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For Aspiring Writers

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.
  1. First—and this is also helpful with the second kind of writer's block we're going to talk about in minute—always 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.

  2. 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?

  3. 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 your brain.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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 Love.

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.
  1. 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:
    1. Setting aside time to write

    2. Setting a daily or weekly writing goal and then not quitting until you are finished—I 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.

    3. Constantly improving your writing by taking classes, reading, and of course, writing.

    4. No excuses! Think of me with six children. If I can do it, so can you.

    5. Leave computer on while you are home. Go back to it as you can grab a moment to do so.

    6. Submit your work regularly.

    7. 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!

    8. 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 guns—a bag of peanut M&Ms—to 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!)

  2. 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. . .

  3. 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 realistic characters).

  4. Practice. This is more of the same. Write, write, write—even 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.

  5. 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.

  6. Don't let yourself get fooled in doing something else at your writing time—no 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.

  7. Use time away from the computer to plot. Like before you sleep at night. Brain continues thinking about it.

  8. Write something else for a while during the first part of your writing time. But not the entire time!

  9. Deadlines. Work under deadlines! Self imposed or other.

  10. 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.

  11. Prayer. Works for me!