The Condition Which Shall Not Be Named: 5 Tips for Outsmarting *whisper* Writer’s Block — A Guest Post by Author Jessica Brody
More often than not I think people picture an unkempt little man sitting at an empty-coffee-mug-littered desk, literally pulling his hair out in giant, unwashed clumps, cursing the absent muses, while a tiny cartoon thought bubble hovers over his head that reads, “GAH! I have writer’s block!!!!”
There, I said it. I uttered the reprehensible WB word. But I’ll tell you right now, that’s the last time you’ll hear (read?) that word from me! I do not speak of such things. That kind of foul, illicit language is not permitted under my roof. (And you’ll find out why in just a minute.)
So. Let’s Voldemort this thing right now and simply say that, from this point forward, I will refer to (*FCC Beep Sound*) as “The Condition Which Shall Not Be Named.”
But regardless of what you call it, writers around the world want to know how to deal with it. And I know from being on countless panels with countless authors that if you ask one hundred writers how to deal with The Condition Which Shall Not Be Named, you’ll get one hundred different answers. So take my answers detailed here with a grain of salt.
I’m just sharing the five things (tips? strategies? methods of devious brain manipulation?) that I’ve found to work for me (after much trial and error.) And I hope you’ll find at least one new tip here that will bring you some comfort from the (ahem) aforementioned condition.
1) Don’t use the term “Writer’s Block”
Gah! I said it again! I’ve lost all creditability now, haven’t I? But seriously, it spelled out to fully explain this first tip (which happens to be my favorite tip of them all!)
Here’s the thing. The mind is a powerful instrument. But it also can be easily manipulated. And persuaded. And—I’m sorry to tell you this—brainwashed. That’s why advertising companies make so much money. We all suffer from a little bit of brainwashing. Otherwise, how would we choose a soap, or a breakfast food, or a television show?
But there’s no bigger manipulator of your own brain than you. That’s right you. You’re an evil, brainwashing, manipulative sorcerer. And your brain has this really annoying tendency to listen to what you have to say and believe what you believe. (The nerve!) So when you say (particularly aloud), “Oh rats, I have writer’s block!” you know what your brain’s reaction is?
“What? Oh yeah! Darn it! We have writer’s block! We are soooo blocked. That’s it, I’m going to play Candy Crush on my iPad.”
(Okay, so that last part is maybe just my brain, but still.)
I hardly ever use the term writer’s block. Especially not aloud and especially when dealing with my own book problems. Because if I don’t use the term, if I refuse to believe in it, it doesn’t exist. And it can’t happen to me.
Instead I like to say things like, “Wow, this story really isn’t going the way I expected. I wonder which way it’s supposed to go.” Or, “There’s a solution out there to this problem, but clearly I haven’t found it…yet.”
All of these are open-minded statements that keep your brain open to solutions. As opposed to closing it off all together. When I reach a point in my story that I feel isn’t working or that I’m having trouble getting through, yes, I get frustrated like any other author. But after my initial tantrum is over, I give myself little pep talks. (Often aloud!) I say things like, “Don’t worry, Jessica, you’re a smart cookie. I’m sure you’ll figure it out.”
The Condition Which Shall Not Be Named is really just the story fighting to go one direction and you fighting just as hard to pull it in a different direction. And more often than not, who do you think is going to win?
Unfortunately, Team Story usually wins. (Sorry Team Writer fans.)
The sooner you let go and give into what the story is supposed to be, not what you wanted it to be, the sooner you will become unblocked.
Okay now that we’ve gotten the brainwashing portion of the post out of the way, now let’s talk about some practical tips for dealing with The Condition Which Shall Not Be Named.
2) Walk Away
Sometimes all you need in order to solve a problem (writerly or any other) is time. (I feel like there’s a song title in there somewhere.) Forcing yourself to deal with a problem is often the least efficient way to deal with it. Sometimes you just have to get up and walk away.
Like when you have a fight with your spouse or sibling or parent, you often just need to give each other some space. And since The Condition Which Shall Not Be Named is nothing more than a disagreement with your story, do yourself a favor and give you and that pesky, disagreeable story some time apart.
So get up, close the document, leave the room, and get yourself moving. Walking away doesn’t mean sitting in the same chair staring at Twitter. It literally means walking away. Take a walk. Or a bike ride. Or do some laundry. Just do something else. Let your mind wander.
Remember when I said your mind is a powerful thing that is easily manipulated? It’s also really good at solving problems when left to its own devices. I solve so many dang plot problems when I’m not trying to solve them. Driving, showering, eating, walking, these are often my most productive moments.
The biggest plot problem in Unforgotten, the second book in my Unremembered trilogy, was resolved while waiting in the drive-thru line of an In’n’Out. Yup. By the time the cashier handed me my delicious Grilled Cheese Animal Style, I was like, “THAT’S IT!” And he was like, “Um, yes it is?”
My point is, stop trying. Not because you’re lazy but because you trust that your brain is magnificent and it will come up with the solution. If you let it.
3) Watch a Movie That’s Similar in Tone or Genre
I know you’re brilliant. I’ve already told you, you’re brilliant. But here’s the thing. I will bet you that every plot problem you’ve ever had or will ever have has been conquered before. Maybe not to your exact specifications, and maybe not in the same way as you’ll solve yours, but I often find that watching a movie in the same genre or with the same tone as my book clears my head and helps me look at my own story problems in a new light. It’s inspiring.
Now, um, side note: There’s a big difference between inspiration and plagiarism, I just want to get that out of the way. I’m not telling you to go out there and copy someone else’s plot. In fact, I highly discourage that. But seeing how someone else dealt with similar plots can really open your mind to new possibilities.
Sometimes we get so stuck in the world we’ve created for our story, we have a hard time seeing outside the walls of that world. Watching someone else’s brilliance can often help us break out of our own limitations and inspire brilliance of our own.
When writing Unforgotten, (which trust me, was pocked with plot problems during the writing of the first draft) I watched other thrillers and sci-fi flicks. I was particularly inspired when I watched The Bourne Ultimatum (the second Bourne Identity movie). Unforgotten and The Bourne Ultimatum are actually nothing alike, apart from the memory loss element, but the first book, Unremembered was inspired by The Bourne Identity (the first movie). And it was helpful to see how the writers of the movie set up the second installment of their series, and dealt with typical second installment problems. It ended up inspiring me a lot when I needed it the most (i.e. during my dark night of the writer’s soul.)
4) Skip It!
This is a fairly newer technique for me but I’ve come to love it.
In writing the books of the Unremembered trilogy, I’ve had very tight deadlines. I know I needed to write a certain number of words per day in order to meet my deadline (usually 1500-2000) and I don’t have the luxury of letting the story percolate for days as I wait for my brain to solve certain problems. I have to keep going.
So in the last two books, I’ve actually started skipping entire scenes as I write my rough drafts. I put placeholders in the manuscript so I knew what I think should go there and I move on. The first drafts of my books have started to look like really detailed outlines in some places. Some scenes are fleshed out and inspired and feel like they belong in a real book, and some scenes are mere bullet points of rough ideas.
The point of skipping over scenes is to keep your momentum going. If you stop writing because you believe you’re stuck, it’s too easy to lose the writing flow. To fall out of your writing routine.
I think it’s über important to set up a writing routine and to stick to it no matter what. If you skip over a problematic scene and leave it for later (when the story starts to make more sense to you) you can keep your momentum going. The key is to keep writing. Even if you’re writing stuff that won’t even make it into the final draft (Click here to read my post about writing crappy first drafts.)
If you know of a certain scene you’ve been dying to write, write that one instead. If you don’t know where the story is going, take a break and write from another character’s point of view for a day. Or explore a short story within your same world. Just keep writing.
Note: I originally got a variation of this tip from Leigh Bardugo, author of Shadow and Bone and Siege and Storm. Leigh is the champion of “momentum” and she’s turned me into a champion of it as well!
5) Write Five Words
This tip was given to me by the lovely and talented Mary Pearson, author of The Jenna Fox Chronicles. I love this tip and have used it many times with much success.
When I toured with Mary back in 2011, we were often asked the question about The Condition Which Shall Not Be Named. And her answer was always this:
“Sit down and tell yourself you only have to write five words.”
“Just five?!” you ask.
Yup. JUST FIVE.
As Mary says, anyone can write five words. Chances are you’ll write more (much more!) once you get started, but the key is you give yourself permission to write only five words and step away guilt free.
Take note of the underlined words…
If you only write five words, you can congratulate yourself and go on with your day. If you write more than five, awesome! I knew you had it in you! The point is to get your butt in the chair and your fingers on the keyboard.
I like Mary’s advice because it lets you off the hook. It gives your overactive guilt-ridden mind the break it deserves (and probably needs!) And most of all, it keeps the momentum alive. You did it. You sat down. You wrote words. That’s what keeps a routine from falling apart. That’s what gets a book written.
Writing words. Every day. It’s as simple as that.
So there you have it. My five, count ‘em, five tips for outsmarting the irksome Condition Which Shall Not Be Named. Like I said before, not all of them will work for you. But try them out, make them your own, and adapt as needed.
But never stop writing. Never quit. That’s when Voldemort wins. And Voldemort can’t win.
Well, I’m off to work on my own problem-riddled manuscript (the third book in the Unremembered trilogy.) I just know there’s a solution to all those annoying little plot problems. Maybe today will be the day I find it.
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Jessica Brody is the author of Unremembered, The Karma Club, My Life Undecided, and 52 Reasons to Hate My Father, as well as two novels for adults. For more writing tips and information about her books, visit her online at: www.JessicaBrody.com