Avoiding Writer's Block: My Writing Process



As I'm writing the first draft of Contribute, Book 2 of the HoloSeries, several people have asked me, "Aren't you nervous? You have a deadline with a publisher now. What if you get writer's block?"

Okay, first, Are you kidding me? Thanks for the confidence killer. Second, no. I don't get writer's block. (Stop giving me the finger.) My creative writing process prevents me from getting stuck, and maybe it will help you, too.

Here's my overall writing process for the most part:

1. Come up with a shiny new idea and characters for a manuscript. Ideas usually come to me during walks, drives, or in the shower. Basically when I'm not trying. I keep a file of ideas for when I'm ready to start a new project. When I choose a project, I first visualize major characters and names. Some writers use Pinterest, but I like using an actual corkboard over my desk where I hang images that appeal to me. Feels more tangible.

2. Free write for 50-100 pages or so. (I do 20k for YA.) This is judgment free, creative writing time. You don't have to think chronologically. Write whatever comes to you. Leave spaces to separate different scenes and thoughts. Let your characters interact with each another for the first time. Hear their voices. Write the opening scene. Write the last scene. Write the turning point. Write something funny. Write something heartbreaking. No rules. No fear. This is all about getting thoughts on paper.  You are testing voice, character, and plot during this phase to find out what will work. Explore and let your creativity loose. Free writing gives you the freedom to be creative. It lets characters grow and change and bring you places without fearing that you'll hit a dead end. I have discovered many creative subplots in free writing sessions that I wouldn't have thought of if I had been following a strict outline from the start.

*Warning: There's a possibility that half of these 100 pages will not be used in your book. I promise this is not a waste of time. It helps to get bad ideas on paper and realize what doesn't work before you write the entire novel. You don't want to discover you've relied on a crucial moment or character that needs to be cut or changed, causing a plot avalanche. A major overhaul after 400 pages is the real time waster.For example, when free writing for Consider, Book 1 of the series, my main character actually had an older, pregnant sister living in California. Within twenty pages of free writing, I knew this choice wasn't working. By changing the sister character to Benji, an older brother in the military, I got so much more conflict out of the story, and he has become a crucial character in Books 1-2. I wouldn't have discovered him without free writing, and the series wouldn't be the same.

3. Outline the major plot points and any subplots that have come up during free writing. Your free writing should give you plenty of insight and fodder for creating a working outline. Be as detailed as possible. If you still don't have an answer for a plot hole, write "plot hole" in the outline. Knowing what's missing is different from discovering it later.

4. Make a major, "To Write" list by scene. Include subplot scenes if you know them. Label them accordingly. (For example, these were my first three scenes for Consider):

Scene 1: Train scene with first vertex sighting

Scene 2: Bus scene conversation w/ Alex and Dominick

Scene 3: Hospital scene with Hazmat workers

5. Write your first draft by scene, using your "To Write" list as a checklist.This is my secret to never getting writer's block. I do not necessarily compose scenes in chronological order. First, I sift through the 100 pages of free writing and reuse any material that works. I finish those scenes and check them off the list.Then each day I look at my "To Write" list and choose a scene based on how I'm feeling.  Why would I force myself to write a tragic scene if I'm in a good mood? Nope, that's a comedy scene day. Granted, eventually I face the last few random scenes that I've avoided, but usually the sheer joy of almost being finished gets me through those moments.

6. Reread the manuscript and add any necessary connecting scenes, especially quieter, reflective moments. Those tend to be missing from the outline.

7. Reread the manuscript for continuity and make an "Editing" task list.  Then edit following the list. Reread with a notebook nearby and take notes on any sections that need revising, or print the manuscript and write notes directly on it. Composing out of order can often mess with time sequencing, so be sure to edit for time and season. Character arc issues also need addressing.

8. Reread and edit for language. Many writers spend too much time crafting gorgeous sentences and falling in love with the sounds of language while writing their first draft.  Unless I'm writing poetry, I prefer to get anything down on paper first and tweak for language later. Otherwise, the whole process slows down, and it can takes years to finish a draft. Plan the forest before tracing the veins of a leaf on a tree.

9. Have beta readers/critique group provide feedback, and implement those changes. Do not skip this step. I know you're excited to be near the finish line, but do not start sending out queries thinking that your manuscript is amazing and clear. You need readers. What is clear to you may not be clear to them. Whatever they say, take it in. Use their feedback. You spent a lot of time and effort on your manuscript. Make it the best story it can be.

10. Celebrate that you finished a working, viable manuscript. Query. Take some time off. Do something nice for yourself.  Then start thinking about that next, shiny new idea.

*I'd love to hear from you. What's your writing process?

Writing Habits: Why 500 Words A Day Works For Me (and might work for you)

I'll admit it; I'm jealous of everyone who gets to participate in NaNoWriMo each November. There is NO WAY I can write a novel in November.  I am a high school English teacher. You can try to inspire me by saying that I can do anything I put my mind to...blah, blah, blah,  but it is physically and mind-numbingly impossible for me to write an entire novel in a month and still meet the needs of 100+ students, never mind all the reading and paperwork that goes along with it.

I know it's not only teachers who face NaNoWriMo envy. You may be working at an office job that requires loads of reading, writing, and number crunching to the point where letters blur into unrecognizable shapes by evening.  You probably take paperwork home to finish. You may be a stay-at-home parent who is so exhausted by the needs of your children that you don't even have time to read a novel in a month, never mind write one. But I can write at least 500 words each day. And so could you.

Writing 500 words a day may seem too easy to some writers and daunting to others.  Some days I can write 500 words in 20-30 minutes. Other days it takes over two hours of bloodletting before I get there.  Then there are those magical days when the words won't stop flowing from my fingertips, and I've lost track of space and time and eating.  Instead of 500 words, I hit 2K.

Here's the secret: It's not about the number. It's about the daily commitment.  It's about creating a habit of the mind.

A few things happen when you commit to daily writing:

1. You feel more like a writer. You walk around with a kind of inner satisfaction that you are accomplishing something no one else can see. Yet.

2. The story has time to marinate in your subconscious, and in turn your subconscious helps you fill in the story. The pulse of the characters stays fresher in your mind and carries into your dreams.  Fantasy and reality start to mix, and you find yourself coming up with dialogue in the middle of a grocery store checkout line. You start to zone out in mid-conversation with people to scribble notes.  The act of creating becomes second nature.

3. You stop beating yourself up about not writing because you are writing.  Writer's block has a snowball effect on procrastination.  Writing every day stops the avalanche of white page misery.

4. When you miss a day, which inevitably happens, you care. You defend your territory the next day. You snarl at people and demand they give you space to get the 500 words down on paper.

5. Your word count grows. And grows. When you write at least 500 words every day, you have 15K by the end of the month! And guess what? The magic of 500 words a day is that many times, you will get into the flow and write much more.That's the difference between establishing a writing habit and only writing when you have a chance or when the muse strikes.  You renew the promise to yourself as a writer each day  rather than letting life keep your pages blank.

And yes, of course sometimes I take a vacation from writing to refuel, to do other creative things, be inspired by the world, or when life throws me a curveball. But once that inspiration hits, I’m back in daily writing mode.

Inspired? I'd love to hear from other writers who have demanding day jobs.  Has 500 words a day worked for you? What else have you tried?

(This post first appeared in July 2014 on writingchallenge.org.)