So You Want to Write Part 11 – How to AVOID Writer’s Block

Pages and pages of suggested cures and tips for overcoming writer’s block are easily accessible to the afflicted all across the Web. With a quick Google search there’s no end of  advice for overcoming the author’s worst enemy.

Jon-Acuff(A good page I came across recently is on Jon Acuff’s page – he often gives sound advice.)

But rest assured, I’m not going to add to the potpourri of suggested writer’s block cures.

Read on.

 

I appreciate when my GPS warns me of potential roadside construction, traffic jams, and tumblr_mz0tciaEZ11t35jb8o1_400large bodies of water that might obstruct or delay my end goal of reaching my destination.

So instead of giving you some cures for writer’s block, I’m going to give you a few tips on how to avoid it in the first place. But keep in mind, nothing is a guarantee – and the absolute best tool you can put to use is your own ambition, which is something no one can give you but yourself.

 

HOW TO AVOID WRITER’S BLOCK

1. Keep your story interesting

I’ve found that most of the time I run out of something to writer or get stuck, is not because I’ve lost momentum, but because I’ve lost interest. The book (or story) might still be a great concept, but somewhere along the way I took a wrong turn, or I’ve lingered too long on an anticlimactic scene. Avoid this by always having an ending point in mind for each particular scene. If you’re writing at point A, know the steps you need to take to get to point B, and take them. Remember, if you lose interest, your readers will certainly give up reading.

2. Write different

In X-Men: The Last Stand, there’s a scene where big, tough Wolverine gives this super-Joey-dave-coulier-30111015-300-225cheesy speech about how “we’re X-Men; we stand together.” I mean, seriously? Look kids, it’s Joey Gladstone with claws and sideburns! It’s a painful scene to watch. We’ve all heard the “We are united” speech a million times. Blah, blah, blah. Avoid stuff like that. If you don’t, you’ll read over your work in a week, realize how bad it is, and lose stamina and fall into a permanent writer’s block. Stop copying templates; write your own template.

3. Don’t read too much

e0fc57b64b14ce730c828ca088394c1b_answer_4_xlargeI cannot agree enough with all of the advice for curing writer’s block which says, “Read great books.” Yes, read books of your book’s genre. Read award-winning books. Read! But don’t read, read, read. I struggle with this more than anything else. First off, reading takes time away from writing. Secondly, you might end up with more good ideas or ah-ha moments than you know what to do with. And though that’s better than having no ideas, it can become overwhelming and next thing you know, a block has been dropped in your writing groove.

4. Always, always, ALWAYS have something unpredictable in mind

Whether your outlining your book or writing by the seat of your pants (plotter or pantser), tumblr_m8fcinfzZT1r76lino1_400you should always have some major plot point in the distant future that’s so unpredictable, so unthinkable, so surprising that you just can’t wait to get to that scene and shock the life out of your readers. This makes for great storytelling and plot twists, but it also provides gallons of stamina to keep those fingers flying over your keyboard at 230 wpm. (Tip: resist the urge to write that scene ahead of time; work up to it. It’ll be like a reward when you finally reach it. If it’s shocking enough, you won’t even need to take note of it.)

5. Write multiple books at once

This might not be feasible for most people, since everyone has a good book in them, not “books.” But since my end goal is to be a bestselling author, I’m working on three books right now (all very different genres). If I need a change, I simply switch over to another book just to help keep things fresh.

6. Observe the world as though it’s your book

alien-invasionOne of my books is about a world-wide alien invasion. Quite often I stop and look up at the sky and wonder what the guy walking his dog would do if he were being shot at from an invisible spaceship. Or when I’m watching The Office with my wife, I’ll catch myself wondering what we’d do if everything just went black and things started blowing up around us. This helps me add scenes or thoughts or feelings that otherwise would not have been in the book, thus more material to write.

Follow these steps, and you’ll be that much closer to that coveted “The end.” Happy writing! And remember, it’s the weekend; not the work-end.

It Doesn’t Stop at The Hunger Games

gregor series

While writing my young readers historical fiction book about a dachshund in Nazi Germany, I’ve been reading two types of books: historical books surrounding the Nazi era and young readers books.

While it’s pretty easy to find really enthralling historical books, young readers books that aren’t dumbed down are kind of hard to come by, outside of Harry Potter and a few classical works.

My wife and I are big fans of The Hungers Games books, so I asked her, “Would you be interested in reading Suzanne Collins children’s book series?”

“What are they about?”

“This kid who goes underground and meets giant bugs and rats and spiders and stuff.”

“No way,” she said. “That sounds gross.”

So, I got her the set for Christmas.

You may be reading this and thinking, I’ve heard of Collins’s young readers books, and giant insects and stuff just don’t appeal to me.

Let me tell you that Sarabeth and I have both read the series since Christmas and are in love with Gregor the Overlander.

Don’t judge a book before you read it. Suzanne Collins is at the top of her game with her Gregor series. There are very similar themes as in The Hunger Games, and even though they’re directed at young readers instead of teens, I’m not quite sure the subject matter is any less impactful and thought-provoking.

Gregor is a twelve-year-old boy who accidentally falls down the laundry chute with his two-year-old sister, Boots. Together, they fall down, down, down to the Underland, an entire underground world that exists underneath New York City.

There, they befriend humans and giant cockroaches and spiders and bats – who are the main mode of transportation. Like The Hunger Games, hardly anything in these books is at all predictable.

The first book, Gregor the Overlander, was a wonderful introduction to this dark world, and introduced probably one of my favorite literary characters of all time (he’s a giant rodent) who remains a key player throughout the series. Books 2-3 weren’t as captivating, but there’s enough action that young kids – boys or girls – would enjoy them. Book 4, The Marks of Secret, was a good prelude to the final book of the series - The Code of Claw - which was one of the coolest, and heartbreaking, conclusions to a series I can remember.

Collins is a master at causing you to feel sympathy for her characters, be they people, cockroaches, bats, or rats. Her plots are very deep and interwoven, but not so complicated that an eight-year-old wouldn’t get it.

Sarabeth and I will both be returning to these books very soon, and will most definitely pass them down to our kids (though because there are some very gruesome and gory scenes, we would suggest no younger than eight, depending on the child’s maturity level).

But even if you don’t have kids and you’re just looking for a great series to get immersed in, I can’t recommend Gregor enough. Another treat by Collins, is her children’s picture book, Year of the Jungle, which serves as sort of her mini-autobiography and explains a lot about the inspiration behind her books.

Year-of-Jungle-Cover_510x411

So You Wanna Write Part 8: Knowing When to Stop

 

bone

Ever read the Bone saga by Jeff Smith? You should no matter who you are.

Years ago I was reading an article by Mr. Smith and he said something that changed my writing habits for life.

He was talking about his writing process while developing Bone. He said something like, “You’ve just got to know when to stop and skip a scene and come back to it later.”

That tip has done wonders for my writing. And, it’s a great tool to combat writer’s block. If you’re willing to skip a difficult scene and move on ahead of the story to construct something further down the timeline, then your book or story isn’t just sitting in limbo.

Be willing to skip scenes. Heck, on your first draft, be willing to be sloppy! I’m in the process of writing a young readers historical novel and it’s very sloppy right now – the facts are all wrong, the setting’s a mess – but that’s why I’m going to go back and fix all that.

When you buy a building for your business you don’t start adding up your funds right away or upgrading your product line. You’re focused on one thing initially, and that’s location.

The same with writing. Don’t worry about the details on your first draft. Worry about one thing only – story, story, story!

John Lasseter, CCO of Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios says, “Every single Pixar film, at one time or another, has been the worst movie ever put on film.”

In fact, no animated movie has ever been filmed chronologically. They may even start with the third act, and the opening scene may be the last thing they work on. For my historical novel, I have the entire ending drafted already, and I’m not even in the second act!

Be willing to skip around, get messy, get scattered, and in the end, it’ll all come together.

So You Wanna Write Part 7: That Opening Scene

blue velvet curtain opening sceneThat first click of the keyboard.

That first scrawl of the pen.

That first scene.

You have an idea of what your story will be about. You know who your characters will be and you know what time period it will be set in and where it takes place. Heck, you may even have your premise written out. (We’ll talk more about these subjects in later posts.)

But for now you just want to get started. No more putting it off. You’re writing this book and it starts now

But how do you start it? Do you open with a dark, mysterious scene? Do you open up with a traumatic scene from your protagonist’s childhood? Do you maybe start with a scene that takes place in the middle of your book that you’ll come back to later?

No matter what you decide to start with, keep this in mind:

It will likely not work. Your opening will probably stink and have no connection to the rest of your book. (Now, there are definitely exceptions to this, I realize.)

 

Almost every movie I’ve watched the commentary for nearly had a completely different opening.

My book The Man in the Box had so many different openings that my wife said that she didn’t want to read another draft until the book was finished. She actually kept getting the different versions mixed up and could no longer critique it with a fresh eye.

Another example that comes immediately to mind is the opening scene to Monsters University. You’ll recall that when Mike shows up to college, he’s traveling by himself on a crowded bus. mike-wazowski

The filmmakers actually had a completely different opening scripted and animated where Mike’s parents drop him off at school. The Pixar guys said they were very happy with the opening, and that it was very funny. But one day during a board meeting someone spoke up and suggested that it would make a much bigger impact if Mike arrived at school by himself, to give the impression that it was him against the world, with no one there to support him.

The point is, as happy as you might be with your opening scene, you’ve got to ask yourself, “Does it do the most service for the rest of my book?” You’ve got to be willing to change it.

Even if you can’t come up with an idea, start writing! You’re going to back and change it anyway.

The Thrilling Three

You’re all familiar with Disney’s phenomenal five (Mermaid, Beauty, Aladdin, Lion, and Frozen). But let’s look at the other end of the genre spectrum – suspense and thrillers.

There are three movies that I think are the masters of suspense, and they conveniently fall into three of the seven narrative conflicts (man vs. man, man vs. God, man vs. nature, man vs. science, man vs. technology, man vs. self, man vs. supernatural).

Let’s take a look at my top three picks.

Jurassic_park

Jurassic Park  (m v. s) –  You can watch almost any of Spielberg’s movies and rightly claim that it’s his best. Jurassic Park is certainly one such movie. He builds suspense in the first half of the movie by giving the allusion that something is about to go terribly wrong in the amusement park. And in the second half, when the electricity goes out, that anxiety and those nerve pay off. I still consider Jurassic Park to be amongst one of the greatest thrillers of all time. (By the way, who’s pumped about JPIV??)

speed-movie-pictures-4511

 

Speed  (m v. m) - For man v. man, this was a toss up between Speed and River Wild. You’d think that River Wild would have come out on top, considering how badly Dennis Hopper butchers his character (and how naturally creepy Kevin Bacon is), but it’s just a little easier to believe in a highjacked bus than a family vacation gone wrong where the bad guys could very well just walk along the river to their freedom.

Twister-movie-poster

Twister (m v. n) - Am I really outdated for still liking this movie? I’ve seen plenty of disaster films from Dante’s Peak to 2012. But nothing has yet to come close to Helen Hunt’s desperation to get the Dorothy to fly and warn neighbors of the impending doom. Plus, the soundtrack is awesome to listen to when you’re driving through a wild storm in the summer.

(A fun fact: Those three movies are all related. Twister was made by the producer of Jurassic Park and the director of Speed.)

I’ve yet to come up with the ultimate movies for man v. God, man v. supernatural, man v. society, man v. technology, and man v. self (can I nominate my book The Man in the Box for this last one?).

Do you agree with my three picks? Do you have any suggestions for the other narrative conflicts (book or movie)? If so, list them below!

So You Wanna Write Part 6: Live Your Topic

59f287c6720acce890cb7ffed9aee965_research-imageSo you’ve got your idea. Now, you’ve got to nurture your idea. You’ve got to feed it, and help it grow. You can only do that so much with your own limited experiences.

So how does one go about this?

You’ve got to fill your mind with as much genre-friendly information as you can.

Technically it’s called research. But to me, that’s a dirty, word . So instead of research (or the R-word), were’ going to call it living. 

Throughout the entire course of writing your book, you’ve got to live your topic.

The year and a half it took me to write The Man in the Box, I constantly read books that were similar to its setting/genre. I read Jurassic Park, Hunger Games, John Carter of Mars, among many others.

And if you read Box, you can see inspirations of those novels.

I’m currently writing a young readers novel set in war-torn Europe. So for the past year or so I’ve been reading and watching anything I can get my hands on about the Holocaust or the German’s point of view of the war. The knowledge I’ve gained is invaluable and will make my book that much richer and accurate.

I wrote yesterday about writing what you know. I can’t go back in time and live during WWII. I can’t know what it’s like to live in a bunker awaiting your next suicidal mission. I don’t know what it’s like to be starved or tortured in a slave labor camp. I can’t imagine the feeling of stepping foot inside a gas chamber knowing I have just minutes left of life as I’m being pushed and shoved by dozens of other naked, frightened men.

But I can get an idea by reading Night by Elie Wiesel, or returning to the classic account of Anne Frank’s diary.

So you’ve got to chew and gnaw on your subject’s genre. Do the research (or living), take notes. Even if you’re writing a fantasy born completely of your own imagination, you’ve still got to study the greats that came before you. Dissect their work and figure out for yourself what made them so popular, or not popular.

You’ve got to live out your topic or subject matter. Writing isn’t just making stuff up on the spot or taking the craft in your own untrained direction. You’ve got to hone your skill, live out your subject matter, surround yourself with the setting your writing about.

You know what sets Pixar movies apart from virtually every other movie in Hollywood? The creators and artists spend years researching (living) their subjects. Research (living) is a key ingredient in their movies (did you catch that?). Without research, those movie gems would just be like another Dreamworks cartoon.

Draw on real life. Take advantage of history books. Figure out those universal themes that keep pulling in generation after generation of new audiences, and then learn to retell it in your own way.

Live your topic. Study your subject. By doing this, you bring your story to life.

 

So You Wanna Write Part 5: What to Write

Keyboard-fingersSo we started this series off with a blinking cursor.

We’ve learned that writing can be a chore, there’s a difference between writing and storytelling, we’ve figured out  why we want to write, and we’ve bragged to everyone we know that we’re gong to write a book.

Only to be brought back to that blinking, taunting cursor.

Blink, blink, blink…

What do you write? It’s like when you were in grade school and you had one sheet of paper and a Crayon. What was it you asked yourself or those around you? What should I draw? 

That was the big question of your young life.

And now as you sit before a blank Word document, you’re constantly asking yourself, What should I write. I love this comment Tylowery of the blog, “Secrets in the City” wrote in a previous post:

Screen Shot 2014-04-07 at 7.50.33 AM

You’ve heard it said to write what you know.

That’s true. But that also kind of stinks. Because what I know isn’t really all that exciting. I grew THE WONDER YEARSup in suburban America where I spent my time mountain biking and playing roller hockey just like every other boy in the country. And The Wonder Years has already been told.

And back when I was developing my first novel I worked as a bookseller at Barnes and Noble.

Nothing much exciting there.

Not to downplay my life – I love it, actually. But not much to write home about – or write a book about, for that matter.

So sticking with the theme of write what you know, I wrote about how I felt about my mundane and anti-climatical existence.

I created a character, Robbie, who’s just like me but about fifteen years older and still stuck in the same uneventful life I felt I was in.

And I gave him an out.

I provided him with a box that he could climb in and appear in a fantasy world of his making anytime he wanted. And honestly, my book became my box. I would escape to it when I needed a break from reality. (Luckily the characters didn’t start crawling out of my book and threaten to kill me and my wife like they do from Robbie’s box.)

dead-poets-society-04But here’s the thing you need to walk away with. Yes, write what you know. But make it interesting. Flip things on their head. Look at life from a different perspective. Or like Mr. Keating says in Dead Poets Society, “I stand upon my desk to remind myself that we must constantly look at things in a different way.”

How did I come up with the idea for The Man in the Box? 

Well, as I said before, I worked at Barnes and Noble during the time. I was the head of the children’s department. And throughout the day I had to go back to the shipping room to retrieve more books to carry out on the floor.

I read a lot of those children’s books while I stood back there waiting for customers to walk past. So I was constantly diving into fantasy worlds during my dull job. And the shipping room was constantly full of boxes. So I put the two together.

Twain wrote about what he knew about the deep south. Dickens created fantasy worlds out of the slums of London. And I can’t imagine any scene duller than Depression-era Salinas Valley California, but Steinbeck used it in many of his beloved masterpieces.

If you’re creating a fantasy world that’s set far from our world, make absolutely sure to relate it tour world. Tie your personal life, feelings, emotions, to that world so that we can relate to it.

Write what you know. Take this advice with a grain of salt, then run with it. Don’t be afraid to simbatweak what you know. Simba only knew life in Africa. But watch the scene in The Lion King when he sings “I Just Can’t Wait to be King.” All the colors change, the style is dramatized; it’s a completely different, unique, and interesting world, because it’s Africa through his cub-like eyes.

Show us this old, tattered, familiar world through your eyes. How do you see life? What’s a hero to you? What makes a bad guy bad? What’s your biggest fear, and why should your readers be afraid of it, too?

If I may, think outside the box.

(Like my book The Man in the Box on Facebook for updates on the upcoming second edition, and earn a chance to win a free autographed copy.)

 

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 13,322 other followers