Tuesday, June 12, 2018

My Cure for Writer’s Block and Procrastination

Everybody has a cure, right? A way to pull yourself out of the doldrums and get back to being a writer who writes. We try them all from setting timers and typing gibberish to practicing with writing prompts until an idea kicks in. Maybe we try three morning pages every day, pretending we’re journaling when we’re really writing a story.

Or maybe we just set aside an hour a day to sit down at the computer, place our fingers on the keyboard, and then stare at the monitor.

Last year I needed something more drastic. A new approach to motivating myself. I pondered. I thought. And then I made a decision. I warned my critique group that I would be submitting work that would not follow any rules of writing. All they needed to look at was transitions from one scene to another or from one character to another.

They were instructed not to pick on things like head hopping or point of view changes midstream unless they got lost and didn’t know which character I was talking about. Long passages of narrative and backstory were okay. Author intrusion was perfectly acceptable.

I expected the group to get frustrated and invite me to kill that project and get serious. Instead, they went along with my crazy idea and offered great suggestions along the way. I guess sometimes it pays to throw caution to the winds (I have cliché’s in my piece as well) and just write without all that fretting about rules.

At the beginning I called my “seat of the pants” project Bobby Stryger Will Die Today, but later changed it to One Day at the Cat’s Claw Pub. In the rule-free exercise, I have about 13,000 words and a new idea for making it into a real novel.

I stopped working on it when I got an idea for a second Sangamon Village novel and used NaNoWriMo to get that real manuscript going. I’m  writing again, following the important rules, and am doing fine.

So if you’re stuck in the middle of your work in process, can’t decide what you want to write next, or are merely sidetracked by so much busyness that you can only spare fifteen minutes a day to write, try this.

Make up a crazy title.

Start typing about a random character and what happens next and who else is there and DON’T WORRY ABOUT THE RULES.

I wrote stuff like this:

Author intrusion and foreshadowing

You’d think a man would be happy getting out after ten years, wouldn’t you? Especially when he was sentenced to three forty-year terms to be served consecutively. That’s because you don’t know the rest of the story, at least not yet.

He is using a fork for this task and has not yet noticed the big butcher knife he’d used to cut up the raw chicken earlier in the day is missing.

Head hopping from one character’s point of view to another

Curtis makes eye contact with the bartender, checks her out from head to toe--her red hair and big green eyes—then shakes his head at the mental comparison to his wife’s less spectacular looks. He pauses for just a second to watch his wife march away, then slides off the stool to follow.

Still grinning, Bonnie turns her back on the couple and rearranges a couple of the beer bottles on the back wall. She watches in the mirror though, waiting to see if Curtis looks back at her. He does not.

I could go on and on, but you get the idea. It’s not wasted time if you weren’t writing anyway. For me, it pulled me back into the writing habit and triggered new ideas. So if you’re stuck, what have got to lose. Break rules, have fun, and write.

For more reading about writer's block and procrastination, try these Blood-Red Pencil posts:
No One Loves Writer's Block
How Do I Procrastinate?


Pat (Patricia) Stoltey is the author of four novels published by Five Star/Cengage: two amateur sleuth, one thriller that was a finalist for a Colorado Book Award in 2015, and the historical mystery Wishing Caswell Dead (December 20, 2017), a finalist for the 2018 Colorado Book Awards.

Pat lives in Northern Colorado with her husband Bill, Scottish Terrier Sassy (aka Doggity), and brown tabby Katie (aka Kitty Cat).

You can learn more about Pat at her website/blog, on Facebook, and Twitter. She was recently interviewed for a Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers podcast that you can find at the RMFW website.

16 comments :

  1. What an interesting idea, Pat! The editor in me rebels at the idea of not following the rules, but practicality reasons that rules can be applied later. Giving imagination free rein allows creative juices to flow unhindered, an almost sure key to unlock writer's block. Great post!

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    1. Free range imagination comes from giving imagination free rein. The project gave me a lot of ideas for creative structure and letting characters behave badly. It was enough fun that I may go back and add more to the story.

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  2. Thanks for affirming that my approach to writing is not so far off the mark, Pat. I am a real pantster and have taken Anne Lamott's advice to heart "You can write a shitty first draft."

    This approach you took is not so far removed from journaling to get the creative well primed, only you end up with more of the story to start working seriously on. I do hope you finish yours.

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    1. I'm a pantser too, Maryann, so this project was like pantser on steroids. As for finishing that story, one member of my critique group said it's his favorite of everything I've written. Food for thought.

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  3. Great post, Pat. My problem is not writer's block, it's deciding whether I want to continue to write at all and apathy about spending so much of my life writing with little to show for it. It's a decision I'll have to make. Maybe I'll get a burst of energy. Glad you weathered your slump. I know we all have them.

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    1. Thanks, Polly. I spent some time dealing with that same question this spring...I decided to finish my wip and then see how I feel. I'm kind of tempted to take drawing and painting lessons instead. :D

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    2. Both you, Pat, and Polly have so much writing talent. I would really hate to see either of you stop altogether. I just recently read Wishing Caswell Dead. Oh, my goodness, what an incredible story! The ending was one of my all-time favorites. On a side note: I've known writers who took a "painting" break (from word pictures to paint on canvas). One in particular whose books I've edited did return to writing after a 2-3 year break. Whatever you choose, just be sure it makes you happy.

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    3. Linda, thanks so much for your comments on Wishing Caswell Dead. The book I'm working on now is set in that same little Illinois town with some of the characters repeated and the main characters brand new. Getting hooked on a fictitious town is a good way to pull myself into the next project...and the next. A painting break would be fun...but as my cousin asked, "Why can't you do both?" :D

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    4. Gee, where do I go from here? My first career was as an artist.

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    5. Do both, Polly. Embrace the path your creative heart chooses at the moment. I wish I could paint as well as write. My grandmother, a number of grandchildren, and some cousins are artists. I am considering photography. Have you ever tried your hand at that? :-)

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  4. The first draft should just be getting the bones down. I don't waste time on anything else, don't edit or revise. Why massage things you are going to cut anyway? But this is a great tip for getting unstuck.

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    1. I agree! I know folks who have never finished a book because they spend so much time editing the first chapter...

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  5. This is great, very interesting approach. I call myself the Queen of the Procrastinators, and I'm a died-in-the-wool pantser. Not sure I like the way I write, but it seems to work for me--eventually! Thank you for sharing this!

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    1. Hi Heidi! We'd have to have a runoff for that Queen title. I had set aside two hours to write today...so I cooked potatoes and eggs for potato salad, made a phone call, sat outside with a glass of iced tea, and took a nap. And now I'm on the internet. That's the way I roll!

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  6. That is such great advice. At a recent conference, one of the presenters said go ahead and put all the cliches, adverbs and head hopping in that first draft.

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    1. Hi Susan -- Also add a little author intrusion, long run-on sentences, and a few named but unimportant characters who have no purpose in the story. I never had so much fun writing as I did with One Day at the Cat's Claw Pub.

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The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.