Thursday, July 31, 2014

Ideas to Help You Avoid Writer’s Block

By Max Elliot Anderson

Since I began writing action-adventures & mysteries for readers 8 – 13, a little over twelve years ago, I’ve never experienced writer’s block. The same has been true for scores of columns, anthology submissions, short stories and more. I think there are good reasons for this and they’ve helped me to complete nearly 40 book length manuscripts so far.

I don’t outline. When our children were small, I used to tell them exciting, original stories almost every night. Those stories simply developed as I went along. So I adopted a creative method, at the beginning of each new story I am about to write, of telling myself the story, into a recorder as if I were back with my children and telling it to them. Those notes are typed and put away in a file until the first draft of the manuscript is finished.

This exercise, at least, gives me the beginning, middle, and end of the story as well as the setting and major plot lines. It also allows the story idea to run through my mind two times. From there, as I write, it’s as if I’m watching a major motion picture develop right in front of me, in my head. That’s because characters show up, and situations arise, that are as much of a surprise to me as they will be to the reader.

While writing scenes with lots of dialog, I actually enter the scene, in my mind, and begin interacting with the characters. This works for me because of the various ways I’ve set the scene ahead of time.

The room I took over for writing used to be our son’s bedroom. So far I have left the room pretty much the way he had it with sports posters, pennants, and other “boy’s room” reminders on the walls. Recently my family has been pressing me to do a makeover of the room. I probably will, but it’s been a great place to sort of hold onto the essence of what a boy is all about as I write.

In my writing room, I also like to keep props around to help put me in the mood of the story. That once included a chipmunk I caught out in the front yard. I put him in one of my children’s old hamster cages. The bottom was filled with redwood chips and together they created a sort of deep woods feeling in my mind. At our house, catching chipmunks isn’t very difficult. They run into the drain spouts when you walk outside. Since the hamster cage is made of clear plastic, and has a small trap door on the top, all I have to do is place the open door over the end of the spout and wait. The chipmunk sees light at the end of the tunnel, runs toward it, and scampers right into the cage. Bam!

I like to write winter stories in winter and summer stories when it’s hot out. In this way, I can simply step outside and experience the same conditions my characters are experiencing as they may be lost or stranded in the wilderness. Of course, I’ve been known to turn the heat off in winter and open my windows, or crank the heat up for a warm climate story, while the conditions outside are freezing. I’ve also turned the heat up even when it’s sweltering outside. I try to do these things only when I’m home by myself.

Because of my extensive experiences in film and video production around the world, there are many images, people, settings, and circumstances from which to draw for my writing. I also find it helpful to recall lots of characters, stories, settings, and activities from my childhood. We grew up in rural Michigan. Some years it snowed so hard, we could climb up on the roof of our house and jump into towering drifts below. Along with my friends, we got into all sorts of fun and adventure on our bikes, climbing trees, digging forts in the ground and covering them with branches and dirt, swimming, and playing in the vast woods, or streams in the area.

Next, I do all the necessary research. Normally, stories present themselves and they often contain elements or subject matter that I know nothing about. Research includes the Internet, books and articles from the library, and email or phone interviews with primary sources or experts. These experts have sent me videos, coffee table books, articles, reference books, and other resources.

Still, my style is to write as the story appears in front of me. Kids tell me that reading one of my books is like being in an exciting or scary movie, and it’s the same for me as I’m writing. It’s a good scary and not dark. Even though I may know the beginning, middle, and end, there are countless other details and characters that seem to show up at just the right time in the story.

I always burn a candle which helps me stay focused while I’m writing. I don’t burn one at any other time in the process. It’s hard to explain, but this one thing seems to keep me in the mood to write and to stay on track.

In the background, I play mood appropriate music for the scene I’m writing. If I’m working on a scary scene, that music can be pretty spooky, and I keep the lights very low in the room. Conversely, comedy scenes need funny music. There have been many times over the years when all I had to do, in order to visualize what should happen next, is lean back in the chair, close my eyes, listen to the music playing in the background, and the perfect piece I need flashes in my mind. And most of my writing is at night. That, too, probably reminds me of those early storytelling days with my kids.

I usually write up to three chapters in one sitting, and never start one I won’t finish in that session. At the end of the session, I write on a post-it-note, “Next.” Then I jot down a few notes about what would happen next if I were to continue writing.

You may have more distractions around your house than I do, and that could be problematic. Our kids are grown and the house is pretty quiet when I’m writing. I close the door anyway. That isolation, along with the music and visual props have helped me avoid writer’s block.

Hopefully some of these techniques will help you, too.

BIO: Max Elliot Anderson
Using his extensive experience in dramatic film, video, and television commercial production, Max Elliot Anderson brings that same visual excitement, and heart-pounding action, to his many adventures & mysteries for middle grade readers 8 and up.
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