well, that’s what rewrites are for!

4. Let Yourself Be Bad

This is for the times you just don’t feel like writing. You’re tired, you don’t feel creative. But I’m a big believer in writing every day. Making it a habit makes it easier to sit down and get something done. So I tell myself to just write for an hour, even if it’s bad, even if I only get a few usable lines of dialogue out. The goal is to establish the habit. And once again, often these “bad” writing sessions end up being quite productive. (I prefer setting a goal of writing for a certain amount of time per day rather than producing a certain number of pages. It takes the pressure off.)

5. Take a Walk

If I’m wrestling with a particularly thorny scene or character issue, I find it helps to take a walk. (Other writers I know go for a drive or take a shower, but a walk seems more environmentally friendly!) There is something about a little minor physical exertion without the need to concentrate that seems to free up creativity. In fact, there’s actual scientific research that backs up the idea. So if you find yourself stuck, a walk around the block might just be the solution.

What techniques do you have for overcoming writer’s block? Let us know in the comments!

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