Showing posts with label writer's block. Show all posts
Showing posts with label writer's block. Show all posts

Saturday, October 8

The Zero Draft: How To Beat Writer’s Block

The Zero Draft: How To Beat Writer’s Block

Have you ever had writer’s block? I have. After my dad passed away the words wouldn’t come. It took me months to start writing fiction again. But, that’s not the kind of writer’s block I’m talking about.

All my life, when I’ve sat down to write fiction, a mean little munchkin would stir to life inside me. “You can’t write,” he’d say. “Look at that sentence. So amateur hour. Face it, no one is going to want to read this drek. You’re wasting your time. Your life. No one but me has the balls to tell you this but, girl, you’re never going to get anywhere as a writer. Given your limited skills, it’s just not possible.”

When a writer has the munchkin’s top 40 looping through their mind it’s no wonder she becomes paralyzed. The ideas flee.

SO MANY TIMES I would stick at it for a while, perhaps hours, but my writing session would consist of scribbling a few sentences, thinking, “That’s so bad it’s embarrassing!” then I’d delete what I’d just written or—as we’ve seen in so many movies—crumple up the piece of paper I was writing on and throw it in the general direction of the waste paper bin.

But there is a solution: give yourself permission to write complete and utter drek. That’s what a zero draft is. Remember, this is only a draft, not the final product. The final draft will not be complete and utter drek and here’s why: You have several drafts to make your story better and, if you’re so inclined, you can ask readers you trust to read a draft of your story and give feedback. Finally, when your manuscript is as presentable as possible you send it off to the best editor you can afford and receive their feedback.

That was a rather long lead-in! Whew. In what follows I take a closer look at what a zero draft is and why it’s a good thing, then I talk about my own writing process and the tortured path I take from zero draft to first draft.

What a zero draft is and why it’s a good thing.

I first heard the phrase “zero draft” in 2012. I know because I blogged about it! That said, the way I think about a zero draft has changed over the years. These days I tend to think of a zero draft as a vomit draft. Sound gross? It’s supposed to!

The idea behind the zero draft is that it doesn’t count as writing. It’s a mind-dump, it’s scribbling. You’re never going to show the vomit draft to anyone and, when it has served it’s purpose, you can ceremoniously burn it!

The zero draft is amazingly useful because it will help you write your first draft. The first draft isn’t going to be perfect, but it probably won’t be completely cringeworthy.

I’ve been using zero drafts for a few years now and it has definitely boosted my actual output. The key, I think, is that after awhile (* knock on wood *) one begins to accept that what you write (or type) doesn’t have to be perfect. This isn’t your final draft, it’s just the beginning. But it gives you a beginning! If you don’t have words down on paper there’s nothing to polish.

Okay. So. That’s a zero draft. What follows is an idealized version of my own process. I want to stress that (think of me jumping up and down waving a neon sign with this on it:) this is just what I do. Each writer has a different process and, often, one’s process differs from story to story.

An idealized version of what I do—or try to do (* knock on wood *).

a. Write a zero draft.

This doesn’t even have to be prose. Sometimes it might be more of an outline, or various loosely connected ideas. Just get words down on paper.

b. Take a break.

When the zero draft is more-or-less complete (remember the 80/20 principle) I take a shortish break. I’ll get a coffee, go for a walk, do some gardening, whatever. It may sound odd, but I need to get out of the office and away from words.

c. Read your zero draft all the way through.

I try to set aside a chunk of time so I can re-read my zero draft—the whole thing, all the way through—in one sitting. While I’m reading I take notes about what needs to be changed, about what could be added, but try not to edit the document until I’ve finished reading it through. I find that I’m much more productive when I do things this way because a lot of material in the zero draft will be cut since I don’t yet know the overall structure of the story (goals will change, and so on). Which brings us to ...

d. Think about the overall structure of the story.

Ask yourself: Who is the protagonist? What does she want? What person or force opposes her? What genre is this? Does what the protagonist wants, her goal, her need, fit into the genre I want to write in? And so on. I’m not going to go over this in great and gory detail here since I’ve done that elsewhere:

e. Fill in plot holes, characterization, etc.

After I have the general shape of the story I’ll start to see where the plot holes are as well as which characters are too much like each other, where I'm missing a character, and so on. Part of the beauty of outlining is that I can make major changes to the story and not have to go through the excruciatingly painful process of throwing out thousands of words.

d. Write the first draft.

I’m going to stop there. If you would like to read more about how I see the writing/editing process from first draft to final draft see: 11 Steps To Edit Your Manuscript. Edit Ruthlessly & Kill Your Darlings.

I’ve drawn from my own experience in this article, but we’re all different. If your process works for you that’s the only thing that matters.

So please share! I’d love to know what your process is.

I’ll talk to you again on Monday. Have a great weekend and good writing!

If I could recommend only one book on writing it would be On Writing by Stephen King. Part autobiography, part creative writing advice, this book helped me improve my writing in concrete, measurable, ways. If you only read one book on writing in your life, let it be this book! The link to On Writing is an affiliate link—as are many of the links on my blog—but I only link to books and programs I deeply believe in. Clicking the link won't cost you any money but I will get a small percentage of anything you buy on for the next 24 hours. Thank you!

Wednesday, November 27

Writer's Block and Perfectionism

Ever stared at a black piece of paper while any semblance of an idea bled away? I think we all have. 

Writer's block is insidious, a very real villain that can sneak through your mental shields in all too many ways. It has many causes, but chief among them is the evil of perfectionism.


It's not necessarily that we lack ideas; sometimes, occasionally, this is the case but often it's not. Often we're simply hypercritical of ourselves: with emphasis on "OUR". 

We look at someone else's work, someone who has been published by a publisher we respect and admire, by a publisher we would love to be published by, and we are less critical. 

When I was in school our class was given two poems to read, one composed (this is what we were told) by a famous poet and the other composed by an undergrad. Invariably more people said they liked the published poet's work. Then we were told our teacher had switched the attributions. The poem we had been told had been written by a famous poet had actually been written by an undergrad, and vice versa.

The moral: don't be hard on yourself. Your perceptions of your own work are biased. Even if you're a successful writer, each new manuscript feels like a fresh step into the abyss and there are never any guarantees. 

Don't edit yourself.

Don't edit yourself. Not on your first draft. Not when you're still at the stage of finding--to use Stephen King's metaphor--the bones of your story. 

Yes, absolutely, put your prose--and your story, your plot--under the magnifying glass of editorial critique, your own and others, before you let your literary creations out into the world, before you set them free to run where the many critics of this world can, and will, find them.

Time and time again professional writers have said they doubted themselves for much of their first draft, doubted that anyone else would want to read their scribbles.

But they continued.

Perseverance. That's the key.

Perseverance and a certain mulish obstinacy. Stubbornness.

I said that to one of my non-writing friends the other day, I said that writers had to be stubborn, and his eyes bugged out. "Don't say that!" he said. "It's not a good thing to be stubborn." Well, it is for someone who is churning out, scribbling out, ripping out, their first draft. 

Writing, that act of creation, is painful and messy and often produces something ugly, though (one hopes) not irredeemably so. That's what second and third (etc, etc) drafts are for.

No Ideas

What's that you say? What if you, really, honestly, have no idea what to write about?

I find that if I ever feel at a loose end about what to write, if I sit down to write and I hear the empty hiss of static and my mind turns as white and bland and devoid of creative energy/impetus as a white dry erase board, then I like to play with idea generators (see: Seventh Sanctum's Idea Generators).

Always--well, so far at least--what I've written as a result of this sort of writerly exercise bears not the slightest relation to the prompt I began with but it has, inevitably, coaxed my own ideas to come out and play.

In that vein, here is an article +Elizabeth S. Craig shared: Simple Solutions to Ten Common Writing Roadblocks. In it Leslie Lee Sanders lists a multitude of ways to help generate ideas and kickstart your creativity.

Happy reading and writing!


Photo credit: "Baby Bear" by Laura D'Alessandro under Creative Commons Attribution.

Tuesday, May 21

Getting Over Writer's Block: Listen To Your Characters

Yesterday I wrote about world building because I was stuck on my WIP. I thought world building was my problem but it wasn't. I wasn't listening to my characters.

I'm writing a murder mystery and the problem was that I couldn't get my sleuth to talk.

I'd written practically all the murderer's scenes up to the midpoint and had a good outline for where I would go after that, but I was nervous because I'd only written one scene with the sleuth and that scene was mediocre.

I loved my murderer with all his flaws, I felt I knew him. He was the hero of his own story, but he'd made some bad decisions. The sleuth, on the other hand, hid behind a veil. I couldn't reach him, couldn't understand him.

It was a problem, especially since I have a schedule and a daily word count and I just can't afford this thing called 'being blocked'.

Well ...

I woke up this morning, started reading, and BAM! it hit me: I needed to write the sleuth's scenes through another character's eyes. I needed a Watson. A Hastings. When I figured that out I could write. It was like a damn burst.

So, here's my take away from this experience:

Listen to your characters

When I'm blocked on a story I'm blocked for a reason.

In this instance, I hadn't taken the time to be still and listen to the sleuth. After I started writing again the sleuth told me things about himself that surprised me. I had completely missed one of his most important characteristics: his anger over a great loss he suffered. Not sadness, anger.

Then it made sense.

I've talked about listening to your characters. There are many, many, writing exercises you could do to help with this, but here's the one I did:

I added a POV character, the sleuth's sidekick, and then chose a scene. I chose one that involved something the sidekick had to do, and started to write. At some point I started to see her, her red hair, her white freckled skin, her long fingers as she slid them along the polished mahogany of the spiral staircase.

And then she was in a room with him, with my sleuth, and they were arguing. She was saying all those things to him she'd kept bottled up ... and it turned out to be a great scene that was fun to write. And I was surprised by a couple of things the characters said, things that made perfect sense once I'd written them down, but I had no thought of them before the exercise.

Writing is kinda magical. And cool. Very cool.

If you've had writers block in the past, what have you done to get over it and get back writing?

Photo credit: "g wie grashalme" by fRedi under Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic.

Tuesday, December 18

The Cure For Perfectionism

The Cure For Perfectionism

A fellow blogger and writer, John Ward, published a post today about the problem of perfectionism. (See: The Trap of Perfection)

That got me thinking.

I know I've written in the past about my encounters, actually they were more like knock-down-drag-out fights, with writer's block and how the feeling that one's prose has to be perfect lies at the heart of it. (See: Perfection Is The Death Of Creativity)

Of course we all want our writing to be brilliant, but there's a special sort of inferiority, a certain acute sense of ennui, of hopelessness, that blossoms within me whenever I read a truly stunning piece of prose--two of my favorite writers are Neil Gaiman and Margaret Atwood--and I'm pretty darn sure my own scribbles aren't going to ever ascend to that level.

The Cure For Perfectionism

The cure, for me, is to realize I'm not alone.

It's not just your prose that is likely never going to ascend to the dizzying heights of the greats. The overwhelming majority of writers--and here I'm talking about professional writers, folks who have spent their careers publishing book after book and who sell well--aren't going to be wordsmiths of that caliber. (This is, of course, IMHO.)

So, you're in good company. Professional writers don't let the fact that they probably will never be nominated for a Nobel Prize in literature stop them from writing the best darn story they can. Remember, stories are about plot too, and creating narrative drive and all the rest of it.

While Dan Brown will likely never be nominated for a Nobel Prize in Literature, he told a darn fine story, one that many folks enjoyed reading and that sold well. For me, Dan Brown is an inspiration.

The next time you're feeling as though your writing will never be 'good enough', go down to your local bookstore and browse through the bestseller section. These are books that have sold hundreds of thousands of copies and I guarantee you that you're going to find at least one book where you have the reaction: I can write better than this.

Hold onto that!

In those times when you feel like giving up, look at books like these. Sometimes that's just the sort of perspective you need to leave your self-doubts, your self-consciousness, behind and write.

At least, one can hope! :-)

If you have a tip or trick for smothering the siren call of perfectionism please leave a comment. I'd love to hear from you.

Other articles you might like:

- The Value of Google+ As A Writer's Platform
- Getting Ready for 2013: A Writer's Guide
- The Structure Of Short Stories

Photo credit: "winter friends" by AlicePopkorn under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Monday, December 17

The Benefits of Handwriting

The Benefits of Handwriting

Handwriting And Writer's Block

A while ago I suffered from writer's block. Every time I sat at my computer, readied my fingers on my keyboard and looked at the white 'paper' on my monitor, my inspiration would dry up.

Then, thanks to a writing exercise a friend put together, I discovered I could write if I used pen and paper rather than a keyboard.

Handwriting saved me.

NaNoWriMo helped get me back to using a keyboard--it wasn't fun writing 2,000 words longhand then typing them out. But I still find it easier to compose my thoughts when I write longhand.

More than that, I find it easier to enter into my imagination while I write. For me, writing longhand is much more like transcribing thoughts. When I use a keyboard it feels as though there is an extra layer between the ideas themselves and their expression.

The Benefit Of Slow Writing

Perhaps my preference for handwriting has to do with time. I write longhand slower than I type. Perhaps that gives my muse the time she needs to sort my ideas. I have time to mull, to consider, to think. (Typing vs. Longhand: Does it Affect Your Writing?)

I mentioned to a friend of mine--not a writer--that I wrote most of my short stories and blog posts by hand and then typed them.

He looked at me as though I'd confessed to the wholesale slaughter of small furry things. "But why?" he asked. "It takes so much more time. It's so much more work?"

And it is.

I tried to explain my difficulties using a word processor, I tried to explain that the words rebelled, that they refused to come.

But perhaps this isn't a bad thing. Perhaps handwriting is better.

The Cognitive Benefits of Handwriting

When I researched this blog post I discovered some claim writing longhand can do everything from staving off debilitating diseases to increasing the intellect. (See: How Handwriting Trains the Brain.) Make of that what you will.

In any case, it's reassuring to know I'm not alone. Anne M. Leone writers:
I'm good with technology, I get technology, I use technology. I use it in my writing, too .... I type each chapter into my computer on the same day or the day after I finish it, along with all of my scribbled notes and thoughts in the margins. It gives me the opportunity to do a brief revision and rethink of what I wrote, as well as providing a readable, search-able record of my work.

But once I return to the writing, I have to switch back to my notebook. Simple rewriting and editing I can do on the computer, but anything more complex, I need to write by hand, even if it's just to write down a new phrase, insert a paragraph, or restructure a scene.  (Writing by hand, Anne M Leone)

Programs That Will Help You Transcribe Your Work

Dragon Naturally Speaking

All you need is a headset or digital recorder and Dragon Naturally Speaking. You can feed the sound file from your recorder to Dragon and the program will transcribe it. You need to train Dragon first but, after a while, this can save you a lot of time.

Tablet Apps

Use a tablet to write then use software to transform your chicken scratch into text.

- Handwriting Apps For iPad
- A Review of Handwriting Apps on the iPad

I looked for Apps for other tablets but didn't find any. If you know of one, please let me know! :-)

Other articles you might like:

- Getting Ready for 2013: A Writer's Guide
- Roleplaying Games And Writing, Does The One Help The Other?
- How To Design A Great Looking Book Cover

Photo link: "Handwriting - free texture" by Crafty Dogma under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Monday, November 19

Vanquishing Writer's Block

Vanquishing Writer's Block

Anyone who has gone through NaNoWriMo knows, at least a little bit, what its like to be a professional writer.

You can't get writer's block.

Well, you can, but that would mean not reaching your writing goal and that would be bad.

Very bad.

So, what's the solution?

Become a muse whisperer. That's right, muse whisperer. How does that work? I'm glad you asked.

1) Just Write

Here are some writing exercises that have helped me get back in touch with my muse in the past:

a) Timer method

Set a timer for 5 minutes (or however many you'd like). Write until the timer goes off, even if it's your name or "all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy". It's up to you, but try and stay away from knives if it's the latter.

b) Page method

Write until you have filled 2 pages. Again, since the idea is to defeat writer's block, write anything. Don't edit yourself, don't filter. Just write.

c) Variations on (a) and (b)

Thank your computer, tell it that it's wonderful, then turn it off and pick up a notebook--one made out of paper--rummage around for a pen or pencil, then sit down and do (a) or (b).

I had a horrible case of writer's block after my father passed away and it was putting pen to pater that got me through it. After one 10 minute session of just writing, the dam inside me broke and I had the glorious experience of having WORDS tumble out of me.

2) Just Talk

Instead of trying to write a story, talk it.

I have a Sony digital recorder that I love, but sometimes I feel like I should be talking faster, or getting to the point quicker, so Dragon Naturally Speaking is easier for me to use, although one benefit of using a digital recorder is being able to get up from my desk and walk around.

You can feed the sound file from your recorder to Dragon and the program will transcribe your mutterings for you. I should add that this works best after you've trained Dragon up a bit, otherwise it might give you back word spaghetti.

3) Just Imagine

I do a variation of this sometimes when I want to generate ideas. If it seems silly to you, that's cool, just skip this point. :)

Go somewhere that doesn't have a recording devise of any kind. You don't want to be tempted to record these ideas while they're occurring to you because that can interfere with the process. At least, that's what I've found, but your mileage may vary.

Make sure you won't be disturbed for, say, 15 minutes. Oh, and if your imaginings take off go with that and don't worry about finishing the exercise.
Imagine a place. It could be outdoors, or indoors, underwater or even in the cold expanse of outer space.

What does your place look like?

Are you warm? Cold? Hungry? Frightened? Curious?

Is anyone with you?

You notice something about your place. There is one part of it that seems different from every other. Investigate. How is this part different?

As you investigate you realize what you are looking at is a portal. If you step through (you may have to open it first) you will be taken somewhere dangerous.

There is a sound behind you. Your heart jumps as you whirl around.

A living being stands before you. Their appearance is terrifying and they hold an object, it is something dear to you. It is the thing you value most in life.

What is the being holding? Take a moment to examine it.

The being moves quickly toward the portal and plunges through, taking with them the thing you hold most dear.

You follow them.

What is it like to go through the portal? What sort of feelings did you experience before entering?

Describe your first glimpse of the world at the other end of the portal. Is the being there? Do you see the thing you hold most dear?

I'm not saying any of these methods will work for you, but they are something to try. The more one tries the greater the chance of success. At least that's how I look at it. :)

4) Make Writing Habitual: Schedule It

I was going to title this point, "Your muse and you: developing a sustainable relationship" but I figured "make writing habitual" was more descriptive. But, really, what I'm talking about IS building a relationship with your muse.

We, our bodies, are used to patterns. When we get used to a pattern (for example, coffee in the morning, lunch with co-workers), when something becomes habitual, we miss it when it doesn't occur.

It becomes natural. In fact not doing it just doesn't feel right. It seems as though something is missing.

Here are a few ways to help develop the habit of writing:

a) Write in the same place each time

I'm not saying this will work for everyone, or that it's a bad thing to have several places to write in. Actually, several places could work, but I think it's important that they be, more or less, the same places.

You could have an office at home, or a corner, or a corner of the kitchen table, or you could write at a coffee shop, at the mall, on the bus, and so on. The where doesn't matter, as long as it the same place (or places).

b) Write at the same time of day

For instance, Stephen King writes in the mornings. Other folks, Amanda Hocking for instance, write at night (though few people are nocturnal). (See: Amanda Hocking's Unusual Writing Schedule)

Again, it doesn't matter what time you choose--you could even split your writing time between morning, evening and night--what matters is that it's the same time, or times, because that's how you develop a pattern. Your mind and body need to learn to anticipate that at certain times you'll be writing.

c) Write every day

I snuck this one in at the bottom because it's not strictly true. You don't have to write every day to develop a pattern that becomes a habit. But it helps.

If you only write once a month it'll take years for that to become habitual. On the other hand, if you write every day, it'll take maybe a month or two, depending on the person.


I hope you've found something helpful. If you are experiencing writer's block you have my sincere condolences. If nothing I've talked about in this post works for you try talking with someone who has had writers block in the past. Sometimes just talking about it helps. If you don't know anyone who has had writer's block, please feel free to contact me. :)

I would like to add that if you've found something, a way of writing, that works for you and flies in the face of everything I've said about developing a habit, great! If you've found something that works for you, then go with it. (See: Henry Miller's 11 Writing Commandments)

Do you have a writing routine/schedule? If so, please do let us know what it is in the comments. :-)

Other articles you might like:
- Writers: How To Use Permanently Free Books To Increase Sales
- The Nature of Creativity: Science And Writing: Don't Edit Yourself
- Pixar Luminary Andrew Stanton's TED Talk: Make Your Reader Care

Photo credit: "The brick wall (free wallpaper)" by under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Sunday, October 7

Perfection Is The Death Of Creativity

Perfection Is The Death Of Creativity

I can no longer use a word processor to write.

I sit and stare at my computer screen groping for a thought, any thought, to make an appearance but as soon as one does it turns tail and flees as though every movie monster ever conceived wants it as a nice light snack. I can only write if I draft the piece in my blog editor and copy the newly expressed thoughts into my word processing program.

At least, that's what happens when I try to write blog posts using a word processor. At first I thought blog posts, being non-fiction, might require a different process than my fiction. (It's possible, right?) But this problem doesn't only occur when I write non-fiction, it rears it's shaggy, misshapen, slightly mocking, mustard stained head when it comes to my fiction as well.

A few months ago I noticed I couldn't write the first draft of a story sitting at my desk, typing words into my word processor, but I can do it if I scribble them into my journal. Only then, once the words are safely on the page, can I type them into my computer and begin editing.

Odd, right?

I didn't understand why until now. (At least, I think I know.) When I write a blog I take a piece of writing, even a lengthy one, from nothing to completed in around 2 or 3 hours. As a result I have to accept that the piece I'm creating won't be perfect. The result? My thoughts tumble over one another in their eagerness to escape.

Similarly, my journal is, and has always been, a place of no rules where I can write whatever I feel like with no fear of criticism. What I write in my journal is for me, and me alone.

The common thread seems to be that if I'm freed from the idea my writing needs to be perfect that I can write. I feel free to let thoughts flow, unchecked, uncensored, until I come by on the second (third, fourth ...) drafts and make them tuck in their shirttails and shine their shoes.

Well, that's my thought for this Sunday, that creativity may be the price paid by the desire for perfection.

I guess what I've been talking about--my inability to use a word processor for my first draft--is a kind of writers block. Do you have writer's block? Have you ever? Did you, like me, find a workaround?

Edit (Oct 7, 12): I changed the first line from "I can no longer use a computer to write" to the infinitely more accurate "I can no longer use a word processor to write". :-)

Other articles you might like:
- NaNoWriMo: 5 Tips On How To Get Ready
- 7 Tips On How To Get Your Guest Post Accepted
- 12 Writing Tips: How To Be A Writer

Photo credit: Dawn Ashley

Sunday, September 25

Seth Godin: How to overcome writer's block

We've all heard of writer's block, so why not talker's block? Questions like these are why I love Seth Godin's blog.
No one ever gets talker's block. No one wakes up in the morning, discovers he has nothing to say and sits quietly, for days or weeks, until the muse hits, until the moment is right, until all the craziness in his life has died down.

Why then, is writer's block endemic?

The reason we don't get talker's block is that we're in the habit of talking without a lot of concern for whether or not our inane blather will come back to haunt us. Talk is cheap. Talk is ephemeral. Talk can be easily denied.

We talk poorly and then, eventually (or sometimes), we talk smart. We get better at talking precisely because we talk. We see what works and what doesn't, and if we're insightful, do more of what works. How can one get talker's block after all this practice?

Writer's block isn't hard to cure.

Just write poorly. Continue to write poorly, in public, until you can write better.

I believe that everyone should write in public. Get a blog. Or use Squidoo or Tumblr or a microblogging site. Use an alias if you like. Turn off comments, certainly--you don't need more criticism, you need more writing.

Do it every day. Every single day. Not a diary, not fiction, but analysis. Clear, crisp, honest writing about what you see in the world. Or want to see. Or teach (in writing). Tell us how to do something.

If you know you have to write something every single day, even a paragraph, you will improve your writing. If you're concerned with quality, of course, then not writing is not a problem, because zero is perfect and without defects. Shipping nothing is safe.
I didn't feel right copying and pasting Seth's entire blog post, but I wanted to because it was so good! I encourage you all to go to Seth's site and finish reading this most excellent article: Talker's Block.