Writing Craft — Getting Past Writer’s Block
It’s the beginning of the year and Writer’s Block conversations are starting up all over the Internet. It is a common fear among new writers: What do I do when I can’t make myself write…
Here’s my prescription for this paralyzing but non-fatal disease of the mind. If you have writer’s block, here are some exercises which work for me and might work for you as well.
Be okay with not being perfect…its liberating. Start small.
Start with the idea you don’t have to make every piece a masterpiece. It puts too much pressure on you. Instead, relax, breathe and give yourself permission to fail. Your words on a page will not signify the end of humanity (unless they are Donald Trump’s tweets to North Korea) so you are good to write what comes to mind.
Then start with shorter pieces. Instead of going from: “I’ve never written anything to wanting to write a 200,000 word novel, instead I am going to write a short story with 250 words.”
Why? Because writing a story with 250 words, with a beginning, a middle and an end, forces you to use an economy of words. Only the right words will do, yet you are not required to blast out tens of thousands of words in order to feel complete.
If you want a challenge write even shorter pieces. Start with telling a story in as short a piece of work as you are able.
“No shoes, no shirt, not served; still hungry.”
Once you can master super short stories, complete with beginning, middle and end, you can begin moving upwards in your count.
With really short stories, you have to INFER a lot of things. For example, in the piece above, we are left to wonder why our protagonist has no shirt and no shoes. We see he was again not served by his assertion of being still hungry. The rule of short stories is: Start as close to the end of the story as possible, but no closer than necessary to tell the story.
Inference is a powerful tool in the hands of a short story writer. You are giving the reader the permission to guess and accept where the story MAY be taking you. Stories with 100 words to 250 words feel compressed because you don’t have a lot of room to maneuver. That’s the point.
Your fear of failure is challenged immediately because you don’t have room for unnecessary words. Each word must perform double duty, triple if you add in innuendo, allegory, or metaphor.
I also recommend writing HAIKU, a form of Japanese poetry which limits the number of syllables you can use in each poem. Five syllables in the first stanza, seven in the second, five in the third.
“Cold feet, still no shoes
Longing, through window, no shirt
The goal of short form and poetry are to force you to looking at your words as tools, messages within messages. To take your time to figure out what it is you want to say BEFORE saying it.
More than 250 words? Now you need to ask: What’s my motivation?
Once you get to 250 to 500 words, the challenge becomes deciding what’s important for you to write.
- Whose perspective is the story being told from?
- What limits that perspective?
- What’s the storyteller’s motivation?
- Are they telling the truth? Can you trust them?
- If they are lying, to whom are they lying?
- Should you as the reader believe them?
- Can anyone, even the omniscient narrator be trusted to tell the truth?
In the end, stories are about perspective. Who is telling the story greatly defines the parameters by which the reader must interpret the story. Defining the narrator early in the piece sets the stage for how well the story delivers depending on who knows what, who tells what and sometimes what isn’t said is as powerful as what is.
Circumstances in your 500 word stories might not require an outline, but if you have not been in the habit of writing them, now may be the time to consider how an outline can help you structure a story.
Outline: The skeleton of a story
The goal of an outline is to make sure whatever points, beats, turns, red herrings you want to see in your story, you cover them with an outline. For super shorts, sometimes I outline them if they cover strange topics such as time travel, dimension-hopping, body swapping or other topics where it can get so interesting you forget why you were writing. Outlines force you to stay on task and complete the work.
Most outlining can be a simple affair. Answer the questions: Who, what, where, when, why and how does the story progress. Answer the ‘Six W and an H questions’ in the outline, establish the motivations of the characters with a sentence or two, and you have everything you need to tell a story. Making it a bit easier for you to thread ideas together if you have them already on paper.
Outlining doesn’t mean you can’t be inspired. It is perfectly legitimate to be working from an outline and a grand idea which threads the story together differently than your outline allowed and you decide to run with it. Sometimes an outline can inspire in unintended ways. As long as the core elements of the story work out for you, and you are satisfied with the work, you beat Writer’s Block again.
Once you are used to writing haikus, super-short fiction, and then flash fiction (anything less than 1000 words) by using models, perspective and motivations, adding outlines to your work should make it easy enough to begin battling your writer’s block because you are writing with more focused intent.
One other exercise I recommend is to read writers you enjoy. Copy a section of text from one of their works, word for word and then attempt to deconstruct it. See if you can read the subtleties hidden in the body of the work. Start with short stories since words need to work harder there.
Copying and imitating the style of more polished writers can help you develop your own technique for storytelling. While it may be considered unfashionable in the modern age for writers to read, the best writers READ CONSISTENTLY, all the time, from the best writers from a variety of generations.
With These Powers Combined…
The last and most important aspect of being Writer’s Block is to harness your imagination.Why do I say harness? Because it is the rare adult who has managed to hold onto their fearless childlike creativity.
A fearless imagination which says, no idea is too ridiculous, no form of play is forbidden. A child has no limits to their imagination and therefore they have no lack of it. It’s only once we start telling children how (and that they must) distinguish reality from fantasy, we close off the gates one at a time to their factory of imagination. By the time they are adults, the era of reason, logic and practicality, the imagination factory has been shuttered for years, producing only the products necessary for their employment.
Here’s how you reopen the Imagination Factory for your continued use as a creative writer:
Read the best. Whatever your genre, there are best-sellers, front-runners, elites, eclectics and mavericks. Find out who they are and read them. You will find each type of writer has their own style and elements of their style may be similar to your own. Find writers whose style feels good to you and imitate theirs until your own voice comes in.
Deconstruct the work of the masters, to better understand their methods. If you have the time, take a course at your local college on literature. Trust me, you will be better for it. To increase your powers further, read from genre’s outside your preferred one, to expand your range of storytelling, your range of character emotions and motivations as well as how each genre builds and maintains tension between characters. Experiment with new settings. Write stories in places your preferred genre normally doesn’t.
“Write short stories to practice and grow comfortable with a strong opening, a solid middle and a satisfying close to your stories.”
Don’t try and write a novel your first time out. Yes, you know what they look like and have read dozens but it does not mean you are able to craft a novel right out the gate and have it be perfect. Odds are, you will create one to three novel length works before anyone at the professional level will take you seriously. You would still have challenges which need to be met before going the full 80 to 100 thousand words most early novel writers try and create.
No, I am not saying you COULDN’T walk out onto the field and be amazing with a home run from the first pitch and produce a complete and amazing new novel. But if you didn’t, you shouldn’t be upset. Write short stories to practice and grow comfortable with a strong opening, a solid middle and a satisfying close to your stories.
Contrary to the popular thinking, creative writing is difficult. It presents a variety of challenges including theme, setting, history, plot, pacing, dialogue, character, development, story arcs, actions, mistakes, misconceptions, lies, and any elements unique to your particular genre. There is a whole lot to keep up with. When you are starting out, you are sure to drop a ball or two. Don’t fret, just keep juggling. It will get easier with practice.
Start really short when you are struggling to get something done. One sentence, one paragraph, one page (250 words). Open the throttle once you feel yourself growing comfortable with 500 to 1000 word stories.
Write fearlessly. That’s how editors keep jobs. Don’t worry about your story not being perfect. It most assuredly won’t be. Worry that the essence, the heart of your story, told by you, is true TO YOUR VISION. Editors, beta readers and fans will help you get the rest of the way to where you need to be.
Read it out loud: Strangely enough, when you read your work out loud, gross inconsistency, tone and tenor changes are more noticeable. Errors in text and context show up as well. Let someone else read it out loud so you can see how they pace the story, break up the sentences and read the dialogue. You will have an added depth in recognizing where things need to be changed.
Be better at dialogue. Take your time. Remember, dialogue looks like conversation, but it isn’t. All the empty space, which appears normally in conversation is missing, so when you write dialogue you have to keep that in mind and not let the dialogue drag. Say what must be said, reach your story elements and guidelines. Keep the story moving within the pacing parameters of your genre. Romance novels have more dialogue than space adventures but that doesn’t mean you can’t mix it up. It means you have to mix it well.
More important than anything else: Love writing. If you made it this far, you have everything you need to be storyteller. The love of the craft will make the long days looking for the perfect words worth living. When you find yourself stuck, pick up the story someplace else, with a different character. Start a chapter after the one you’re in. Decide you can’t decide on this particular point and move on. The resolution may come to you retroactively a few chapters down the road. When it does, go back and write the missing link.
Good luck. There is no such thing as writer’s block, only a lack of proper preparation.
A related article on why we get discouraged with our writing and what makes pushing onward so difficult for the new writer.
Writing Craft: What Nobody Ever Told Me
In the beginning, your skill is not equal to your taste…
You know what you like and you know you aren’t producing it. It’s not a fair assessment for you to believe you should be as good as the writers you admire. They have been writing, in some cases, for decades. They have also had the benefit of other expertise in the production of their work. Proofreaders, editors, beta readers, and possibly agents, helping them refine the product you see before you.
The difference between a beginning manuscript and a finished one is the same as the difference between an acorn and the resultant tree which requires fertile soil, water, sunlight, and the most important element, time to grow.
You can read other WRITING CRAFT articles here:
Writing Craft Articles
A ten-pack of my observations on writing, the craft of storytelling and what you can do to make writing easier, better…
“Art is the recreation of a private, impossible majesty, the sharing of an inner world with another; revealing to them an opportunity to know their own inner world through the revelation of your own. You free them to seek out the majesty in themselves. This is the true goal of art.”
Thaddeus Howze is a writer, essayist, author and professional storyteller for mysterious beings who exist in non-Euclidean realms beyond our understanding. Since they insist on constant entertainment and can’t subscribe to cable, Thaddeus writes a variety of forms of speculative fiction to appease their hunger for new entertainment.