I don’t actually believe in writer’s block. That probably makes me sound arrogant, but what I’ve found is that blocks are actually your writer instincts trying to get your attention—and what better way than to stop you cold?
Every writer needs good instincts. You have to have that gut feeling when you’re scene isn’t being true to your characters, you need to be able to read your own work and know by that instinct if it’s good or is boring you as much as it’s going to bore a reader, and you’ve got to know when you’re heading down the wrong path. A block is something to get your attention.
A block is not something you really can avoid—we all face it at some time. But how do you unblock without spending hours and hours and hours trying to figure out what’s up?
Here are some tricks to help you.
1-Change the viewpoint character. Most times when I’m stuck, I’m in the wrong character’s head. This is how the writer part of my brain tells me it’s going wrong. I change viewpoint to another character until the writing flows again.
2-Make certain you know your conflict. Every scene needs conflict. This means every character should want something and your characters should be ready to fight and argue to get what they want. As it’s been put, every character should want something even if it’s a glass of water. A lot of times I’ll look at a limp scene that I hate—or I’ll have a scene I don’t want to write—and if I nail down the conflict suddenly I can’t wait to get at it or I’ll know just how to fix it.
3-Interview your characters. Have a stubborn character who won’t talk? Have a character that keeps going off the Rez and taking the book with her? Have a wooden character? Sit down as if you are a People Magazine writer and start asking questions—where are they from, what do they want, what’s their biggest secret, worst fear, best memory? Every time I introduce a character in a story I stumble and so does the story. That’s because I don’t know enough about that character to get their voice onto the page. An interview is a great way to kick the story back into gear. Sometimes you’ll luck out and the character is just there, but if you’re struggling and blocked maybe it’s because you’re trying to make your character do something that’s utterly out of character.
4-Introduce a new plot twist. Does your story seem boring? Are your characters covering the same ground they just went over? Does the writing feel stale? This is where you throw rocks at your characters. It’s important to note you are not making the characters do something out of character, you are throwing the characters a tough situation to see how they deal with it. If you’re not really sure of the outcome of a scene, this will spark your interest in finding out what happens next.
5-Get a map. Somewhere about page 100 I always need to do a synopsis or outline. This isn’t pages and pages of details but it’s enough to get me back on track. I need to know the main character’s arc and the main turning points. Page 100 for me is the spot where I’m deep in the woods and if I don’t have some idea of where I was thinking about going, I’m going to wander aimlessly or just stand there and stare at those trees. I want to have great scenes lined up and waiting for me.
6-Think of a great scene and write that. You don’t have to be a linear writer. Yes, you can be, but it’s not mandatory. If you can’t wait to get to that love scene or the big break up or the confrontation with that awful bad guy, write that now. Don’t slog through some stuff to get there. Write the good stuff and then figure out how to tie it together. You may find out you don’t really need all those dull scenes between.
7-Go for dialogue. I can write description or dialogue. In general I find doing the talking first—getting those great snappy lines on the page is a lot more fun for me (and therefore more fun for the reader, too). Once the dialogue is in place I go back and do an edit to layer in descriptions and actions to accent or provide more subtext to the scene. And a lot of times I can just write the dialogue like I’m taking dictation—that’s the best.
8-Do just a touch of research to spark some details that get you excited. A lot of times I struggle with a scene because it’s not vivid enough in my own head. I need a detail and my instincts come out to block me, telling me I’m missing something. One time I needed the feel of what it was like to hit a piece of wood with a poker—the hero opening a locked box that way. Another time I needed a description of a shop in London. Recently I’ve been working on a book set in Paris, 1814 and I’ve needed some details of events and sights. If I can’t see it vivid in my imagination how can I put it into the reader’s head? The real trick here is not to get lost in the research. Set a time limit or look for just one specific thing that you know you need—don’t go browsing the Web for days.
9-Use Hemmingway’s trick and always stop for the day in mid-sentence, knowing what you want to write next. I love this one–it always leaves me eager to get back to work. A lot of time my writer’s block isn’t so much a block as it’s sheer laziness.
10-Have writing ritual habits to connect left and right brain. A cup of hot tea or coffee and start with editing a page or two back helps me ease into the groove. This is really important if I’ve been away from the book for a day or two or more. Having a set of habits gets my mind into the writing space. If something stops working—the coffee starts giving jitters—the ritual needs a change. So I have to stay aware of what works for me and what doesn’t. For example I used to be a night-owl writer but these days I function better as a morning writer when it’s quiet and just me and my keyboard and the characters. A lot of time this can help you get a sudden insight into what your writer’s instinct is trying to tell you—as in a scene that wasn’t working for me recently wasn’t working because I’d stuffed in a dumb reason for why the characters were where they were. My characters shut up about the next scene because they didn’t want to seem that dumb—once I fixed their motivation, they started setting up the next scene for me.
Which means that above all else listen to and develop your instincts. Trust your gut, your muse, your characters, or whatever you want to call it. But when the writing slows down or stops, it’s time to look at why. Don’t fight that block. Use it. Look at the scene, the characters, talk to another writer, and see what your writer’s instincts are trying to tell you.
Want to share tips that have worked to get your writing back on track? Need a little more help getting unstuck now?
Shannon Donnelly’s writing has won numerous awards, including a RITA nomination for Best Regency, the Grand Prize in the “Minute Maid Sensational Romance Writer” contest, judged by Nora Roberts, RWA’s Golden Heart, and others. Her writing has repeatedly earned 4½ Star Top Pick reviews from Romantic Times magazine, as well as praise from Booklist and other reviewers, who note: “simply superb”…”wonderfully uplifting”….and “beautifully written.” She is also the author of the Mackenzie Solomon, Demon/Warders Urban Fantasy series, Burn Baby Burn and Riding in on a Burning Tire. Shannon is currently working on Lady Chance, the next Regency romance after Lady Scandal in the “Ladies in Distress” series.