Tag Archives: how to overcome writer’s block

Jump-Starting the Creative Engine

The Complete Writer

Section IX: Creative Strategies

This book is a work in progress. A new chapter appears here each week, usually on Fridays. You can buy a copy of the entire book, right now, in PDF format, or, if you like, as a paperback. You also can find links to the chapters that have appeared so far at our special page for The Complete Writer. For details, visit our Books page or send a request through our Contact form.

[47]

Jump-Starting the Creative Engine

A client, needing to do rewrites of several chapters, suddenly felt a bit stymied. Mostly, I think, this happened because he was feeling tired and impatient to get finished. The end was in sight, and he really just wanted to get the book done!

While we were thinking about how he could re-energize himself for the last sprint, an Insight! occurred to me. And it’s an insight that appears to work.

Before inflicting it on him, I experimented with it on a passage of my own novel, where I also had run out of gas and dropped the narrative.

Here’s the idea: Whatever genre you’re writing in requires you to use a set of techniques specific to that genre. In the case of fiction, for example, these would be dialogue, narrative, description, setting, characterization, point of view, and the like. Other genres require other techniques—poetry, for example, demands more attention to imagery, iconography, meter, form, and the like.

When you feel you simply can not move forward with a scene, try writing that scene in some other genre. Instead of prose fiction, what if you wrote the passage as a scene in a stage play or a movie script? What if you wrote it in verse? What if you wrote it as a letter from one of the characters to one of the other characters? Or as a letter from you to your best friend?

With fresh ideas and action on paper, now go back and convert what you’ve written into the genre you’re actually writing.

Different genres require different writing techniques. Engaging these different modes requires you to engage a different set of mental skills and attitudes. If you take what you want to say and write it in a different genre, you force yourself to shift gears.

Let’s see how this worked on the passage of mine that ran out of energy.

First draft, replete with frustrated notes to self:

Shortly after midday, Jag Bova’s bands crested the pass through the low hills that cradled the southeast end of Rozebek Town. Warm as an Indian summer, the pleasant autumn afternoon was still and clear. A sapphire sky, unblemished but for a few distant, fluffy clouds, rested over the brown and gilded farmlands below. In the orchards, apple and walnut trees had already dropped their leaves, but here and there a maple or a pear clung to its scarlet and gold.

When he saw the village spread out before them, Bova’s heart filled with joy. Narrow lanes led out from the town plaza like spokes on a wagon wheel, the spaces between them filled with stone houses built four and six and sometimes even eight to a compound. Huddled together around common walls, the dwellings gained a little extra shelter from winter’s deepest cold. And there, entwined within the village, stood his own home, Rozebek Keep. Its high defensive fortifications were built of local gray stone, as was his private family compound’s tower that rose above the stokhed walls.

Alone among the Okan aristocracy’s fortifications, the Mayr of Rozebek’s keep formed a part of its village. The people’s homes came right up to the moat, making the keep an island in a small lake of human activity. Usually a kubnath’s or a mayr’s keep and dwelling stood atop a low rise anywhere from half a mile to two miles from its village. This difference pleased Jag Bova. If anyone disapproved, they hadn’t ventured to complain.

No one was complaining now. Around him men cheered, hooted, and laughed, delighted to find themselves within sight of home. [THEY SHOULD PASS A WATCHTOWER—AN OLD PERSON—MALE, FEMALE? SHOULD COME OUT WITH A COUPLE OF KIDS TO GREET THEM.]

A distant sound wafted up the hillside: music. Horns and fiddles, drums and tambourines, whistles and ghitters and recorders and pipes rose a merry clamor down in the village.

Semel, [WHAT DOES HE LOOK LIKE?] Bova’s monja, grinned when he heard the racket. “The party’s started without us,” he said.

One of the other men overheard and added, “Let’s get our asses down there! Don’t want to miss any more than we have to.”

“Little Mama’s a-callin’,” another voice exclaimed. Here and there, men broke out of line and started to run or jog ahead.

“Get a grip on those clowns,” Bova said to Semel.

“Whoa! Settle down there!” Semel shouted. A few marchers, rowdy and not inclined to settle anywhere just then, gave him puzzled glances.

“Now listen to that, boys!” Bova hollered. His large presence got immediate attention. “The folks have brought out the band for us. What d’you say we return the favor?”

“What’ve you got in mind, Mister Mayr?” a grizzled fellow on the sidelines hollered back.

“Let’s play them a tune or three of our own,” Bova replied. “Let’s us get ourselves

lined up here like respectable gents, and Semel, get the pipers and the drummers and let’s pipe the men to town.”

A ripple of laughter washed over the company closest to Bova and Semel. “That’ll give the girls something to remember through the winter nights,” someone remarked.

“That it will,” Bova said. “Into columns! Where are those pipers?”

The band began to fall into rough columns, and shortly two men with small bagpipes, a couple of drummers, and a fife player gathered at the head of the company. Meanwhile, Bova lifted bags of gear off his charger, loaded them on a pack pony, and climbed into the saddle. Semel scouted up company’s banner, unfurled it from its pole, and handed it up to Bova, who secured it to its saddle, where it waved cheerfully in the crystalline air.

DESCRIBE THE CHIVAREE

§

This was where I gave up. Wrote the second half of the chapter. Went on to another client’s work. Sent a bill. Came back. Gave up. Did some other paying work. Graded student papers. Came back . . . and so on. I simply could NOT get past this scene or move on to the next one.

Here’s what happened when I switched from narrative mode to screenplay mode:

Second draft:

Characters

Jag Bova Mayr of Rozebek, late the recipient of the honorific “Snow-Killer,” a massive chunk of a man with blond hair and a thick, curly blond beard.
Samel: Bova’s second-in-command (“monja”)
Gray-Bearded Regular Soldier
Assorted impressed fighters in the raiding bands of Rozebek
Pipers
Fifer
Drummers
Lieze Mayreth of Rozebek: Bova’s only wife; in her early 30s, plump, pretty, and self-contained.
Ada: Lieze’s mother; Bova’s mother-in-law, an aging image of her daughter
Erysa: Bova and Lieze’s elder daughter, a pretty young woman of about 16, as blonde as her father.
Mandeh: Bova and Lieze’s younger daughter, about 12
Deke: Bova and Lieze’s young son, about 8
Townspeople of various ages and gender
Rand, Belindeh, and Cammish: townspeople assigned to watch duty
Willard: Belindeh’s grandson

Scene 1

The crest of a low hill above a fertile valley. At the forested hilltop, birds sing, squirrels call, and a hawk drifts overhead as if watching the procession. Below lie farmlands, pasture, and the town of Rozebek, dominated by its mayr’s keep. The time is past noon on a clear, crisp autumn day. Jag Bova and Samel are leading their rag-tag band of Fighting men, all of whom are tired and anxious to get home.

As they reach the trail’s summit, they pass a stone watchtower. Its occupants, Rand, Belindeh, and Cammish turn out to welcome them.

Rand is a teenaged boy, Belindeh a hungry-looking middle-aged woman, and Cammish, an old man. They are all dressed in the homespun clothing of the time a nd place. Like the men, Belindeh wears rough work dungarees rather than a skirt.

Rand, fairly bouncing out the tower’s door: Mister Mayr! Mr. Samel! God bless you!

Belindeh, following Rand by some yards, advances to BOVA with arms extended and hugs him.

Belindeh: Thank God you’re home. Thank God!

Bova shakes Rand’s hand while he’s being hugged by Belindeh. Cammish, supported by a walking stick and hobbling after the other two, takes Samel’s hand and then Bova’s.

Cammish: Where’ve you been, boys? We’ve been waiting dinner for you so long the food’s gone cold!

Rand: Where are my brothers? Are they with you, mayr?

Bova: Sure they are, lad. They’ll be down the line a ways.

Rand starts to make his way along the trail in search of his returning brothers.

Belindeh: And Willard? Did you bring my grandson back to me, Jag Bova?

Bova: Yes, ma’am. And hale and hearty he is. In fact, yonder he comes—in search of you, I reckon!

Belindeh and Willard spot each other at the same moment and fall into each others’ arms.

Samel, soto voce, with a look at Bova” Thank God for small favors.

Bova: Getting all three of them back here alive and in one piece is more than a small favor, Sam.

Samel responds with an affirmative nod and a grim smile.

Cammish: Tough campaign, was it?

Bova: Yessir, Mister Cammish. That it was. You’ll be hearing about it soon. And all winter long, I expect.

Cammish: I’m sorry to learn that, Jag Bova. How many men did we lose? If you don’t mind my asking?

Bova: Thirty-eight. That’s the ones who made it into the other world. More are coming home wounded. They’ll take some time to heal. Those that ever do.

Cammish falls silent briefly, staring toward the village below.

Cammish: The boy has already ridden into town on his mule, a-spreadin’ the word that you men be coming up the road. Then he come back to greet you all, looking for his brothers. Listen to that racket down there!

From the distant valley, a sound of music and celebration reverberates up the hillside. The men toward the front who can hear it laugh and jostle. Bova and Semel also smile and look pleased.

Semel, grinning: The party’s started without us.

Fighting Man 1: Let’s get our asses down there! Don’t want to miss any more than we have to.

Fighting Man 2: Little Mama’s a-callin’!

Men break ranks and begin to run or jog ahead, down the trail.

Bova: Get a grip on those clowns!

Semel, shouting: Whoa! Settle down there!

Several men give Semel puzzled glances.

Bova swaggers in front of the restless Men: “Now listen to that, boys! The folks have brought out the band for us. What d’you say we return the favor?

Gray-Bearded Fighter: What’ve you got in mind, Mister Mayr?

Bova: Let’s play them a tune or three of our own. Let’s us get ourselves lined up here like respectable gents, and Semel, call the pipers and the drummers and let’s pipe the men to town!

Men nearby laugh.

Fighter (ironically): That’ll give the girls something to remember through the winter nights.

Bova (deadpan straight): That it will. Into columns! Where are those pipers?

Men begin to assemble into rough columns while Bova moves bags from his war horse to a pack pony. Two men with small bagpipes approach, followed by two drummers and a fife player. Bova mounts his horse, and Semel hands a banner up to him and Bova secures it to his saddle. It waves in the light breeze. Pipers, fifer, and drummers strike up a bright marching tune.

They march down the hill in a celebratory mood, the wounded riding in supply wagons. As they approach the town, townspeople come up the road, dancing to the sound of fiddles, drums, and horns. Women, children, and old men stream into the band of weary, road-worn men. Shouts of joy and relief ring out as family members find their wandering men. A few call out names repeatedly, getting no response.

Bova soon finds Lieze, Ada and his three children, proceeding up the road amid a knot of followers and friends. The moment Lieze spots Bova, she runs through the crowd to greet him. Ada grabs Mandeh and Deke, murmuring an admonition to let their parents say hello before rushing their father. Bova looks like he would melt into his wife if he could. He sinks his face in her long chestnut hair, which she has allowed to flow loose for the occasion.

Bova: Oh, my God, Lieze, I’ve missed you so!

Lieze hugs him tightly.

Lieze: We’ve all been worried about you. Thank God you’re home and safe.

Bova kisses her face and then plants a passionate kiss on her lips. A couple of men nearby cheer this. Lieze blushes. Bova laughs, takes her hands and spins her around him exuberantly. Ada approaches, the three children in tow.

Ada: Welcome home, son!

Ada and Bova hug. The three children can no longer be restrained. Deke jumps on his father, who easily lifts him for a hug. Bova puts him down and greets Mandeh and Erysa with hugs, too. The two younger children chatter excitedly at him. Erysa’s manner is more contained; she has a natural dignity like her mother’s.

The party of townspeople and returning fighters enters the town, many gravitating toward a park and paved square in the town center. Bova and his family go with them.

Lieze: We have a wonderful dinner for you—a lovely lamb, and your favorite sweet winter squash, and two grand pecan pies… And we have so much to catch up on. Wait until you hear what the kids have been up to all summer!

Bova smiles and laughs in undisguised pleasure.

Bova: What’s this son of mine been up to now?

Ada: He’s started to learn his fencing. Lieze decided he’s getting big enough to start some lessons, so old [NAME] has been coming to the keep every few days to work with him. And he’s been helping Mandeh and Erysa practice with the bow.

Bova: Is that so? Well, those two could shoot a walnut off a tree. And as for you, Mister Deke, can you hold your own against this Mandeh?

Deke: O’course I can! I’m so good now, I bet I can beat you, Dad!

Bystanders laugh. Mandeh rolls her eyes heavenward.

§

Interestingly, the stage-play iteration of the scene that I wrote so unhappily came out with a great deal more detail and action, with new characters, and with some convincing forward motion.

Writing stage directions forces you to articulate details that one too easily elides in writing narrative, simply because a fiction writer may have the large picture in his head and so presume that everyone else can see it. In a stage or movie script, you have to provide enough specifics to allow a stage designer, a costume designer, a director, actors, and a whole slew of other folks to bring that picture vividly to life for the audience.

The momentum established by the genre switch allowed me to keep rolling into the next scene, which eventually will bring the mayr and mayreth (approximately the equivalent of a Middle English duke and duchess) Jag Bova and Lieze to the problem of how to address the large number of families whose men were lost during the summer’s disastrous engagement with the enemy.

Third draft:

Shortly after midday, Jag Bova’s bands of weary, road-worn men crested the pass through the low hills that rose above Rozebek Town. Birds whistled in the hilltop forest, and a squirrel, still busy stashing acorns and pine nuts for winter, chattered shrilly as the men hiked past them. A hawk drifted overhead, looking for all the world like idle curiosity brought it to watching the procession pass.

The autumn afternoon was clear and crisp beneath a sapphire sky, unblemished but for a few distant, fluffy clouds. Below lay farmlands, pasture, and the town of Rozebek, dominated by its mayr’s keep. In the orchards, apple and walnut trees had already dropped their leaves, but here and there a maple or a pear clung to its scarlet and gold.

When he saw the village spread out before them, Bova felt his heart rise. Narrow lanes led out from the town plaza like spokes on a wagon wheel, the spaces between them filled with stone houses built four and six and sometimes even eight to a compound. Huddled together around common walls, the dwellings gained a little extra shelter from winter’s deepest cold. And there, wrapped within the village, stood his own home, Rozebek Keep. Its high defensive fortifications were built of local gray stone, as was his private family compound’s tower that rose above the stokhed walls.

Alone among the Okan aristocracy’s fortifications, the Mayr of Rozebek’s keep formed a part of its village. The people’s homes came right up to the moat, making the keep an island in a small lake of human activity. Usually a kubnath’s or a mayr’s keep and dwelling stood atop a low rise anywhere from half a mile to two miles from its village. This difference pleased Jag Bova. If anyone disapproved, they hadn’t ventured to complain.

A fieldstone watch tower stood at the height of the pass. Three villagers came out of the door at ground level to greet the arriving fighters. The first, a wiry youth barely more than a boy and not quite a young man, fairly bounced up the road.

“Mister Mayr! Mr. Samel! God bless you.” He bounded over and shook first Bova’s hand, then Samel’s.

The men at the front of the line pushed forward, pleased to see the first of their kin and friends that they’d laid eyes on in five months.

“Would that be Rand the cooper’s boy?” Someone said. Another laughed in unfeigned delight. “You’ve grown a good three inches!”

Shortly behind the lad came a tall, lank, and wrinkled woman clad in rough-cut homespun pants and shirt, her grey hair straggling out beneath a knitted woolen cap. She advanced to Bova with arms extended and wrapped him in a hearty hug.

“Thank God you’re home,” she exclaimed. “Thank God!”

“Sister Belindeh,” Samel greeted her, accepting the next round of handshakes and crushes. “You’ll be doing guard duty now?”

An even more grizzled man hobbled after her, supported by a walking stick. “Where have you been, boys?” the old fellow exclaimed. “We’ve been waiting dinner for you so long the food’s gone cold!”

A ripple of subdued laughter murmured through the men within earshot.

“Where are my brothers?” Rand asked. “Are they with you, mayr?”

“Sure they are, lad” Bova replied. “They’ll be down the line a ways.” Rand made his way up the trail to find his returning relatives.

“And Willard? Did you bring my grandson back to me, Jag Bova?” Belindeh asked.

“Yes, ma’am,” Bova said. “And hale and hearty he is. In fact, yonder he comes—in search of you, I reckon.”

Belindeh and Willard spotted each other in the same moment and fell into each others’ arms.

Samel glanced at Bova and said quietly, “Thank God for small favors.”

“Getting all three of them back here alive and in one piece is more than a small favor, Sam.”

His monja nodded and smiled grimly.

“Tough campaign, was it?” the old man asked, overhearing this.

“Yessir, Mister Cammish,” Bova agreed. “That it was. You’ll be hearing about it soon enough. And all winter long, I expect.”

“I’m sorry to learn that, Jag Bova,” said Cammish. “How many men did we lose? If you don’t mind my asking?”

“Thirty-eight. That’s the ones who made it into the other world. More are coming home wounded. They’ll take some time to heal. Those that ever do.”

Cammish fell silent briefly, staring toward the village below. Then he said, “The boy has already ridden into town on his mule, a’spreadin’ the word that you men be climbing up the hill. Then he come back to greet you all, looking for his brothers. Listen to that racket down there!”

A distant sound wafted up the hillside: music. Horns and fiddles, drums and tambourines, whistles and ghitters and recorders and pipes rose a merry clamor down in the village.

Semel, Bova’s monja, grinned when he heard the racket. “The party’s started without us,” he said.

One of the other men overheard and added, “Let’s get our asses down there! Don’t want to miss any more than we have to.”

“Little Mama’s a-callin’,” another voice exclaimed. Here and there, men broke out of line and started to jog ahead.

“Get a grip on those clowns,” Bova said to Semel.

“Whoa! Settle down there!” Semel shouted. A few marchers, rowdy and not inclined to settle anywhere just then, gave him uncertain glances.

“Now listen to that, boys!” Bova hollered. His large presence commanded immediate attention. “The folks have brought out the band for us. What d’you say we return the favor?”

“What’ve you got in mind, Mister Mayr?” a grizzled fellow on the sidelines hollered back.

“Let’s play them a tune or three of our own,” Bova replied. “Let’s us get ourselves lined up here like respectable gents, and Semel, get the pipers and the drummers and let’s pipe the men to town.”

A ripple of laughter washed over the company closest to Bova and Semel. “That’ll give the girls something to remember through the winter nights,” someone remarked, boldly sarcastic.

“That it will,” Bova said. “Into columns! Where are those pipers?”

The band began to fall into rough order, and shortly two men with small bagpipes, a couple of drummers, and a fife player gathered at the head of the company. Meanwhile, Bova lifted bags of gear off his charger, loaded them on a pack pony, and climbed into the saddle. Semel scouted up the company’s banner, unfurled it from its pole, and handed it up to Bova, who secured it to his saddle, where it waved cheerfully in the crystalline air.

§

Another draft to come. As you can see, a fair amount more is already in draft, ready to be transposed out of script format into narrative, description, dialogue, and whatnot.

This strategy was time-consuming. But it worked. And I suspect it’s no more time-consuming than sitting for minute after minute and hour after hour staring at an empty page or a blank screen.

If you’re worth your salt as a writer, you’ll write several drafts anyway. Why shouldn’t one of the drafts be in a different genre?