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Writer's Block: A Curse?

At some point all writers hit a block. Their fingers hover over the keys not knowing what to write next. The pencil taps at the page, but not words come. The backspace button and the eraser are hungry for anything that makes its way on to the paper.


Writer’s block. The curse. The fear.


But it doesn’t need to be.


One of the first things to figure out when you are struggling to write is what is causing the block. Sometimes just this step will help release you from the confines of the block.


Here are some of the reasons I have hit a block


  1. I don’t know how to start

  2. I’m bored of writing the bit I am on, or the characters’ aren’t speaking to me.

  3. I don’t know how to connect where I am to where I want to go

  4. I can’t concentrate long enough to focus



While you may have some other reasons as well, let’s explore these.


Starting:

I have talked about what to do with a blank page in the previous two blog posts, so I will skip to some new ideas.


I like to, when I am bored in an airport, or waiting at the dentist, use Pinterest to collect idea for writing. Pinterest is one of my favorite parts of the writing process.


The first way I have used it is to collect writing prompts. You can save them into one board and have them available when ever you are feeling stuck. I like to find different sorts of prompts. Some are vague, some are specific. I once wrote an entire book based off a prompt that said “start a story that begins “these are the things I wish to forget.” I also like to collect pictures that pull me in and put them in this file as well.


If you are new to Pinterest, you can make boards “secret” which means it does not show up on your friends or families pages. I tend to make all of my boards secret and share them with people as needed. This keeps my ideas to myself, and I don’t get a lot of strange questions when random stuff pops up on my moms feed. I love my mom very much, but she prefers to only see her crafts, chicken pictures, and not depressing quotes meant to inspire teen writers.


**Teaching Note: It is a good idea to have a place where students can access ideas that are not online. Many schools will block Pinterest as it is a social media site, and you can easily lose students to endless scrolling. Having a binder or a shared google doc/slides they can access can really help them find the info faster and in a safe way. I like to have a variety of prompts for all genres.


Pinterest is also a great place to collect info on a specific idea. You can use the search feature to search for models that look like your main character. Settings that fit the vibe. Any historical facts that you might need, or any info that might be necessary. For instance, for a Cinderella retelling I wrote I needed to understand how blown glass was made. I save some videos and examples of blown glass being made.


The great thing about Pinterest boards is they have gotten more and more sophisticated. You can have sections within boards. Think about it as folders. To continue my Cinderella retelling example, within the “Cinderella” board I had a glass section, a setting section, a model section, and historical clothing section. This helped me organize things and find them quickly. You can do it from the app on your phone or the computer so it is easy to do when you have a moment.


It took me a long time to accept that preparing to write was just as important as actually writing. Don’t feel like you are a failure if you have to do some pre-work before the words will begin flowing. Learning about things is part of the process to writing. Give yourself a break.


*Teaching Note: I always have students do some sort of brainstorm before sending them off to write. At the beginning of the year we may spend days on this. As the year goes on, I generally give less time as many students are locked into their creative juices by then. Remember to give students the option to do this work. They could have a journal that shows their work, a google doc, etc.


I keep a notebook that has all of my ideas (slowly it is becoming digital because I keep loosing it in my house). I call this my Pible. (Named after a detailed Journal my 10th grade teacher had us keep on Life of Pi (Life of Pi Bible = Pible). I would be happy to explore a notebook like this with students to show their growth on the writing process standard.


Bored of the part you are on?


I will be the first to admit that I get bored when I write. Sometimes the middle bits, while important, just seem to drag. It's the uphill climb to the climax, and it may feel like Sisyphus pushing the rock up the hill.


Here is one idea.


Take a break.


I release you from having to write in order.


I said it. Skip that part. You can always come back. Write the following: COME BACK LATER.

You can include bullet points about what happens. You can write the scene later. It will still be there, and you can easily use the find command to search for “COME BACK LATER” at any time.


Maybe later you know some secret details you need to work in, or you have some idea of where you are going. Or maybe, you’re just in a better mind set.


Here is another idea:

Write it from a different point of view. Write it from a different character’s POV. Write it in 3rd person or 1st person. Let the villain talk for a moment. You’ll be surprised what you find. You may not actually use this writing (you probably won’t) but you’ve discovered something. I’ve discovered minor details about characters that bring new excitement to the scene, or a new side plot. I discovered the real issue between characters that needs to be confronted in this scene, or what a character wants (and gives me conflict while they try to achieve it)


*Teaching Note: This is a great way for students to practice POV. I have had students write the same scene from multiple POVs and not only does it help them develop character individual personalities, but it helps them understand the choices between 1st and 3rd person. Changing between character points of view is also a popular mechanic in current YA writing. It can also help some of your struggling readers to follow these books as they experience writing it themselves.


Don’t know how to connect?


As writers we tend to write beginnings. We are good at beginnings. We have notebooks full of beginnings. We imagine endings. We think of the great climax.


It’s the middles were we get the least amount of practice.


Again I give you permission to write “COME BACK LATER” at any point.

I also give you permission to write things like “MAIN CHARACTER ESCAPES USING ________”


But what happens when later you have to come back and figure it out, and your fingers tap the keys without pressing down because you still do not know.


Make a list that answers these questions


  1. What needs to happen in this scene?

  2. What does the main character want? Scene Specific?

  3. Why can’t they have it?

  4. What are they going to do to get it?


For instance: (Example made up for this BLOG)

1 . Sereth needs to find somewhere to spend the night in the underground without getting caught by the people looking for him.

2.He just wants to take a nap and regroup.

3.He has no money nor does he have the ability to contact his handler. If he stops and gets caught he might either get killed by the Ranger gang due to his wealthy attire or he gets caught by the guards for espionage.

4. He needs to call in a favor with Carl and put him in danger as well.


Now a scene that felt boring before, Sereth trying to find a place to take a nap, has a conflict. I can makes sure to include the internal struggle of bringing Carl into his mess. I also have found some things for him to do: find new clothes, hide from a passing gang member or guard, get lost, try to find a way to contact his handler.


I have enough for a scene, and a scene that has conflict. You can do this for any scene.


But what about scenes that take soooooo long?

As a lover of fantasy, I have read a million pages of characters on a journey. Riding horseback for miles, camping in the woods for night and nights.


SKIP THEM, and don’t bother coming back.


A quick, “the rode for a week, stopping only when the sun began to climb in the sky. And starting again once the morning farmers had returned from the markets and were back to their fields.”


Done.


Give us one important campfire scene, one day on horseback, we don’t need to follow them from morning to dusk every single day. Even reality TV shows edit for time. Reality TV producers are the best at cutting to the important conflict of the story. We see the characters' development, the conflicts, the wants and desires. We rarely see anything but that. Become your inner reality TV producer, and let yourself cut the boring connecting parts.


*Teaching Note: Sometimes students struggle with this. We often teach them to show and not tell, and they take that to heart. They want to show us everything, but the truth is we don’t need to see it. We can assume they eat, sleep, and get dressed. Unless it is important to the story, we don’t need to see it. One great idea would be to give them example pages. If there is a great interest I can create one (let me know in the comments). Then have them highlight the important parts and practice summarizing the parts that didn’t need to be shown in such detail.


Having students re-write things often helps them learn how to revise their own writing. This could also be done in groups to encourage students to learn how to talk to one another, collaborate, and work as a writer’s workshop/ critique group. I never let students critique each other's work, as an assignment, before practicing with example pages.



Can’t concentrate? Losing focus?


First of all, I have been there. There are so many things that can help in these situations. The first thing is to realize its okay to stop. There is no sense spinning your wheels if you aren’t going anywhere. So let me go over a few ways to get your focus back. .


  1. Take a walk or do some exercise

    1. Not only will this get the blood pumping in your body, it will also help clear your mind.

  2. Go outside

    1. Outside is a great idea. Fresh air, new stimulus. And if you are still stuck after, at least you got outside for a little bit.

  3. Talk it out

    1. In my early days of teaching when I lived in my boyfriends childhood bedroom at his parents’ house, I used to do a lot of my thinking, pacing around in the hot tub talking about my lesson plans. Even if he wasn’t listening, or giving much input, putting the ideas out in the world helped solidify my ideas. Now I tend to do this on my walk with my dog.

  4. Give yourself breaks as you write. 30 mins of writing, 10 minute break. Use a phone timer. It can help you slowly build up your ability to concentrate.

  5. Try some music.

    1. Personally I like classical music with nature sounds mixed in, but my students prefer low-fi music to be played over the class speakers.

    2. Many people have found soundtrack scores (movies, video games, etc.) to be motivating when they need to finish something before a deadline.

    3. **Teaching Note: Playing music in the class room can be great. Here are some things to think about. I like playing classical music because it often in a genre the students have not tried before and many find success with it. This year we have been playing a low-fi music or chill-hop. I like these because there are still no words to distract students (or be inappropriate) but it feels a little more relevant to them. When you play music letting students have choice can be helpful but it is often hard to represent all of the students in the room. Some students also might prefer quiet. I try to offer a quieter area or noise canceling headphones for students who would prefer to have less stimulation. There are also other considerations when choosing to play music for the whole class. Some of our Muslim students do not partake in music for part of Ramadan. To make sure everyone feels comfortable, I either make sure everyone is on board with music or encourage students to create a playlist for themselves with headphones. It is always good if students are using their own devices to create a set and forget it rule. This means students start a playlist and put their phone back in their pocket. It cuts down on the amount of interaction they have with their device.

Often we find something new and exciting when we let our minds relax. Just as you think of that word or name at 3AM. Giving yourself a break often helps the words come again.


Try to think of Writer's Block as your brain asking for something new.

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