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Three tips for overcoming writer's block
I've been working on the third scene in my first attempt at writing a full-length novel this past week (here are the links to Scene 1 and Scene 2). As always, I employed my mental GPS to map out the direction I wanted to take in this chapter; however, this time, my preparations steered me squarely into an unyielding wall of writer's block.
I typically get writer's block when I fail to plan upfront or paint myself into a corner. In this case, the conflict and consequence I had intended to use didn't work for me. Instead, I wanted both to be stronger.
I've seen other writers suggest temporarily getting your mind off your writing and returning to it later with a fresh perspective when you experience writer's block. Their suggestions for distraction often include the following:
Writing a list of your favorite authors and books.
Reading a novel.
Writing something else.
Watching a movie.
None of these options worked for me. Whenever I returned from a brief hiatus, I still couldn't figure out how to end my scene. I also began experiencing procrastination, which always kills my endeavors. So, I took a different approach. I spent three days kneeing myself in the brain, with pages of my story wrapped around my leg for extra rigidity, using the following strategies:
Even though I knew it didn't work, I wrote the entire scene and highlighted all the weak areas I noticed.
I read through my outline again and took notes.
I reread the first two scenes I had already written and took notes.
After completing these three steps, I knew what was wrong with my scene and was able to fix it. I also made minor changes to my first two scenes to strengthen them. Furthermore, this exercise strengthened and changed the ending of my novel significantly.
I don't want to spoil anything, so I'll wait until my story is complete to share my original idea so you can see how it grew and evolved during the writing process.
I've never used these three steps to get myself unstuck, but they worked surprisingly well. My most significant benefits were avoiding procrastination, keeping my mind on my story, and strengthening my novel overall. The only way to solve a problem is to work on it. I couldn't have achieved the same level of success had I distracted myself by contemplating my elbow or watching my favorite film, O Brother, Where Art Thou, again.
So, here it is—the result of my stumbled-upon, three-step strategy for overcoming writer's block. Let me know what you think.
Pickup: Chapter 1, Scene 3
John King pulled to the curb behind Washington Elementary School, yanked his Ford F250 into neutral, and slid his foot off the clutch. The Lariat XLT model had been luxurious when his ancestors sailed it across the Atlantic on the Mayflower, but now it showed its age. The tan seats were threadbare in spots, and he could see metal through a hole he had worn through the floor mat and the stock brown carpet where he rested his heel while working the accelerator.
John picked up his phone and checked the Mōv app to see if he could pick up a quick gig on the way home. Similar to ride-share apps, Mōv allowed John to use his truck to haul beds, sofas, and other household junk for Mōv customers for a negotiated fee.
Three nearby opportunities appeared on John's screen, along with the customers' bids. The proximity of the first listing appealed to him, but the bid price of $20 didn't.
John rubbed the gray streak growing from his bottom lip to the tip of his cropped chestnut beard, then clicked the Negotiate button and suggested $35.
A white van pulled away from the curb in front of John, so he shoved his truck in gear and rolled forward, placing his passenger window even with the alleyway between the street and the school. Then, he cranked the transmission back into neutral and waited for Lennon.
Groups of kids wandered down the alley in their Halloween habiliments. John watched as a parade of princesses, pirates, and poltergeists played down the passage before heading off toward their respective homes once they reached the street. Gerold Rand's Doberman ran back and forth, snarling at the costume-clad children through dying weeds that clung to the chain-link separating the kids from the beast. John couldn't tell which was more ill-tempered, the dog or Gerold.
John's phone buzzed. The Mōv customer countered with $30.
"Hardly worth the fuel," John said, accepting the bid and scheduling the recliner pick-up forty-five minutes out.
The customer acknowledged the time, and an animated dollar sign jumped into the wallet icon at the bottom of John's screen.
John closed the Mōv app and opened a game of Sudoku. He stared at the paltry numbers peppered around the grid. John drew lines in the air over the numbers, silently moving his lips as he counted with his finger.
"Got it," he said, punching a 1 into the grid.
His phone buzzed, and the number turned red, indicating an error.
John swiped the Sudoku app closed and checked the alley. Two small girls dressed as salt and pepper shakers moseyed down the passage, each hugging a stack of books. The girls shared a one-armed embrace when they reached the street, then parted ways.
John looked at his silver Casio, twisting the angle of the watch to darken the LCD numbers in the autumn gloom.
"Where ya at, Len?"
John tapped his phone, opened a browser, and searched the school's website for a phone number. Tap. Tap. Tap. Back. Tap.
"Why the hell don't ya stick your number at the top of the main page?" John asked, impotently scolding the school the way he did other drivers on the road when they, too, used their brains as paperweights.
After a few more pecks with his finger, John excavated the school's number from beneath a pile of staff profiles and dialed.
"Washington Elementary School. My name is Skyleigh. How may I help you?"
"Yeah, ya know if my son got held after school?"
"What's his name?"
"Lennon," John said. "Lennon King."
"One moment. Let me check."
A quiver of musical notes shot one by one into John's ear as Skyleigh put him on hold.
John switched his phone to the other ear and impatiently thumped his steering wheel with his free thumb.
John twisted in his seat, checking for any kids who might have seen Lennon. The only movement along the neighborhood street was the gray, sun-bleached ear of a deflated, Snoopy-shaped yard decoration rippling in the biting breeze; the other half of its head caved in against a shroud of fallen leaves.
"Sir?" Skyleigh said.
"I checked with Mrs. Anderson, and Lennon left with the other children."
"You sure?" John asked.
"Yes, she said he left with his friend, Paul."
John hung up with Skyleigh and called home. No answer. He called Paul's house next. After five rings, Paul's mom, Tarah, invited him to leave a message. John hung up and stuffed his phone between his leg and the seat. He wrestled the old Ford into gear, stomped the accelerator, and raced towards home.
John's phone buzzed beneath his leg as he rolled through a stop sign and into the busy street separating the school's neighborhood from his own. A white Nissan traveling faster than John anticipated bore down on him. John punched the gas to avoid getting hit as both drivers exchanged honks and fingers.
John bounced through the gutter dividing his neighborhood from the main street, then grabbed the phone from under his leg and checked the notification.
It's time to head to your scheduled Mōv. You will arrive in approximately 28 minutes.
John sped down the middle of the street, giving himself a buffer in case a kid sprung out from between the cars lining both sides.
John pulled under the carport of his red-bricked house, slid out of the truck, and unlocked the side door leading into the kitchen.
"Lennon, buddy? You home?"
John rammed his keys into his pocket and grabbed a cold triangle of leftover toast off one of the breakfast plates left on the table on his way to the bedroom area at the back of the house.
John took a bite of the stale, buttery wedge as he pushed the door to his son's room open, razing a Lego village Lennon had architected behind the door. The specter of dirty socks and underpants haunted his senses, but no Lennon.
John walked back outside, wiping his greasy hand on his work jeans, then locked the house and climbed back into his truck.
"Dammit, Lennon! Where'd you go?"
John drove to Paul's house, screeching his tires as he raced into Paul's driveway. He slammed on the brakes, nearly smashing into the garage door, and exited the truck.
"When I say I'm gonna pick ya up, son…." John said as he bounded to the front door and banged on it with the side of his fist.
John could hear stirring from within the house, but nobody came, so he pounded the door again.
"Hey, Mr. King," Paul said, opening the door.
"Whoa! What happened to you, buddy?"
Paul stood in the entryway holding the door with one hand and cradling his side with the other. A pork-chop-shaped bruise blossomed beneath tear-streaked grease paint on the left side of his face, and his eye had swollen shut.
"That lard-tard Grundy Pluck body-slammed me after school," Paul said.
"Tonya," Paul said. "She's always tugging wedgies out of her butt crack."
John tried to hide a smirk but failed.
"You got a headache?" John asked, bending down and looking at Paul's pupils.
"Yeah, and my side hurts super bad."
"Lemme see," John said.
Paul lifted his shirt to reveal a plum-colored bruise clawing across his chest and around his left side.
"This hurt?" John asked, gently prodding the area.
Paul winced and nodded.
"Your mom home, or she still at work?"
"She's working 'til eight," Paul said.
John's phone buzzed in his hand again, and he checked the screen.
Based on your location, you may be late for your Mōv. Please depart soon to maintain your Average reputation.
John sighed and swiped the yellow warning away. The Mōv app would ding his reputation if he didn't arrive at the appointment on time. One more blot and Mōv would cancel his account. Unfortunately, the app had already demoted him from Good to Average for being a minute late to a job last week, which limited him to lower-paying tasks, hence today's lousy gig. John needed the extra income to pay for his phone, and rebuilding his reputation would take forever.
Why'd I have to go and take this damn job today?
"I gotta go, buddy," John said, "but is Lennon here with you?"
"No. Len took off right after Grundy Pluck splattered me," Paul said. "I thought he ran home."
"I checked. He ain't there."
John glanced at his watch, then looked back at his truck.
"Look, Paul. I gotta run an errand, but I'll check on you when I'm done, OK?"
Paul nodded again.
"I'll be back in a little bit."
John walked to his truck and opened the door. He paused, clutching the handle.
Where else could Lennon be?
He'd either head home or to Paul's if he was afraid. Could Lennon have returned to the playground to check on Paul, and John missed him? And what about Paul? What if he had a concussion or broken ribs?
John looked at his phone again, then at Paul, still standing in the doorway.
John threw his phone onto the seat and walked back over to Paul. He bent down to Paul's level and put one hand on Paul's shoulder.
"It's probably nothing, buddy, but I think we should get you checked out, John said.
"Why don't you jump in the truck, and I'll leave your mom a note. Then, we can find Lennon, hurry and do my job, and take you to the clinic."
Paul continued to bob his head in the affirmative.
John entered the kitchen, found a pen and a piece of paper, then scribbled a note for Paul's mom and pinned it to the corkboard hanging on the fridge. Then, he walked back to the front door, pushed the interior knob in on his way out, twisted it locked, and pulled the front door shut behind him.
Paul buckled his seatbelt as John stepped into the truck, yanked on the upper part of the door's window frame, pulled his hand out of the way, and let the momentum slam the door shut.
"Hang in there, buddy," John said, backing out of the driveway.
John drove to the other end of the street and rechecked his house, but Lennon hadn't returned.
"You cover the left side of the street, and I'll take the right, OK?" John said as he headed toward the school.
Paul nodded and scanned his side of the street intently while John studied both.
John parked along the curb next to the alleyway again when they got to the school and got out of the truck. The Doberman yammered and pounced at him through the fence as he walked toward the playground.
"Shut it, mutt!" John said, kicking the fence and exciting the Doberman even more.
John stepped through the galvanized barricade. The revenant wind pushed ghosts of recess on empty swings at the other end of the playground while dead leaves rattled their way toward John.
The realization hit John like a sack of cement.
John returned to the truck; his mind numbed to the brisk breeze and growling dog. He entered the vehicle, closed the door, and grabbed the wheel for emotional balance. He heard Paul say something but couldn't make sense of the words.
The two words pounded into his mind repeatedly, entombing all hope and punching it deeper and deeper into the grave with each hammering repetition.
John knew staying next to the school wouldn't help, but he couldn't abandon his son either. Leaving would make it real. He had to do something, but what? He had checked the school. He had searched his home. He had scoured the streets. Had Paul missed Lennon on the way back to the playground? John felt a resurrection of hope at the thought, along with renewed despair. He had been checking both sides of the street and knew Lennon hadn't been there.
He heard Paul crying in the distance and forced his mind back into the truck; only it wasn't Paul crying.
"Are . . . are you OK, Mr. King?" Paul asked.
John wiped his face with the flanneled crook of his elbow.
"I'm fine, buddy," John said, embracing the lie.
John's phone buzzed.
You have missed your scheduled Mōv, so we have terminated your account!
"Dammit! Dammit! Dammit!"
John swiped the crimson exclamation away and cocked his arm to throw the phone at the dashboard. But instead, he lowered his phone and dialed 911.
"Come on, buddy. Let's get you checked."
John pushed the call button as he pulled away from the school grounds, all hope of finding Lennon squelched beneath a freshly piled cairn.
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