Vision: A Resource for Writers

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Workshop:

Changes to Help Break Writer's Block

By Lazette Gifford
Copyright 2008 by Lazette Gifford, All Rights Reserved


Getting stuck on a story is a frustrating experience, and a sure way to waste time as you sit and stare at the page while trying to find that next line.  Even knowing where you want the story to go doesn't help.  The next words will not translate from your brain to your fingers.  Pretty soon your brain feels like it is going to explode because the words are in there, but they just can't find their way out.

You give up and walk away from the work in disgust.  If you are lucky, just the act of walking away is all you need to break through the wall, and in a short time you're back to work.  However, for some people, other changes may help instead.

For this workshop, I'm going to list several sets of things to try that may get you past the difficult spot.  It is likely that various parts will help you at different times, and that mixing them up may help you find the perfect answer.

The one thing that is very important, however, is that you do not stress over being stuck.  It happens to everyone, either in a short term 'stuck on a specific story' or a long term writer's block.  You can, however work your way through it.  You just have to want to, and be willing to try different methods to break through.

I'll start with the easy ones, which are usually the sorts of things you'll do when you are stuck on a specific story. 

Short Term Changes

If you find yourself staring at the screen and the next lines will not come, try getting up and doing something you usually don't like to do.  Wash the dishes, clean your bedroom, sweep the house, rake the yard or fold clothes. 

This will get you away from the computer and the story, and set you doing something that does not involve writing.  Writing comes from the subconscious, and sometimes when you consciously force yourself to try and work, you put up a road block to the subconscious mind.  Try to find repetitive work (sweeping, raking) that can allow you to zone out on everything.  Emptying the brain of conscious thought opens it up to the subconscious again, and sometimes that's all you need to let the story slip in again and take off at a run.

If you do meditation, you already know the benefits of such an activity.  Doing work that requires little conscious thought can create much the same sort of sate of mind.

This does not include what most people consider the traditional mind-numbing activity: television watching.  Television fills your head up with vision and sound, voices and other people's ideas.  Sometimes it can give you inspiration, but it really isn't clearing your brain when you are stuck.  It might help as a form of relaxation and to think about other things.  Give it a try, but if you find yourself watching shows and not getting any farther on the story, shut off the television and try something else.

Walks are wonderfully relaxing, though, which can also be a benefit.  Be certain you take paper and pen, a PDA or anything where you can record a few quick words (cell phone, tape recorder, camera with video ability) because your mind will have the distressing ability to clear and offer you answers when you are the farthest from home and  any hope of jotting them down.

Take your time and don't try to push.  The trick here is to learn to let go of the conscious push to keep working on the story and let your writer-brain take over and kick in with what you really need -- inspiration rather than perspiration.

One other thing that writers often overlook is the idea of skipping the scene and moving on to the next one.  Sometimes a scene does not become clear until you can see the one that went before.  And sometimes you even find that you were blocked because your subconscious new that you didn't actually need that scene after all. 

Change look

If you find that getting blocked on a story is becoming a habit, you may want to try something a little more drastic, and something applied directly to the story.  Sometimes if you make the story look different, it can help you approach it differently.  This may sound silly, but it can work.  Page after page of black on white screens can be daunting.  This idea might help.

One of the easiest ways to make a story look different is to change how you see it on the screen.  There are three obvious aspects to this:  Font, Font Color, and Page Color.  Most writing programs allow you to change all three with ease.  This means that even though your story has to be submitted in Times New Roman, Black Font, White Paper format, you can write it in anyway you like.  A problem you are experiencing might be that the white of the page is giving you eye-strain.  Try a soft blue or beige.  The font may look dull.  Try something bold and fun, and change the color to compliment the new page color. 

Also, be sure to choose a good size for the font.   Double space the lines, too, which can help make the story look less like a block of ugly little words -- the view you might have when you get stopped in a story.  It also helps create less eye strain.  You may not even realize that eye strain has become a problem until it eases -- but being uncomfortable when you work can be a cause of writer's block.

Sometimes choosing the font to match the mood of the story can also work -- something silly for a fun story, something ornate for an epic fantasy tale.  Sometimes visual clues -- and a different look -- can help a writer get into the proper mood.

Mood is important to story writing, and having your own mood at conflict with the story you are writing can be a problem.  Sometimes a few visual clues like this can help change your view of the story and get you moving again.

Change program or method

Sometimes it helps to even break away from your usual word processing program and try something different.  Try using a plain text editor with no frills at all.  Or be more daring, and work out chapters in a program like SuperNoteCard (www.mindola.com). In this one, you can move things around very easily.  It might help to break the story up and do small sections at a time, with specific word count goals.  Using a program other than your usual one can help you break things up into different pieces, write smaller sections, and move forward without worrying about what was written before, because it's not in the same place.  There are times when this can help.  Moving away from looking at the story as a whole can be very helpful.

Or make a drastic change and pull out the paper and pen and start writing.  Sometimes it helps to start with a free write session where you think about the story situation and write random things until you fall into the feel of the story.

Some people even use tape recorders or computer voice recognition software and tell their stories.  This last one does work for everyone, since it requires that you be an actual storyteller, which is a speaking talent, not a writing one.  Many people are born storytellers, and many of them cannot write the stories out.  Other people can write, but can't speak the stories until they are written. There are a few who can do both.

Free writing in general will sometimes help, too.  In a case where you are stuck, you might try taking your characters and just letting them talk at you for a while -- write everything that you think they would be thinking about at a time like this.  Let them rant, rave, get worried... and see what you get out of it.

Or free write about the situation itself -- write about what led up to where you are and what you want to happen afterwards.  Sometimes rewriting the situation in a straightforward way, without all the bells and whistles of the story itself, can clarify the situation and bring into light the logical next step where you are stuck.

You might even try sketching out the scene -- literally, drawing a little map that shows you where everyone and the other important aspects of your scene, are located.  There are times when 'seeing' the set up can give you a new perspective on the scene and allow you to see the next step more clearly.

There are writers who are able to draw well enough to sketch their characters, and a few others use computer graphic programs to create them (DAZ Studio, Poser and the like) to picture their people.  Some cut pictures out of magazines because they find that 'seeing' the characters help to translate them onto the page.  All of these activities can be fun, they can even help... but they can also become an excuse not to write.

It might help to try changing your approach to writing.  Rather than looking at writing the next big scene, just write the next 100 words.  Breaking the work into smaller pieces makes reaching goals much easier and fun.  100 words at a time can add up pretty quickly, too.

Talking to other writers might help as well.  It can be uplifting, fun and a great way to share experience with the people who actually understand what you are going through in ways that friends and family who do not write can't understand.

There are three ways to approach other writers.  One is through blogs and LJs, the second is through boards, and the third is through chat rooms.  The last can be the quickest, easiest way to make a connection and get help.  Forward Motion (www.fmwriters.com) has both boards and chat rooms, and links to journals and blogs.  Sometimes just knowing that other people understand can help.

Change music

Many writers work with music in the background.  Sometimes they don't realize it but the music is having an adverse affect on their work.  It might be because they've listened to the music so much that it's become dull and repetitious, and that affects the mind as you write.

Try changing music.  Make drastic changes.  You might even try picking up a set of nature sounds CDs and choose something that is appropriate to your story, if possible, like a forest sound or ocean sound CD. 

Music is a mood setter.  Sometimes we choose music just because we're comfortable with it, and that may be the worst reason in a case like this.  Look through your collection (or find an online service) with something as far from what you have been listening to as possible.  If that doesn't work, try writing in silence and listening to the voice in your head as you type.

Try different things.  Some people find that they work well with a specific set of songs they've picked out just for the story they're working on.  Try making up a playlist of songs that inspire you to think about the novel, rather than just personal favorite songs. 

Change location or look of location

If none of these work, and you are stuck more often than you like, there may be something far more drastic that you can do.  Consider moving your writing location to somewhere new.  If you work in the bedroom, move to the dining room.  If there is no where in the house where you can go to, try writing at the library or coffee house instead.  A change of location can make everything seem new and exciting, and get you out of a rut.

If you cannot actually move to a new location, try changing the look of where you are.  If you have books everywhere, clear them off and put flowers, statues, cups with pens or the like in place instead.  Get yourself a stuffed mascot like a stuffed plot bunny (I have several) and keep them close by.  They can work as visual clues to help you trigger your writing.

Try moving your desk at a different angle, and put up pictures that remind you of the story you are working on.  This means collecting a lot of different pictures and storing them, but it can be a great way to get into the feel of a location.

One other way to 'get away' is to go read something instead.  This is a short term answer, but it can 'take you away' from where you are now.  It can inspire you to want to have a book like that, or it can inspire you because you know you can write a better book than that -- but either way, it can help you see other words, and break the road block to your own.

Change story

The last and most drastic change is to go to a different story, article or poem.  I rarely suggest that people abandon their stories because it can get to be a habit, and taking the easy answer (and this is the easiest one) can make a writer lazy.

Pushing through difficult stories will teach you more about writing than putting them aside and only working on the easy stuff.  However, there are some stories that need to be put aside, at least for a while.  Set a date to go back to it and try again, but for the moment, move on to something else.

 

The final point about being blocked is that there are many different things to try to get free of it.  The most important, though, is to write.  It doesn't matter if you are writing on the story that is driving you crazy, or if you are free writing, or working on a new story.  Don't allow yourself to fall into a 'I can't write anything' slump, because those are far more difficult to climb out of that trouble.

How do you really break out of writer's block?

One word at a time.