Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Writer's Block: A guest post from @ReynardCity!

This is one of a couple upcoming guest posts, from the great @ReynardCity! Check him out, and check out the Reynard City comic! I'll be posting over there some time soon, too!

Breaking Writer’s Block

In some ways I blame movies. Usually movies depict writers furiously staring at typewriters or with waste paper baskets full of rejected prose. They then have some kind of moment of inspiration, usually from a moment of pain or joy that occurs in their personal life.

This is understandable, as essentially stories tend to be about drama and conflict. However we don’t tend to think of this with other jobs. If you’re a carpenter nobody thinks you build tables in a moment of furious creativity. As boring as it is, working on your “craft” is not just something people say in interviews.

I don’t want to say blocks don’t exist. They do exist and they often come in distinct categories. I will go over common problems and offer possible solutions. Like studying for an exam, it’s up to you to find something that works for you, but most of these will work at some point…

“I want to write but I don’t know what to write”

Strangely enough this is probably the one I’ve least come across. Most people have ideas it’s just they’re not always sure what to do with them. If you are at this point, think about the things you like. If you like comedy, then write comedy. If you want to write about your life, write about your life.

I think the mistake people sometimes make is taking “Write what you know” too literally. You can take elements of real life and apply them to fiction. I don’t want to be too indulgent or self referential but there are moments of my life or elements of people I know in Reynard City.

One of the key things is to have something to note ideas down wherever you are. It could be a simple “What if?” or even a sentence. Generally I find the best ones will keep coming back and won’t go out of your head.

A good exercise for this is a brain storm. Put a word in the middle of a spider diagram (eg “sitcom”) and branch out words associated with it (eg “family”, “misunderstanding” etc) Don’t worry if you think the words aren’t “relevant”. It’s all part of the process.

“I want to write a novel/poem/sketch and it’s not working”

This is almost the opposite of not having an idea. This is where you love a concept but you immediately decide it needs to be a certain thing. However ideas are not always concrete.

If your novel isn’t working, consider trying it as a short story, a comedy sketch or a monologue. Ideas can change form over time, sometimes fusing with other ideas. In other cases, sometimes they need to be separated. For example I recently made two sketches separated from one that I wrote because the two halves had such ludicrous contrast (one was about a husband and wife, the other about a henchwoman reporting to a villain)

“I want to write but I can’t get started/don’t want to/am tired”

As boring as it is, the solution to this one is often routine. There are so many distractions to writing that it can be easy to forget what you were meant to be doing. This is why you need to establish what you do in a day.

I’m lucky because a number of family members are self employed. This means there is no boss telling you what to do so you need to do it for yourself. Essentially you need to create a working day.

You may say “I’ll write a chapter a day/3000 words etc”. If that works for you, then good for you! However in my experience if I get started on something I want to keep going and personally there is nothing wrong with that.

It is also equally important to put relaxation into the routine. This may sound contradictory but I find it means you have points in the day where you can switch off and not worry. Ironically this is often the time when ideas start happening.

“How do I know if it’s any good? What if the person I send it to steals my idea?”

My personal advice is complete a first draft done as soon as you can. That initial rush is not something to be afraid of, it tends to be the most fun! However the real test is what you do after that initial rush.

If you don’t have anyone around to give feedback then a good trick is to stop writing for a couple of days. You can then reread your work in a less biased way. It is important to be as neutral as possible. Always think what you are trying to say and how the story is constructed and whether it works or not. At this point “good” or “bad” is irrelevant. It is purely construction.

This is when you do the next draft. If you are happy with it, now is the time to offer feedback. With collaborative projects like the comedy society and the comic I am lucky because I NEED to work with these people, as they will be making these words come to life, either via art or speech. This is when you know if it doesn’t work as they’ll usually ask questions.

Don’t be afraid to ask for feedback. If you are worried about copyright, put a printed copy of your manuscript in a sealed envelope and sign the date. Post it back to yourself via recorded delivery so there is evidence of the date (keep hold of the receipt as well).

Another good method is to read your work out loud or get someone else to do it. Don’t make the mistake George Lucas made (“You can type this sh** George but you can’t say it” moaned Harrison Ford. Then again his sh** made multiple millions, so it’s your call.)

I don’t want to sound preachy or that my way is the only way. Some elements will work better than others. Some people will need snacks and coffee to hand, while others will keep working until their break time for their sugar/coffee/alcohol hit. Some people like music in the background, others find it distracting and want to focus.

What I will say is don’t let the routine overshadow the work. To do lists are good, arranging your work into categories and using a fancy highlighter to indicate what is shopping, work break and writing less so.

Some days will be harder than others, I won’t lie. On those days this is when you should go for a walk, read a newspaper, watch a film. If possible read a newspaper you don’t always buy, watch a film from a genre you wouldn’t normally choose, find somewhere out of the way that you don’t usually walk to.

There are also a number of excellent books that help provide you with ideas and structure. Ones that I have found useful include Writing Down The Bones by Natalie Goldberg (especially creative exercises), Comedy Writing Secrets (I’m sorry I forgot the name of the author and lent the copy to my bro, I would look it up but I have other writing work to do, got to practise what I preach!), Story by Robert McKee (brilliant for screenwriting structure, especially the case studies using scenes from classics such as Chinatown and Casablanca) and The Hero’s Journey by Christopher Vogler (Perfect for character and story structure).

When reading these books don’t look for a “formula”. They should be an aid to your writing, not a crutch. If you include them as part of your routine eventually you will be able to do your own exercises and will gradually find working practises that allow you to work at your own pace.

It is also equally possible (and I include myself in this) that you have work in the day or night. This is not an excuse. I have worked 50 hours a week in a pub and still found time for creative work. I have known people who work nights on long factory shifts so they can raise money to work on creative projects.

In short, creative writing, art or anything of that nature is not easy. However if you can find a routine you should be able to get the most from your ideas in the long term. Good luck!


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