My Novel Will Kill Me: Combating Writer’s Block

If you want to know the truth, here it is: right now, I really, really hate the number eight.

Hate. Hate like how everyone who watched Breaking Bad hated Skyler because she was a selfish, passive-aggressive shell of a human being; hate like how much everyone hated Wuthering Heights because it’s the most glorified abusive relationship between a sociopath and a moron that’s ever been wrongfully considered “literature” and yet has managed to persist in the cannon to this day (please, for the love of John Bonham, tell me I’m not alone in this); hate like how everyone hates One Direction but can’t really pinpoint why. I hate the number eight. (The two words even rhyme – so you know I mean business!)

Because, “eight” is the number of times to date that I have written my novel. And “eight” is the number of times I have trashed it.

From its short story form to its many full-length incarnations, I have toiled and stewed and skipped many a shower (writing is gross, guys, you just gotta roll with it) for the sake of this novel, and have on many hopeful occasions declared to everyone I’ve ever met, “This is it! This is the final draft!” only to be abandoned every time. (Now this is starting to sound like Wuthering Heights.) At this point, my obsession with this thing is nearing a Moby Dick level of tunnel-visioned fixation, and I hated Moby Dick so you can imagine how much I grumble.

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My ninth draft is currently a “great white whale” of a blank word document with nothing but a blinking cursor (Ahab, is that you?) keeping it company, and that’s because, honestly, I have no idea where to start. I’ve started it every possible way I can think to start it, and all those ways have turned out to be either dead-ends, or the road in the yellow wood that leads to a 147 Hours type of situation where I’ve gotta cut off my own limbs or learn to purify and drink my own urine or something. I ain’t about that. But the thing is, for the first time in a long time, I want to write it – and feel like I’m finally the right version of myself to write it.

Writer’s block. It kills. Just remember what happened in Adaptation.

The good news is, over the years I’ve managed to procure a number of Writer’s Block antidotes that have proven themselves to be incredibly successful. So if, like me, you’re currently in a passionate love-hate relationship with your novel, or if you’re simply looking to start a new writing project, try these four tactics from yours truly (and then feel free to send me hate mail if it doesn’t work).

1. Write out song lyrics.

When I’m in the mood to write but can’t figure out where to begin, it helps me to first get into the physical rhythm of writing. Sometimes just the simple act of scribbling or typing words onto a page can jog my mind awake and I’ll start to feel new words coming. Most often when I’m doing this exercise, I find myself unconsciously writing out, in paragraph form, the lyrics to songs I know by heart – the most common of which is Okkervil River’s, “Black Sheep Boy #4,” my favorite song of all time (though sometimes my hero, Nick Cave sneaks in there by surprise, as Nick Cave is wont to do). It’s not the lyrics themselves that count when I’m writing them out (although they are truly spectacular; I’ll revisit this song [and Nick Cave, as well] in a future post about music as literature – stay tuned!) – it’s the smell of ink on paper, the feeling in my fingers as they scrawl out words in my loopy, half-cursive handwriting, and my mind suddenly tuning out everything else and focusing on the physical movement of writing. Sometimes that’s all it takes to tell your brain, “Writing’s happening, bro, help me out here!”

2. Watch inspi-writing movies. (That’s right. Inspi-writing.)

The best thing about going on yearly writing retreats with T, is the fact that we keep each other motivated. Looking across the table to find her furiously typing away on her laptop (even if it’s just a rage-aholic Facebook status about how people are always misusing Russian words) – or sometimes just knowing she’s out there somewhere, writing – at once inspires and guilts me into closing the Netflix browser I’ve had going for six hours and getting some writing done, too. Watching movies seeped in writing and literature works in a similar way: you see a world you know you need to be in, and hear words that make you want to contribute your own. My personal go-tos are: Dead Poets Society, Finding Forrester, and Midnight in Paris (thanks for the rec, T!)

3. Find the perfect soundtrack.

I really do believe there is some near-cosmic connection between music and literature. I can’t quite explain how or why it happens, but I have never once written a story, novel, or post for this blog (you should see me when I’m writing Mixtape Friday – it’s just a clusterfuck of alternating between headbanging, air-drums playing, and typing) without having a playlist – or sometimes even just a single song – on repeat in the background. Music helps to not only set the mood, but to keep it consistent so that you’re always engulfed in the world you’re creating. It’s even more helpful when writing in the first-person; there’s a certain extent to which you have to become your narrator, for a little while, and music can trigger just the right emotion, mindset, and memory to achieve that. Right now my current novel project has me switching from Kansas’s “Dust in the Wind” and the XX’s, “Intro” in turns. Probably the weirdest and most unlikely combination ever, but 70 pages into this new (and hopefully final [but let’s not get ahead of ourselves, Jayne]) draft tells me it’s working.

4. Write something else.

Interestingly enough, this tactic is how T and I ended up writing our co-authored Young Adult novel, Take on Me. I needed to take a break from the fourth or fifth draft of my novel, and she needed to take her mind off editing hers. What was originally supposed to be a Young Adult mystery novel about two high school boys, turned into a bad-ass, lady bromantic, day-long debaucherous (if that’s not a word, I’m making it one) adventure with two whip-smart, sarcastic, burrito-eating girls. The thing about putting down a project, is it gives you time – to refocus, reorder, and reconsider – so that when you do finally come back to it, you’re not as daunted by “what’s supposed to come next” and can look at the piece with distance and fresh eyes. Not only did T and I voraciously tackle our individual novels (I plowed through my next draft [which has since been trashed…oi vey] and T edited like a mad-woman until she was finally done), but we ended up with another almost-300 pages worth of brilliant fiction. It was the best, most exciting, and most enjoyable thing we’ve ever done to date – which, I’m sure, is just the beginning.

And if you’ve got any tried and true tactics for combating the “block,” I’m all ears!

– Jayne

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