Writer’s Block Rx

by Michelle Gagnon

Recently, since NPR seems to be running an interminable series on African leaf cutter ants, I’ve devoted much of my commute to listening to podcasts instead. And thanks to a tip from a friend, I’ve become hooked on one that’s absolutely genius, and perfect for writers and/or fans of the craft (or anyone, really): The Downey Files. Created by the Chris Downey, former writer and producer for the TV shows The King of Queens and Leverage, the description says it all:

“Welcome to ‘The Downey Files,’ a brand new weekly podcast that explores the half baked pitches and movie ideas Chris has scribbled down on beer coasters and cocktails napkins through the years. Each week, Chris sits down with a new guest to hash out these ideas in full and, you guessed it, hilarity ensues.”

My favorite episode is “The Weekend,” where Downey and Kirk J. Rudell hash out the plot of a father/daughter heist film in just under an hour. And you know what? By the end, they‘ve pitched a movie that I’d pay $10 to go see. Listening to them spitball ideas back and forth, it struck me that as novelists, a format like this could prove invaluable. After all, virtually every television show has a room full of talented writers collaborating on each episode; even for films, frequently outside writers are brought in to “punch up” a script.

Yet we novelists sit there all by our lonesome, trying to muddle out plotlines without little or no outside assistance. How many times have I prowled back and forth between my office and the refrigerator, trying to figure out how to rescue “X” from peril in a wholly original way? I’m frequently downright desperate for a fresh pair of eyes, and there are only so many times you can hit up family and friends.

Imagine that the next time you’re hopelessly stuck on a plot point, you were suddenly given the opportunity to throw half a dozen people at the problem, with everyone brainstorming a solution together. I’m convinced that if there was a team available to push me through the inevitable ruts in the road, I could probably shave a month off the time it takes to write each novel. And with all that newfound spare time, perhaps I could help other writers surmount their blocks. And so on.

This might be a pipe dream-I’m just spitballing here myself, after all. But I think there’s something to this idea. Maybe we could form a “Writer’s Block Helpline,” or start a listserv. I’m open to any and all suggestions- and if you get a chance, check out the Downey podcasts. You won’t regret it.

21 thoughts on “Writer’s Block Rx

  1. Great idea Michelle. I have often imagined, when running into a problem, simply opening my closet and asking the writers and idea wizards in there to help me come up with some ideas.
    Those closet wizards include a few slightly known writers. For instance, Tom Clancy lives in the space between my two favourite suits. The spirit of Michael Crichton resides on the upper shelf behind my script monitor in my closet studio setup. Next to my gunsafe Jack Higgins has a permanent seat he attends between his Jersey Island writing classes. Frederick Forsyth likewise is a member at large, and is seated opposite Higgins by the gunsafe. Bernard Cornwell is a member at large of the Sands Closet Editorial Advisory Committee, who visits from time to time especially when I am working on historically significant stuff-a-mighty.

    And so goes the dream.

    By the way,
    my book KARL’S LAST FLIGHT is free through Thursday night … as of 11pm AK time Wednesday it sits at #2 on Amazon in Military and Spies/Espionage categories … okay back to our normal Kill Zone Programming.

  2. Thanks for the link, Michelle. Can’t wait to check it out.

    There are several writer groups that I know who brainstorm plots for future releases. I’ve also heard these sessions called Plotting Retreats. The basic idea is that each author fills out a form of their basic idea that is not much more than a cocktail napkin version of a plot. They jot down any basics so the brainstormers know where to start – characters, premise, black moment, setting – things like that. Then the authors break up into smaller grps of say 6 people. They record their 2-hr sessions & rotate between the members ( over a day or two, in the case of a retreat) until every member has two books plotted out to write over the year until their next annual retreat. And of course these retreats can be set in fun locations like Vegas, where it’s work for the first few days, then play time & umbrella drinks.

    Anyway, great idea & post. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Maybe one idea would be to create a Dropbox shared folder and put your ideas down in a document in the shared folder. Then you could invite other authors via email to provide feedback. πŸ™‚

    I use Dropbox to share documents and photos and it works really well. I get instant updates everywhere I go.

  4. It’s an amazing idea! I’d be onboard.

    Part of the difficulty may be that, as novelists, we’re driven by (among other things) getting credit: our name on the cover, our photo on the dust jacket. Writers may fear coming up with a good idea and having it “stolen.”

    Of course, after a while, you realize that The Big Idea is only a piece of a good novel. The right style, a good plot, engaging characters – these are all essential as well, and much harder to execute.

    So there’s nothing wrong with a forum in which writers can bat ideas around and flesh them out.

  5. This is why I have a co-author.

    Seriously, having a second creative brain on your WIP is a godsend. Kelly and I “spitball” (love your description there) ideas at each other every day. Right now we are in the process of refreshing our first novel “Dark of the Moon” for ebook and Kelly skyped me with a GREAT idea for changing something in the plot that thrusts the book in a completely new — and more sophisticated — direction. I think it would be great if other writers had a part-time collaborator(s) they could trust.

  6. Looking around the internet it seems that new writers are so afraid of people stealing their ideas that they don’t want to share them. I have enough ideas of my own, I’m not looking to take someone else’s. I would love a group forum where I can share and contribute with others all for the betterment of our writing.
    Someone put it together and I’ll sign up.

  7. Like Kris, I also work with a co-writer. We brainstorm everyday on the phone. Having someone else to rely on who has a personal stake in the success of the book is beyond valuable. Through six book, I don’t think we’ve ever had writer’s block, because one of us will always come up with a suggestion.

  8. I’ve spent years going between large critique groups and being the Lone Writer. Recently I found one writer who works at my pace and in the same genre. It’s amazing how fast we can work out each other’s roadblocks! I think (my opinion only) that a male-female team is perfect. I can make her male characters more man-like (meaning they really don’t care about a woman’s white teeth) and she can correct my female characters (Really? Women aren’t intrigued by the wall-of-toilet-seats at Home Depot?). Definitely, find a partner to fill in your weak areas. Two good writers can become one great writing team.

  9. Or a lockdown secret-squirrel TKZ Facebook group where the chat feature could be used to discuss ideas. I would be behind something like that 1000%

    And I will be checking out that podcast!


  10. Great idea! I used to get really stuck, but now I am writing with a partner and we are working much better together than apart.

    I find it really does help to have someone else to spin ideas off, and she keeps me motivated with the book in question!

    Two heads are far better than one.

  11. One of the better places I like, moreso than Facebook for a community of brainstorming is Google+. They have a community center and chat. Very impressive and it seems less restrictive than Facebook. Plus, I can get to Google+ at work and I can’t to Facebook. πŸ˜€

  12. I’m in favor of any technique any writer uses that helps him or her past block, and while I have benefitted in my work in general from tossing ideas around with a colleague now and then, I’m not at all certain that this kind of group session would be helpful around block for novelists and writers of nonfiction books.

    I’ve been breaking writer’s block for more than 25 years in a one-time consultation for people ranging from full-time professional writers, including one who’s had ten books in a row on the New York Times bestseller list, and another who is a Pulitzer prize winner, to part-time writers, graduate students, and aspirant writers.

    I identify six major forms of block (these also apply to other creative artists as well as writers, such as composers, photographers, and painters — but not to actors — and, actually, can apply to great numbers of people for great numbers of projects or undertakings). They are:

    1. Paralysis

    2. Avoidance behavior

    3. Last-minute crisis writing

    4. Inability to finish

    5. Inability to select from among projects

    6. Block specific (able to work on other material).

    I can’t summarize a four-hour session filled with concept and technique here, but here, without going into detail about them or discussing the many subtle ways they can play out, are what I call “The Three Big Killers” in block:

    1. Perfectionism — which is a form of all-or-nothing thinking, triumph or catastrophe, with nothing possible in between.

    2. Fear — which is a product of the first and second Big Killers, but which can be identified as a separate entity. All fear in writer’s block, regardless of where it starts, can be boiled down to the simple statement: “That I can’t do it.” And what is the “it” that I can’t do? The simple act of putting words on paper. Period. Nothing more. Nothing less. The simple act of putting words on paper. No more magical an act than painting a board or throwing a board. (Find an equivalent analog for whatever task or project *you* have in mind or are facing.

    3. The Baggage Train — these are all the things we wish to *accomplish* with our writing, such as I want to be rich, I want to be admired, I want to make them laugh and cry, I want to save the whales, I want to bring peace to the middle-east, etc., but which are not the *act* of writing itself. The problem arises because, while it looks like I’m trying to write, and I *think* I’m trying to write, I’m not: I’m trying to get rich, save the whales, get my ex-wife and all my ex-lovers to say ‘Boy, I really should have stayed with him. Look how sensitive and insightful he is,’ etc. The key is to disconnect the baggage train from the locomotive, which is writing, which is the simple act of putting words on paper, so that thing get out of the station.

    Any single one of these Killers operating in you with sufficient strength, and you’ll be blocked ; any two present at the same time, and you don’t have a chance.

    I hope that is of some help. I wish every writer the best with this problem. (Incidentally, I am not invulnerable to block myself. In fact, I have a *huge* potential case of it. The difference is, I know what to do about it. Actually, I break writer’s block several times a day for myself. If I didn’t, I would be paralyzed.)

    Be well,
    Jerrold Mundis


  13. Am just now catching up on this discussion. I’m always wishing for someone to bounce ideas off of, and help fill in the gaps where I feel I’m weak.

    So, what would one have to do to gain entry into a secret-squirrel TKZ group??

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