Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Thinking Out of the Block: bad pun intended

Update: Next week the On Publishing series will continue with our guest speaker Raymond K. Wong, author of The Pacific Between. For you AWers, that's Maestrowork. For those of you who aren't AWers, that's the guy who just got roasted over on the BookRoastBlog. Go figure.

In other news, I've got a few more speakers lined up after Ray. Keep looking for these guests in upcoming weeks. 

Today I don’t want to talk about writer's block. I do want to discuss inertia, otherwise known as “that place you get to sometimes, where there’s no problem - other than the fact that you have a problem.” It’s sort of like Charlie in the Great Glass Elevator, flailing his arms and legs in the middle of outer space, unable to go anywhere, because there’s nothing to push around.

Let me clarify. This is the place where you can’t write. Or, you can’t write well. Or not the scene you want, or the way you want it. You’re not blocked in the classical sense; this isn’t anything that a little R&R, BIC, or another similar acronym can solve. It’s something internal that you can’t get around or across.

There’s no advice anyone can give you that’s sure to work. However, with the right nudge in the right direction, you can probably work it out yourself.


First, try a change of mindset.

This helps best when you’ve slipped into a mental rut. If things that worked for you before aren’t working now, it’s a pretty good clue that you’re spinning your wheels. So change your mindset. Think of contrasts – if you’ve been plodding, try pressuring yourself. If you’ve been all creative and whimsy, try getting professional and goal-oriented. If you’ve been making yourself produce something worthwhile, pull back and start creating again.

A good quote can often give you a vision for your change:

“What makes writing so wonderful…is what I discover along the way that I wasn’t looking for.”

Terry Brooks said that in his craft book/memoir, Sometimes the Magic Works. Are you allowing yourself to discover what you weren’t looking for? This question helped me toward a breakthrough after a month of inertia.


Play with different materials – try switching some of your craft elements.

Setting: Change it. A new setting adds new elements that can force your characters to act differently, revealing other sides of themselves. Certain settings can create a particular mood, or highlight the fact that a mood is lacking. For example, an argument on a fairground is much different than an argument in a dark alley.

Characters: Rotate a few regulars in or out of your scenes. Different people have a different chemistry together. If this doesn’t work, I switch around people’s moods as well: a normally cheerful character is perturbed, a depressed character is smug, and so on. You’ll know it’s a good change if it gets you asking, “why is so-n-so like this? What could it mean?”

POV and Tense: Do you write in third-person? Try writing in first. Present tense? Try past. Sometimes it helps to remind yourself of why a method does or doesn’t work: I have a little sticky note that says “write from the POV of whoever has the most to loose in a given scene.” I often remind myself that it’s not about the POV who actually looses the most—just who has the most to loose.


Find an inspiring question or thought to ponder.

In Writing the Breakout Novel, Donald Maass talks about the “what-if” question. Most writers ask “what if” instinctively. But if you can expand your usual what-if questionnaire, it may nudge you into action.

Take something you know for certain and reverse it. What if the hero wasn’t such a good guy after all? What if his ex-wife was working for the IRS? Throw yourself some curveballs, and see where it takes you.


Try a fun exercise.

Pick anything. You could set a timer and free-write for five minutes, or you could skip ahead to a scene you’ve been dying to write, but haven’t worked your way toward yet. Enter a short story contest. Write a kidnapping scene. Whatever.

One of my favorite writing-craft books is Monica Wood’s The Pocket Muse. She has a lot of fun “spark” exercises to ignite your inspiration. Some ask you to take a group of words and use them in a 500 word scene, or verbify some nouns, or write in a different place for one day. Try to pick an exercise that makes you think in different ways. has similar prompts that may help you out.


These nudges don’t solve how you got stuck in the first place. I realize that. We could argue about the “why’s” all day, but frankly, I think it just happens sometimes. The right side of your brain stops communicating with your left side. You get a hunch that something in your novel isn’t as it’s supposed to be, but you have no idea what. Confusion ensues…options evaporate into a foggy mist…it just happens.

To me, at least.

Nothing a little out-of-the-box nudges can’t solve.


-Creative A 

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Rachel Burton said...

hey- wandered over from AW. Great tips! I love playing with the "What if?" question when I'm stuck.

Terra Chandler said...

What a great post!! It let me know that I am not the only one!! I was writing a scene the other day and I knew exactly what needed to happen, and roughly how to get my characters into the situation, BUT THEY WOULDN'T GET THERE!! They absolutely refused. They preferred to sit on the couch staring at each other and twitching oddly. *sigh*

It was weird because it wasn't writers block or lack of just wasn't anything!! "Fog" as you put it. I think I may just print off these suggestions as a reminder for next time. Thanks!!

Creative A said...

Hey Rachel, and welcome! The what if question is one of my favorites as well.

Terra, I was iffy about posting this because reading it over it sounded so vague, I wondered if *I* was the only person with this problem! Guess not. Glad it can help really is an odd place to be in.


Sesselja said...

'or verbify some nouns'
I do so envy you who can do this! I am reading 'Special Topics in Calamity Physics' at the moment, and yesterday I stumbled upon a description where a teacher's face was 'gargoyled'. Wonderful! I love these kind of things, unfortunately verbifying nouns doesn't really work in my language (Norwegian), so I'm only left to admire and envy those of you who can!

Creative A said...

Hey Sesselja, and welcome! That is too bad. Verbifying nouns was one of the first times I really let myself loose creatively, and it was a great experience, a sort of revelation moment. I started experimenting a lot more after that.

(By the way, got to love your name!)

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