Writers get stuck, but now they don't have to stay that way. This creative and comprehensive guide to overcoming writer's block is chock-full of innovative exercises, anecdotes, and advice from dozens of authors. It also includes practical "life prep" lessons to keep writers from becoming stuck in the first place. It's indispensable for all working writers—from newbies to pros. Want to get unstuck and stay that way? This book shows you how.
Writers tend to gravitate toward one another. Chris Mandeville lives near my house, but I had never met her until she came as a curious customer to a garage sale we were holding. It was serendipity. Chris is very active in the Pikes Peak writing community, and by working with her I got the opportunity to give several workshops at the prominent Pikes Peak Writers Conference, and I'm keynote speaker this year. Chris asked me to contribute some advice for her book 52 Ways to Get Unstuck, and many other writers also added insights and suggestions. NaNoWriMo participants, look here if you need a swift kick (er, I mean "inspiration"). – Kevin J. Anderson
Many a writer has dealt with frustration that comes with writer's block, a problem that Mandeville's book, the first in a series, addresses head-on. According to Mandeville, knowing the roots of one's writer's block is not the key. Instead, the book's five parts outline a number of pragmatic exercises designed to help writers take immediate action. The first part, on "clearing the way to write," covers making writing easier from day to day. It includes advice like creative to-do lists and using calendars for non-writing activities, informing family and friends of a writing schedule and sticking to it, creating a writing space, and articulating goals without overburdening yourself. The remaining sections include "The Right Place at the Write Time," "Character Juice," "Story Mechanics," and "Mind Openers." Mandeville also makes it easy for writers to randomize the order in which exercises are done, either with a pack of playing cards, or simply by tackling one random exercise a week over the course of a year. Some of the exercises include "Chat Up Your Character," "WWYCD? (What Would Your Character Do?)," "Nick a Name," and "Ask a Writer." The variety of the exercises, supplemented with quotes from professional writers, ensures that every writer will be able to gain in some way from Mandeville's advice and techniques.– Publishers Weekly
"As a firm believer that quality writing can be taught–and learned–I found this book a superb addition to the canon of top-notch guides for both new and practicing authors. It's lucid, insightful and a joy to read."– Jeffery Deaver, international number-one bestselling author
"This book goes beyond the old stand-bys, offering unique and creative ideas for thwarting writer's block. Great for the beginning writer, as well as the seasoned veteran."– Bob Mayer, NY Times bestselling author
Both practical and inspiring, Chris Mandeville's 52 Ways is sure to become a writer's go-to guide for getting unstuck. She reminds us to dig deep, to remember that a mind at play is a creative mind, and to honor our gift by giving it the space it needs in our lives."– #1 NY Times Bestselling Author Susan Wiggs
"If you want to know what professional writers do for mental detox to get their creative juices flowing, 52 Ways to Get Unstuck is your source."– Wendy Burt-Thomas, author of The Writer’s Digest Guide to Query Letters
"Chris Mandeville's 52 WAYS TO GET UNSTUCK is mental WD-40 for the working writer. If you've ever been stuck — and who hasn't? — you need this book!"– NY Times Bestseller Vicki Lewis Thompson
"Finally, a how-to book for writers that doesn't rehash all the familiar exercises. Chris Mandeville has not only filled the pages with tangible ways to break through your crippling moments, but also backed them up with anecdotes from other writers who've put them to work."– Wendy Burt-Thomas, author of The Writer’s Digest Guide to Query Letters and The Everything Creative Writing Book
Being "stuck" as a writer can mean lots of different things. It can mean not knowing what to do next in the plot or when to reveal a critical clue. It can mean not knowing how the heroine should react when she meets the hero. It can mean writing words you hate and subsequently delete. It can mean the inability to get in The Zone where the words flow easily. It might mean being stuck on a specific element, or it might refer to a general feeling of "everything I write is wrong." It can mean sitting down to write and no words will come. The reasons for being stuck are also varied, including having an overly critical inner editor, feeling too "in love" with our own words, and being unable to focus, among many others.
Ultimately, to get unstuck it's not essential to know how you're stuck or why. The exercises in 52 Ways to Get Unstuck can help regardless of the details of your personal version of writer's block. In fact, even when you do know the exact reason you're stuck, attacking that problem head-on can sometimes be less effective than coming at it sideways with a random exercise.
This book is divided into five sections:
Part One: Clearing the Way to Write—Getting Your Life in Order
Part Two: The Right Place at the Write Time
Part Three: Character Juice
Part Four: Story Mechanics
Part Five: Mind Openers—Getting in The Zone
Whether you decide to select an exercise at random, or to target a specific exercise to combat a specific problem, it's highly recommended that you complete Part One in its entirety first because it contains five "life prep" activities that help pave the way for a productive writing life. If you attempt an exercise from another section before you've readied yourself and your life for writing, you're not as likely to be successful getting unstuck and staying that way.
After you've completed the prep in Part One, you'll find that Parts Two through Five each contain thirteen exercises for a total of 52.
With 52 exercises, you can use a deck of playing cards to randomize the choice of exercise. There are four categories of exercise, each corresponding to one of the suits in a deck of cards. Each exercise within a category corresponds to a card in that suit.
For example, in Part Three: Character Juice, the thirteen exercises pertain to character. This character category is represented by the "Hearts" suit, and the first exercise in that category corresponds to the "Ace of Hearts." Don't let it trouble you that this is exercise #14 of the 52. There's a chart in Appendix A that shows at a glance which exercises go with which cards.
With any standard deck of playing cards and this handy-dandy chart, you can easily randomize the selection of exercise. Pull a random card out of the deck and do the exercise indicated. Easy-peasy. Or if you decide you want to do exercises from just one category, that's easy too. For example, to choose randomly from the Character Juice exercises, separate all the Hearts cards from the rest of the deck, then draw a card (a Heart) from this subset.
From PART ONE: Clearing the Way to Write—Getting Your Life in Order
Writers are often stuck because we haven't cleared our lives and minds for the task of writing. Whether you're stuck right now or simply wanting to prevent becoming stuck, it's a good idea to take stock of your situation and make changes that will set you up for success.
Often I find that writers whose job is to write don't get stuck. They tell me they can't afford to get stuck writing any more than a teacher could afford to get "stuck" teaching. Imagine a teacher standing idle for hours in front of his class. Imagine what he would say when explaining this to his boss or students (or the students' parents):
"I can't teach. I have teacher's block. No teaching will come out."
So why is it okay for a writer to fall back on "I have writer's block" as an excuse not to get the job done? The short answer: it's not. Or at least it shouldn't be.
The activities in this section provide practical suggestions for readying your life for writing. You can think of them as "prep" for treating your writing with the same consideration you would any other job (even when you do have another job). Doing this prep will pave the way for you to be a productive, successful writer, as well as make it less likely you'll accept writer's block as an excuse not to get the job done.
Sample Activity: Freedom to Write
We all have responsibilities, worries, and pressures in our day-to-day lives. There's a whole lot of "stuff" that can easily come between you and your writing. To achieve the necessary freedom in your life for writing to occur, it's critical to get the non-writing components of your life in order, starting with processing through this check-list:
What else can you tidy up or clear away from your non-writing life? Add those items to the check-list, then process through those, too.
If you find you have difficulty mentally letting go of your non-writing life when it's time to write, make it a habit to go through the following steps immediately prior to your scheduled writing time:
Don't underestimate the value to your writing of getting your non-writing world in order. When we have a handle on our non-writing responsibilities and a way to mentally and emotionally let go of them while writing, we can attain the freedom necessary to get lost in our words. And we all know that's when the magic happens.
From PART THREE: Character Juice
Some writers seem to believe that their characters communicate with them. Are you of the mind that you "channel" your characters as if they are spirits with minds of their own? Or do you think that's a bunch of hooey? Either way, acting as if your characters can tell you their hopes, dreams, fears, histories, and the solutions to their own story problems is a process that can get you unstuck. Therefore some of the exercises in this section ask you to consult your characters. Whatever your beliefs, I encourage you to play along.
All the exercises in this section pertain to "character" in one way or another. It's probably pretty obvious that you'd turn to this section if you're blocked when it comes to a character, or if you can't seem to figure out what a character would do given your story situation. It may not be as obvious to try a character exercise when you're stuck on something like a plot point, and even less obvious if you're having difficulty getting words of any kind on the page. But these exercises can help then, too.
Why? Because characters drive the story. Just like characters are why readers care what happens next, the characters are also why we as writers care. Remembering why you love your hero or hate your villain can help you come up with that special something that turns the tables in the plot. Discovering a tidbit from a character's backstory can help you get excited about the story again. Immersing yourself in your character's world can inspire you to create stronger conflict. Learning what motivates your character can help you beef up the tension in your sagging middle and get you to the other side.
Whatever you're stuck on—no matter the details, regardless of the cause—spending time with your characters can help you see beyond the block and get you moving forward again. So buckle in for some exercises designed to give those characters some juice, make your story juicier, and get you juiced about writing again.
Sample Exercise: Accessorize
Sometimes we're so focused on the big, important things about a character that we neglect to develop other aspects. Like we make sure our character is wearing a shirt, pants, and shoes before leaving the house, but we don't note the accessories: the fabric of their sweater, the earrings they have on, if their socks match.
It may not be important what color underpants your character is wearing, or at least not important enough to include in a character sketch, much less in a chapter. But think about this character: an active duty Army Captain who wears tie-dyed boxers under his uniform. If you discovered this about your character, would it change the way you thought about him? This could open up all sorts of possibilities for getting unstuck, even if the underpants ultimately stay off the page.
When I suggest "accessorizing" your character, however, I don't actually mean with underwear and other garments. Instead I suggest adorning them with a hobby or other pastime, a sport or game, a quirk, a phobia, an addiction, a weird habit or unusual skill, even a pet.
If you look closely, you'll find examples in popular fiction: Robert B. Parker's Spenser is an ex-boxer; Nero Wolfe raises orchids; Indiana Jones is famously afraid of snakes; Elvis Cole has a feral cat and Stephanie Plum a pet hamster; and several of Jeffery Deaver's antagonists have hobbies—a watchmaker in The Cold Moon, a bug collector in The Empty Chair, and a cook in The Kill Room.
These accessories sometimes have bearing on the plot, but mostly they're in the background providing texture, complexity, humor, humanity. So if an accessory is mere "backdrop," why create one for your character when you're stuck? I think author Todd Mitchell says it well:
I often like to remind myself that you can see more stars if you don't look directly at them. There's a physiological reason for this—something to do with there being more low-light receptors off to the sides of your eyes—but it's a good metaphor for writing. For me, it means that it's sometimes best to focus on the characters in the background, or seemingly off-center details and actions. Doing so can lead to surprises that bring the main character or story into focus. It's also a good way to get unstuck. Letting your mind drift off-center allows you to make unexpected discoveries that, more often than not, give light to the darkness. – Todd Mitchell, Backwards
So choose an accessory for your character. Go ahead and do it now—I'll wait.
Be bold. Don't be afraid to make a choice. This isn't something you can get wrong. If you choose something that ends up not working, forget it and try again.
Once you've made your choice of accessory, think about how the character came to be involved in that particular activity, and create a brief backstory timeline from the first time s/he participated until present (or when s/he stopped). Then ask yourself what the emotional, financial, legal, relational, psychological, spiritual, and physical ramifications of this activity might be. Even if this activity is not a big part of the character's life in the present story, what residual evidence is there? How has it shaped him/her?
Still stuck? Write a scene pertaining to your character's accessory, and see if that shakes things loose. But don't look too closely at it or you might miss the star that lights your way out of the darkness.
From PART FOUR: Story Mechanics
Do your story mechanics need a mechanic?
There are a lot of complex moving parts to a story. When they're all working properly and in harmony, you barely notice they're there.
Like a car. You turn it on and it comes alive, purring and whirring and humming as it should. You put it in gear and go, never thinking about the mechanisms at work . . . until something goes awry. Instead of a hum there's a kachunk, the purr becomes a grinding sound, the whirr a squeal. Now you're very aware of the mechanics and the fact that they're not working properly. Maybe something's a little out of whack, or maybe it's a serious break. Either way it must be repaired.
With your story, when you get stuck it might be a big kachunk that requires serious fixing, or a little squeal that simply needs grease. Either way, the exercises in this section can help get your story running smoothly again, so you can cruise along without any grinding noises to distract or concern you.
Ready? Set? Writers, start your engines.
Sample Exercise: Ask the Opposition
When you're stuck, do a one-eighty and check out what's in the opposite direction. Turn the story problem upside down. Reverse it, as Terry Banker does:
Often after I've written myself into a corner, I reverse expectations to become unstuck. For example, what is the last thing a reader would expect (within the rules of my story)? What is the last thing my protagonist would ever do? If he would never think about betraying his father, I create a situation where he must betray his father. By reversing an idea and exploring the outcomes of opposite motivations, not only do I get unstuck but the new multidimensional characteristics that emerge lead me to more original and complex characters. – Terry Banker, author, ghostwriter, and story consultant
Editor Tiffany Yates Martin frequently sees writers get stuck when they're trying to force a story to go where it doesn't "want" to go. That's when she recommends they try the opposite.
I am a believer that you can't force a vision on a story. If you've created real, vivid characters and a juicy situation, eventually it takes on a life of its own. When this happens, if you try to impose your will over the will of the characters, they freeze up. They boycott you. When your characters refuse to performbecause you have written the story into a corner it doesn't want to be in, I recommend writing a scene—even just a throwaway scene—where the exact opposite thing happens.
Do you want your protagonist to leave her husband and run away with her lover? Then make her find out she's pregnant and can't leave. Or give her husband a terminal illness so she can't abandon him. Or make her lover discover his ex is pregnant and he won't leave her. Take the thing that ruins the story you are trying to tell—directly flies in the face of your intentions—and write the scene that way.
The scene you write may not be where the story ultimately goes. It probably won't be if you use extreme, bodice-ripping, melodramatic examples like I did. But that's the idea! Take the craziest, most completely opposite thing you can think of and write it, justas an exercise. More often than not, even though you won't use that actual idea, it will jostle something loose, and you'll see an avenue out of your blind alley. – Tiffany Yates Martin, FoxPrint Editorial
The next time your characters boycott you, make it "opposite day." Put your shirt on backwards, sit on the wrong side of your desk, and turn your character on his head by writing a scene where you take what you think needs to happen and write the opposite. After all, if the pennies won't come out the bottom of your precious porcelain childhood keepsake piggy bank, what do you do? You turn it upside down and give it a good shake. Better yet, take a hammer to it because that's that last thing anyone would expect.
From the Conclusion
No writer has to be at the mercy of writer's block. In many cases it's possible to prevent writer's block from rearing its ugly head by prepping your life for writing— treating writing with the consideration you would any other job, organizing your life to accommodate, setting clear expectations for yourself and your loved ones, and then showing up for work.
If despite these faithful efforts you do find yourself stuck, you don't have to stay that way. Don't believe anyone who tells you otherwise. Writer's block can be formidable, but you're not powerless against it. There's no reason to sit back and take it—take charge and do something about it.
With this book you have 52 weapons at your disposal, so when writer's block does rear its ugly head, go on the offensive. Attack. Beat it back, then keep it at bay. Because you're a writer. You need to write. Readers need to see your words. Let's not keep them waiting.