Monday, October 25, 2010

Writer's Block ~ Hillary Manton Lodge

A graduate of the University of Oregon’s School of Journalism, Hillary Manton Lodge is the author of Simply Sara and the best selling novel Plain Jayne. When not working on her next novel, Hillary enjoys photography, art films, and discovering new restaurants. She and her husband, Danny, live in the Pacific Northwest. You can follow her adventures in life and publishing at

Writer’s block.

It scares the living daylights out of me. When the words dry up, when I can’t see three seconds into my protagonist’s future, I panic. What if that’s it? What if my brain anomaly, the one that prods me into writing fiction in the first place, has suddenly healed itself? What if the stories have dried up? What if I can’t write anymore?

I never said this was a logical thought process, but it’s the truth.

I spent a lot of time stuck when I was writing Simply Sara. It wasn’t Sara’s fault. I just didn’t know what to do with her. I didn’t know how to be in her head.

I tried doing other things. I tried immersing myself in the Sara experience, taking up projects Sara would do in the book. I cleaned. I took walks. I read other people’s book. I watched Gilmore Girls. I talked with friends, talked with my husband. My efforts would help for a while, but before I knew it, I was back in the gooey gumdrop forest.

“You don’t have a synopsis,” my agent pointed out. “That’s your problem.”

Not the answer I wanted. I hate synopses. But the fact of the matter was that at some point I would need to turn in my book, and handing over a partial manuscript while twirling my hair and whining about writers’ block wasn’t going to help my career.

So I buckled down and got stubborn, learning a few lessons about writing along the way:

1.)If I’m not sitting at my writing station, it’s amazing how much work I won’t get done.

2.)Thinking about writing is not writing. Talking about writing is not writing. Researching is not writing. It’s not a quality writing time vs. quantity writing time issue. You can’t get quality without putting in the quantity.

3.)That said, skimping on preparation is a recipe for disaster. I used to be a seat-of-the-pants writer. But I also used to take two years to finish a book. Like I said, I hate synopses, but I found a way to trick myself into writing them.

Behold the magic of the 3x5 card. Frankly, I get a little emotional about them. Every time I have a plot point, a line of dialogue, a joke, or a character insight, I write it down on a 3x5 card. I write it down, and then I insert it into the stack in chronological order. If I don’t know where it goes, I let it float around near the back for a while. If a card doesn’t fit into the scene, I hold it out for later. If I get additional ideas that center around what’s written on the card, I scrawl it in the margins.

The cards are small, so they’re easy to carry around. They also provide the feeling of accomplishment every time I write through the sketch on the card. It’s a good way to trick myself into making preparations for a non-linear process. Also, when it comes to writing the synopsis, those cards are the perfect roadmap.

4.)Sometimes when I’m stuck, it’s because I don’t know my character as well as I need to. Some people will do pages and pages of character analysis before they start a project. I don’t. It doesn’t make me a bad person. I like diving in the deep end and letting my characters introduce themselves as I go. It works for a while, but like any introduction, it’s just the start.

Maybe one of these days I’ll be the sort of person who fills a notebook with notes about a single character. I’m just not that self-actualized yet.

5.)When you stop writing for the day, consider writing a note or two about what you see next in your head. If you finish a chapter, start the next one, even if it means writing something really stupid as a first line. I find it easier to rewrite something stupid than start from scratch first thing. For me, even creating the new chapter document helps. I’m weird like that.

6.)Figure out what works for you. Writing is an act of introspection. Just because so and so does such and such doesn’t mean you have to. Writers, I’m convinced, only do so because something is amuck with our brain wiring. Seriously – we spend untold hours writing stories about our imaginary friends. This not a bad thing, it’s just different from everyone else. No two writers are wired the same; it’s hubris to think one methodology will work for everyone. Just because one author uses a typewriter, or another swears by a fountain pen filled with India ink and parchment made from the skin of a virgin goat…it doesn’t mean it has to be your thing. Writing on paper rather than a computer doesn’t produce a purer product. Writing in the morning isn’t better than writing after dark. It’s personal preference. Do you think better in the late afternoon? That’s your best writing window.

Writing a book is like a long-term relationship – it’s not always easy, it’s not always fun, but it is rewarding. At least I think so. And I like to think Sara agrees.


Tina F. said...

GREAT post. Behold the power of #1!! It IS amazing how much we won't get done if not sitting at the computer. :-)

Sarah Forgrave said...

Great post, Hillary! I wondered how you channeled your inner Sarah. :)

Sarah Forgrave said...

oops, meant to type Sara (without the "h")...can't help it, it's habit. :)

Julie Garmon said...

Loved this! Just curious. How big is your stack of index cards when you're finished writing them? I tried this method once, but it didn't feel quite natural for me. Still, I love the security of lots and lots of index cards.

Thanks! (enjoyed meeting you in Indy)