Saturday, July 20, 2013

Writer’s Block or How to Jumpstart Your Imagination

Polly Iyer (Guest Blogger)

I exchanged Facebook posts the other day with an author lamenting about writer’s block. I commiserated because I’m having the same problem with my work in progress (WIP).
The difficulties prompted me to reach for something on top of my computer desk that I haven’t looked at in quite a while. It’s a book by Jason Rekulak called The Writer’s Block, which I purchased years ago in a gift store. The title is a play on words because the book’s dimensions are 3” x 3” x 3”. Get it? Block. Inside are 786 ideas to jumpstart your imagination. On the first page is a quote by Joseph Heller: “Every writer I know has trouble writing.” This from the author of the bestselling Catch-22. I felt better already.

As I thumbed through its stiff pages, I saw ideas for writers to unclog their brains and stir their imagination, many geared to short stories. But short stories can and do evolve into novels. For mystery writers, one idea was to research an unsolved murder that happened in your town or to write something from the point of view of a murderer…without mentioning the murder.

Throughout the “block” were single word triggers: Waiting. Lust. Prophecy. Tattoo. Discipline. Loser. Superstition. Homeless. Flirting. Cloning. Panic. Deadline. Outcast. Hangover. Any one of those words could create the concept for a short story or a novel if a writer allows her imagination to flow. (I shall allude to the writer as feminine.)

I’m a visual writer―I see stories as movies―so the last word, Hangover, reminded me of the film The Lost Weekend. Did the screenplay come from a book? I wondered. Yes, by a writer I’d never heard of, Charles R. Jackson. He wrote the dark, terrifying story from personal experience. As I read more about him, I thought he’d be a fascinating character worthy of protagonist status. And another idea was born, maybe to be resurrected at a later date when I searched for an idea for a new book.

One idea from the Block suggested tracing the journey of a five-dollar bill through five owners. How much or how little did the transaction mean to the different people involved? This suggestion reminded me of another old movie with Shirley MacLaine and an all-star cast, The Yellow Rolls Royce, which tracked three owners of, what else? a yellow Rolls Royce. I remember thinking what a clever premise, and now more ideas sparked to life.

How are different writers inspired when they have writer’s block? Tom Wolfe, journalist and novelist, claims most writers first search for a theme or a character, who more times than not turns out to be themselves. He’s inspired by a milieu or setting he knows nothing about. He chose Atlanta for A Man in Full in much the same way John Berendt chose Savannah for his “nonfiction novel,” Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. I picked New Orleans for my only series, and though I’ve been there a number of times, my research took me to dark places in my mind that stimulated subplots I would never have thought about if my city had been elsewhere.

Annie Proulx claims yard sales and estate sales can serve as a treasure trove of inspiration. Think about that silver comb and brush set. Who owned it? Does it conjure a story? Barbara Kingsolver gets the interesting names for her characters from a baby book. John Irving always writes his last sentence first. That seems to open the floodgates for him. That would be putting the cart before the horse for me.

Amy Tan revives stories told to her by her parents. David Sedaris’s dozens of odd jobs―think Santa elf at Macy’s during Christmas and selling marijuana―are fertile material for his writing. J.K. Rowling took an ordinary kid, Harry Potter, and put him into extraordinary circumstances when he learns he can perform magic.

Elmore Leonard, one of my personal favorites, says, “Criminals are so much more interesting than people up at the country club talking about their golf game or their stocks.” Couldn’t agree more. Anne Lamott stresses fantasy in her assignment to students to write their acceptance speeches for the Pulitzer or their interviews with Charlie Rose or Oprah. If only. Anne Tyler keeps hundreds of index cards filled with lines she overhears, then pulls them out for inspiration. Isabelle Allende always starts a new book on January 8th, the day her grandfather died. She goes to her office early in the morning, lights candles for the spirits and the muses, and meditates. Fresh flowers and incense fill the room. Then she opens herself completely to the moment.

Personally, I like Nora Roberts’s philosophy. Writing is her job. She goes to work in the morning, parks her butt in a chair, and writes. That certainly works for her.

My story ideas always develop from a character and a “what if” situation. One page in The Writer’s Block suggests writing about your greatest fear. Mine has always been losing my sight, so I wrote a character who became blind in mid-life. It wasn’t difficult to project my fears into my heroine as I put her into frightening positions. I felt her. I was her.

Being hindered by writer’s block is a new experience. Something has always generated an idea when I least expected it, mostly at night when the lights are out. Thumbing through The Writer’s Block has stimulated some story plots, and now I want to chuck my bogged-down WIP and start a new book. I have a great idea.

What spurs your imagination when you’re in the throes of writer’s block? How do you break free?

Polly Iyer grew up on the Massachusetts coast, north of Boston. She’s a Daphne finalist and the author of six published works of suspense, all with a touch of romance and characters who tread ethical lines: Hooked, InSight, Murder Déjà Vu, Threads, and the Diana Racine Psychic Suspense series, Mind Games and Goddess of the Moon.


Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Welcome, Polly. Thanks for joining us on PDD. I should be working on my WIP right now.... ;)

Polly Iyer said...

You're welcome. Liz. I'm working on mine too. Actually, two of them.

Donnell Ann Bell said...

What a fantastic blog, Polly. Thank you! I agree with Elmore Leonard. Criminals are much more interesting than people at the country club... doesn't mean I want to hang out with them :) Can't wait to read Threads.

Ellis Vidler said...

Social networking is not conducive to finishing your book! See where I am right now?
I sympathize about writer's block. Sometimes it just doesn't come together--but it will. I have faith in you! They all do in the end. Threads is a wonderful book. Good job, Ms. Iyer!

Polly Iyer said...

Thanks for dropping by, Donnell. Leonard's characters are always interesting. I probably wouldn't want to hang out with them, but the country club set doesn't appeal to me either.

Polly Iyer said...

I agree, Ellis. I'd get a lot more done if I shut off the Internet. But then I wouldn't be able to hang out with all my virtual friends. I hope you're right about it all coming together. So far, so bad.

Michele Drier said...

Just like your books, Polly, I loved this blog. And "A Writer's Block"! My favorite way to jog things loose is "what if...". It doesn't always make it easy to live in the here and now, though!
"Threads" is on my list.

Sasscer Hill said...

I've been having some . . . I'll call it "resistance" rather than"block." I do what so many writers do -- start thinking what I'm writing at the moment is boring and stupid which is not conducive to streaming out pages.

If I'm smart, I stop and think, what could happen here that would be cool, or shocking, or scary? Sometimes I go over my plot outline to remind myself where the story goes next. Then I make it happen.

It is so easy to get stuck, then get depressed, then get that Oh-I-give-up feeling. Fight the bastard!

There that's my best advice and I'm sticking with it.

Polly, I so admire what you accomplished with your books. I'm proud to be your friend!

Polly Iyer said...

Hmm, Michele, I posted this earlier, even have it in my email, but it didn't show up. So I'll post it again.

Thanks, Michele. "What if" is the real kickstarter, and almost anything can do it if you're receptive. Of course, I have a dark, twisted mind, so certain words can start a book. The here and now isn't for me. I need to put myself in my imagination to get anything going. Loved that you stopped by.

Polly Iyer said...

Lynda Sasscer, I like what you do if you're smart, stop and think what could be scary and shocking. Love shocking. But you can't get depressed. Write one of your terrific short stories, then go back to the book.

I'm proud to be your friend too. You are one person who writes what she knows, and it comes across clearly.

Maggie Toussaint said...

I get writers block from time to time. What works for me most of the time is to figure out where I lost interest in the story. Then I cut everything past that and start over. Whatever I had the people doing the first time through, I have them doing the opposite on round 2. And the stuff I cut? I save it in a temp file, just in case.

Nice post, Polly!

Polly Iyer said...

Thanks, Maggie. I think your system is a good one. I might try it right now. Slash, slash. Great to see you here.

Sandra Parshall said...

When I'm stuck in one spot, it's usually because I'm not letting the characters do anything to advance the story. Sometimes I feel as if I'm moving too quickly and have to slow the pace, but that's usually deadly if nothing much is happening. I ask the "What if?" question for each character and jump back into the action, whether it's physical, emotional, or investigation-related.

Thanks for being with us this weekend, Polly.

Patricia Winton said...

Polly, what a great post. I have the little Writers Block, but I haven't looked at it in a while. I'm going to dig it out and see what it inspires.

I find that writers block is tied to problems I'm encountering outside my writing life. I'm trying to put the Agatha Christie quote from her autobiography about when she became a professional to work for me.

I, too, am glad to be your friend.

Polly Iyer said...

It's great that you can control your characters, Sandy. Mine have a mind of their own. Right now my psychic isn't behaving, and I'm not sure what she wants to do. She'll tell me sooner or later. It was fun being here.

Polly Iyer said...

Patricia, I started writing in the first place to forget outside problems. It has worked amazingly well. Once I get into a story, everything else disappears. You may not want to be my friend when I get to Rome, my favorite city in the whole world, and don't want to leave. Until then, I cherish our online conversations.

Peg Brantley said...

What a great post, Polly! Thank you! I've got a new story I'm trying to sort out. One moment I think I'm going in a good direction and the next I'm happy to walk away and ignore the whole sad thing.

Your post not only makes me feel like I'm in good company, it reminded me of a book a reader told me about… THE POCKET MUSE: Endless Inspiration. Think I might play around with that for a bit.

Peg Brantley said...

What a great post, Polly! Thank you! I've got a new story I'm trying to sort out. One moment I think I'm going in a good direction and the next I'm happy to walk away and ignore the whole sad thing.

Your post not only makes me feel like I'm in good company, it reminded me of a book a reader told me about… THE POCKET MUSE: Endless Inspiration. Think I might play around with that for a bit.

Polly Iyer said...

Peg, I'm sure you'll find your way out of the maze. Sounds like we're all in good company. I'm trying to get through two critiques of the same chapters, and I'm totally confused. It's not be able to see the forest for the trees dilemma. I just looked up The Pocket Muse, and it looks terrific. What I liked about The Writer's Block was the plethora of ideas. Whatever works. Thanks so much for dropping by.