|Writer's block can be like trying to force rusty wheels to turn!|
I’ve been struggling a bit with writer’s block, so I’ve been reading books on how to get unstuck. I’m noticing a pattern with them – most encourage you to outline as you brainstorm. I love the idea of outlining, of having a rough (or not so rough) roadmap for where you’re going, and for my last novel, I used notecards to create one (a process I talked about with KM Weiland for her book, Outlining Your Novel: Map Your Way to Success). The notecards were glorious, like stepping stones along the way.
Having had a good experience with outlining, and having read all these wonderful, encouraging books that talk about outlining, I’d love to be able to outline to get myself unstuck on the two WIPs I’ve got going.
Unfortunately, it’s just…not…happening.
As much as I’d like to be a consistent outliner, the reality is that I’ve been a pantser most of my life. What’s a pantser, you may ask? Why, it’s someone who flies by the seat of their pants. If the outliners are Planners, the people who make it up as they go are Pantsers.
I’m starting to wonder if my problem is that I'm trying to force myself to be an outliner when that isn't really my nature. After all, being a pantser has worked for me for a lot of years. And I’m kind of a pantser in life, too. I don’t like things to be too scheduled, because what if I change my mind? And when it comes to other forms of creativity, like graphic design, I like to try different visual elements together and see what inspires me most, and go from there. I probably hit more dead ends than a lot of other creative people this way, but I also have some pretty unexpected turns in my stories.
Although forcing myself to open up that document and put words on the page when I feel stuck and directionless is like trying to force rusty wheels to turn, I’ve discovered that if I’m persistent about it, I can get them to turn. And when I write, I discover things about my characters, about the story, that I’m just not sure I’d get if I were outlining. In other words, it’s the nuances I notice along the way that propel me from one plot point to another.
In an example some of you have probably seen me use before, in one of my novels the villain spontaneously shoots one of the heroes. I never had any intention of killing off the character who was shot (after all, she was one of my heroes!), but after she went down, I couldn’t for the life of me get her back up. I threw medical professionals at her, and I wished along with my other characters that she’d be okay, but in the end, she died. Another hero developed PTSD as a result, and that PTSD not only drove the second half of that novel, but most of the sequel. If I’d outlined, I’d never have killed her off. Yet somehow the actual writing is different, and I realized that it was the right thing for the story.
Of course, you can always make changes as you work from an outline, but I think I might have trouble flying off into these tangents that seem to bear the most fruit if I did. It’s while I’m floundering around in the darkness, writing anything I can think of just to get words on the page that I often seem to stumble upon the best material. I have a wild “what if?” moment, and I go with it because I don’t have anything better planned. And because I don’t have anything better planned, I also feel free to just go with whatever crazy repercussions I see as a result of that wild “what if?” moment.
So if you’re a pantser and you find yourself getting stuck, like I have, what can you do about it? Here are a few things that I’ve found helpful.
- Go ahead and try outlining, if you want. I really enjoyed Gene Perret’s Write Your Book Now!, and KM Weiland’s aforementioned book was also great. If you search Amazon, you’ll find at least a dozen more books to help you learn how. You can also check out the snowflake method. If outlining doesn't work for you, though, don't beat yourself up. You may just be a pantser through and through!
- Get away from the manuscript to think about what happens next. I like to sit down to my computer with some inkling of an idea for where things are going next, but I don’t always come up with those inklings while I’m at the computer. In fact, I find that going for a long walk is one of the best ways for me to find my inklings. (Of course, I have been known to talk to myself while I’m plotting, which can be a little weird for the people walking the same place I am!)
- If you normally type, try writing by hand, and vice versa. For some reason, when that blinking cursor on the screen is making me feel hopeless, I do much better on some notebook paper. For more information about why writing by hand can help us be more creative, check out my post, Thinking Outside the Computer.
- Give yourself permission to write whatever it is, even if you think it might be awful. If I had a bunch of thoughts I knew were brilliant, I’d get them down into an outline! But sometimes I get these ideas, and like I said, I don’t have anything better planned, so down they go. And sometimes they end up being the best parts of the story.
If you’re a pantser, what are your tips? What helps you sit down at the computer, even when you have absolutely no idea where you’re going?
Carolyn Kaufman, PsyD's book, THE WRITER'S GUIDE TO PSYCHOLOGY: How to Write Accurately About Psychological Disorders, Clinical Treatment, and Human Behavior helps writers avoid common misconceptions and inaccuracies and "get the psych right" in their stories. You can learn more about The Writer's Guide to Psychology, check out Dr. K's blog on Psychology Today, or follow her on Facebook or Google+!