Pebble by Pebble
by Pamela Moore Dionne
So one day as you sit in front of your computer staring at a blank screen you find that the words don’t come easy. Maybe they don’t come at all – not even when you hog-tie them and try to drag them onto the screen. What do you do? Are there tricks to getting something down in print that will give you a place to start – a bare beginning from which to take a leap of faith? Over the years, I’ve hit many boulders in the path to a completed manuscript. I’m here to tell you that there’s usually a way over, under, or around every obstacle on the road to publication.
Sometimes a block is only a bump, like a nudge that gets you to dig deeper into your subject. Other times it’s a mountainous directive telling you that the bridge you’re trying to cross is no longer functional – turn back. Sometimes you have to let go by getting up and walking away from the computer. I’m not telling you to abandon your work altogether. What I’m saying is get away from it long enough to reframe your thought processes around whatever has you stymied. Then come back and approach it with a fresh attitude. But don’t do this too often or you won’t finish anything.
There are times when it’s wise to stay the course by keeping your rear end planted in that chair and your fingers hitting keys until you break through the block. Go ahead and blacken several pages with whatever words come to mind so you’re no longer facing a large screen covered in white space (like white noise only worse). What you write may be nothing more than a list of unrelated words or ideas. It doesn’t matter. You’re filling a page and that, alone, may knock your fear out of the way. Often when I do this I give myself a pep talk. It might go something like this: You can do this, just relax and write anything that comes to mind. Or I might ask myself questions like: What do you believe in this moment? Once my answers start to flow my thoughts are free to wander where they may, which frees me to write.
When I’m writing nonfiction on assignment I find other ways to break through the barriers and keep my work flowing. It boils down to the Five Ws of journalism plus a couple of important additions. With any assignment I know several things up front: Who is involved in this story? What is my subject? When did this happen? Where did this happen? Why did it happen? (This last one is pretty much the whole purpose in telling the tale.) I add the following to the five Ws: Am I writing to entertain, educate, or open a discussion? (This will determine the style of my approach.) One final question to ask myself is what do I believe about this topic? By answering these seven queries I can create a roadmap for my story. Once that’s in place most nonfiction articles write themselves.
I think it’s harder to push through writer’s block in fiction than in nonfiction for one reason; characters can and should take over the story. This is a sign that you’re doing everything right. Characters often highjack even the most thorough outline. Actually, it’s my experience that they are more likely to blast past an in-depth outline than a thumbnail sketch of one. The problem is that once you notice you’ve ceased traveling the path you laid out for yourself you either surrender control of the journey or hit a wall that stops the words from flowing. At least for me this is when I bump into my personal blockade and have to ask myself the big question: What do I do now?
Here are a couple of my favorite tricks:
Free writing, like free association, is a great way to get your writing chops back on track. Not very long ago I wrote a couple of funny goats into a manuscript in which goats played a minor part. The reason for doing this was simple; I’d hit one of those walls where words and ideas weren’t flowing down my synapses and out through my fingers onto a page. The contributing factor was that I’d recently interviewed a woman who makes gourmet goat cheese. Clearly that information was fresh in my mind. It appeared goats were all I could think of. I wrote a couple of chapters about some interesting little bucklings named Romeo and Puck. They were funny enough to keep me writing for approximately two chapters and then dump me back on track with the real story. A few months after I’d returned to effectively writing my novel, I went back and removed all references to Romeo and Puck. I didn’t throw the section away. I stored it in a file I call book ideas because I think this might make a decent children’s book. The point here being no idea is worthless.
Are you part of a regular writing group? If you aren’t I recommend you find one that works for you. The group should be challenging without crushing your creativity. Don’t join a workshop where members tear your work apart and offer no real feedback. A good writing group will make your work more accessible to future readers while they act as your first audience. If they don’t understand something you’ve written you can bet other people will have similar problems. Find a group where the rules are clear and members give suggestions with good developmental reasons for giving them. And whenever you hit a blank page that simply refuses to accept words, turn to your group for brainstorming ideas. I love my writer’s group and rely on them to have my back whenever I need it.
Remember the thirsty crow in that old Aesop’s Fable? The one who couldn’t reach the water in the bottom of the pitcher? He solved his problem by dropping one pebble after another into the pitcher until he filled the entire thing with stones and the water was high enough for him to drink. That’s what we writers have to do when we face a blank page while thirsting after the perfect story. We need to drop words onto the page until we fill it up and the story rises to the surface. It’s all about the pebble-by-pebble approach. Keep focused on getting one pebble or word down at a time. You’ll find that if you don’t focus overly hard on the final outcome you’ll be able to continue dropping those words in one-by-one. The result will be a story and you will have beaten writer’s block.
Pam Dionne loves mystery • writes fiction, nonfiction and poetry • runs workshops • is a feminist • cooks fabulous food • loves to share recipes • has a great dog and an even greater husband • loves mountains and the beach • thinks there may be an explanation in string theory for the existence of ghosts and just published the first book in a trilogy about that possibility. Blue Truth: Bleed Through is available now in print and ebook at Amazon.