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Robert's Rules of Writing #51: Take a Walk Around the Block

[Rule quoted from Robert's Rules of Writing: 101 Unconventional Lessons Every Writer Needs to Know by Robert Masello (Writer's Digest Books, 2005). See my original post for the rules of this discussion.]

There's something ironic about the fact that I'm tackling Masello's rule #51 just after my college reunion. gnomi and I spent the weekend taking many walks around the block, going from one reunion event to another.

But the block Masello refers to here is something else: the dreaded Writer's Block, and how one copes with it.

Writer's Block is a concept that can inspire pages and pages on what it is and how to deal with it -- again, another small irony. I'm not going to directly address Masello's comments here -- again, I encourage people to go read his book -- but instead I'll share my own personal experiences with Writer's Block.

Which is to say that I don't think I've ever suffered from it.

Which is not to say that I haven't had my share of dry spells, or frustrations with fiction. But I've never had the experience that I've heard others discuss, where they sit in front of the keyboard and literally cannot type a single word.

So how does one deal with Writer's Block or a dry spell or anything of this sort?

Well, from my own experience, I have three thoughts. My first piece of advice would be to use an outline. My difficulties in writing have sometimes come from not knowing where I was going with a story. If you have an outline, then you know what you plan to write and you won't be sitting at your computer wondering where your story is going to lead to next.

Secondly, understand that your first draft is simply that: a first draft. I've been noticing other writers discuss this concept recently, so maybe it's something in the air. But when many of us write, we have an inner editor who tells us that the words we're putting down on paper simply aren't good enough, and so we freeze up. As a consequence, the writing doesn't get done. But if we can ignore that inner critic, and concentrate on the task at hand, we can get something done. (As a stage director once said to a choreographer who couldn't figure out what to have the dancers do, "Have them do something! Anything! Then we'll have something we can change.")

And third, sometimes you really do need to take a break. Sometimes stepping away from a piece and doing something mindless -- such as, say, taking a walk (ha ha) -- can shake loose whatever is holding you back.

Has anyone else out there had writer's block of a sort? How do you deal with it?

Copyright © Michael Burstein

Comments

Neil Gaiman recently did a podcast where he discussed this. Generally, it's not that a writer can't write, it's just that they don't want to write about what's coming next, and they get "stuck on something." The solution, he says, is to go write about something else until you've got your nerve back.
Isaac Asimov used to say he never got writer's block because he had so many different projects going at once. When he got stuck on one, he'd work on another.
I have fairly substantial writer's block at the moment, but it's entirely due to extremely high levels of life stress and not the usual reasons. Unfortunately, that's not something I can do anything about
)-:

However, in general, when I do find myself stuck I usually take a nice long walk with the dogs. Since I tend to do my writing at night there is no traffic and I can meander down the road and out into the fields and stargaze and listen to crickets. When I get back home, I'm usually refreshed enough to jump back into things. When the weather doesn't permit long walks, I usually put the kettle on for tea and wash a few dishes while I'm waiting for it to boil, and that's often enough to get my thoughts focused again. I also have a 55 gallon fishtank on the wall across from my desk filled with angelfish and severums, and for mini-breaks where I just need to get my eyes off the damned monitor, watching the fish swim around works well (especially the big fish, because they move more steadily than little ones.)

When taking a break *doesn't* unwedge whatever I'm working on, it's more likely to be because I've got some insurmountable failure in worldbuilding that my brain just can't write around. If I sit down and figure out what it is that I'm missing (and sometimes this can take a day or two, or involve making drawings, diagrams, or 3D models of stuff), then I can move on.
Some good advice here.
I have occasional attention-span writer's block, usually where if I don't finish a story's first draft before my inner critic convinces me that it's not worth finishing, it's very tough not to move on to the next project. Outlining has helped a great deal and I do tend to finish what I start these days. But I still fear the fourth or fifth day of an unfinished first draft more than I fear the blank page.
I know what you mean. Part of my problem with writing novels has been the feeling that if I can't get it done quickly, it might end up being a major waste of time in the end. And so it's hard to finish one.
I can count on one hand all the times I've had writer's block. A couple of times I stared at the screen--once for no less than 45 minutes--before I finally started writing. But...

...Terry Brooks has commented that if you're suffering from WB then you haven't thought through the story well enough. I can't speak for anyone else, but that's almost invariably been the case with me. (And this is one secret to my "writing fast"--most of my stories are thought through before I start writing them. Well, that and I'm a fast typist.)
Damon Knight would have said that you picked the story too green.
I don't think I've ever suffered from the classic definition of "writer's block," although I've had my share of staring at a blank screen for 45 minutes, like Danny. This is usually a case of my gray matters working out certain difficulties in the narrative, so I appear to be in the majority on that point.

However, last year I went through a nasty period where writing--any kind of writing--made me ill (http://jlbgibberish.blogspot.com/2006/01/confessions.html). I just experienced flat-out physical revulsion at the thought of writing fiction, non-fiction, email, BBS postings... anything at all. Which was wretched, since my day job is wholly dependent on my writing skills. Mind you, I COULD still write. I kept up with the day job's demands, after all. But it was wholly unpleasant, and I'm glad I eventually recovered.
Whoa. I'm glad you got through all that. Sounds unpleasant.
I have suffered from two different types of 'writer's block'. There is type I, which is that I can't write on this story right now. That is usually the result of not knowing where the story is going, not liking where the story is going, not liking the story, etc. Solved by either writing something else for a while, outlining or plot poking or otherwise dealing with the actual blockage.

However, type II is the type where you just can't write 'anything'. And that is mostly fear based. I haven't yet broken out of my current (several month long) block where I want to write and yet when I sit down I get paralyzed by fear and just can't write fiction.

Zhaneel

Reposted due to bad formatting
Fear is a major paralyzer, I quite agree. And yet somehow, we push through it...
i've read and talked with folks enough to "know" that what i get isn't writer's block. my former idea of it came entirely from the misconception, hey i haven't written in a long time and "I Should Always Be Writing, Shouldn't I?" ...and the answer is no, i shouldn't. not all the time.

sometimes i'm working on a thing and i get stuck. i put it down for a few days. if that doesn't help, i start writing about what it is i'm trying to write about. i think on paper for a while. that usually gets the pump primed again.

usually. ;)
A bad cycle to get into is when you're not writing for a while, and then you feel like a fake if you try writing again, so you don't, and so you're still not writing for a while...
I don't write fiction, I'm not that good, and I have squat for imaginion. I write non-fiction, articles. Right now I am working on a piece on ticks and the illnesses they carry.

And for the last two days, I have done little more than rearrange words, and look at my outline.
Here's a suggestion, if you're interested -- write a paragraph describing someone first experiencing the symptoms of a tick-borne illness. Might help.
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