12 Tips to Topple Writer’s Block

KeyBreaksChain2Writing a novel belongs to that category of thing – like surviving the Hunger Games, and eating an entire large pizza by yourself – that appears to be impossible but actually isn’t….Being a novelist is a matter of keeping at it, day after day, just putting words after other words. It’s a war of inches, where the hardest part is keeping your nerve. ~ Lev Grossman

Sometimes we writers slam into a wall and can’t figure out how to scale it and keep running and dodging through the rest of the obstacle course to reach the final scene. Sometimes the ideas stop coming. Or the words that find their way onto the page shrivel up and die before the ink is dry. Maybe we don’t know the characters well enough. Somewhere between the lines, we’ve lost the passion for the story. Whatever the reason is, it’s a real thing. And it happens to most writers sooner or later.

Whether you’re trying to finish a first draft on your own or are involved in a large-scale endeavor like National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) where word count is paramount, you’ve got to find a way to keep going.

There are a lot of techniques that can be used to bust through writer’s block but many of them involve not writing, like taking a break to draw a map of your setting or design your book’s cover, or hashing out your problems with a writer friend or group. Or switching to a different project altogether. These are all good ideas, but the following list of tips is focused on keeping you writing on your current work in progress – the one that’s actually giving you grief.

  1. Write a scene in long hand – it means transcribing it onto a computer file later, but it could be just enough of a change to help break through the wall.
  2. Write a scene from a different point of view character, even one you haven’t used yet or thought to use at all – a secondary character, a love interest, the antagonist, the protagonist’s dog, the biggest maple in the forest.
  3. Write flashbacks – here’s a way to dig deeper into your characters, where they came from and what shaped their lives.
  4. If you’ve written yourself into a corner, determine where that errant branch began to grow and start writing again from that point. But don’t throw the old stuff away, it may be useful in the future.
  5. Switch your point of view style and rewrite a scene or two – first person instead of third, third person instead of first.
  6. If you can’t decide how a scene should play out or your story should end – pick one way and write it, then go back and write another, decide later which one works the best.
  7. Write out of order – who says you have to write chronologically? If you’ve got a scene in your head that’s vivid, write that one no matter where in the storyline it’s supposed to happen.
  8. Play with a scene that doesn’t feel quite right, and you may just find the perfect way to move forward. As they say, sometimes the best way to move forward is to rewrite the past! ~ Rochelle Melander
  9. Write an entire monologue with your main character if you have to. Spend a chapter just exploring the life story of an antagonist. Write a scene with nothing but dialogue between your hero and your villain. Write a steamy love scene between your favorite couple. They don’t have to be scenes in chronological order. They don’t even have to end up in your book. But they will help you to keep going. ~ Marie Lu, NaNo Pep Talk, Nov. 21, 2013
  10. Switch into a telling mode if you need to. This allows you to “tell” the story. You can then go back in and convert it to showing/action based scenes later but being able to “tell” helps you keep moving forward. ~ Robin LaFevers
  11. Without stopping, give your characters a reason to change. Incite them into action. ….you’ve got to keep them moving and the tension must be taut, so drop bombs. Problem after problem. Anything and everything….Nothing short of potential death. And then, you and your characters must have a way to get out of the story. Solve their dilemma logically. Sure, twists and turns to ramp up tension, but aliens can’t land out of the blue with an antidote. ~ Susan Arden
  12. Pull out that book of writing exercises – and do them with your cast of NaNo characters. Who knows, maybe you’ll find the secret ingredient your story was missing?  ~ Rochelle Melander

If any of these suggestions can help you break through the wall or help you understand a character better or where the story should really be going, it will be worth the time spent deviating from “the plan.” And if you’re participating in NaNo, it gives you the benefit of adding to that golden goal of writing 50 K words towards the first draft of a novel.

What techniques help you bust through the dreaded writer’s block?

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Writing a Memoir: Options for Non-Writers

What many people do not realize is that writing your life story is like telling your story to a good friend who is there to listen and ask open-ended questions that will lead into the heart of your life. ~ Write Wisdom, Inc

Looking BackWe all have stories inside of us, life experiences that just won’t leave us alone. For years these untold tales, or maybe oft-told tales, roll round and round in our wee brains, knocking on our insides hoping for an outlet. As a writer I can transfer all those pieces of my life’s journeys into essays or poems or longer works of nonfiction such as a memoir. But what is a non-writer to do with those same kinds of stories of childhood turmoil, of battlefield memories, of love lost and finally won?

Write it: You might surprise yourself

JT Weaver is a good example of someone who was never a writer until he decided to leave behind a legacy to his children of lessons learned. In an interview with Diana Jackson at A Selection of Recollections he said, “When I was 15, I could barely read and write. I never took a writing course, so I’m largely ignorant of the literary arts, as was my father. When I decided to begin writing, I closed my eyes. In my mind, I built a fire, sat in a comfortable chair, and put on my father’s shoes. Then I told a story just as he had, only my story went to paper. I use the same constructs, the same tempo, and the same relaxed style. The words just flowed with ease. Not his words; my words, but his style, and his wisdom. Sure, this is my story, not his, but I could hear him telling each story as if he were sitting next to me.”

JT’s approach to writing his life stories has merit and is an excellent way for non-writers to approach penning their own – imagine you’re telling the story to someone who has never heard it before such as a future generation, your grandchildren or great-grandchildren. Or sit down with a friend, a cup of coffee and a tape recorder, and then begin the telling.

Hire a Ghostwriter

If you don’t believe you’re capable of writing your own story, hiring a ghostwriter might be your best bet. There are well over a million results in a Google search for ghostwriting services, among them are Gotham Ghostwriters, Ghostwriters Inkand the Association of Ghostwriters. Most ghostwriters don’t receive recognition for their work and many are required to sign a non-disclosure agreement. They get paid upfront, so if you hire a ghostwriter, you keep the copyright and the royalties. Another advantage to going this route is that the book might only take half a year to complete. The huge disadvantage is the price, which starts at about $12,000. You know all those celebrity memoirs (and celebrity cookbooks)? Ghostwriters are responsible, and they got paid good bucks, as much as $200,000. Do your research, though. I’m sure there are thousands of individual writers in the world not associated with a ghostwriting service who would work for a more affordable fee.

Collaborate with a Writer:

In some cases, you might be able to find a writer to write your story for you, someone who will trade payment upfront for a share of future royalties. This is the arrangement I have with AJ Jackson, the subject of This New Mountain. As her friend, I offered to write her memoir in exchange for a percentage of the profits. Finding someone to write your memoir without getting paid for their time and talent is a long shot but not impossible. The first place to start would be to contact a writing organization in your area. If your story is compelling enough, you might find someone willing to work with you.

I admit that these three options are limited, but the choice, to me, is obvious – write your own story. You can do it. Even if you’ve never written a thing. Even if you have no idea where to start. Begin with your most vivid memory or the one that had the most impact on shaping your life, and move on from there. Who knows your own story better than you?

Here are a few articles you might find useful:

A Wordplayer’s Manifesto

While following the links on K.M. Weiland’s resource page at her website Helping Writers Become Authors, I found A Wordplayer’s Manifesto that I wanted to share, below.

K.M. Weiland is the published author of three novels and two how-to writing books. She mentors writers through her blog, vlog, and nonfiction books. You might want to check out her Recommended Reading for Writers and excellent Podcast Episodes. And if you sign up for her newsletter, you’ll get a free copy of the eBook Crafting Unforgettable Characters.

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10 Great Writing Tips (Not Just for NaNoWriMo)

TypingButton2The Internet abounds with writing advice, and especially every year right before National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) beings on November 1. I have my own advice for mastering time and using the pantser or plotter methods to plan your novel, but I’ve also compiled a short list of great tips to use for any writing project, not just NaNoWriMo.

1.  Feed the Subconscious, Fuel the Muse

“We must fill our creative well before we write, or we have nothing to draw from….Too many writers fail to finish NaNo because they haven’t fueled up properly….Often a lot of the subplots or cool twists and turns come from all the stuff we fed the muse ahead of time….My recommendation before writing ANY book is total immersion…fluff and filler [can be] avoided if the writer [has] more research to draw from…The more facts, images, and stories (even news stories) we have in our head, the richer the work and the easier to give our writing texture.” ~ Kristen Lamb

2.  Star in Your Story

“Even when you plan your hero down to the fingernails, the persona, the effect of the backstory and the general nature and energy of the character doesn’t fully emerge until you bring him/her alive in your pages. Unless the hero is you. If you allow yourself to star in your NaNoWriMo story…you’ll find yourself knowing more about your hero than you ever will otherwise. Literally put yourself into the skin of your hero and vicariously experience — and then translate into words — the journey you’ve created.” ~ Larry Brooks, Storyfix

3.  Don’t Worry About Chronology

“Write the scene or chapter you really want to write today. Who says you have to write the darn thing in order? Nobody. That’s who.” ~ Christina Katz, The Prosperous Writer

4.  Use a Timer

“Your inner procrastinator may try to convince you otherwise, but there are only so many hours in November. Spend your time wisely by using a timer (we like e.ggtimer.com). Set it for thirty minutes and see how many words you can write. Take a five-minute break. Then, set it for another thirty minutes and see if you can beat your word count from last time.” ~ Joe Bunting, The Write Practice

5.  Don’t Forget to Fall in Love…with Your Story

“One way to move toward [falling in love with your story]…is to build this project around an idea — a concept, a character, a theme, or something that happened to you or you wish would happen to you — that’s worth a few pints of your blood and sweat…[an idea] big enough, exciting enough, to be the one thing that drives you toward doing this right. An idea you can’t get out of your head. An idea that you’d read if someone else wrote about it. Make your NaNoWriMo novel about that. Nothing less. Don’t settle. Honor the craft, honor your time, honor your dream…It’s like a relationship…they’re hard at times, and when it is, only if the other person is worth it will you proceed forward productively, and with a chance at bliss. Love your story….That’s the only way it will ever love you back.” ~ Larry Brooks, Storyfix

6.  Know Your Protagonist

“The protagonist’s internal misbelief must already exist before the plot kicks into action. Every protagonist must enter already wanting something very badly, and with an inner issue — fear, fatal flaw, wound, misbelief — that keeps her from getting it. You must know these before you start to write because they define what the story will be about….The protagonist’s worldview is the lens through which she’ll see, experience, and evaluate everything that happens, beginning on the very first page. So if you don’t know what her worldview is going [into the story] — and, as important, what specific events created it — how will you know how she’ll react to anything? Or what things mean to her? Or what your plot must force her to realize?” ~  Lisa Cron, Writer Unboxed

7.  Take a Break and Share the Confusion

“You’ll be amazed at how many story problems and dead ends you can overcome simply by telling your story, in sequence, to someone who can keep quiet enough to allow you to encounter your own roadblock.” ~ Larry Brooks, Storyfix

8.  Enjoy the Writing Ride

“Whatever you are writing, whether you ‘win’ or not, you are learning things about your creative capacities and they are worth their weight in gold. Walk away with a clearer understanding of what makes your creativity hum, and you will definitely win.” ~ Christina Katz, The Prosperous Writer

9.  Have Word Count Boosters Handy

NaNoWriMo is all about word count, making sure you get that 50K first draft finished. But even if you’re working on a “normal” project, you might find yourself stuck at some point. Try giving some of the following ideas a go — even if you’re not focused on word count.

“Writer’s block is something writers handle all the time, but when you’re on a deadline, you can’t really afford to lose any time staring at a screen. Having some word count boosters handy can be a really great way to add a few hundred words and/or get your creative juices flowing. This can be as simple as adding a new character or having your main character realize it was all a dream. Or it can be as complicated as adding a plot twist or a new point of view (maybe from your antagonist or your supporting character’s point of view — the choice is up to you!). Remember you can always go back and edit or cut these things out once NaNoWriMo’s over. You don’t have to keep everything you write.” ~ The Magic Violinist, The Write Practice

10.  Write Your Own 10 Commandments

I was looking through the NaNoWriMo forums and came across “Your 10 Commandments for NaNo” in NaNo Tips & Strategies/Reaching 50,000! The idea is to write down the “things that you promise to do or not do during the month of November. You can [write] them in the ‘Thou Shalt Not’ language, or in normal English.” Your own ten commandments can be easily adapted to any writing project. Here’s the first thread in the forum, from Olafsta:

  1. Thou Shalt Not win until Thou writes [50,000] words.
  2. Thou Shalt write every day within Thy month of November.
  3. Thou Shalt not let thy grades decrease during Thy NaNo.
  4. Thou Shalt value writing over sleep during thy Weekends.
  5. Thou Shalt not visit thy NaNoWriMo Forums at all during thy November unless thou is fully caught up on thy word count. Thy only exception is for thou word wars/sprints.
  6. Thou shalt not give up until thy November is over.
  7. Thou shalt not become a rebel.
  8. After every half hour of writing, thou must do 25 pushups and 25 situps before continuing to write.
  9. Thou shalt show at least some attention to thy family/friends.
  10. Thou shalt not visit any other forums during thy November aside from thy NaNoWriMo Forums.
  11. If Thou decides to not follow one of these commandments, thou shall do 50 pushups and 50 situps whilst wearing only thy undergarments. It must be done within thy 24 hours of the breaking. If done late and/or clothed, it must be doubled. If thy breaks the commandments twice within any 72 hour period, thy shall also skip lunch on the school day immediately following the most recent breaking. If lunch is eaten on that school day, thy must then skip lunch for two school days in a row as soon as is possible.

What tips can you add to the list? What are your 10 Commandments for Writing?

Paying the Price to Improve Your Writing

WritingPenAn athlete spends time training to strengthen muscles and improve endurance and agility. Musicians spend countless hours in the pursuit of making music flow from their instruments. Even with a natural knack, it takes performance/visual artists years of practice to reach a certain level of expertise in their field. It’s foolish to think that becoming a good writer will take any less of a commitment or sacrifice for the craft.

Whether you’re a beginning writer or one with a list of publishing credits, there are two things that should be done every day to improve your writing:

Read for pleasure, in and out of the genre you write in. Read and re-read the masters and those works that thrill you, those books that grab ahold of you and make you wish you could write like that. This kind of learning creates a subconscious feel for pacing and flow and the power of words, and will eventually pour out naturally in your own writing.

Just write. You know this, I know this, and the greats practice this without fail. Set a daily or weekly word count goal. Play with words. Write in snippets, sonnets, scenes. Finish what you start. Commit, and write every day.

What good writers have over beginning writers is a head start on time spent on the craft plus a testing of commitment and the willingness to sacrifice – they’ve added to their busy calendar the time to do such things as:

Read to learn. Be conscious of what you read and how it makes you feel. Try to determine what an author did to pull you along, to make you turn those pages. Why do you love some characters and hate others? Take the time to break it down.

Join a writing group, spend time with other writers especially those with more experience than you. The old saying “Iron sharpens iron” is true. You will be encouraged in your writing journey and inspired to write.

Join a critique group when you’re ready to share your work. This is something that has to be done at some point. Putting yourself “out there” can be difficult, but it’s necessary to get feedback on your writing (from other than family or friends) in order to improve. And learning to critique the work of others will help you in recognizing the problems in your own writing.

Attend classes, workshops, and conferences. Eventually, most writers have to sacrifice not only time but money to see their writing improve. Target your writing weak spots, network with other writers, and learn the business.

Getting better at anything requires practice. Be an athlete-artist. Commit yourself to your craft and follow the path to better writing.

What commitments and sacrifices have you made to improve your craft?

Plan Now for NaNoWriMo Success: Time Mastery

Whether you’re planning on participating in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) in November or are committing to a writing schedule to finish a project, finding the time to meet your daily word count goal is essential to success. After formulating your novel basics (see my post “Novel Focus“), embrace time management skills and use the rest of October to plan the time you need.

  1. Use a November calendar:
    • Mark off those days or partial days in November you know you absolutely won’t be able to write (like a birthday or Thanksgiving).
    • Block off time every day/week for writing – before/after work or school, during commute time, lunch hours, your child’s naps. Get up earlier or go to bed later than usual. Even finding 15 minutes here and there will add up.
  2. Plan catch-up or get-ahead days – make up for the days you know you can’t write and build in time for unexpected, but inevitable, glitches in your perfect plan.
    • Once a week marathons alone or with writing friends.
    • Local NaNo chapters often schedule writing get-togethers.
  3. Plan November’s meals
    • Don’t forget Thanksgiving – delegate to family/friends if possible.
    • Slow cooker meals, sandwiches, breakfast-for-dinner, fast food.
    • Start cooking extra servings in October and freeze for November meals.
  4. Don’t set doctor/dentist appointments for November.
  5. Restrict television viewing and social media – reward yourself with these when you meet your word count, record for later, or build in time on your calendar.
  6. Restrict socializing – again, reward yourself after meeting word counts or build in this time. Or just say “no” and schedule a post-NaNo celebration to make up for your transgression.
  7. Enlist help for daily/weekly chores, like laundry and dishes, and other important responsibilities such as childcare – letting family and friends know how important this commitment is to you should elicit help.
  8. If you can’t write at home, scope out one or more places to write – a local library if you like quiet or a coffee shop if you don’t mind the noise. (I used to write in my car on my lunch hour.)
  9. Prioritize – plan to do those things that are necessary and let the rest slide.
  10. Embrace your OCD side for a month – be relentless in your pursuit of time to write those 1667 words per day.

This might all sound fanatical, but at the end of 30 days you’ll know how important your writing is to you, how committed you are to it, and what you’re willing to do to succeed. And if you keep on track, you’ll have the first draft of a 50K novel for all your hard work and sacrifice.

What is your favorite way to master the time needed to write?

Plan Now for NaNoWriMo Success: Novel Focus

crest-bda7b7a6e1b57bb9fb8ce9772b8faafbValuing enthusiasm and perseverance over painstaking craft, NaNoWriMo is a novel-writing program for everyone who has thought fleetingly about writing a novel but has been scared away by the time and effort involved. ~ from the NaNoWriMo website

On November 1, hundreds of thousands of writers from around the world will begin National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), a crazy journey to write a 50K novel in thirty days. If you’ve never participated in NaNo, you might think such a thing is an impossible feat, but it is possible and you can do it (I’ve done it twice).

But writing a novel in thirty days is not something you just dive right into, even if you use the pantser method. Planning is the key to ending up with a useable first draft instead of a manuscript made up of the phrase “I hate NaNoWriMo forever” scribbled 10,250 times.

Pantser Method

I’m a pantser, I dive right in when I write. If you’re like me, you have an oh-so brilliant idea for a story and one or more interesting characters to populate it. If you don’t already have a vision of where the story starts, use October to think about your story world and where your storytelling will begin. Visualize the setting. Who are the characters and what are their goals? If you’ll be writing in a sci fi or fantasy world, what are the rules of this place (and/or its magic), the politics, religions? Make notes – remember nothing has to be set in stone. Doing as much pre-thinking as possible before you sit down to write will save time during NaNo and multiple your word count. You might even venture into the darker planner/plotter side and jot down ideas for scenes, perhaps even the ending of the story.

Planner/Plotter Method

Since I’m not a major planner when I write, I defer to those writers with more experience in this area. Janice Hardy suggests the following six steps when planning your novel, whether or not you’re doing NaNoWriMo (see the complete article here with links to more posts about planning your novel).

  1. Is your goal to complete a 50K novel or the first 50K of a longer one? Answering this question first will help with pacing and plotting.
  2. Write a pitch line or several sentences of what the story is about. Clarifying the central conflict of the novel will make it easier to plot and will give clear goals for your protagonist (and antagonist).
  3. List the major points of your story (Hardy calls these set pieces): the opening, inciting event, first major crisis, midpoint reversal, and the second major crisis, point of no return, climax. These can be vague or set guidelines of where your story needs to go.
  4. Write a rough synopsis. This expands on steps 2 and 3 and will give you more of a guide to where your story is heading.
  5. Write a rough outline (Hardy considers this optional). Detailed or not, it will help break the novel into manageable pieces over the 30 days of NaNo.
  6. “Write down any other ideas about the novel…think of it like an idea bank for later.” Snippets of ideas could become scene sparkers or come in handy in other ways you can’t foresee.

If you follow Janice Hardy’s six steps in advance of NaNoWriMo (or any other novel project), you’ll have a good overview of the novel you want to write – and “don’t worry if it’s vague as long as you can see a story unfolding there.”

There’s a protag with a problem, a series of attempts to solve that problem, a conflict keeping them from their goal, stakes if they fail, and a resolution to the problem. If you have that, you have a much better chance of avoiding writer’s block during the month and actually finishing the novel. ~ Janice Hardy

Does writing a novel in 30 days sound so impossible now? If you’ve put off writing that novel you’ve always wanted to write, make this the year you follow through. Sign up for National Novel Writing Month at NaNoWriMo.org and begin planning your novel now. And if you’re still not convinced it can be done, check this list of WriMos who have gone on to publish their NaNo manuscripts (like Sara Gruen and her Water for Elephants).

Are you doing NaNo this year? Why or why not?

Janice Hardy has more in-depth articles about planning for a successful NaNoWriMo in the following posts and in her archives: NaNoWrMo Prep: Planning Your Novel’s Beginning and NaNoWrMo Prep: Planning Your Novel’s Middle.