Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Unsticking Yourself From Writer's Block

By Kara Bietz, @karamb75

Part of the How They Do It Series

JH: We all have days when the words won't come. For some, this only lasts a short time (maybe a day or less), while for others, this can drag on for weeks or longer. Whatever the length, it's no fun at all. Kara Bietz visits the lecture hall today to talk about three types of writer's block and offers a few tips on how to get past them.

Kara grew up in New England but now resides near Houston, Texas with her husband, two kiddos and two dogs. She’s been dreaming up stories as long as she can remember; sometimes she puts them on paper and sometimes they just live in her head. Her first literary credit was a poem about her Dad, published on Father’s Day in her hometown newspaper when she was 8. Her debut novel, SLIP, is slated for a Fall 2016 release from Albert Whitman & Company.

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Take it away Kara...

Stuck, stuck, STUCK! As writers, we’ve all been there. Whether you’ve got a few published books under your belt or you’re still toiling away on your very first first draft, you’ve likely had moments when you feel like you’ll never write another sentence again. The breathless panic that accompanies that stuck feeling is dreadful whether you call it writer’s block or refer to it as your muse refusing to visit. Sometimes, it can feel as if the more you try, the worse it gets. Like Pooh stuck in the rabbit hole, the struggle can even make it worse. Here are a few tips for pulling your bum out of the rabbit hole.

1. Take a walk. 

This may seem obvious, and has probably been suggested about a million times on every writing website known to man. Sometimes a change of scenery is all that’s necessary to get those synaptic connections firing again. At the very least, take a minute to step away from your desk and stretch. Staring at the screen is getting you nowhere and the step count on your FitBit isn’t going to increase on its own. Use that temporary stuck feeling as an opportunity. Especially if you’re stuck in the middle of a scene, or you need to do a little bit of brainstorming for a character or setting name. This is what I refer to as Passing Thundershower Stuck. It’s short-lived, though no less terrifying. Give yourself a few minutes away from the screen and move your body. Your work-in-progress will thank you.

2. Phone a friend. 

Worse than Passing Thundershower Stuck, though not quite as bad as the worst kind of stuck is something I call Tornado Watch Stuck. The skies look pretty dark and you probably don’t want to be outside right now, but the threat is pretty minimal. A good remedy for this kind of stuck is to call in reinforcements. Ideally, it’s best to call on a critique partner or another trusted writer friend. Ask nicely if she’d be willing to give you a hand and send her the pages you’re having trouble with. Ask for suggestions and always be willing to hear what she has to say. That last bit is super important. So important that I will repeat it: always be willing to hear what she has to say.

We often get so close to our own work that we miss, or are unwilling to see, the flaws. Talk through the major plot points. Tell your friend exactly what it is you’re trying to convey. If you’re the friend receiving this desperate call, keep the lines of communication open. Ask ‘what if’ questions. If you are new to writing, I cannot stress enough the importance of building a tribe. Finding other writers who are in a similar place, or even slightly ahead of you in their own writing journey is invaluable. Writing is not a solitary art. Even Henry David Thoreau, who sequestered himself on Walden Pond in that tiny little house had his buddy Ralph Waldo Emerson to bounce ideas around with.

3. Give yourself permission. 

Sometimes, you’re the mother of all stuck. The tornado sirens are blaring, you’re crouched in your basement or your laundry room with an old bicycle helmet on your head and the weather radio in your lap, listening to the wind rip the shingles off of your house. We’ll call this F5 Stuck. You’ve probably gone for a walk, drunk fifteen cups of coffee, binge-watched the entire third season of Orange Is The New Black, called your critique partner, your best friend, your mother-in-law’s hairdresser and maybe even your agent, and you’re still stuck. Your heart feels like you’re never going to write another sentence that works, even though your head knows that’s probably not true. You’re ready to give it all up and hide under your desk for the rest of eternity.

Give yourself permission to stop. Nothing catastrophic will happen if you walk away from your work for a little while. Even if you are on a deadline, it’s okay to take a little break. Your brain is not a machine, it’s much more complicated than that. Be kind to yourself. Everyone needs refueling every so often. Step away. SAVE YOUR WORK…but step away. Remember why you started doing this in the first place. Was it because you wanted to stare at a blinking cursor on a blank screen all day and feel inadequate? Of course not! You’re probably doing this because you can’t imagine not doing it.

Writing is like breathing for you. Stepping away doesn’t mean you’ve stopped breathing. It only means that you’re breathing in a different way. Writing doesn’t always have to look like writing. Sometimes it looks like typing away madly or meeting unthinkable word count goals. But often it looks like staring out the window. Or listening to music. Or reading.

Giving yourself permission can take many forms. F5 Stuck on a particular scene? Write in all caps: FIX THIS LATER and move on to your next scene or chapter. You’ll be amazed at the things your characters will figure out in the following scenes that will help you fix that gaping hole you left in chapter 3. Haven’t decided what name to use for your MC? Name him after your favorite pet until you happen upon that perfect moniker. Chances are you’ll find a good one long before you hand in a draft with a romantic hero named Fluffy or Angus. What if you’ve finally written “The End” on a story you’ve been working on for years and you’re anxious to get started on your next masterpiece? Only you’re fresh out of ideas and your brain feels like jell-o.

Give yourself permission. Carry a notebook with you and jot down ideas, snippets of conversations and words that catch your attention. Take pictures with your phone of things that are inspiring. Read everything you can get your hands on.

We all get stuck. If you think of it as part of the process rather than something to be dreaded, it may help you get over the hump a little quicker. Now take a walk around the block, call your critique partner and get back to work!

About Slip

Seventeen year old academic overachiever and athlete Sam North has been terrorized by rival Ace Quinn since kindergarten. When Ace’s contempt for Sam takes a dangerous turn and puts Sam’s girlfriend in the crossfire, Sam knows that being quiet won’t work anymore. Told in a dual narrative that jumps back and forth in time until the two stories converge, SLIP is the story of the irreversible decision Sam makes when he feels there are no other options. The book will be available in Fall 2016 from Albert Whitman & Company.

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  1. Thanks for the tips. Number three resonates most with me. Slip sounds really good.

  2. Great tips, but also well told. That first line jumps off the page as well as any I've read, and the weather-watch metaphors (complete with vivid description) add a lot.

  3. All excellent points and good advice, Kara. Thank you :)

    I might add that in many instances the block is our subconscious letting us know that there's a problem with the story, and that problem IMO is often related to not understanding (or channeling?) a character or characters right, not seeing or knowing them fully. Reflection on and conversation with that character IMO will often do the trick. (I would say plot issues can cause it too, but since I believe that plot stems from character, it's still a character issue. LOL.)

    It seems to me that where people really get into trouble is when they don't do the things you recommend or look at the character aspects of the work....like a brief, situational depression, a transitory block allowed to go unchecked for weeks can become a full-on, paralyzing block as new neural pathways develop to accommodate it.. Don't let that happen, people!