Writers Block: 3 New Ways to Overcome it

Or, perhaps better titled: Creating in the Time of COVID: When Having All the Time in the World Somehow Means Less Time to Create

Quarantine time. In a way, it’s a dream come true. You’re home. You have free time out the wazoo. That book you always wanted to write, that is right there at the forefront of your brain and tip of your tongue: there will never be a better chance to write it. What an opportunity, all this free time. It’s happening!!

Yet hey, look–how did you never realize how dusty those floorboards were? Those dressers and closets, man, it was high time someone Marie Kondo’d the heck out of them, right? And did someone mention virtual happy hour?

A month goes by. Then two. As a third smirks and waves on its way past, you realize it’s time to knock off the distractions and get to work. This is something you’re doing for you, afterall. Since self isolation isn’t going away any time soon, you still have a chance. So pull up your laptop and get to work. This is something you always wanted to do! Let’s go already!

You face the screen. The white, blank screen. Your mind is as empty as the chapters you thought you’d have finished by now. Is that blinking cursor laughing at you?! They should call it a curser for pete’s sake…

ENOUGH!! Focus. Smack that writers block in the face and get to work, man!! This home-time is a gift that you can’t waste any longer.

Still stuck?

There are good ways and not-so-good ways to go about it. Here are some counter-intuitive tips to get your muse out of that cave and onto the page.

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1. GO FOR A WALK? HAH nice try. All a walk is going to do is take you farther away from your problem. If an athlete is tired of training, does she say I’ll just sit out for a while? No, she trains anyway. Going for a walk is only helpful if you’re, say, trying to think of the perfect word or trying not to swear, and you are coming right back to your work. Otherwise we know we’ll never see you again. Sitting down and powering through is the only way to improve (shout out to Malcolm Gladwell and The Outlier Effect that talks about the more you practice, the better you get… “There is a direct correlation between effort and reward. You get exactly out of your rice paddy what you put into it.” Read that book, please!)

The best thing to do when faced with a blank screen is to start writing anyway. Anything. Write your grocery list. A fan letter. Your favorite smells. Your thoughts about how it stinks to not be able to think about what you want to write about. If you’re stuck on a certain part of the story, skip over it and come back to it later.

Hammering out repetitive words or phrases isn’t helpful as it doesn’t engage the brain or thought process. Writing about work stuff isn’t helpful as it switches your thought process in a different (aka wrong–for now) direction. But writing ANYTHING else does two things.

First, it keeps your butt in that chair (“BIC,” as 380+ book author Jane Yolen likes to say) and trains your mind (and butt?) to stay focused on the task at hand. It reminds every part of you that sitting in front of a screen and writing things non-work related is OK. You can do this. You can’t get used to doing something you aren’t doing!

Second, it gets those creative juices flowing. And if you promise to try it, I promise never to use that phrase again.

2. START AT THE BEGINNING AND PLOT TO THE END? Nope. Try the opposite. If you’re stuck on where to go next, or even where to start the story, try going backwards. I know I say a version of this a lot, but: if you don’t know where you are going, how do you know how to get there? Start at the end. Picture what it will look like. Don’t write anything yet, just imagine it. Where and who are XX and YY are going to be?

Take the first thing that comes into your head and run with it. Explore all the possibilities it could bring to the story. You might surprise yourself with “What? I was planning on Y going to France!” You might realize your ending is too ‘expected,’ and more twists are needed. You might find someone new sitting there. Stew on it for a bit. IN YOUR CHAIR. You are thinking for a few minutes and are getting right back to writing so don’t even think about grabbing a cup of tea. Sit and think. Are there changes that need to be made in order to make that ending happen? New scenes you can add? Hints you can drop or details you can point out? Now start writing. Some authors think you can plot easier and save time by now realizing certain paths to get to that ending are better than others, and you can better streamline your storyline.

I recently had an idea for a story when an image came into my head. As I thought about the image, I realized it was the end of the story. Now I am figuring out who it is and how they got there. I love this part of discovery!

That first thought that you are playing around with doesn’t have to be the end you stick with. Have fun with it for right now, though. Take risks. See where it leads. That image I had in my head? I actually hated it. When it wouldn’t leave, I knew I had to embrace it. I encourage you: if you HATE the ending you just thought it, it might just be the ending you need. Go from there. Put your character someone you never dreamed they’d go. If you can’t think of a plausible ending, you might not know your characters well enough yet, so go back and work on that. You might realize a change in setting is needed, so work there. There is so much you can work on that isn’t just going from page one to page two.

350+ End Pictures [HD] | Download Free Images on Unsplash
from unsplash

3. FINESSE DIALOGUE? Speaking of writing out of sequence (were we?), writing doesn’t have to mean plausible word count. That pressure is what can make an author go mad. Burrowing in the nitty-gritty like dialogue or scene transitions can get tiresome. Sometimes when you “write,” you really “plot.” Why not look big picture instead of detail? But I’m not exactly talking plot. Take a one step further back and outline your story.

Start by filling out the blanks: Hero wants __[goal]__ but can’t __[obstacle/problem]__ so they __[take action]__.

This works for almost all picture books too! Now you have everything you need. Take the time to outline just the highlights of your story that tell the problem, actions, and outcome–yes, even if it’s a 500 word picture book. As far as what you’ve written so far: where are you in the standard plot arc? What areas need more meat? (If you don’t have some sort of plot arc…dude…start working on one. If you need help, Google “plot arc” and about a hundred images will pop up, along with blog posts that walk you through how to do it. I especially liked the image below from Christine Wodtke.) Are there enough struggles in your journey, are the stakes high enough, is the resolution unexpected and worth it?

You know that idea I’m working on? Every thought I had on it, I put on a post-it note, as I thought of it, so I could rearrange into a timeline. That helped me outline it by better understanding not only where I was trying to go but how I was going to get there. The post-it notes were not evenly-weighted as far as plot or outline, by any means. They had suggested phrases, ideas for names, and some just had an idea for a change in setting. It was by no means what most people would call an outline. But I had enough to go on to think through how I got to the pivotal point (the twist), and what the milestones might be. (I’m still working on the manuscript FYI–it’s not a miracle cure.)

my notes for recent picture book idea

Do you need to go into that notes & graphing detail? No! Do you have to draw out a plot arc and paginate each piece? No, no, not at all. But you should have an idea of where it all falls. Creating a new outline for WIP is a great way to see if it’s a lopsided story, where it might need more action, or less action, or if you forgot about a character introduced in Chapter 3. Stepping back to look at the outline of a manuscript you think is almost finished is a great way to take another look at an issue that has you stymied or treading water. Maybe that part is in the wrong place, or needs amping up.

Now, I’m saying all of this about multi-chapter books when I primarily write picture books, so I might be out of my league. But I know firsthand that all of this applies to picture books.

Sometimes we think if the story doesn’t come to us organically, that it’s not worth working on. No story in the history of publishing has ever been successful without some sort of planning and plotting. Even wordless picture books!! And we’ve all had moments where we doubt and want to walk away.

Stick with it.

You’ve got the time.

Are Books Selling?

Ah, good ol’ book fairs

Who knew that within weeks the words “viral” and “virus” would have such polarizing connotations? The year 2020 sure is a unique beast. As authors, we’re forced gifted lots of home time to create. The longer we’re home, the more (ideally) we’re writing. Hooray for opportunity.

One of my first thoughts has been, “I better make sure my stuff is good. With everyone else home with all this free time, writing and rewriting, there is going to be more competition than ever.”

Writing Kermit GIF - Writing Kermit KermitTyping GIFs
Capture that creative energy!

My next thoughts are, “Wait…with everyone home writing, who is out there buying? Is it even worth submitting? Will it sell?”

I did some digging. Talked to friends and colleagues–authors, illustrators, agents, big publishers, small publishers. Researched a bit–the big picture international news down to smaller scope of our children’s book industry. I wanted to see for myself:

What is going on in the publishing world? What will it look like ahead?

Image result for image crystal ball

I’m no expert (my Econ degree and MBA play no part in this post!). I’m just a curious author that likes research and is concerned about our future. I know other authors are wondering too. Here’s what I’ve found:

For those TLDR types, lemme say this: Yes, books are still selling (but they are slowing). No, it’s not horrific (changes will come about slowly, and even if the world is magically back to normal tomorrow, we will still see small repercussions down the line in a year or two). Yes, there is a big uptick in pandemic plotlines and both agents and editors are saying KNOCK IT OFF. No, there is no reason stop writing and submitting–as long as it’s your very best work. So no panicking, OK? Keep creating. It’s what you do.

  1. Books are selling. Great! But of course numbers aren’t as high as usual. A study in Sweden shows a sharp decrease in March sales compared to last year (boo), but an uptick in online sales greatly softened the blow, and the LA Times reports the new ABA-backed online-only Bookshop.org has reported a 400% increase in sales since opening in February (*crowd cheering*). Marketwatch states overall book sales have been driven by juvenile nonfiction in particular, which are up 25% year-to-date, and up 65% for the six weeks ending April 11, according to NPD BookScan. “We definitely seeing an uptick in kids’ educational and activity book sales this week,” reports Kristen McLean, NPD books industry analyst. Sure, bookstores and libraries are temporarily closed, tradeshows (where many small publishers rely on sales) have been cancelled, and those free e-books don’t always cut it for parents and kids…yet people are still reading, and books are still selling. Publishers reiterate to me that most sales are activity books (understandably) and series (books they can rely on). Debuts–if an author/illustrator can hold a successful virtual launch–are doing OK but not as good as if they were live or on tour. [Side note: You can help your friends and indies by ordering ANYTHING from your local bookstore as they likely deliver; not only will they appreciate it but it might keep them from going under. Ask your friends to do the same.]
  2. Agents and publishers are still buying. Work-for-hire is still assigning. But…likely not as much. One reason is, due to slower sales, many books they were going to release this summer or fall have been pushed to next year or later, so they won’t need as many titles in 2021 or 2022–the timeframe the title they’d sign today would be released. And if they think sales are going to continue to drop in the near future, they might not take on as many new titles…making them pickier than ever. And they’ll have to be choosy…agents are saying their inbox is fuller than usual (one said even though she is closed to both queries and submissions and only accepts via her website anyway, ever-eager writers are blatantly subbing directly via her email regardless)(not cool!), and The Guardian reports some publishers are seeing a three-fold uptick in submissions! [Side note: It doesn’t mean the pool of writers is better, but it does mean it’s much bigger. It’s harder to get noticed. How is yours unique? Better than the others? You don’t have to submit any or every thing you’re writing right now. Just keep writing. Maybe it’ll turn into something (better) down the line.]
  3. Think you’ve got a great idea for a story that takes place during a pandemic? Well so does everyone else. Not only are publishers and editors already tired of seeing dystopian (especially pandemic) plotlines, the main issue is timing. As agent Jennifer Laughran points out, “publishing is a long game.” While the world may be changing overnight, our industry moves slowly. A book takes a good 2 to 5 years to get to market. The last thing a 12-year-old kid will want to do is relive the time their own 8-year-old self was quarantined at home. Without toilet paper.

Bottom line: like every industry in the world publishing is slowing–but all signs point to us doing okay in the long run. The future of publishing may be changed for good after this. Maybe even for the better. But it won’t change overnight. Stay positive. Keep on plugging away, giving it your best. And maybe happiest.

Seeing as we are now living in a real dystopian society, it might be time for ideal worlds to make a comeback. Let’s lighten up.

-Bitsy Kemper