“When in doubt, bury someone alive.” Edgar Allan Poe was purported to have said this as one of his five essentials for the betterment of a story. Although it’s never been confirmed, even if he didn’t really say it, he should have. So let’s figure out what Mr. Poe might have been suggesting. My interpretation is that there is always a solution to a writing issue. And one of the biggest issues new writers (and old) have is getting stuck without an idea what to do next. Poe suggests doing something drastic.
I don’t like to use the term writer’s block because I don’t believe it exists. But like most writers, now and then I wind up in a dark room with no doors. Usually this occurs in the infamous Sagging Middle as Clare so expertly discussed on Monday. Whether the idea you thought would work doesn’t or you hope the answer will emerge from the ether, you need a way to solve the problem.
So when you get stuck, what can you do? Here are some suggestions that I’ve used. Perhaps they’ll help you, too.
- Change your writing environment. I have a home office with a desktop PC. I also have a laptop. Sometimes I need different surroundings so I grab my laptop and move to another room or outside. Just the act of breathing fresh air can fire up your brain.
- Listen to music. Often I write to background music, usually a movie score (no distracting lyrics). But sometimes setting down in front of my stereo and rocking out to my favorite group can clear my head and refresh my thoughts.
- Get rid of distractions. TV, email, instant and text messages, phone calls, pets, and the biggest offender of them all: the Internet. Get rid of them during your writing time.
- Stop writing and start reading. Take a break from your writing and read one of your favorite authors. Or better yet, pick something totally out of your wheelhouse.
- Don’t decide to stop until you’re “inspired”. I’ve tried this. It won’t work.
- Open a blank document and write ANYTHING. It’s called “stream of consciousness”. It worked for James Joyce, Virginia Woolf and Marcel Proust. It can work for you.
- Write through it. Beginners sit around and hope for a solution to come to them in their dreams. Professionals keep writing. The solution will come.
- Finally, do something drastic. Bury someone alive. Works every time.
Fellow Zoners, how do you get yourself out of a writer’s corner? What drastic measures have you taken to keep the story moving?
I work on blog posts — that’s still writing–and I’ll do critiques for my partners–that’s still writing. And I’ll back up a few chapters in the WIP and reread to see if I get a running start. Try making a list of all the crazy things that *could* happen to/motivate your characters. Shoot for 20, but ignore the first 5 or 10 because they’re the obvious. Look at a minor character. Is he hiding a secret that could be relevant to the story (that’s how I found my killer in Deadly Secrets).
And, best of all for me — think of the alternatives to writing, which include things like grocery shopping and doing housework. Cleaning toilets gets me back into the manuscript almost every time.
Great additional advice, Terry, including toilet cleaning.
Poe never wrote such a thing, of course. It was in a satire that some tweeter picked up and spread as real. It’s too much like Chandler’s “bring in a guy with a gun.”
If Poe had ever expressed such a sentiment, it would have been like this:
Once upon a midnight ugly
While I wrote my thriller smugly
Thinking that my scene was tense, as if a bomb were set and ticking.
Lo, I found it dull and boring
Thus my book I was deploring!
Until, with coffee, soon enough my basement boys got all gears clicking:
“Bury him alive and kicking!”
And so I did, with no nitpicking.
Correct, Jim. As I pointed out, even if he didn’t say it, he should have.
Quite right, Joe. I wish Poe had written a ” how-to.” And made it rhyme.
*coffee shooting out my nose* You’ve hit on another solution: write a poem.
On the substance, Joe, I do like adding a new character, and also your suggestion about writing anything. I’ve got many commercial jingles that could have made me a fortune. Instead, they just got me writing again….
And of course there’s the Monty Python rule…
When in doubt, drop a cow… or blow something up… or blow up a cow…
Works for me.
Now that I think of it… C.J. Box started one of his Joe Pickett novels, _Savage Run_, this way… blowing up a cow…
Good post, Joe. I especially like your “start reading” & your “write through it” tips. Lately, I leap ahead and write future scenes I know are coming. It helps hit my daily word count goals without getting bogged down. Thanks, Joe.
I see you had the same thought at the same time, Jordan, it just took me longer to write my post!
Jordan and Justin, you’re both right. There’s nothing to lose by jumping ahead. It also gives you something to work towards.
Agree 100% on the music, Joe. Most of my books have a theme song (with lyrics) that gets it into my head before I start, and a score (sans lyrics) that I play in the background if I get stuck during the actual writing.
But the biggest thing I’ve learned to do–and sadly, only quite recently–is skip forward. If I’m stuck in the middle, I almost always know at least one scene that has to come later. So I go write that. Very often that will jar things loose, because I know I need to steer towards that scene and if it’s already written my course is clearer. Once I overcame my “What, write out of order??” shock, it’s been extremely useful. I’m just sorry it took me so darn long to realize!
Justine, music really helps set the mood for me. Glad to hear it works for you, too.
If I’m at a dead end, I usually pick up a legal pad, head outside and sit in the garden. I go to a blank page in the notebook, write “What If?” at the top and have at it. By the time I’m at the bottom, either I’ve worked through the block or have ideas for other things to write in the meantime. One such session led to a complete revision of my outline. Thank goodness it happened early on!
Excellent technique, Sharie. What If are the two most powerful words in a writer’s toolbox.
Good comments, Joe, and I plan to steal them — with credit — for a class I’m teaching. Like you, I don’t believe in writer’s block. I go for a walk, or (shudder) clean house until inspiration strikes.
Feel free to use them, Elaine. Mi casa es su casa.
Great list, Joe. Changing the environment is always helpful. At least one recent study suggests that walking enhances creativity, and I find it often works for me. (And exercises the dogs.) Also reading–the books I consult when I forget how to write are Margaret Atwood’s The Robber Bride and anything by Highsmith. You know what doesn’t seem to work so well? Consuming large amounts of dark chocolate and/or half a bag of Pepperidge Farm Goldfish. But I think I may continue to do more testing, in case they just require more, um, sampling.
Thanks, Laura. It’s good you’ve “identified” some things that don’t always work. Keep testing, it’s the only way to find a winner.
Great tips, Joe. When I get stuck, I’ll ask myself this question: “What is the worst thing that could happen next.” For me it works.
Brian, that’s a great way to get out of a writing jam. I do the same thing. Thanks for sharing.
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