dealing with creative blockage

Dealing with the Ingenuity Jam

And: 7 tips for dealing with creative blockage

Novelists talk about “hitting the wall” and suffering “Writer’s Block” and I hope you haven’t come across these things yet if working on your NaNoWriMo 2020 project, but I think writers are wrong to think it’s their writing that somehow got stuck or log-jammed or gummed-up — it’s not the words, anyone can write a jumble of words that will ultimately make a 50 thousand word book — a computer can readily do it these days… no, it is a blockage in your imagination that has created the delay… it is not the diligent effort of writing that has become a burdensome task, but a lack of brilliance in your conceptualisation.

At the beginning you had a great idea, a wonderful concept, and an unbeatable design template, but after 10,000 words, or maybe 20,000 in your case, you lost your vision! Your mental image is not as good as when you started… it is your inventiveness and ingenuity that hit a wall, not the tap-tapitty-tap-tap of your fingertips on the keyboard.

So how do you revitalize your imagination?

Here are seven tips for dealing with creative blockage:

1: Take a trip into your world. In this thought experiment, you will be a visitor to the world you have created. So go to a scene (one you’ve already written) and look around. What do you see? Who do you meet? Who most interests you, and why? What do you like? What don’t you like? When you have finished your visit, go home (come back to the here and now) and write-up your experiences and report as if you are a journalist.

2: Seek the novelty of creation. Go visit DeviantArt and tap in a criteria into their search tool. I suggest you search under the name of your character or a word from the title of your book, or a spell or tool your hero uses. See what other creative minds are doing with that word.

3: Alter your pondering habits. You often hear entrepreneurs saying things like “let’s approach this from another direction” or “let’s see this from a different perspective” and that’s because they are “seeing” the project through the eyes of a creator / developer. They know they will need to see the concept through the eyes of a customer, so they tend to re-orientate their perspectives to come up with fresh ideas. Now, it would be nice to share ideas with your clients (those are your readers, if you are a novelist) but I don’t know if you would be brave enough to do this at an early stage in the development of your artwork (artists rarely like to have their work seen until it’s fully “done” — I know I don’t!) But you could get into the head of a potential reader, right? Do that now. Become a reader and ask some basics: where is this story going? Should the main character change? What do I like about the story so far? What would keep me reading? What would make me leave this book? What would make me cry? What would make me happy? What would make me scream? What would make me so excited I want to tell the world about this book?

4: Focus your creative energies. You’re writing a lot. That’s good. But it’s not the only creative thing you do, is it? You are a word maker, yes, so why not scribble some words? Get yourself a new ink pen (see my report here) and write some notes by hand. Use your ink pen to start (and keep) an “ideas” notebook, where you jot down things that come to mind.

Make a deck of cards, 52 would be desirable but twenty will do (make it an even number) one for each character / and or item or location in your story (like a custom Tarot set). Try to draw a picture on each. Add as much (or as little) decoration as you’d like. Once done, divide the deck into four suits: two good /bad quarters, then two slightly less good/bad quarters. You will make moral and reflective judgments. You could then play with your Tarot cards too. Shuffle them and deal six. What happened?

5: Develop imagination in other ways. Have you already completed your playlist for your project? (Recommended by NaNoWriMo). If you add your playlist to Spotify or Soundcloud (recommended) you are making a public statement. That’s good, it means you are making a commitment to your imagination. These will be songs / pieces of music that have inspired (or will inspire) your story. Also, another thing, have you already started your “Mood Board” on Pinterest? If not, get that started too. If you have done both these things already, take time-out to update them.

6: Allow stillness into your life. Have you given yourself sufficient quiet time? How can you expect the most complicated regions of your brain to function effectively if you don’t give them room to breathe? I don’t require you to meditate by candlelight in a yoga position (you can if it helps) but, on the other hand, I strongly suggest you put aside at least twenty minutes a day for “quiet time” when you deliberately shut-out the noise of the world (no phone, no interruptions) and let the stillness feed your spirit (and therefore your creativity). I know this is difficult in a modern world, and perhaps even more tough right now in 2020 (you might need noise-cancelling headphones) but it is a discipline that I am sure will offer you great benefits. Do it now. Slot stillness into your schedule.

7: Invest in creative play. Children have natural imaginations and are not defeated by the limitations of science, common sense, and rationality. But how do we get our vivid childhood imagination back? Well, a good way is to play. Play is an important part of the creative process, and sometimes we forget how crucial it is. So head over to a major e-commerce site (there are several to choose from) and buy yourself a gift… go ahead, you deserve it. You’re doing great. Here are the best:

  • Paper making kit (come on, you gotta get this if you’re a writer!)
  • Modelling clay kit
  • Make your own bath bomb kit
  • Decorate your own water bottle
  • Pom-pom making kit
  • Kit to make hand puppets
  • Mini kit to make animal candles
  • Kit to make balloon animals

Got any tips, advice, examples or suggestions? Tweet me @neilmach

My NaNoWriMo Profile here: https://nanowrimo.org/participants/neil_mach

And keep your ‘lil words rolling in! Good luck with your novel.
Keep your imagination healthy!

Neil Mach is author of “So You Want to Write Fantasy?” and host of the Myth & Magic fantasy writer’s podcast.

Writing the death of a character without shtick and cliché

or: how to kill a character in a way that will break your reader’s heart

Sooner or later you will get to the point where you have to write a purpose-filled death for one of your main characters.

This will be a character that you and your readership will already have built a successful relationship with (so the death will come as a shock). You’ll want to make sure you pick the right time and place for such a momentous milestone.

But be aware that this death will not be over in a chapter. And will take a while to build. There will be consequences (the five stages of grief, for example) and there will be an accumulation of events. The story will build-up to the moment and rumble on afterwards.

Note, also, that the path to the death scene might not be a slow decline for your character, but rather an ascendant (perhaps transcendent) climb to what you might call the pyramid of martyrdom, where the sacrifice is the pinnacle of the character’s sum achievement and worth in your story.

Ask yourself these key questions. What does your character:

  • Most fear?
  • Stand for?
  • Stand against?
  • Most love?
  • Excel at?
  • Symbolize?

Also, think about this: how would your character want to be commemorated? Memorialised?

Now set your mind against all these possibilities and think of the worst possible outcomes for your hero by turning things completely around and switching things on their head (this will also help you to show-not-tell).

Examples:

The hero fears spiders? Getting attacked by a multitude of giant spiders is too easy. What about this? The hero has to save a spider, but this triggers an early death (perhaps squished by a mutant fly)

The hero stands for honesty? The hero is tried and executed for telling lies is too easy. What about this? The character has to defend a known liar out of compassion / duty, but this causes a fall (the liar survives) and the hero suffers a wretched death

The hero opposes all forms of bullying? Attacked by a notorious bully and beaten to pulp is too easy. What about this? The hero has to form an alliance with a notorious thug to help humanity / others, but this causes a hero’s fall from grace and subsequent death in ignominy (everyone thinks the hero has been the bully all along)

The hero loves animals? Savaged by a much loved pet is too easy. What about this: the hero must destroy a large number of animals to save a family / loved one / the world. But this leads to the hero’s disgrace and gradual decline toward darkness & extinction. No one will ever know that the hero sacrificed his/her own values ​​for the sake of those he/she loved

The hero excels at swordsmanship, but is brought down by a complete beginner is too easy. What about this? The hero’s excellence at the craft propels him/her to the top of all ranks and makes him/her dominant in the field, but this means the hero does not learn simple (new) lessons / tactics that everyone below his/her position will have discovered / performed / practiced. I mean, everyone uses a crossbow these days, don’t they? How did he/she not know?

The hero is famed for being insightful but is brought down by an unthinking idiot is too easy. What about this? The hero’s perceptual intellect enables him/her to identify dangers that lay way ahead, but the hero becomes so consumed by remote dangers that he/she does not see or recognize a greater and more deadly threat that sits right under their very nose.

So try these character turn-rounds / transformations / volte-faces / capitulations… and approach the death of your character while avoiding melodrama and stale tropes.

Neil mach is author of “So You Want to Write Fantasy?” and host of the Myth & Magic fantasy writer’s podcast.

Writing Acoustically

NaNoWriMo is about applied writing … it’s not about planning, editing or publishing. It is a month of writing every day… of getting words down in “long form.” And getting miles-and-miles of words done too. It sounds overwhelming when you think about it like this, a marathon-run of words, but you will need to achieve thousands of new words a day if you want to write a book. 50k is your minimum, but you’ll aim for 80k and above for a fantasy novel. Thousands will have achieved it before you did and thousands will complete their NaNoWriMo 50k word marathon long after you have finished yours…

So I thought I’d go over the ABCs of applied writing ahead of November… and what I mean by APPLIED WRITING is the essential exercise of writing (so to speak) rather than all refinements and those time-wasting post-production procedures that go into the craft of authorship and (although they are important) can’t be done unless you have your 50 thousand rough words in the first place.

I have broken these ideas down into easy chunks, but before I go into more detail, I want you to compare yourself to a recording artist. How does a pop musician work? Does a musical artist create ready orchestrated sounds that are fully configured, handsomely produced, professionally designed, neatly packaged, and appropriately branded? Of course not! Their songs start life as rough, low-tech, rudimentary, perhaps even crude & clunky pieces of simple improvisation… yet one day those crude little songs will transform into ultra-sophisticated masterpieces that audiences will fall in love with.

It’s the same with you. Just like a musician, you will work with simple improvisations before you go into the studio to construct multidimensional masterpieces.

Think of NaNoWriMo as a rehearsal room and NOT as your recording studio. The month of November is where you lay down your most rudimentary, low-tech demos. This is where you will formulate some rough ideas that can be (much later) produced, packaged, and perfectly branded in the studio.

So, what is writing acoustically?

To continue to labour the analogy between you and the pop star, do you suppose that a musician walks into a rehearsal room with a pile of sophisticated instrumentation and loads of machinery? Mmm, no. They don’t, because that would hamper their creative drive and hinder versatility. It would stop their creative juices flowing. They enter a rehearsal room with their simplest instruments. A guitar to strum. A keyboard to create a riff. Maybe a drum. And, of course, a voice to hum some tunes. They wouldn’t want anything to interfere with the fluidity of their raw creative activity.

I read that the Rolling Stones were (literally) locked in a dark closet and told (by their manager) not to come out until they had written a new song. This was at the beginning of their career, and after a few songs written this way, they were permitted to come out of the closet, but only into the hallway! I know another guy who shuts himself away in a shed in Northern Scandinavia for two weeks. He won’t come out until he’s written ten songs. That’s the goal and the deal he set himself.

So what does acoustic mean? Well, for storytellers like us it means: not electrically enhanced, not mechanically honed, not reworked, not rearranged, and certainly not redesigned or edited. It’s the simple, raw form of words. The half-idea put into approximate language. And left for later.

Try these acoustic approaches to applied writing:

  • writing acoustically, make notes with pen & paper. Tolkien made his notes in long-hand (though he suffered severe rheumatism.) Jane Austen used a quill. So did Charles Dickens, plus he was left-handed, so he had to adapt his nibs. If pen and paper were good enough for these authors to write their notes, it’s good enough for you
  • writing acoustically, try some abstract thinking, do these simple exercises: i) some people are visual thinkers, so start a picture based mood board ii) some people are logical thinkers so make a list of all the place names you’d like to use in your novel, be as fanciful and magical as you like, but put the list in a spreadsheet and make it alphabetical iii) some people are pattern thinkers, so make a play list of sounds that inspire you and create the playlist on Spotify or Soundcloud
  • writing acoustically, try writing in little squirts! Daydreaming like you just did (above) is good, but add ten words to your last vision. Do not check it, do not sharpen it. Just write ten words. Done that? Don’t check them, don’t go back and never edit. Be strict with yourself. Now write for 10 minutes. Yes, now. A ten minute burst. Do it. Set a timer. And stop. STOP after ten minutes. No going back, no editing, no sharpening. This is just flexing and loosening what I like to call the “muscles of your mind” and that last ten minute writing sprint will, of course, be nonsense. But we can use it, oh yes, we can use it, as you will see shortly…
  • writing acoustically, play with your words. Tolkien didn’t just create words, he created entire languages. If Tolkien isn’t good enough for you, what about Shakespeare? He invented over 1,700 words, most are still used today. If those authors did it, so can you. Let no one tell you that you can’t create your own words. It’s what authors do. It’s our thing. In fact, it’s our business. So go back to your ten word vision (above) and replace one (just one) of those ready-made off-the-peg words with your newly made-up word. It feels good doesn’t it? Does it look right, sat there on the page? Does it sound right? Does it fit? Read it out LOUD. Now. Be proud. Because you’re writing like Shakespeare. You’ve only been doing this for about thirty minutes and you are already creating language!
  • writing acoustically, play with sentences. A sentence is just a string of words that, when intertwined, make some sense. It is a vehicle of expression. So go back to your ten minute writing spurt and find a string of words in among all that tangle. Try to fashion a string of words that you locate in that littered mess… try to find something that has implication: something that perhaps titillates, or invites, or conceals, or suggests or exposes. When you’ve found or assembled something, write it out, that new sentence. Now take a break. You earned it!
  • writing acoustically, play with vibes. This is where you will want to go deep inside your own head. What are your genuine emotions, desires, or repulsion right now… at this exact time? What is it that really worries you? What pleases you? What’s eating you? What’s defeating you? What’s gladdening you? Put these thoughts down. In words (you don’t have to use complete sentences unless you really want to, so use bullet points) but play with the vibes of the moment. Can’t find the right words? No problem, use pictures (add them to your mood board) or sounds (add them to your playlist)
  • writing acoustically, play with concepts. A concept is a mental structure. A vague idea is called an inkling. But a concept is perhaps more fully formed than an inkling (though not by much). Sometimes it is better to use symbolism than words to get close to an abstract concept. I call this bit of writing the fancymongering bit… (that’s my own word, not Shakespeare’s) but you can call it whatever you want. What you will want to do here, though, is focus your mind… focus on something that can’t be grasped. But can this “thing” be experienced? Go back to the bundle of nonsense you wrote in ten minutes and see if there is something hidden in that muddle that can be felt? Is there a colour that can be seen? Or a flavour that abides? Anything you can smell? Anything that oozes, sprouts, or drools? Something that pounces out or hisses in your face? Yes? Good. Circle that word or sentence (or thought). And be proud. Because now you’re playing with concepts… and that’s the hardest part of novel writing. Well done. Many congratulations.

    Next week: creating baseline structures & cause and effect in novel writing

Neil Mach is the author of “So You Want to Write Fantasy?” out NOW on Amazon Kindle