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Avoiding writer's block
Excerpt from a talk by Rachel Ann Nunes (April 2001).
After eleven novels in four years, I haven't had the luxury of indulging
in writer's block. Come on, who has time for it?
Now, as I started talking to my writer friends and thinking about my own
writing habits, I've realized that there have been several instances in my
career that I've experience various forms of writer's block, and I'm going
to share these with you, but each occurrence was nipped in the bud so to
speak by certain healthy writing practices. These are what I want to pass
on to you. When you leave here today, you will have absolutely no excuse
to allow yourself to have writer's block, ever. There are so many incredible
ideas out there just begging to be written. I'm not going to go through a
thousand of them today, but I'll give you the basis so that you can go home
and write up a thousand easily.
Most problems writers have come from two basic levels of writer's block.
The first I'm going to talk about is finding an idea to write about in the
first place. I can't tell you how many e-mails and letters I receive where
people ask me how to get ideas for novels. Now the real trick is to write
that first book, not matter how terrible, because the very act of writing
will foster more and more ideas until you will feel as though you are in
a stadium with thousands of people waving their hands and shouting at you
where you stand on center stage. These people represent ideas and the one
shouting the loudest, the one that won't let you sleep at night is the one
you will write next. I promise you it will happen if you just get through
that first novel. Here are some ideas to help you do that.
Okay, so now that you've chosen a topic to write about, how to keep yourself
writing until it's done. This is the second kind of writer's block.
Firstand this is also helpful with the second kind of writer's block
we're going to talk about in minutealways carry with you a notebook
or something to write on. Jot down observations, phrases, ideas that come
to you. These will spark ideas for something you want to tell others; at
the very least, it will make a good scene for your book.
Think about your greatest passion. What means the most to you? To someone
you love? How do these conflict? Have you seen someone go through something
that moved you? Remember here, in order to write a book that others will
want to read, we must find the emotion in story. Of course it goes without
saying that we need to know grammar and writing technique and all that, but
without an good idea told with feeling, you aren't going to get very far.
What do you care so passionately about that you are willing to risk your
innermost thoughts to the criticism of strangers? Isn't that what we do?
Write about the most traumatic event in your life. What was it? Once you
go through it in your mind or on paper, you can alter and use it to write
a story that you will feel so powerfully about writing, that you will be
driven to the computer each day. Or try this variation. What was the most
happy memory you have? Could that make a story? The idea here is to get writing,
because it will free you to write more, it will free the ideas locked in
Current events. There are many ideas to be found around us. Read a newspaper
everyday. They are full of both tragedies and triumphs. And we all know that
there is no fiction like fiction based or inspired by a true story.
At the time I was beginning my third novel
Ariana: A New
Beginning, I was looking for a tragedy or accident, or something
that would believably injure an character in a certain way. I kept coming
up blank until one day I read in the paper about a terrorist bombing in a
train station in Paris that killed and wounded a good number of people. Since
my story takes place in Paris and this wasn't the first bombing to occur,
I knew I had my accident. And in fact, this bombing became the catalyst for
the entire plot. And later, people who know Paris would write me and say
how much they appreciated the basis in reality.
What about the recent headliner story about the two-and-a-half-year-old boy
who turned up missing from his father's truck while they were deer hunting.
Think of the emotion involved. I was angry at the father for being so careless
to leave him in truck by himself. I was furious at him for not knowing his
son well enough to know that any intelligent two-and-a-half-year-old could
get out of a truck given time to investigate. How could he not know?
I was even more livid at the two hunters who passed by later and saw the
boy awake and alone in the truck. How could they leave him? I stayed awake
at night wondering how that child felt as he wandered over the snow-dusted
ground alone. Did he cry for his daddy? Were his feet numb with cold?
I was angry at the mother for being the type of woman who had lost custody
of her children so that she couldn't be there to protect him. And then I
ached for the father and his terrible guilt. After all, he had just made
a small mistake, and how many of us have done that? How many times have we
been in a similar position and yet nothing happened? And now this father
has to live with this fatal decision for the rest of his life. My heart goes
out to him.
I think about the two hunters coming home to their wives, crying and wishing
they had stayed by the truck and waited for the father to return. I think
of the volunteer who found his frozen body after so many days, and carried
it for hours before leaving it to go for help.
Isn't there a story in this tragedy? No, you don't have to write this exact
story, but something inspired by it. Something that will show how deeply
these people feel, something that won't let your readers quit reading, something
that may even save a life.
Research. Do research on a subject you find interesting. A wealth of my
ideas come from research. With the Internet at our fingertips, we have no
excuse for not researching our story details. It's even fun. You can talk
with people around the world.
Use your own life for examples. I served a mission for my church in Portugal,
and some of those experiences with poverty-stricken children inspired me
to write my novel A Greater
Habit. This is the biggest thing that will help you in your writing. I
cannot stress this more than anything else. It will determine your success.
You develop good habits and you will make it, it's as simple as that. Good
habits include sticking to the basics of writing which are:
Setting aside time to write
Setting a daily or weekly writing goal and then not quitting until you
are finishedI suggest a word limit to begin with. Not an outrageous
goal, but one large enough to inspire. Even a page a day will eventually
make a book. I started off with two days a week, and now I write five days
a week from my home office.
Constantly improving your writing by taking classes, reading, and of course,
No excuses! Think of me with six children. If I can do it, so can you.
Leave computer on while you are home. Go back to it as you can grab a
moment to do so.
Submit your work regularly.
Make your workplace comfortable and inviting. This is a must. If it's
cold, drafty, and dark, you aren't going to want to be there!
Don't eat at your computer place. Take a break to eat and stretch. Eating
at the computer wastes your time and you pay absolutely no attention to what
you are eating OR writing. (The only exception I have for this is when I'm
under an editor-driven deadline, and then I pull out the big gunsa
bag of peanut M&Msto keep me at the desk. I will gain about four
pounds, though, by the time the deadline is over and have to work it off.
So be warned and use very sparingly!)
Your plot. Don't let it control you. Do you need to know it all before
you begin? No! Don't let the fact that you may not know the ending, prevent
you from writing. Don't be afraid to change it as you go. See plot.
Which brings us to. . .
Let your imagination run wild! You can always erase. Ask yourself, "What
if my character did this? What if he made another choice here." And then
go and write it. Sometimes it will become a major part of the novel. Never
sit staring at a blank screen. Writing is like a plumbing system. You must
keep the waters moving. Write even junk. Write your character's background,
even though you'll never include it in the book. What motivates your characters?
Writing this out will give you ideas and nuances that will greatly enhance
your novel. That's why sequels are so great! The characters are deep and
full, with pasts and problems that aren't even dealt with in the current
novel. (See Creating
Practice. This is more of the same. Write, write, writeeven if it's
something you'd never show anyone. Some beginning writers feel that every
word is sacred and that you must get it right the first time and never change
it afterward, so they sit and stare at the blank screen and wait for the
muse to kick in. The problem is, the muse is almost always taking a hot chocolate
break. He'll be back only when you've got enough down to interest him. Writing
is 99% work and 1% inspiration. Musicians have to practice. Can you imagine
them recording everything they ever played? Of course not. The idea is
ridiculous. This is the same with writing. We need to look at our work as
something we can always rewrite or throw away. The important thing is to
keep the water flowing, the ideas coming. You can always change it later.
One of the things I do to keep up my momentum is to reread and edit the
last page I wrote the previous day. This gets my mind in gear and ready to
work. I'll also check the notes down at the bottom of my screen to see if
there are any I'm ready to include.
Don't let yourself get fooled in doing something else at your writing
timeno checking e-mail, cleaning the screen, etc. This again goes back
to goals. Set reasonable ones and then go to work. Every writer has to pay
her dues and until you are ready to do it, writer's block can become a problem.
Use time away from the computer to plot. Like before you sleep at night.
Brain continues thinking about it.
Write something else for a while during the first part of your writing
time. But not the entire time!
Deadlines. Work under deadlines! Self imposed or other.
Give yourself permission to take a break. Now I know this goes against
everything I've told you so far, but sometimes you need to get away, particularly
if you write a lot. This is particularly good for the variation of writer's
block that I often get called the writer's blues. This way you aren't having
writer's block at all, you're taking a vacation. Get out and do something.
Giving yourself a certain period of time, usually one to three days off,
and then going back to work hard can do wonders for your story. But don't
use as an excuse to stop writing for a year. Remember writer's block is a
luxury that only wealthy writers can afford. And since writing isn't a highly
paid profession, that's almost nobody.
Prayer. Works for me!