At a Loss for Words

Every writer runs out of words – at least good words – at some point. I’ve come to the conclusion that this is both normal and inevitable. Nature goes in cycles, from the seasons to the life, death and rebirth cycles of everything from stars to mayflies. From writers to dancers to architects, everybody hits points where our creativity and energy go dormant. Stars and mayflies, however, do not have to meet deadlines, performance schedules and project completion dates.

What do I do when words and energy run out? I remind myself of the opening to Ecclesiastes, Chapter 3: “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven…”. So the first thing to do is not panic. The words are gone now, but they’ll come back.

The first thing I don’t do is not write. It’s frighteningly easy to say “The words aren’t coming, so I’m not going to try today.” Next thing you know, you haven’t written anything new for a week, or a month. Or longer. For me, not writing is never an option. Even if you can’t do more than journal and brainstorm, write something every day. I also edit previous scenes. They get me back into the story and (hopefully) remind me of why I wanted to write it in the first place.

Or maybe you don’t have to write out a full scene. When I’m really desperate, suffering from severe ‘page fright’ – the conviction that everyone down to chimpanzees could write the story better – I resort to my fallback habit: lists. In this case, it’s what I, as the author, need to have happen in a scene, and with whom. Mine often look like this:

  • Introduce Imogen and mother
  • Morgan panic
  • Alix lie to save him
  • Morgan disgusted at lie
  • Reaction of servants? How can A. be guest and employee?
  • Study or entry????

Far, far, far from a full scene. Not even the bare bones of a scene. But at least there are a few building blocks of life swimming around in the primordial broth. I can see the major players and necessary action, which gives me something to work with.

And I know from personal experience that the thing with the most question marks behind it is where I need to start. Sometimes I’m stumped for the location, as above. Sometimes it’s whose point of view to write a scene in. Whatever it is, the question marks tell me what is not nailed down that needs to be.

It helps to leave a scene that’s not working. Is there another scene you can imagine more clearly? Write that one instead. You might discover that the problem scene might not need to be in the book, or it could work better in another character’s point of view.

An excellent way to avoid blockages like this altogether is to allot time in your schedule for stuff that you like, but which has nothing to do with writing. Physical activity is crucial for good health. We don’t all have the time or money to join health clubs (I sure don’t), but we can take daily walks most of the year. Take a few minutes to put on a good song when you’re alone and boogie around the room. Seriously. If all you can do is chair dance, do that! The music alone gives you a mental break.

People do a lot of things when they’re stuck. I also find cooking and needlepoint soothing. What do you suggest to refresh yourself?

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