Killing Writers Block Before It Kills You

My cousin, Nikolus, who’s in Scotland earning a Masters in poetry, asked me what technique I used for overcoming writers block. “Which type?” I replied.

Since there’s no ONE cause, there’s no ONE answer. As I told Nikie (he'll always be little Nickie to me), I need to know the cause to know the cure. Here are the top 3 types I’ve coached clients on overcoming...see if they sound familiar.

1. CAUSE: Burn Out. You’re exhausted by either working too many hours, straining over a creative project too long, stress in your personal life or just tired of life in general. Thus, your brain has shut down all auxiliary functions beyond survival: no creativity allowed!

CURE: Rest, Rejuvenation and Invisibility. How to achieve this varies per individual, your preferences, your time. Your wallet! Sleep is number one for healing. Spending time being still with nature is another. You have my permission to have NO AGENDA. None. Say no to friends, to appointments, to taking on more responsibilities. Try this for one week. Learn to be invisible to anyone non-critical who wants your time and energy. Save it for yourself.

2. CAUSE: Creative Stewing. You’ve decided on a project or a direction, and now the creative parts of your brain are mulling over the possibilities. This happens periodically during a creative project, as we cycle through chunks of creative inspiration. It often occurs during editing, when you’re trying to assess root problems and best solutions. You can’t *yet see the answers, because your brain hasn’t *yet discovered them.

CURE: Step Away from the Knife. No more slicing and dicing. Your creativity has become a dangerous weapon and you could do harm (to yourself, the work, and maybe to others getting in your way). Better to walk away from the project altogether. Distract yourself with other creative (like music or movies), physical (like gardening or exercising), or mental (like reading a science book) ventures. By expanding your awareness and experience in other areas, you will unconsciously expand your creative ingredients.

3. CAUSE: Creative Paralysis. You’ve worked a piece to death. You have energy and drive and ambition, but absolutely no idea what to do. Stumped, dumfounded, stuck, lost... are common terms to describe how you feel.

CURE: Walk Out. Get up, turn off the computer, or set aside the pen/pencil, and aim for the door. Apply the cure for Creative Stewing. At the same, seek outside input, such as colleagues, critiques, friends. Children. Yes, you heard me. Ever hear that expression “out of the mouths of babes?” Well, kids have unique perspectives and creative impulses that adults have beaten out of themselves while growing up. Animals and nature are also good for shifting your brain back into a creative gear. My favorite prescription for this one: go to the ocean. Water is both healing and relaxing, and it has a way of flooding the energy of the universe into your soul with each wave.

And here's my bonus type of writers block....

4. CAUSE: Not Knowing What to Write.
CURE: Take my writing class. Yes, shameless promotion. So flog me.

Illegal Stacking Ahead

Writers, stop stacking!!

You know what I’m talking about – those long strings of useless words that bring readers to a halt. It’s like a ten-car pile-up of Minis on the freeway, when you could use a semi-truck verb or noun to push through the sentence.

Need an example?

“Quickly, she took it from him, so it ripped.”

Yes, the adverb and verb choices are icky, and the sentence is stunted by commas during an action moment. Editors call this lazy writing (if not untalented).

But I’m pointing to another culprit that editors and writers often miss: the stacking: “ from him, so it...” Not only does stacking tell me it’s not a mature piece, it makes me grind my teeth.

Consider this rewrite: “Trish snatched the envelope from Joe, ripping it.” You could even replace “it” with “the linen,” depending on the surrounding material. Or add more details for greater involvement and intensity: “Trish snatched the envelope from Joe, ripping the white linen to expose a black .9mm Glock.”

Here’s an especially heinous one:

“She went away more often than she needed to, so she would not be there if he came.”

Arrggh! That’s not writing. That’s talking. Don’t write the way you speak, unless of course you are writing dialogue that MUST be colloquial sounding. (Even then I caution you to tighten sentences and use dialogue space carefully.)

Still don’t see it? Look at the sentence written this way: “Pronoun / Weak Verb / Preposition / Adverb / Conjunction / Pronoun / Weak Verb / Preposition / Conjunction / Pronoun / Weak Verb (would not be) / Article / Conjunction / Pronoun / Weak Verb.”

Considering the lack of solid verbs or nouns, I wouldn’t even count this as a sentence. Just another stack of cardboard boxes ready to tilt and fall.

Still don’t understand?

Let’s backtrack. Despite being a democratic nation, we are classist in our language. There are high-value and low-value words. Below is a point-value system for words. Consider using this when you analyze your sentences / writing, so you can add up the numbers and let math tell you where to focus your editing efforts. Higher point sentences will more likely be packed with action and details (and hopefully still make sense and have good flow and pacing).

Verbs = 10
Proper Nouns (name of person or place) = 9
Regular nouns (ball, toothbrush) = 8
Weak Verbs (To Be / Will / Come / Go / May / Might / Could / Should) = 7
Pronouns = 6
Adverbs = 5
Adjectives = 4
Articles = 3
Conjunctions = 2
Prepositions = 1

The reason Verbs get the highest score is that the mind reads them easier and faster. It’s primal. “Run” makes our mind envision running (especially when there's a bear growling). Nouns are next. "Fire" makes us want to run, because we envision getting our "Victoria Secrets" burned off. Proper nouns, even better: “Joe” evokes more personality than “that guy” and, if the writer has written the character well, triggers an emotional response (positive for protagonists and negative for antagonists).

My point is this: when editing your work, look for strings of Articles, Prepositions, Conjunctions, and Pronouns. Search for the ones you use most and notice how often you string them together or add them to a weak verb, such as the "to be" verb variations (was/were/is/are). Three or more indicates editing is necessary. Don't stop using these words altogether, just minimize their appearances and groupings. They have their place, but not at top billing.

My trespasses in this area vary per manuscript, but for romantic suspense I search for my most likely culprits: so, and, but, toward, back, up, down, in, out, if, then, than. When I’m writing historical, I tend toward these: but, rather, very, toward, un/likely, certainly, awfully, backwards, upwards, downwards, alike, besides, fore, aft.

You can do a separate search for weak verbs: is, are, were, will, may, might, could, should, would....etc. and see how you combine these with weak words. Such as "It's not as if he were there." Ick.

For those who like a challenge, try rewriting that heinous sentence above, or just share with us the words you commonly use that get you all stacked up with no place to go...Otherwise, go forth and edit!

Creating characters who are "real characters"

One of the things that authors love about writing fiction is that it's all made up. We can create really crazy people doing wacky things.

Yet recently I realized some of my characters are more sedate on the page than the "characters" I know in real life. Time to 'up the anty' on my fictional characters, I said to myself.

In fact, when I teach students about Character Development, I ask them to imagine their character from the inside out. Not just how the character looks and dresses and walks, but how they act in any given situation. How smart are they? Yet what are they stupid about? How blind they are to their own flaws? Or how aware and trying to hide them? What are their ticks and tells? When do they show off versus stay quiet.

From now on I'll also ask: what's the craziest thing your hero or heroine has ever done?

Go ahead and ask this question of your characters.

No, not just between the pages of the manuscript when the character's under pressure, but on a normal day. Maybe in the character's past, like when they were in college (we all did wacky things then, right?). Maybe in public or at a family get together. Maybe when they were alone and thought nobody was looking.

Then feel free to post your answers so we can all enjoy the "real characters" you're writing!

Re-inventing yourself

Rebooting your career after a long absence is no easy task. The word "depressing" comes to mind.

Two years ago, my 63-year-old mother-in-law moved in with us. We were one year into our marriage. She'd lost everthing: her home, her job, her memory of what she did with all her money or what city she lived in now. She was so skinny, so palid, she looked deathly ill.

Working from home as a freelance writer/editor (my business of ten years) allowed me to watch out for her as we pursued a diagnosis: stroke-based dementia from drug and alcohol abuse. She'd quit drinking, so we got her to quit smoking, too. Still, I couldn't stop resenting that she'd "given" herself an illness that now made my peaceful home into a hell-zone -- an awful perspective I never thought myself capable of, but I've come to discover it's common among caretakers.

By January 2009 it became impossible for me to work and deal with her weekly emotional outbursts of sobbing and yelling, or the biweekly visits to the emergency room for falls and urinary tract infections and pneumonia episodes. My panic attacks woke me from sleep. My heart raced for days on end. I stopped seeing friends, stopped gardening, stopped cooking for fun, stopped feeling anything but dread of her and my own home.

Eventually, the strain on our marriage became unbearable. After 8 years of living together, we were suddenly fighting over dishes, shoes not in the "shoe room", who got to decide the tv show we watched, and why we weren't sleeping in the same room. Something had to give.

To my business I waved bye-bye.

Now my MIL lives in one of the best assisted-care facilities in town and on a government program that will take care of her for the rest of her life. She's happy, well cared for, at peace with her conidition. We're finally free. Sort of.

We're not the same people we were before. We have to rediscover happiness, reninvent ourselves. But I'm rebooting my career in an economy that doesn't play by the old rules. 100 applicants for a tech-editing job I don't even want? No thanks. I can't go backwards.

This time I'm going to get it right because life is short. I'm going to do exactly what I want to do.

So I've polished one of my novels and sent it to an agent. And I'm teaching writing and editing courses monthly. And I'm blogging about misadventures in writing and editing so others can leverage my experience to advance their own careers.

I've never been happier with my career outlook.

And today, when I visit my mother-in-law and give her the $62.50 the government says she's allowed per month, and *again* explain why she can't have more money, I'll be feeling grateful. Grateful that she tore me away from work that numbed me, and grateful that now I can pursue my true calling(s).

That's one Happily Ever After I didn't expect.