writer’s block


by Sarah Crysl Akhtar

Tip #1: Recognize it’s a mythological beast. 

 You might be having trouble writing what you want to write, but you’ve got plenty of words in there. Don’t doubt that!

Tip #2: Don’t scorn those random thoughts! 

My manuscript format template–how I love it. An idea pops into my head–sometimes just a title without a story–I save it into my template, sometimes just name it “New Story/Date,” and don’t worry about it. I haven’t lost that brilliant sentence that just doesn’t happen to be attached to anything at the moment; and when something else isn’t working out, I can browse all those many, many beginnings and see if any of ‘em want to grow.

Tip #3: Don’t try to squeeze out the baby before its time.

I’ve found that my best stories seem to write themselves, and they get mighty cranky if I try to force them.

Tip #4: Throw something on the page.

Banal dialogue, laborious description–anything. A blank page is just–blank–but put a few words on it, and you have something to tinker with.

Tip #5: Don’t treat your creative writing like a production line. 

I’ve read plenty of advice on dealing with that phantom, writer’s block–have a routine, write for a minimum of fifteen minutes every day, etc. etc.–and that may work for some people, but to me, that’s turning joy into misery; art into factory work. I promise you, you haven’t written your last good thing ever; the well isn’t dry. Referring back to Tip #1, you’ve probably got too much in your head rather than too little, and there’s a crush at the door, and they’re all saying, “After you, my dear Alphonse.” Get up, go do something else–preferably not on the computer, if that’s where you write–and, like Scarlett O’Hara, remember that tomorrow’s another day.

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Sarah Crysl Akhtar‘s shtetl forebears gifted her with the genes that impel her to make much from little. So of course she writes flash fiction, cultivates orchards on her windowsill and bakes fabulous shortbread. Her son gives her what’s immeasurable–the best of all possible worlds. Less miraculous fruit of her labors has appeared on Every Day Fiction, Flash Fiction Online and Perihelion SF Magazine.

DJ Barberby DJ Barber

Sometimes looking for an idea to write about leaves me frustrated, although there are many places online to find a “word of the day”, a “string” and so forth. I have an exercise for any aspiring or seasoned writer to try when nothing is coming to mind. Many motion pictures are made with a series of scenes. So this exercise uses scenes as a format to get your creative juices flowing.

I call it: Series of 6.

Let’s begin with elements.

Write a 300-400 word scene with water as its basis. It can be the sea, a lake, a stream or river; or even rain. Now do the same with fire, earth and air. Each time create a scene. This need not be a complete story with beginning, middle and end. Just set the scene, create a picture.

Or I might use seasons.

Again, write a 300-400 word scene with the seasons as its basis. This can be about temperatures, seasonal weather, amounts of light and dark, cloud formations.

Next try the directions of the compass.

This can be about cultures, traveling, or climates.

And then there is character.
Try four types; Strong, weak, follower, deceiver, etc–and appearences; Tall, Squat, Bony, (I always liked–loose-jointed) Clothing: dirty, neat, top hat and tails, leathers. Each type requires a bit of practice–and many stories need different types of characters. Often this piece is the key to a good, even great story. Again just a short 300-400 word scene to practice your art.

 

And lastly, the senses.
Include sound, sight, touch, taste, and smell in every piece you write–in longer pieces try to get all five senses in every few pages–if not every page. For flash, it might wholly encompass just one sense. But try the exercise once more. Use each sense and write a 300-400 word scene. Use the smell in a coffee shop, the sounds of a storm, a beautiful sunset. So many options to try.

With each, I write just a short scene, no more than 300-400 words.

Again, this exercise is to help spark a larger idea and help to create a story, be it flash, short, or novel.

 

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DJ Barber lives in the Willamette Valley of Oregon. He writes by a window and watches the wildlife pass by as he waits for the muse to send ideas his way.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I often hear of “writer’s block,” that nemesis of creativity. It’s as if the Muse stole your joy by sleeping on the job.

 Instead of writing ‘sweet nothings,’ whisper to her, “Get up! I want to write!” Of course, ladies don’t like to be yelled at, so that might not work very well. At the same time, she needs to be on your schedule. (If we always wait for the Muse, it might be a very long time between epiphanies. And that would hardly be amusing.) I suppose then a gentle caress to stimulate her out of sleep might do the trick. Seduce her gently.

 Okay. How do writers do that? There are two things that have worked for me (after I realized she can never be forced).

 First, in the in between periods, do something, anything that is creative. The important thing here is to recharge our right-brains—our creative centers. It doesn’t matter what it is. It can be related to our writing, but it doesn’t have to be. 

 Begin with the arts—movies, museums, music—for entertainment and relaxation. But don’t limit yourself to these. Explore nature! Take a walk in the park, hike a trail, or sit down and observe your backyard flora and fauna. Even if these aren’t practical, drive in the country or to the mountains or seashore. Go someplace that is quiet where only thing you hear is the symphony of nature. Embellish the experience: smell her hair, the scent in the wind, the moist earth, the salt sea; taste her, the honeysuckle and wintergreen berries, the mountain stream; touch her, the velvet moss, the paper skin of fallen pin oak leaves, the wet silk of her lake.  Just look and be awed. In an interview last year, I went into more detail (Liquid Imagination, August 2009). http://www.liquid-imagination.com/Interviews/Mannone.html.

 It is always a good idea to have a small notebook. Record impressions and triggered memories, etc., but don’t worry about it if you don’t. Avoid being legalistic about it because it will be self-defeating to the creative process. Defeat any negative feeling for failure to write something. Relax. Don’t obsess over having to jot something. If you do, you do; if you don’t, no problem. Remember, your sub-conscience is recording things, too. You will be surprised what will wheedle them out later and what it is that is coaxed out.

 Second, the prompting of the mind will awaken the Muse. What a prompt does is trigger the retrieval of memories, even the volatile ones in short-term memory. Sometimes the prompt lets you cherry pick a gem from the past from which a story or vignette will emerge. At other times, the prompt acts like how a laser works—a prompt cause a simultaneous cascade of memories stored up there concerning a specific recollection(s).

 The prompt is not what you might think it is. It’s not “write about this or that” (where the “this” and “that” are very general things). How often have you heard, “write a story/poem about your childhood” or “write something about the Fall”? These might work for some who are already primed to write, but often don’t do much to “unblock” the writer’s mind. Rather, the prompt I am talking about is much more specific to guide the mind. In other words, the prompt should prod the Muse, not dictate to her. These specific things could be a group of words, images, and even sounds, textures, smells, and emotions, if additional context is provided. Soaking in all of this, the mind will have a fresh source of metaphors in the making.

 For example, let’s look at something you are likely familiar with—a list of words to include in a composition. A single word may not do much for you, but a group of them might. There is a behind-the-scenes process the mind attempts—it tries to connect the words. Once a link is made, focus on that—thinking and writing develops and the genesis of the poem or story begins.

 Consider, for example, an actual list of ten words (including categories) that I was challenged with in March of this year: lapse, exacerbate, clatter, muscle, glow, squander, foible, a geographic formation, an animal, the name of a punctuation mark.

 Don’t obsess with having to use all the words/categories. It is legitimate to use any part of speech (glow/glowing), number (muscle/muscles), or conjugation (clatter/clattered/clattering), as well as homonyms (muscle/mussel, lapse/laps). Now you try the exercise, then read on.

Look at my poem, “Empty Shell,” appearing in The Legendary (July 2010). I didn’t use all the words, but others were used in ways that were new to me: http://www.downdirtyword.com/authors/johncmannone.html. Exactly how did this poem evolve? When I read through the list, nothing jumped out at me. But on the second pass when I read the word “muscle,” I thought of “mussel” because the category, “geographic formation,” had triggered the image of sea in my mind (because I love the sea and the mountains, they were pinged first). Immediately, I realized that the word “mussel” performs double-duty, since it is a kind of “animal,” the remaining category. So the focus was set—a mussel in the sea—and my mind combed my memory for experiences with mussels. I remembered mussel shells on the seashore, the clink they made when dropped on pebbled sand. I remembered its striking mother-of-pearl patina on the inside of the shell, this pearly sheen, of course made me think other shells, and particularly, the oyster, especially the pretty ones in the Pacific that make pearls. And some mussels make pearls, too, though not generally pretty ones. I wondered, how a pearl is made? And why? Philosophical ideas prodded more thinking and the context for the poem emerged. I let the epigraph by John Donne (a great 16th century metaphysical poet) make the important leap from what might have started as a simple poetic description of nature to a full-fledged poem with layers of meaning and depth. The literary metaphor in that epigraph enabled the novel use of the pearl as a “punctuation mark,” the final category in the list.

There are many more effective prompts, and I introduce them in a course I teach, the Anatomy of Poetry at To Write Well. But if you visit my brand new blog, The Art of Poetry, you will get the protracted version of this essay (under the Writing Prompts tab) and learn more on how to seduce your Muse— make love with creative writing, whether it is poetry or flash fiction, it doesn’t matter.

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John C. Mannone is a widely published award-winning poet nominated for the 2009 Pushcart Prize in Poetry and the 2010 Rhysling Poetry Award. His poetry and short fiction appear in numerous literary and speculative fiction journals. He has been appointed the poetry editor of Silver Blade: The Quarterly Journal of Fantasy Fiction and he is on the creative writing faculty of To Write Well. John is also a nuclear consultant and physics professor in east Tennessee.

jennifer chIt has happened to many of us at one time or another: The words are flowing, the story is unfolding on the page and then … the words just stop.
 
You stare at the screen (or notebook, if you work in longhand) and realize that you don’t know how to write the next sentence. Or the one after that. So you take a break, get a glass of water, run some errands, maybe even sleep on it.
 
Then you come back to the story.
 
Still, nothing.
 
You’re blocked.
 
At this point, you can:
 
(a) Work on something else and hope that, in the interim, the block will resolve itself.
(b) Try to force your way through the block.
 (c) Read back through the story until you reach the last point where you were excited about what would happen next, and delete everything that came after.

 

Different writers have different solutions. I know plenty of people who manage to fight through blocks quite successfully. I’m not one of those people.

I generally choose option C.

I believe that writer’s block is my subconscious mind’s way of telling me that my story has derailed, that what I am writing now is not as good as what came before, that I am no longer telling the story I should be telling. Sometimes, the block occurs only a few sentences after the point where the story derailed. Sometimes, five or 10 pages or more go by before I realize something isn’t right. However big the off-track section is, I get rid of it all. Why? Because the only other viable choice – fighting through the block – keeps me going in the same wrong direction that caused the block in the first place.

So next time you hit a block you can’t write your way out of, you might try this:

Cut-and-paste the offending material into a separate document. Don’t delete it outright because something in there might be worth salvaging later. Spend as much time as you need to figure out what went wrong and what is the right direction for your story. Then put your butt back in your chair and write.

Chances are, the words will start flowing again.

 

Jennifer Campbell Hick’s work recently appeared in Science Fiction Trails. She lives in Arvada, Colorado where she tries to find time to write between two full-time jobs as a journalist and a mother of three.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

rumjhumIn his post “Make in Fun” (on Wednesday 11th November ’09) Alexander Burns wrote “To that end, I’ve determined that a writer has learned most of what they need to know about storytelling by the age of 10 or so. After that, all that’s left is to learn how to make it good.” I totally agree. What’s more it reminded me of something that I do from time to time – Eavesdrop! On my kids, and especially my daughter who will turn twelve this month!

I know it is a sneaky habit. I’m a bad mom. Sorry! But I can’t help it. The stuff they talk about, the books they read, the things they do, and more importantly write and so often the stories they tell themselves or to each other is so interesting. So inspiring too. For my writing I mean.

You see, kids have these absolutely wide open windows in their minds. Information, ideas, imaginary things keep flying in and out all the time. They have this absolutely fresh way of looking at everyday, mundane things. They keep “discovering” the world around them. If you sneak around the kids, your imagination is sure to get fired up.

I loved it when my daughter and son too, were younger and talked to themselves when they either drew pictures or played with their toys. The stories they told themselves were entertaining, though not always, actually almost never, logical. Probably that’s why they were so entertaining in the first place. I did not plagiarize their stories (it seriously didn’t occur to me at that time, and now I wonder if I did miss an opportunity, since my kids wouldn’t sue me for that, would they? :D). I wish I had recorded some of that prattle, though. Sigh. Nevertheless, eavesdropping on their imaginary voyages and adventures did inspire me and often liberated me from my adult constraints of fact and form.

Anything is possible in a child’s inner world. Nothing is improbable!

Not even lemon yellow polka dotted purple ice cream
Served in a jelly belly bowl with a slice of moon beam!

Some of the stuff they think of and say actually provide fodder for us adult writers. Like the time I found my daughter, then around nine years old, looking thoughtfully at the artificially created turquoise waters of a swimming pool. After sometime she muttered, “Rapture of the deep is what happens to sailors when they are drowning; they don’t want to come up.” I stood still. She had connected something ordinary with something extra-ordinary and seemingly unrelated to the present. She skipped away to do something else and I found myself seeing a vast stretch of turquoise water all around me and feeling an immense sense of ecstasy wash over me. My daughter had just opened up a new dimension, another portal before me. The first draft of my poem “Rapture of the Deep” was born then and there; the poem was later published in A Little Poetry. Another time, on a rainy evening, I heard her advise a frog that was staring at her from its perch on a low railing, almost eye level with her, that “he was better off as a frog!” She was around six then and far more fond of birds and animals than Barbie dolls and princesses. My Story “Return of the Frog Prince” almost hopped off my head and was published a couple of years later in the Lily Literary Review!

It’s not always that a poem or a story takes shape every time I eavesdrop on my kids, or any kids for that matter. But their artless words and wide open hearts are not merely joyous to behold, like a rainbow seen in the crystal light after a shower, with the scent of renewed life all around you, they have a potent magic in them. I think the magic is really the cleansing quality that they have, something that makes you shed, at least want to shed, your inhibitions and adult complexes. The effect is wonderfully refreshing. And I think that is good for writers.

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Rumjhum Biswas has been writing poetry almost since she learned to read and write. It was her way of getting back at the world. Now a plump, bespectacled and hopefully respectable mom of two and wife of one she continues to write poetry and also fiction, because while poets remain poor some fiction writers do get rich and that gives her hope. Her publications and mutterings are here: http://rumjhumkbiswas.wordpress.com/ She also jabbers from time to time at Flash Fiction Chronicles.

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