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January 11 2008

Jane Espenson talks about "Overcoming Writers' Block". Buffy, Angel scribe discusses how she overcomes writers' block.

Accomplished writer/director/baseball announcer, Kevin Levine, compiles some of our favorite screen and television writers' cures to writers' block. Jane's "cure" is 5th from the bottom (next to the Justin Timberlake photo).

Good tips. Normally I'll start writing a synopsis of a book that I'm reading, these are useful for posting reviews/opinions on Amazon. So, even if it isn't too terribly creative, it still has some value.

Another possible cause of writer's block is being too tired to piece ideas together. Others my laugh, but often I lose track of how much I've slept. Then, I'll remind myself, "you moron, you haven't had a wink in 48 hours".

[ edited by Whistler on 2008-01-10 23:03 ]
My guide to overcoming writers block when writing fast breaking news entries for Whedonesque will be out whenever someone decides to pay me.
I liked the anonymous comment Levine quoted in his intro: “Music, crying, and/or Ativan. Any one, but preferably all.” :-)

Espenson's point about a deadline being a great motivator is true, while it's hard to sit down and get started on your own projects. When I was in school and writing papers, I tried to finish each writing session by writing the first sentence of the next paragraph I was going to write. That way when I did sit down again, I already had a beginning.

The SF/F writer Tim Powers, who does tons of research for each of his books, does a lot of organizing of that stuff so he can find it easily, then does an outline file for the whole book, then there's a step involving index cards (this is too long to summarize here), but before he starts writing, the last thing he does is make a giant calendar for each day that passes in his book and the squares are like 6" by 6" and he'll write everything that's going to happen on each day on the calendar. He says he usually writes facts (his books take place in historical times w/ historical people, and he won't change a date or fact known about them) in pen and plot points in pencil.

What I particularly like is his method for starting a book. The first reaction is panic and taking the day off to read something else. But the next day he sits down and says "OK, I'm just going to write ten practice sentences," and reminds himself that these won't actually be the first sentence--it's just practice. Then he tells himself to pick three of those and write a paragraph, or if he started w/ a line of dialog to write half a page of dialog. Again, he reassures himself that none of this will go in the book; it's just practice. Now I have to quote:

"Then I say, "Now take one of those three paragraphs or half-pages and extend it to
three pages. Not gonna use it, this is just practice." And then after I've done that, I say "Hah! Gotcha! That's the first three pages of your actual book!" -- which I doubt, at the time; but I hesitantly write another page or two, and then next day a few more -- still thinking this is just practice -- and finally I realize that yes, this _is_ the actual book."

He apparently fools himself every time w/ this process. :-) I've always thought it was great advice, but since I'm never going to write a novel, I can't try it out. It took me three years to write my dissertation (part of that time was TAing and parenting a baby, but her dad (my ex) did at least half the parenting stuff, bless him). I spent just about a whole school year writing the introduction chapter for my dissertation; it was 36 pages. When I got to the end of the dissertation, I realized that the introduction was all wrong for what I'd actually said, except the very end of it, and I vividly remember highlighting about 30 pages in my very primitive version of Microsoft Word, stopping just before the good stuff in the last six pages, pausing, breathing, and hitting Delete. One could say that first year was wasted, except I was too compulsive to start writing the body of the thing until I had an introduction. So I spent literally a few days writing the real intro, and that was that.
astarte59, where does he describe this process? Is it available online?

I tell all my students writing dissertations to write the introduction last. There are two reasons for this: the writer's block issue, and the fact that it is pointless to write an introduction before writing the rest. I always tell them to begin writing whatever portion of the work they feel most comfortable with or the most passionate about. That gets them over the writer's block issue, usually, and they can always fix that section later to make it flow with the rest of the text.

I also tell them that the delete button is their best friend. And, if they are passionate about a paragraph, but if it doesn't really work, then put it in a "junk" file. That way it's saved if they need it, but it doesn't get in the way. In all my own writing, including my dissertation, I've retrieved something from my junk file exactly once. But, I have often spent days on a handful of paragraphs, working them to death, only to throw them out later.

Interestingly, it wasn't until Videos/DVDs started coming out, where one could readily compare theatrical releases with "director's cuts" with extended scenes that I realized the parallels of paring down scripts and paring down prose. So often the extended footage has added nothing and deserved to have been cut for an economy of story-telling. The first film I really noticed this in was Close Encounters--even before I read all the reviews that said much the same thing. I try to use this or some other example as an illustration when I'm talking to my students. Since they aren't writing fiction, they don't always get my point at first, but they learn.

And, of course, I should listen to my own counsel in posting.
I love deadlines. I love the wooshing noise they make as they fly by.
I don't really suffer from blocks, per se (as a working writer in a very-low-paying industry, I can't really afford to), but when I feel even vaguely under-motivated I've found that a reliable trick is just to read something wretchedly awful. This triggers my "show them how it's done!" reflex, and recharges my batteries instantly.
I tend to suffer from "blank page fever", so I'll take ~anything~ even vaguely similar I've written (or maybe not) and start with that. Save it as the new doc. Overtype the title. Take out a bunch of the most obviously different stuff. Highlight then overtype the first para (while leaving the rest there so it ~looks~ like there's a whole heap of other stuff already there).

I'm just (re)writing one para, not the whole article/story/whatever - that's what my devious subconscious tells my conscious brain. Great way to fool yourself that you don't have 3 (or 10, or 300) scary blank pages to go before you're done.

I find that this gets me over the procrastination horizon, and once that's done I'm more able to just get on with it without that slightly-nervous mind-numbingly-terror-making feeling. :-)
zz9: "I love deadlines. I love the wooshing noise they make as they fly by."

Aww, I just noticed this, zz9.

*sniff*

I miss him.

Things have been much less cool and froody since he left this sector.

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