Getting unstuck: Dealing with writer’s block

I thought about titling this post Coming unstuck, which lets you know how I feel about today’s topic: Writer’s block.

I never used to understand what people meant by “writer’s block.” I ‘d always felt immune to that scribe’s disease. When I wrote the first two books in my current series, I had a machine-like discipline. I’d get up at four a.m. every morning and write for at least two hours. No. Matter. What. My progress was always slow but steady. I wrote almost the same number of pages every day. My writing group members were in awe of me.

But then along came Book Three, and I went into a bit of a slump. Actually it felt more like an avalanche. Even though I loved the story I was working on, sometimes I’d find that days would pass without any progress at all. I eventually had to ask for–gasp!–an extension from my editor, who graciously granted it to me. But even then I kept running behind. Ultimately I made the new deadline, but barely. Now I have a recurring nightmare about missing the deadline, which has replaced my old nightmare about discovering that I’ve missed an entire semester of a class, just before the final exam.

So what exactly is writer’s block? I think the term is a bit misleading. It implies that the writer doesn’t know what to write about — such as a lack of inspiration, perhaps. In my case I knew the story I wanted to write, but I seemed to have lost the daily writing rhythm along the way. Maybe what I had was actually energy block. Or focus block.

So here were a few of my cures for The Block. All of them proved to be helpful at times:

  • Write 15 minutes a day
    You can write for at least 15 minutes today, even if you’re the busiest person on the planet. Doing that small amount per day helps you get the habit and rhythm back. Over time, your progress will add up.
  • Write at the same time each day.
    I think this is the single most helpful habit that will enable you to break through writer’s block. If you sit your butt down in a chair at the same time every day, your body starts to learn that this is the time for writing. Your writing flow will start to kick in at that time.
  • Free writing
    This technique is where you grab a couple of random words and “free write” them into your WIP for a set amount of time. Actually, this one has never worked that well for me. Whenever I try free writing, I get stuck at the same damned spot that I’m stuck in my regular writing. And then I get even more depressed about my writer’s block. But I know that free writing works wonders for some people. For great tips about free writing and other ways to break through The Block, I recommend Barbara DeMarco-Barrett’s book, Pen On Fire: A Busy Woman’s Guide To Igniting The Writer Within. (Guys can pick up a few tips too!)
  • Put your writing first
    I have many acquaintances who have endless reasons for not writing. Anniversaries, birthdays, conflicting deadlines, vacations, relatives visiting…you get the idea. Unsurprisingly, these people are frequently blocked writers. Your writing needs to be a first priority in your life, or you’ll be doin’ time inside The Block.

What about you? Have you ever wrangled with writer’s block, or energy block? Any solutions you can share?
Coming Sunday, June 21, Paul Kemprecos tells us what it’s like to collaborate with Clive Cussler. And future Sunday guest bloggers include Robert Liparulo, Linda Fairstein, Julie Kramer, Grant Blackwood, and more.

Dreams and your writing

Robert Louis Stevenson is said to have come up with the plot for Dr. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde during a dream.

I may never hatch the Great American Novel in a dream, but I recently discovered the importance of dreaming to my creative process.

I’ve always been an on-the-nose dreamer. There are few hidden messages in my dreams. If, in my day job, I’m trying to solve a gnarly problem related to the worldwide web, I will dream of battling a giant spider web (get it?). If in real life I’m trying to stop eating sugar, I’ll dream about diving into a pint of Chunky Monkey. And so on.

My dreams, while challenging, invariably end on an upbeat note. I may spend the night outwitting shotgun-toting bad guys, but somehow, the dream always ends with my escape. I’m quite the REM-state John McClane, with the requisite nine lives.

But then came the day when I temporarily stopped dreaming, thanks to the Happy Blue Pills. And all of a sudden, it became much harder to get the creative juices flowing. The words came more slowly. I had no energy for writing.
At the time, I had no idea what was causing my writer’s block. I was getting plenty of sleep, right?

Then one night, I forgot to take the sleeping pill. That night, I dreamed for the first time in weeks. And for the first time in weeks, I woke up thinking about my story. And I began to write.

Phew! It seemed miraculous. That was the morning I poured all the little blue pills down the garbage disposal.

I did a little research, and found little hard data to back me up on this, but my theory now is that nocturnal dreaming is essential to the creative process.

So I’d like to know from other writers and creative types: do you dream at night? A lot? Do dreams help you solve story problems directly, ever? Do you dream in color (which used to be considered the hallmark of creative people)?

The Blank Page––Make That The Blank Screen

By John Ramsey Miller

I have never had writer’s block. I have had my share of fits of laziness, but I can always sit down at my computer and knock out a chapter or three. I credit my time, in the late eighties, that I spent as an advertising copywriter with Hoffman/ Miller Advertising. Each day I would sit at a typewriter––an IBM Selectric first, and later an Apple Lisa–– and I would knock words out in short or long lines. I knew I wasn’t writing The Catcher In The Rye, but I took what I was doing seriously because I knew that companies and their employees depended on what I did to communicate what they offered, and that they depended on my judgment and creativity to grow their sales.

In those days, in a booming New Orleans, I would work on several accounts every day, so my mind was constantly changing gears between real estate, to jewelry, Italian clothing, oil & gas, tank storage farms, banking, foods, hot tubs, parking decks, mayonnaise, coffee & tea, chemicals, hospitals, restaurants, and other private, retail and wholesale clients whose needs varied. I wrote or directed to be written, brochures, catch lines, jingles, TV and radio spots, body copy and point of sale ads. There were always deadlines that couldn’t be missed no matter what else was going on, and we never missed one, although our suppliers did on occasion.

Most importantly, I learned to take rejection, and never to take it personally, and to get on to the next thing with enthusiasm and a clear head. We were a young agency and we often went up against other larger agencies and often we lost out, not based on our creative solutions, but because other larger agencies were seen as “safer”. We rarely had the advantage, but we often won with our creative approaches.

We’d begin campaigns by asking ourselves questions about what the client’s target customer was going to stop and look at, and what they might act on or would likely pass over. I was fortunate that I had a partner, Nathan Hoffman, who was and had a remarkable work ethic, and we didn’t care who came up with or got the credit for an idea that made sense.

I learned to take criticism of my ideas and copy and to make changes based on what other people who knew thought without feeling offended or slighted. If you don’t have a thick skin you can’t be successful in advertising or writing commercial fiction. Once we sold a new logo and accompanying campaign to a CEO of a large company, but before we left, he asked the cleaning lady who was emptying his trash can which one she liked, and she picked the old one and said she hated the one we’d agreed on because she “didn’t get it.” Even though she was accustomed to the old one because she knew it, she planted a bad seed in his mind and shook his confidence in the new logo. He had a point since a logo had to make sense to everyone and might be too radical a change too fast and leave some old customers baffled. We ended up doing an updated variation of the old logo, and nobody was lost in the shuffle. Once we had to throw out a campaign that was unfolding over several months because the client’s wife had a friend she trusted who was “bored” with the campaign and thought it ought to be more exciting. Explaining numbers of impressions needed over time to establish the client’s products was a waste of time. The client ate the expense of starting a new more exciting campaign because, and I quote, “I have to sleep with my wife.” All we could was what the client asked for.

I had one client, David Rubenstein, whose Rubenstein Bros. clothing stores told me. “John, you can agree with my ideas and do what I think is best against your better judgment, which is what I am paying you for, but if it fails, I’ll blame you. If you disagree, just say so, and if I go against your suggestions, I’ll take the blame.” Clients as perfect as David Rubenstein were indeed rare, but treasured by our agency.

So I think back on those days and what I learned, and realize that it helped me become the writer I am. I am easy to work with because I understand that it’s the end product that counts. Although I have a lot of control of my stories, I always listen to my agent and my editor because they know more than I do, and I am always ready to make whatever changes they feel will improve my work. And, you know, so far they have always been right.

When I am called upon to give advice to new authors, I can only go back to what worked for me, and most of it all goes back to those days when I was filling blank pages without knowing there was such a thing as writer’s block.