Warmth has returned to the Niagara wine belt, and with it comes a thousand muse-murdering distractions. How does a writer stay focused on her pages when trilling birds are building nests (ok, maybe they don’t do this yet, maybe they’re only dry humping at this point), the construction guys are out (hellooooo hard bodies!), the untended garden is shaming me with its drab floral corpses and exposed clay (o, neglected garden, where is thy mantle of mulch?). I have the rare urge to clean everything in this house from sinister cellar to little peaked roof, but that has to wait, because my Word Count tool–that tyrant, that bully, that big doody-head–is informing me that today I have written: 0 words. That can’t be good.
Since I no longer believe in writer’s block (though I have imposed the phrase on my mood in the past) I have been forced to learn some strategies to staying on track. If you do believe in the traditional my-muse-is-silent-therefore-I-cannot-create view of writer’s block, ask yourself if any of these methods might help you command the muse’s attention. If they wouldn’t help, perhaps giving your muse a swift backhand might work (unless your muse is an actual person, then stick to wedgies and nipple-twists).
1. Sharpen the Saw (StS). This is something my husband prescribes for burn-out. He’s not an artist, but he’s lived with one long enough to know the signs. Where he learned StS, I know not, but what I do know is this: it works wonders. In the same way that cutting wood with a dull saw fails, writing with a dulled mind also falls short. Perhaps the ease with which you are distracted today is an indication that you simply need an StS day. Take a walk, read something you’ve been putting off, watch an old movie, crank some tunes, take a snooze, teach your dog to maul pig carcasses in preparation for the zombie apocalypse, cook something interesting. Wait, did I say snooze? Don’t do that, that’s absurd.
2. Refocus the Lens. Say you’re writing an historical romance novel about moss monsters invading 17th century Earth from a rift in reality originating in the Paris Catacombs. You might want to consider a good psychiatrist, because that’s weird. Also: you might want to look up the word “romance” as it applies to genre fiction, because you might be in trouble unless those moss monsters are dreamy alpha males invading Earth in some sexy swashbuckling fashion (roses and a reach-around? Clearly I know nothing of romance and cannot help you). But while you’re waiting to see that shrink (hint: don’t tell him you have lurid sex fantasies about little green plant people) you might want to Refocus your Lens with research. Surely, there’s more you can learn about the Paris Catacombs that would make a difference to a subplot? No? You’re an expert? You were born there? In the Catacombs? Oh, just conceived. Well, that doesn’t count.
Try using your thesaurus to make a list of possible words you might use to describe moss men (no, moss men would not have rippling abs, but they might have lichen infecting their bush. Investigate, researcher!). While this Refocus the Lens day might not be writing per se, it’s vital in helping you remember what’s important (and fun) about your story. Fleshing out details is never a waste of time.
3. Jackknife! This might be my favourite non-writing-day activity; since it’s fluff writing which probably won’t be used, the pressure of saying the Right Thing is negated completely, and your creative center can trip happily along, buzzing with some fresh perspectives on a novel that might be starting to feel more like work than fun. Middles have this meh effect on me, so I use the Jackknife to stir the shit (boy, that didn’t sound right at all. Please don’t quote me on that). The Jackknife involves taking the last thing you wrote, just the end of it, and throwing it in the opposite direction to see what would happen. Fold it like a tractor trailer accident on the QEW, spilling characters out of the cab, slicing plot lines like fuel hoses, busting relationships like windshields (enough? Did I hear an “uncle”? OK), until it’s all kinds of wrong. Don’t be afraid: you’re probably not using it, so it’s fine to mess around. Ask the “what if”s. Fiddle with the “she’d never do this, but …”s. Occasionally, Jackknifing leads to surprise developments that can be used in your work. More often, it reinforces that you were on the right track all along, and the uncomfortable bend in plot forces your attention back to your original outline.
4. Dreamworks. No, not the movie production company. I’m talking about your subconscious, and putting it to work for you overnight. Your moss monster novel (which you’ve now changed to an erotica novel, tentatively entitled “The Grass is Greener”, you cheeky bugger, you) has hit a point where you’re not sure whether to stick to your original outline, or follow an intriguing tangent. Or, perhaps you had no outline, and you write like I do–willy nilly and hoping for the best. You have ideas, and options, but commiting to them on paper (or virtual paperspace) is making you feel squinky (Squinky: (adj) altogether icky, as in “I just saw Saw 3D and now I feel squinky, please pass the brain bleach.”). Jot down all of the possibles just before bed, and put them out of your mind. Your subconscious will ruminate on the problem while you sleep. It’s like having a little grey writing coach in your skull. Actually, that would be terrifying. How would you get him out? Could you hear him up there, whispering plot ideas to you? Would his plots become schemes for his escape involving a garden claw and some pliers? Oh great, now I’ll never sleep tonight …
5. Read. Read, read, read. And this time, I mean your own words. Take a time-out to go over what you’ve already accomplished. Are there places in the book that really shine? Try to remember how it felt to write that. Were your fingers flying? Did the words come out before you even knew what you were going to type? Are there places in the book that fall flat? Can you improve on them today, while you’re not making strides to add to the meat of your novel? Take your story somewhere else: a park, a friend’s house, a coffee shop, to prison, to bed, to the back porch. Read it out loud. Does it flow well when spoken aloud? Are there phrases over which you stammer? Does the dialogue ring true? Do your characters sound distinct from one another? Mark for later those places you feel need a boost or a rewrite (and yes, I do work in hard copy when I do rereads. This wee author loves a nice fresh red pen and some stick-it notes).
I hope this helps/inspires my writerly friends and my readers from blogland. Do you have favourite methods for getting around the distractions and doldrums, the stagnations, slumps and stallings? When do you find you have the most trouble writing? Is it seasonal, based on personal commitments, or something else entirely?
(Author’s note: AJ Aalto is currently seeking agent representation for Touched, Book One of the Marnie Baranuik Chronicles, while completing the first draft of her second novel, Death Rejoices, Book Two of the same. She may also be standing in front of her bathroom mirror, snort-giggling at exploratory homemade zombie noises, like all horror writers are wont to do.)