When Writers Hit The Wall

by James Scott Bell

Early in my writing career I noticed something happening when I got to around the 30k word mark in a manuscript. It was like I hit a wall. It’s not that I didn’t have ideas or know the direction of my plot. It was just a strange feeling like I wasn’t sure what to write next. I’d look ahead at the 60k or more words I had to write, and got the heebie-jeebies. What the heck was going on?

Luckily, I found out I wasn’t alone. Lawrence Block reported the same thing in his book Writing the Novel:

One thing I’ve come to recognize is that I tend to run into a wall at a certain point in all of my books…. I find myself losing confidence in the book—or, more precisely, in my ability to make it work. The plot seems to be either too simple and straightforward to hold the reader’s interest or too complicated to be neatly resolved. I find myself worrying that there’s not enough action, that the lead’s situation is not sufficiently desperate, that the book has been struck boring while my attention was directed elsewhere.

I got to thinking about “the wall” again while reading Kris’s post on settings and Game of Thrones. It put me in mind of the current plight of author George R. R. Martin. Now, I’m not an epic fantasy reader. I’ve never made it past the halfway point of The Fellowship of the Ring (stop with the singing already!) But I am definitely an admirer of those writers who excel at the genre. Especially Martin, whose page count and popularity I look at with awe. He is, at the moment, in the midst of a long patch of writer’s delay involving the next book in his series. Last year, he talked about it:

I know there are a lot of people out there who are very angry with me that Winds of Winter isn’t finished. And I’m mad about that myself. I wished I finished it four years ago. I wished it was finished now. But it’s not. And I’ve had dark nights of the soul where I’ve pounded my head against the keyboard and said, “God, will I ever finish this? The show is going further and further forward and I’m falling further and further behind. What the hell is happening here?”

This sounds like the wall and is completely understandable in light of the complexity of the books, not to mention the TV series running ahead of him!

Patrick Rothfuss, another popular fantasy writer, has also been in the midst of a very public delay for the third novel in his Kingkiller Chronicle (the second book was published back in 2011). Fans have expressed their displeasure—some going way over the line.

In an interview Rothfuss said something interesting:

“But I am moving forward. More importantly, I’m finally getting my life sorted out so that I can go back and approach my writing and my craft with the joy that I used to feel back in the day, when I was just an idiot kid playing D&D or working on my unpublishable fantasy novel.”

I think most of us can relate to that. When we first sat down to write a novel, we felt the joy of creation, the pure fun of making stuff up (see Jordan’s post on the “fun mojo” of writing). We shouted Huzzah! when we typed The End (or something that sounded like Huzzah. Maybe it was just Whew.)

But then we got the stunning news that what we had written didn’t work. We had to figure out why. We had to learn the craft. We had to work.

Then some of us got contracts and had to finish books with the cold, merciless wind of deadlines blowing across the backs of our necks. That chill was even more ominous if we found ourselves at a wall in our manuscript. So I developed some strategies to prepare for that dreaded moment.

1. The 20k Word Step Back

At 20k the foundation of my novel had better be strong. There’s a whole lot of words to write, characters to flesh out, plot twists to justify. So I stop around 20k to assess my plot:

A. Is my Lead compelling enough? Will readers care about his plight? Is he likable? Does he have qualities with which readers can empathize?

B. Are the stakes death (physical, professional, or psychological)? What can I do to ramp up the stakes?

C. Has my Lead been truly forced through the Doorway of No Return (when the book plunges into Act 2)? [Note: if your Lead isn’t forced into Act 2 by the 20% mark of your novel, the readers will feel it dragging.]

D. Do I have enough of an orchestrated cast? Do my secondary and minor characters have enough uniqueness about them? Are they sufficiently in conflict with other characters?

2. The Joy Factor

I’ve quoted this before, but it bears repeating. This is from a 1919 text on fiction writing by a man named Clayton Meeker Hamilton:

In the great story-tellers, there is a sort of self-enjoyment in the exercise of the sense of narrative; and this, by sheer contagion, communicates enjoyment to the reader. Perhaps it may be called (by analogy with the familiar phrase, “the joy of living”) the joy of telling tales. The joy of telling tales which shines through Treasure Island is perhaps the main reason for the continued popularity of the story. The author is having such a good time in telling his tale that he gives us necessarily a good time in reading it. (A Manual of the Art of Fiction)

“For the first thing a writer should be is––excited,” writes Ray Bradbury in Zen in the Art of Writing. “He should be a thing of fevers and enthusiasms. Without such vigor, he might as well be out picking peaches or digging ditches; God knows it’d be better for his health.”

Finding—and keeping—the joy in your book is thus absolutely essential, not just to break through the wall, but to elevate the entire thing. For me that means:

A. Going deeper into characters. This is a source of originality and interest. Giving even a little bit of backstory to minor characters creates all sorts of possibilities. You’re more likely to feel joyful when your novel teems with the possible coming out of characters.

B. Make things even harder for the Lead! Stop being so nice. Keep asking: what could make things worse? Oh, yeah? How about worse than that?

C. Keep a novel journal. This not only keeps you in the story; you can look back at early entries to recapture what got you hooked in the first place.

3. The Skip Ahead

If you’re still feeling hampered or unsure at the wall, get a long pole, back up fifty yards, then run like mad and vault right over the thing. Land a few scenes ahead. Pick the future scene you’re most excited about writing. Then write it!

Now, turn around and look backward. You should be able to plot a way to get from the wall to the scene you just wrote.

So what about you? Do you ever hit a wall in your writing? How do you deal with it?

Avoiding Writing Paralysis Due To Over-Analysis


frustrated-writer300x199Got a lengthy email from a writer who has attended my workshops in the past. He gave me permission to paraphrase the gist of his lament.

This writer has worked on his craft for years and felt he was making progress. He produced three novels, and at a conference had good feedback from an editor with a big publishing house. This editor told him it was not a matter of if, but when, he would get a contract from them. He was invited to submit at any time.

That was in 2012. To date he has not submitted anything.

What happened? He describes it as “paralysis by over-analysis.”

I cannot seem to get past the prison of being perfect in the first draft. Like writer’s block, it’s a horrible place to reside. Sometimes its paralyzing to start. At other times its critical negative talk in my mind remembering those sessions I attended.

The sessions he mentions came from joining a local critique group. Unfortunately this was one of those groups that was run by a large ego. The group sessions seemed mostly to be about “building themselves up by tearing down others.” Though this writer had great feedback from beta readers, his confidence was completely shaken as his pages were systematically massacred in the meetings. He finally left the group, but…

… I’m left with a nagging residual feeling that whatever I am writing it not good enough. I continue to write and rewrite my first chapters, never satisfied they’re ‘good enough’ to move on. Even though I’ve not lost the love of the story and series, I have lost confidence in my writing.

Finally, he asks:

Are we wrestling ourselves to be so perfect in a first draft we do not allow for a full first draft to later tackle or add (or subtract) to or from in revision? And why are we so pressured to get it perfect in the first draft? What can we learn or do to get out of that futile mental process?

I wrote him back with some advice, and thought it would be good to expand upon it here. It is based on Robert A. Heinlein’s Two Rules for Writing and Bell’s Corollary.

Heinlein’s Two Rules for Writing:

  1. You must write
  2. You must finish what you write

Bell’s Corollary

  1. You must fix what you’ve written, then write some more

You must write

Like the old joke says, if you have insomnia, sleep it off. And if you suffer from writer’s block, write yourself out of it.

With the paralysis-by-over-analysis type of block, your head is tangling itself up in your fingers, like kelp on a boat propeller. The motor is chugging but you’re not moving. You’ve got to cut away all that crud.


First, write to a quota. I know some writers don’t like quotas, but all the professional writers who made a living in the pulp era knew their value. Yes, it’s pressure, but that’s what you need to get you past this type of block.

Second, mentally give yourself permission to write dreck. Hemingway said that all first drafts where [dreck]. So tell yourself that before you start to write. “I can write dreck! Because I can fix it later!”

Third, do some morning writing practice. Write for 5 minutes without stopping, on any random thing. Open a dictionary at random and find a noun and write about that. Write memoir glimpses starting with “I remember…”

If you’re an extreme paralysis case, try a dose of Dr. Wicked’s Write or Die. This nifty little online app (you can also purchase an inexpensive desktop version) makes you write fast or begins spewing a terrible noise at you. Set your own goal (e.g., 250 words in 7 minutes) and then GO. This could be extremely nerve-racking for some that are trying very hard but not getting anywhere, some writers have tried to free their minds with CBD products like cbd gummy bears and other products.

You are teaching yourself to be free to write when you write.

You must finish what you write

I always counsel writers to write their first drafts as fast as they comfortably can. This means:

  • You step back at 20K words and make sure your fundamental structure is sound (are the stakes high enough? Are you through the first Doorway of No Return?) If you are worried about structure, just think of it as writing from signpost to signpost.
  • You only lightly edit your previous day’s work, then move on and write to your quota.
  • Then you push on and finish.

You must fix what you’ve written …

The time to dig into a manuscript is after it’s done. Put your first draft away for at least three weeks. Then sit down with a hard copy and read the thing as if you were a reader with a new book.

Take minimal notes. Read it through it with one question in mind: “At what point would a busy reader, agent, or editor be tempted to put this aside?”

Work on that big picture first.

Read it through again looking at each scene. Here is where craft study comes in. It’s like golf. When you play golf, just play. Don’t be thinking of the 22 Things To Remember At Point Of Impact on The Full Swing. After a round is when you look back and decide what to work on in practice. And when you have a good teacher to help, you learn the fundamentals and you get better.

Same with writing. There are good teachers who write good books and articles and blogs, and lead workshops. Learn from them. Use what you learn to fix your manuscript after the first draft is done. When you write your next book, those lessons will be in your “muscle memory.” You’ll be a better writer from the jump.

And here I should issue a general warning about critique groups. As with everything in life, there’s the good, the bad, and the ugly. If you find a good, supportive critique group, fantastic. But know there are toxic critique groups, too. Those are usually dominated by one strong voice, with iron-fisted rules about what can never be done, like: Never open with dialogue! No backstory in the first fifty pages! Don’t mention anything about the weather in the first two pages!

There can also be a tone of such ripping apart that soon enough, when you’re all alone, you’ll freeze up over every sentence you write. That’s what happened to the writer of the email.

For further advice on critique groups, see these posts by P. J. Parrish and Jordan Dane.

Paying for a good, experienced editor at some point is worth it. How do you find one? Research and referrals. There is now an abundance of editors out there who used to work for New York houses, until the staffing cutbacks of the last few years. The cost of this is high. Expect between one and two grand. If that’s beyond your budget, then hunt down and nurture a good, solid group of beta readers. See the advice of Joe Moore.

Then write some more

The name of this game is production. My correspondent mentioned a writer he knows who spent eight years workshopping and conferencing the same book, until realizing it would have been much better writing eight books instead.

Make a book a year your minimum. If you want to be a professional writer you have to be able to do at least that. Is it easy? No. If it was, your cat would be writing novels. But as Richard Rhodes put it once, “A page a day is a book a year.” One book page is 250 words.

Just. Do. It.

The good news is I got an email from this author after I answered him and he said

I spent the bulk of Tuesday at the keyboard and wrote/fixed about 4500 words in one of four sessions. I feel liberated and just wanted to thank you. So thank you. Your Rx for my dilemma has been like a reset button. One long overdue.

So, TKZers, have you ever suffered from paralysis by over-analysis? How did you free yourself up to write?

How To Get Out of Story Stall

I think about Paris when I’m high on red wine.
I wish I could jump on a plane.
And so many nights I just dream of the ocean.
God, I wish I was sailing again. 
If you read my last couple of entries here you know I have been struggling to get some mo on my WIP. This week I finally realized I needed something drastic to kick me out of my funk.
So I took a cue from that great Western philosopher Jimmy Buffett and changed my latitude to change my attitude.
I didn’t get on a plane and go to Paris. But I did take a boat to work.
Normally, I work at home, migrating from sofa to chaise to bed with Acer in tow. But I was feeling closed in and my story was reflecting that. So I stuck the laptop in a backpack, put on clean clothes, combed my hair and slapped on enough makeup so I wouldn’t scare the horses and left the condo.
I live in downtown Fort Lauderdale on a river. A couple days ago, the city started up a free water taxi service. So Saturday, I took the boat to my local Coffee Place With Green Mermaid Logo. I got a cappacino, switched off the Wifi and opened Word. In two hours, I wrote 956 words. And most of them were keepers.
Today, I am back. And as soon as I finish this blog post, I am back to chapter twenty-two. And you know what? For the first time in weeks, I am eager to get to work.
Maybe you are one of those writers who thrive on routine and quiet. God bless you. I envy you. But I can’t do it. I don’t have set hours and I seem to produce my best work when I am in a strange place, preferably with the white noise of hissing espresso machines or bar Musak. But I had gotten in the habit of staying at home and it had resulted in a bad case of story stall.
We all have times when we get stuck in neutral, when our mind-wheels are mired in mud or spinning fast and going nowhere. Yeah, we can call it writer’s block, as this New Yorker article does:

Writing is a nerve-flaying job. First of all, what the Symbolists said is true: clichés come to the mind much more readily than anything fresh or exact. To hack one’s way past them requires a huge, bleeding effort. For anyone who wonders why seasoned writers tend to write for only about three or four hours a day, that’s the answer. Anthony Burgess…concluded that a writer can never be happy: “The anxiety involved is intolerable. And…the financial rewards just don’t make up for the expenditure of energy, the damage to health caused by stimulants and narcotics, the fear that one’s work isn’t good enough. I think, if I had enough money, I’d give up writing tomorrow.”

But I think writer’s block is a luxury of literary types. If you write for the commercial market, you can’t afford to wait for the muse to come around every couple years. My story stall and my move to coffee shop got me to thinking about all the ways we can use to un-stick ourselves. I’ll bet you guys have some good tips to add.

Change Your Habits or Habitat

Getting dressed and going to a coffee shop has forced me to treat my writing as more of a job. I also have eliminated all the distractions and excuses of home: dogs, full laundry basket, TV, husband, unfinished crossword puzzle. If you work at home now, go somewhere else. Do you write only in the morning? Try a shift to the afternoon. I know life intrudes (kids, day job, night classes). But even a small change in routine can make you feel renewed.

Switch Point of View

Not just your own, but your narrator’s. When I started my WIP, I envisioned the entire story from my female protag’s POV as she is pursued by a male investigator. But once the guy came on stage, he started stealing the story. I fought him for nine chapters before I realized his story was equally as compelling as hers. In fact, their storylines paralleled thematically. I switched to a dual protag and the story took off.

Simplify Your Plot

There is an urge, when you’re new at novel writing, to use all your best ideas in one book. Maybe it’s because we feel if we don’t, we will never get a second chance. Usually, a simple linear plot works best. (Which is not to say you don’t have complications, obstacles, setbacks, etc.) Two folks in my critique group were wrestling with confusing tangled yarn-ball narratives that overwhelmed their characters. One writer realized he had TWO books in one and has now excised one plot line for a sequel. The other writer realized she was trying to graft an international thriller plot onto what is, at heart, a lovely Romeo and Juliet mystery. Once she jettisoned the over-done thriller elements, the characters began to shine.

Pick a Different Point of Entry

The writer’s saw states, “get into a scene as late as possible.” I’d say that applies to your overall story. As James, Jodie and others have said here often, the optimum moment to begin your story is just before the stuff hits the fan. If you have too much set-up, all the reader “hears” is you clearing your throat. If you come in too late, you can risk losing any chance to build tension. Do you have a prologue? Try cutting it out. I bet you won’t miss it. Click here to read Joe Moore’s useful post on prologues.

Write Your Book’s Back Copy

Lack of focus is one of the biggest reasons for story stall. If you don’t know WHAT YOUR STORY IS ABOUT, how can you know where it is going? I’m not talking about plot points; I am talking about the big picture, the main drama and the stakes, your character’s arcs, and the theme. If you can’t boil your book’s essence down to one sharply written paragraph of about five sentences, I’m betting you don’t have a handle on what you are trying to say. I wrote about this at length a while back. Click here to see tips.

Print Out Your Chapters

It’s scientific fact that looking at a computer screen changes the way our brains work. Print out your pages and read them like a reader. And here’s another twist: Format your chapters in single space, justified, Times Roman, so it looks as close to a real book as possible. I did this once and my problems with pacing and back story jumped off the page. Also, “typesetting” it breaks your mental image of your WIP, taking it out of “rough” draft (I’m struggling!) to “real” book. (Wow, not as bad as I thought.)

Speed Write

This is something I do in my workshops: I give students an opening line and make them write as fast as possible for ten minutes. Sure, it might produce junk, but more often than not, they come up with interesting stuff. Set a kitchen timer or your iPhone and just let it flow fast and furious. You will surprise yourself. Consider it a creative colonic.

Quit While You’re Ahead

This one’s from Ernest Hemingway: “The best way is always to stop when you are going good and when you know what will happen next. If you do that every day you will never be stuck. Always stop while you are going good and don’t think about it or worry about it until you start to write the next day. That way your subconscious will work on it all the time. But if you think about it consciously or worry about it you will kill it and your brain will be tired before you start.” Caveat: This does not work for me. I must finish and light up my metaphoric ciggie.  

Get an Imaginary Dog

This is something I know a lot about: Not writing is like not sleeping. It does no good to lay there at 3 a.m. and stare at the glowing digital clock. Likewise, staring at the blinking curser won’t unblock you. Get out and go for a walk. Wordsworth wrote many of his poems on the move. Nietzsche claimed to have made all his philosophical insights while walking, and Kierkegaard wrote, “I have walked myself into my best thoughts.” Walking is something of a luxury in our go-go world. But science has documented the relationship between walking and thinking, that the rhythm of the body seems to free the mind. The ancient sages even had a phrase for it: Solvitur ambulando. “It is solved by walking.” So walk, don’t run. No iPod. Leave early and take the dog.

Get Some Imaginary Kids

We are Writers (capital W). But sometimes it’s good to go lower case and remember we are first storytellers. In our quest for the perfect sentence, the lovely phrase, the big idea, we often get in the way of our stories. Did your parents or teachers ever read to you? Remember how enthralling it was? John Steinbeck once wrote about being stalled: “Pretend that you’re writing not to your editor or to an audience or to a readership, but to someone close, like your sister, or your mother, or someone that you like.” If you get stuck, imagine you are sitting around a campfire telling a good story to some kids. Would you open with a prologue full of back story? Would you start with some confusing dialogue? No, you’d do something like this: “Every night, before he turned off the light, Jamie would get down on his hands and knees and look under his bed. There was never anything there except the dust bunnies. But on the night of his thirteenth birthday, when he picked up the edge of the bedspread, he saw something he had never seen before.”

Stop Writing

I know, I know. This sounds counter-intuitive. It smells of defeat. But I think we sometimes just need to give ourselves a break and take a break. Maybe your break is only for a day or a week. Maybe it needs to last over a good vacation. Maybe, like I had to do at one time, you need to take a couple months off. The world won’t end. Your WIP will still be there when you go back. But don’t buy into this notion that you MUST write every day. I’ll give the last word to Hilary Mantel:
“If you get stuck, get away from your desk. Take a walk, take a bath, go to sleep, make a pie, draw, listen to ¬music, meditate, exercise; whatever you do, don’t just stick there scowling at the problem. But don’t make telephone calls or go to a party; if you do, other people’s words will pour in where your lost words should be. Open a gap for them, create a space. Be patient.” 
I like that. Be patient. With your writing and with yourself.

The Three Elements Writing Exercise

Jordan Dane

Lately I’ve become a fan of crazy unrelated ideas being woven into the fabric of a story. The farther apart the elements are, the bigger the challenge to make a cohesive story out of them, but I think this can be a good exercise for writers to “think/plot” out of any proverbial corner. If you can train your brain to free associate, without filtering your thought process through common sense or your inner naysayer, this could be a good way to jump start your creativity and brainstorm into something fun to write. Who knows. You might come up with a real story you’d like to develop and feel like this guy on the top of a mountain.

The idea is that plots can come from a myriad of inspirations. Recently I was asked to join a group of authors for an anthology of stories themed in an area I’d never written. I loved the authors so much that I said yes, but the crazy part came when I liked the plot so much, that I developed it into a series with a bigger scope. Keep an open mind to ideas, almost especially when they push you out of your comfort zone, because you never know where your next big inspiration can come from.

Bear with me and try this exercise. Pick one of these “3 Elements” and tell us your story. (This would be similar to pinning crazy notions on a dartboard and letting the dart decide what your next story will be.) Try the exercise below and enter as many times as you’d like (by posting your story in a comment) or pick a different “3 Elements” and go for it again. 

Pick any of these THREE ELEMENTS and tell us a story: 

1.) A priest, a skin rash, and a cell phone GPS mistake
2.) A singing competition, a family ring, and an over protective grandmother
3.) An abandoned farm house, breast augmentation, and a lumpy mattress
4.) A malfunctioning elevator, a pickpocket, and a mother’s Last Will
5.) A stolen lap top, a favorite love song, and a wager
6.) Pink eye, a get well card, and a run in with someone famous
7.) A funeral, a missing cat, and a promise

Our little family here at TKZ is very creative. Give this exercise a go and have fun. Make us laugh or share a poignant idea.

Getting over the block

By Joe Moore

I don’t believe in writer’s block. The reason is twofold. First, I’m a professional writer; my job is to come up with ideas. I’ve never heard of a mechanic suffering from mechanic’s block or a doctor suffering from doctor’s block. When I’m faced with an issue in my story, I come up with a solution. That’s part of being a writer.

writers-blockSecond, when I do get writer’s block, I turn to my co-writer for the answer. OK, so the second reason is not something every writer has to fall back on. Lucky me.

I think that writer’s block is about being stuck with coming up with ideas, not words. If I can’t come up with the words, I’m in serious trouble. It’s like that mechanic saying he can’t come up with the correct wrench. A master mechanic has a kit full of tools (words); his job is to come up with the correct procedure to fix a problem.

So writer’s block is really a matter of a writer getting stuck for whatever reason. It’s frustrating but not a show-stopper.

First, you need to focus on why you’re stuck.

The most common form of writer’s block is not knowing what happens next. This is basically a plotting issue. The solution can be found in 5 words: What does the protagonist want? If you backtrack to the last point in the story that it was clear what motivated the protagonist’s actions and how it drove the story forward, the answer to what happens next will usually be revealed. Think about the story question. Did you stray from the process of answering it? Chances are you created a scene that does not contribute directly or indirectly in answering the main story question—the big conflict. Starting a rewrite from that point will usually get you back on track.

Another common issue that will derail your story is facing the dilemma of why anything matters. Who cares? This usually deals with the question: What’s at stake. Whether it’s an internal or external struggle, the protagonist must realize that fighting the fight is worth it. If she loses, what’s at stake? What does she stand to lose? If it’s a high concept thriller, what does the community, country, or civilization stand to lose? Reexamining the stakes can help to put you back on course.

A third issue in suffering from writer’s block is facing the crippling question: Is this story logical? In other words, why would it even happen? You might have a really cool idea, but the reality is that no sane person would follow the path laid out by the plot. It’s just not something the reader would buy into. If this is the case, rethink the story in terms of how it relates to HUMAN BEINGS. Don’t get me wrong. Even the most outrageous science fiction or horror stories still have to relate to human emotions and logic. Otherwise, they become 2-dimensional. If your story is so out there that the average reader can’t relate, try reexamining the human aspects of it. Many writers including me believe that there are only two emotions in the world: love and hate. If your story lacks either, then it becomes hard if not impossible to sell the reader on an outrageous, illogical plot. And writer’s block raises its ugly head.

How about you, my Zoner friends. How do you overcome writer’s block?


Coming soon: THE SHIELD by Sholes & Moore

“THE SHIELD rocks on all cylinders.” ~ James Rollins, NYT bestselling author of THE EYE OF GOD.

For downward facing writers:Exercises to keep you focused

By P.J. Parrish

Starting a new book always puts me in a funk. Part of this comes from the post-partum blues of finishing the previous book and I sit around in a stew of depression and doubt until I get traction on a new book. I was doing okay with the WIP until recently when I hit a stall. I realized I had to do something drastic, something preferably not involving pharmaceuticals. So last week, I went back to my yoga class.

I used to be a very attentive yogi. It seems to sooth my demons, make me braver at facing the computer. The best thing about yoga is that there is no way to compete, no way to measure your worth by outside standards. If you get hung up on the fact that the woman next to you can do a better lotus than you? Well, you’ve missed one of the points of yoga. Which is:
You. And your own progress. At your own pace.
Which, when you think about it, is great advice for any writer.We tend to get all bent out of shape by worrying about things outside our control. Like, how come Author X got a huge advance when he writes crap? Like, why did Author Y get a starred review in PW and I can’t get any notice? Like, why does Author Z get a a tour and I can’t get a card table outside my local Books-a-Thousand?
Because of the big changes in publishing, we’ve become obsessed with the non-writing parts of the business. We spend so much creative energy trying to manage expectations and trying to separate ourselves from the pack, it’s a wonder we have any juice left for writing.
I’ve told this story here before but it bears repeating: When I was just starting out back in the late 1990s, I found myself at an MWA luncheon sitting next to Jan Burke. This was not long after she won the Edgar for Bones. I was an awed newbie, and I said something stupid about how the bad writers seemed to get all the attention. She was kind and said all writers get jealous. And she added something I will never forget:
“You have to keep your head down and just write your books.”
Which is a good lesson if you find yourself slipping into a downward facing writer pose. Remember that the only person you are in competition with is you. So, with that in mind, today I offer you…

This is the King Dancer position. This is very good at helping you build balance. To do this pose, fix your gaze on something that doesn’t move so that you can stay focused. Like maybe writing the best book you can?

The Fish Pose: It is good for developing flexibility. Because sometimes, you have to go in directions you didn’t consider. Like abandoning a moribund story or trying a new POV or publishing an original e-novella. Or maybe adapting a pen name. If you need help with this pose, put a towel under your head. Or read a book by an author you admire.

The Goddess: This pose helps you open yourself up. If this feels uncomfortable, use a wall for stability. Or find a good critique group to give you feedback and support.

The Crow: This is a hard one, but worth learning. Do not let your head drop! This will cause you to tip forward and fall. But remember: Everyone falls, even the great writers. You just have to keep trying.

The Headstand: Very good for getting the blood to your head and increasing overall circulation. Practice the pose at the wall. Try to move a little further from the wall each time. You can’t master this one in one try. And you can’t become a successful writer overnight. It takes years of hard work, patience and practice.

The Tree: Another good balance pose. If you cannot bring your foot high inside the thigh like this dude, put it lower. Lowering your expectations isn’t always a bad thing. You don’t have to write a long multiple POV saga. You don’t have to hit a home run on your first at bat. Just tell a compelling linear story. And if you don’t make the New York Times or Kindle bestseller list on your first three books — What? You’re gonna quit? No, you keep trying and eventually your leg (or book) will go higher than you ever thought it could.

The Wheel: This is an advanced pose, mastered only after you’ve achieved strength and balance. Same goes for a writing career. You hang around long enough and work hard enough, you might become a big wheel. Or a little wheel. Need help with this pose? Have someone stand by you so you can hold their ankles instead of putting your hands on the floor. Likewise, if you’ve got a spouse or family behind you, you can conquer the world.

And lastly…
The Pose of the Child: Take a rest in this pose any time you get tired and feel like you’re tied in knots. In other words, don’t forget to take some time off, kiss your wife, play with your kids, practice the piano or whatever it is that refloats your boat. Writers often forget the value of recharging the old batteries. You can’t write about roses if you never take time to smell them.

Namaste, my friends…

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.

Storms of the Brain

It only occurred to me recently how apt the word brainstorm truly is. Perhaps it was prompted by watching the terrible effects of Hurricane Sandy, but I’m sure it was also related to my own story problems lately.
I’m working on my fourth Tyler Locke book right now, and I’ve been having a hell of a time wrapping my head around why the plot just wasn’t working. I had a synopsis and basic outline, but the elements weren’t gelling into a cohesive story. No matter what I did with the plot I had, it wouldn’t work. It was as if I were trying to put together a jigsaw puzzle with pieces from three different boxes. The individual elements were all great, but for some reason they didn’t fit together.
It was the dreaded writer’s block. But I’ve written five novels already, so how could that be possible? Shouldn’t I have the process figured out by now? If I were a golfer, I’d curse my case of the yips. The stuff that should be an easy putt by now was suddenly impossible. The mojo was gone, and I didn’t know if it was a permanent condition or more specific to this story.
Then my wife reminded me that this happens with every book. I always reach a point where I want to chuck the whole thing and move on to something else because I can’t figure out what’s wrong with the story. She recited my familiar lamentations back to me: “This is never going to work.” “I’ll never finish the book.” “Why did I start writing this stupid thing in the first place?”
As Christopher Vogler describes in The Writer’s Journey, I had reached the deepest chamber of the Inmost Cave to face the Ordeal. And the defining element of the Ordeal is the hero’s death and rebirth.
So I had to throw out all the assumptions I had about the story up to that point. I had to look at each and every part of it and decide whether to keep it, toss it, change it, or put it somewhere else. It was time to brainstorm.
As with the most violent storms, like hurricanes and tornadoes, everything in the story was at risk: characters, scenes, settings, action, even premise. Then I unleashed the gale. Some parts were ripped away, while others right next to them remained virtually untouched. Whole swaths of the story were decimated, while others were picked up gently and set down intact in an entirely different place.
When the storm was over, many of the individual pieces were still identifiable, but the overall rearrangement gave the story a completely new life. While real storms bring tragedy, my brainstorming was as beneficial as it was difficult. Yes, there’s a lot of cleanup still to do, but I can build something long-lasting from the wreckage.
So my question for the writers out there is, how do you get out of writer’s block? Do you unleash the brainstorm, or is there a less turbulent method to dislodge the block?

The Dreaded White Page

After an interval of months due to editing my next romance release and polishing the sequel (these are big books, over 400 manuscript pages each), I am once again facing the dreaded blank white page. This engenders all sorts of fears. Do I still have what it takes to write a novel? Will I be doing justice to my fans with this story? Will I remember the plot threads I’d shuffled aside to work on my edits? Can I still write a mystery?

Distractions tempt me away from the WIP. I should check email. There might be something important waiting in my inbox. Or since it’s Saturday, I should wait until next week to begin anew. Hey, I could write this blog! And so I do, neglecting my novel writing until later. But then I’m going to the MWA meeting.

Nonetheless, I forged ahead and by Monday, I’d finished the chapter where I left off. Here are some tips on how to get started after a long interval:

· Write a detailed synopsis before you begin the story. For a mystery, mine tend to run from 10 to 15 pages. I need to know where I’m going but this technique may not work for everyone.

· Write a cast of characters with brief background descriptions for each person and their role in the story.

· When you leave off writing, type in a few notes on what happens next.

· Start by revising what you’ve already written. You may have polished this piece of work already, but you’ll always find more to fix when you view your writing with a fresh perspective. And this will get you back in your character’s head.

· Begin slowly, one page at a time, with no word count requirements.

· On a set day, put yourself on a strict writing schedule. My minimum is five pages a day. For a 75,000 word mystery, that means approximately 20 chapters of about 15 pages each. This isn’t written in stone but gives me a guideline to follow. As I approach the end of a chapter, I use a hook to coax the reader into turning the page.

· Determine your finish goal. If you write 25 pages per week, how many weeks will it take you to finish the book?

For example, I’ve written 75 pages. Thus I need 225 pages to reach the finish line. Divide this number by 25 pages a week, and that comes to 9 weeks. I take out my calendar. Can it be done?

I have to discount two weeks for family events and vacations, because it always takes me a few days to catch up after being away. This takes me to mid-August. So I will extend my goal for unforeseen circumstances and say I must finish my draft by the end of August. This is perfect timing, because my new romance release comes out in September, and I’d like to devote that month to promotion.

There’s only one kink in this plan. Assuming I sell the next book in my Drift Lords series, I’ll have to stop all work on my mystery when the edits come. And then I will want to polish the third sequel (already written) before submitting it to my current romance publisher who will only accept one book at a time. But since I’m not under contract for the mystery, it doesn’t matter. I’ll just follow my advice above and jump back in as needed.

What do you do to restart your brain into story mode when you’ve been away from the WIP?

‘Splain It to me, Lucy!

By Jordan Dane

I’m teaching an online writing class from Feb 20 – Mar 2, hosted by YARWA, the online chapter for Young Adult Romance Writers of America. We’ve chatted about how to get over the hump and finish a book once you’ve stalled out for various reasons. Some people might call this writer’s block, but for me, I refuse to acknowledge anything like that exists. It’s too easy to blame an affliction we seemingly have no control over. I prefer to think my brain is secretly trying to tell me something that I’m not hearing, even though we are close neighbors.

When I can’t hear my brain SCREAMING at me to stop writing, apparently my body can hear that pesky 3-pounds of mush. My fingers boycott me and quit hitting the keyboard or I find many excuses to distract myself—even doing laundry, for cryin’ out loud. Now that’s desperate.

I’ve learned to listen to my body when this happens. It’s my interpreter when it comes to “brain speak.” One way to get me back on track is first understand and accept that my brain is trying to tell me something about the plot, character revelation/motivation, or certain scenes aren’t working and could be better. Usually this part only lasts hours or a day or two, or a good night’s sleep. I’ve found answers for my dilemma in commercials, the NOVA channel, and even have found the complete ending of a book from watching an old skateboard flick, starring Christian Slater, called “Gleaming the Cube.”

But when I can’t find the answer alone, I’ve found a tried and true method for me is cornering ANYONE to listen to me ‘splain it. Usually this poor person is my husband, John. We can chat over breakfast, spending quality time talking about how to kill people and get away with it, or he listens to my ramblings as we drive. (Your gas mileage may vary.) One thing amazes me about this process. It doesn’t seem to matter who I corner or how I ‘splain it, I invariably come up with the answer on my own as I talk it out. It seems the brain needs the mouth to communicate back to my brain. What a weird Détente!

If you haven’t tried this, do it. It will blow your mind. Literally! I’ve concluded that since I spend most of my day in my own head—without speaking—that when I finally DO speak, my brain is listening and finally sends messages that result in solutions. Things I wouldn’t have explored purely thinking about them. Apparently explaining things to someone outside my “brain trust”—whether they ultimately contribute to the process or not is irrelevant—forces me to work things out in a way I can’t do on my own. The act of being more thorough in my explanation seems to be a critical element to my process.

But given the old adage about a tree in the forest, does it take someone else listening to get results to my dilemma? Or is this the first stages of schizophrenia and my way of justifying it? I haven’t ranted to me, myself, and I on this yet. That day might come on its own—along with a nice helping of meds.

Please share with us:

1.) How do YOU jumpstart your writing process?

2.) What have been your strangest diversions when you should have been writing?

Below is a video on how the publishing industry works from author to store: