180 WAYS TO CONQUER WRITER'S BLOCK: for writers of all ages and genres
One of the most prolific children’s authors I know is Gretchen Woelfle, whose most recent work is her wonderful debut novel, a work of historical fiction, ALL THE WORLD’S A STAGE: A NOVEL IN FIVE ACTS.
Here is Gretchen, with a solution so obvious, I forgot to mention it!
“I suffer from procrastination. Well, that’s not exactly true – I don’t always suffer. I often enjoy those activities that delay putting fingers to keyboard. I’ve heard writers claim they don’t check email until noon. I don’t believe them. It’s theoretically possible, I suppose….
Biographers and historical fiction writers (like me) have the best excuses for not writing. Trips to libraries and internet browsing, reading, taking notes, checking footnotes and bibliographies for more books and more net surfing. Phone calls and emails to experts that make me feel oh-so-justified for not writing.
OK, enough of the problem. What are my solutions?
DEADLINES – real or invented – and defending my reputation.
• A contracted book – It’s amazing how much easier it is to write when ready cash is involved.
• An encouraging letter from an editor – “We like it but would like see a revision before we buy it.” I’ll usually get this done more or less quickly, unless the proposed revision is so far from my vision that I decline.
• My critique group – My reputation is at stake here. What am I doing if I can’t produce enough writing to critique once a month? I’m not the only one to send my work to the group at the last minute. It’s nice knowing that my procrastination gene is not a rogue mutation.
• Monthly writing goals – Not life goals or even research or marketing goals, but writing goals – as in first draft of chapter two, revised draft of chapter one, completed manuscript.
I print and tape my monthly goals to my printer and they glare at me all month long. I share these goals with online writer buddies and each month I ‘fess up: DONE, IN PROGRESS, NOT EVEN STARTED. This trick often works because my self-respect is on the line. A slacker – who, me?
But my methods aren’t foolproof. I’m still suffering (or not.) Please, tell me about any cures for procrastination you’ve tried!”
THE ULTIMATE PARADOX
There are many ways this paradox presents itself, in which “not working” is actually “working”, in disguise.
Here is Peter Salomon’s take on it:
“I drive, listening to loud music and trying not to think about whatever it is I’m trying to think about. If I sit and stare at a blank screen (or piece of paper if I found myself in the 80s for some reason) I know nothing will happen…though I will find myself up to date on all of the Facebook goings-on of all my friends…which, obviously, does not help much with writer’s block.
The best tip I know of is to let go, to not press, to relax and think of something, anything, else…”
This must work for Peter, whose novel THE MEMORY OF HENRY FRANKS, comes out from Flux in 2013. And when he’s not driving or creating children’s literature, he’s blogging and twittering at:
One of my favorite and most effective tips was also recently posted on Anna Staniszewski’s blog.
The tip is: START ON A DAY THAT IS DIFFERENT. That has always enabled me to jump right into my story.
Check out the audio snippet posted on my blog on this web site and see if you can find two ways the opening day on Orange Street was different, which I mention on the very first page of my book. The first person with the answer will receive a free copy of ONE DAY AND ONE AMAZING MORNING ON ORANGE STREET!
And I’m thrilled to report that the audio version narrated by Lisa Baney has received a star from School Library Journal.
WHO IS YOUR AUDIENCE? THE ANSWER MAY SURPRISE YOU.
I’m going to answer this question only as it relates to writer’s block. There is only one answer. The members of the audience when writing fiction are the characters in your story. They are listening to you and you are listening to them, and writing what is true to their thoughts, feelings, and voices. It’s a dialogue between the creator and the created, as the work develops. Once you are deep into the creative process, this is not the time to worry about what your editor, friends, family, and critics will think. Your creative allegiance is to the truth of the story, only. A sure way to suffer writer’s block is to consider the opinions of critics while you write.
Of course, if you write for children, you have to understand the various genres as they relate to your reading or listening audience. A picture book and a middle grade and a YA are very different, and these differences relate to the developmental needs of their readers. But I believe that you should know and understand these differences even before you begin writing, based on your own reading experience and thoughtful study. Once the work begins, you are communing with your characters. (See my Home page for the essay Child Development and Children’s Books.)
I am now working on the line edits of my new middle grade novel THE FIVE LIVES OF OUR CAT ZOOK. It is the end of a long, intense but joyous process. I’m listening hard to the voices and needs of Oona and Freddy. At this stage it’s so much easier to hear them! And as I tell their story, they let me know if I’m telling it right.
Friends are golden, and often the key to curing writer’s block.
I doubt if I could have published anything at all, without the support of my friends from the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, especially those in L.A.
My agent-mates at the Erin Murphy Literary Agency are an amazingly encouraging group.
The other night my good friend Gretchen Woelfle, children’s author of the lovely novel ALL THE WORLD’S A STAGE and other books, came by for dinner and wine. The evening resulted in inspirational sparks for both of us.
The creative life is solitary. It’s so important to know that my literary friendships are out there when I need them. Only another writer understands my writing life.
My friend Audrey Vernick, author of the novel WATER BALLOON,( which is receiving great reviews!) has an inspiring blog devoted to this subject, sustaining me each week.
And this great post arrived this morning, about the literary friendships of writers of classics from other eras. Among other valuable tips: friendships are negatively impacted by opium-smoking, stealing of one another’s partners, career jealousy, and drowning.
Caroline Arnold, prolific author of over 100 books, as well as an illustrator, shares an important tip which certainly works for her. It is also, in my opinion, a great reason to get a dog or a cat, as they are excellent, noncritical listeners!
Caroline’s titles include A Polar Bear’s World, one of a series of twelve books illustrated with her own cut paper art, Wiggle and Waggle, five stories about two hardworking worms, and The Terrible Hodag and the Animal Catchers, a tall tale which won the Parents’ Choice Gold Award. In 2008 she received the California Readers Leo Politi Award for her body of work.
“Revision is my favorite part of the writing process, and a key step is reading my manuscript aloud. After I’ve done all the usual grammar and syntax corrections, cutting and pasting, and I think I’m getting close, I always read the manuscript to myself. Even with books for older readers that are not meant as read-alouds, this helps me hear if my text is flowing smoothly and if I’ve left anything out or put in unnecessary material.
I use the same technique when I am stuck. Just hearing the words spoken aloud helps me to make small changes and move forward on the story.”
Following up on A.J. Paquette’s post on lists, index cards perform similar psychological and organizational functions. I use index cards in several ways. I enjoy writing down brief plot points, spreading them out on a table and shuffling them around. It almost feels as if I’m conducting an index-card symphony–the concreteness of handling the cards gives me a sense of the plot’s high points and low points and crescendos. I also use index cards for jotting down ideas for a particular project, stuffing them into a folder until later. Just knowing all those ideas (good or bad!) are pulsating inside that folder, waiting for subsequent drafts, allows me to continue moving forward with my story.
Something about using index cards makes me feel as if I’m in control of my ephemeral, unpredictable, worrisome rough draft, and that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it?
And anyway, it’s another excuse to roam through a stationery store. Index cards come in all colors and sizes (even 1/2 sizes!) In a 1967 Paris Review interview, Vladimir Nabokov said, “My schedule is flexible, but I am rather particular about my instruments: lined Bristol cards and well sharpened, not too hard, pencils capped with erasers.” Only other stationery store groupies would understand the joy in that.
Are you “particular about your instruments” too?
Here is a great tip from Ammi-Joan Paquette, wonderful author (writing as A.J. Paquette) and literary agent extraordinaire at the Erin Murphy Literary Agency. Personally, I live by what she suggests! Her new novel NOWHERE GIRL comes out from Walker in September.
“MAKE LISTS: I’m a very method-focused writer, and sometimes when my
work-in-progress feels too scattered or disorganized, I start to flounder. In these times, or when I’m just stuck for no good reason that I can see, my best technique is to start making lists.
Whether it’s a plot brainstorm, chapter breakdown, specific goals I want to attain within the manuscript—the simple act of creating this list serves to get my creative juices flowing every time. Then, once the list is done, I can just start with #1 and poof! No more blockage. It’s not always that simple, of course, but some form of this almost always works for me.”
SEND AWAY FOR THIS AND SOLVE ALL YOUR PLOTTING PROBLEMS!!!
Or just use it to:
(1) take a much needed break,
(2) realize we’re all going through the same difficult search for something to say,
(3) and that impulsive online shopping for answers is usually unhelpful,
(4) and taking ourselves too seriously can be funny.
THE WAR WITHIN
I don’t know when scientists “discovered” the functions of the left brain versus the right brain, but I believe that those who create have always been painfully aware of some sort of conflict within. Critic vs. Wild Thing. Reason vs. Fancy. Editor vs. Slob. Ego vs. Id.
Whatever you call the warring parties, both have to work together to produce the work. But how? Everyone has their own tricks. I have to consciously give myself permission to let the rough draft emerge freely, without censure. I tell myself that this “awfulness” MUST be part of the process. It’s a law of writing. I am a very lawful person.
I think I’ve found a kindred spirit in Melissa Glenn Haber, whose heartfelt and funny novel YOUR BEST FRIEND, MEREDITH (previously published as Dear Anjali, Aladdin, 2010) is now out in paperback for lucky readers. But she describes her process much more precisely than I do:
“When I give book talks it always amazes me that even eight or nine year old writers know that when they try to force the book to go the way they want it to, rather than riding the wave of inspiration, the thing dies. I really do think the way to conquer writer’s block is to recognize that the creative process uses both parts of your brain: the conscious, critical, analytical faculty that’s excellent as an editor and the liminal, dreaming mind that provides the best raw material.
I think writer’s block happens when the analytical brain gets too big for its britches and tries to be the creative force: to get back to the truly inspired stuff–the real stuff–it needs to be shut up, or distracted, or somehow knocked sideways so the quieter, stranger, more sensitive (and more easily daunted!) creative brain can work.
My trick for that is walking–I do my best writing far from paper and pen or the computer…
I once heard a story that E.L. Doctorow was in that dreadful state and managed to lull the analytical part of his brain to sleep by describing his wallpaper, the drapes, the window molding, the window itself–and as he did that, his dreaming eye was surprised to see what was through those wavy panes of glass: it was one of the scenes that became his book Ragtime. Don’t know if the anecdote is factually true, but it’s certainly true in the most importance sense….
Of course, there are times the critical mind sits in the driver’s seat and will not budge. In those times, I let it sit there and be in charge by letting it do what it’s good at: editing. I think the real reason I rewrite so much is I’m actually so anal that the analytical brain is in charge most of the time.”
So how does Melissa remember what she is “writing far from paper and pen or the computer”? She channels a trick from a character in a beloved children’s book by E. Nesbit:
“I’ve developed all sorts of tricks for remembering phrasing when I’m out walking or if I think of things in the middle of the night,” says Melissa. “Most of these are loosely based on Anthea’s trick in FIVE CHILDREN AND IT for waking up at a certain time in the morning, where she bangs her head against her pillow once for each hour after midnight that she wants to wake up. (Strangely, it works.) I do actually resort to head banging if I have an idea at night, which is akin to tying a string around your finger (what was I banging my head on the pillow for, anyway)? When I’m out I do similar kinesthetics, tying motions to words so that I can recall them later. (As a History teacher, I spend a lot of time developing strategies to remember details.)”