Writers Workshop: Writer’s Block

The tai chi master Yang Chengfu

So much has been written about this subject that I’m a bit reluctant to keep piling on. Still, it seems to be a common problem, and a very big one for some writers. Personally, I’ve had little experience with writer’s block. It just hasn’t plagued me often. However, many years ago, when I was working against some strict book deadlines, the dreaded block did hover from time to time.

Here’s what helped me.

Exercise. I live in the country and love to walk. When I lived in a more urban environment, I still loved to walk. I’m not a fan of routine exercise, running, lifting weights, whatever. In other words, I’m not a fan of what I know is good for me. However, walking is fun and doesn’t take that much effort. It also gives my mind a chance to wander. I am endlessly surprised and distracted with what I see along the walk. For me, walking breaks up the routine and gets my head out of that infinite loop that seems to be the best partner of writer’s block. The important point is to let yourself be distracted by the walk. Engage the walk, entirely.

Create a character. Instead of just plowing ahead with your assignment, try creating a new character of your very own. You needn’t plan to use this character in any way. Or, you may want to use the character in some future project. For now, just create a new character. Make it serious, silly, frivolous, whatever. Let your imagination roll away and make your new entity just the way you please. You can throw it away later, if you choose. The act of creating something new and fun may just put you back on the right track for the serious writing that lies ahead.

Breathing exercises. I like Qigong. It doesn’t take much energy, feels really good, and clears your mind. It’s like wiping the slate clean for a few moments, without working too hard (an important point in my life). I’ve also used Tai Chi, which is more complex and requires good training. Tai Chi is much more than simple breathing but it still has that magical cleansing feeling built-in. It also has the nice benefit of being very good for your overall health.

A day off. Yep, it’s as simple as having a play day. Do something you really enjoy, and do it with gusto. Don’t hold back on your play time. Don’t worry about anything else. Just jump in with both feet and truly enjoy your play day.

English: Riverside walk - just north of Diglis...

The overnight stay. Go somewhere else for an overnight stay. A friend’s house, a nice hotel, whatever. Bring none of your writing materials with you. Just change your environment for a while and check out your new surroundings. Coming back to your writing sanctuary will feel just a little different with each overnight stay.

Change your writing schedule. If you write on a schedule, or at fairly regular times of the day (or night), mix it up a little. If you’re a morning writer, try the evenings. Perhaps the reverse works better for you. The point is to vary your schedule.

Talk to other writers. Lots of writers suffer from the dreaded block. Many of them have excellent ways of curing this problem. Ask them. You’ll probably find some very interesting and subtle techniques that never crossed your mind. One of them is likely to work for you.

Do you have a favorite technique for curing writer’s block? Please share it.

Dear Gregor, Is My Dog an Alien?

GregorFranklin, thanks for writing to my Head Wrap Advice Column! I see this is your first letter, so I want to give you a special welcome.

You’re raising an interesting, perplexing question. As you probably know from reading my column, I rely on doing good research to be sure my answers are useful. In your case, the research was not too difficult. There are many institutional records that specifically apply to this phenomenon. Perhaps yours is among them.

I’ve been able to whittle the problem down to three possible answers.

Yes, your dog is an alien. These creatures don’t speak our language, regardless of which language we speak. Think about this for a moment. Dogs are ubiquitous. They are found world-wide. However, anywhere you choose to go, the animal cannot speak your language. This doesn’t mean they don’t understand your language. Extensive research and practical experience indicates that dogs do, in fact, understand many languages. They are multilingual and even understand a variety of hand gestures, finger gestures, face gestures and other unspoken signals. It’s easy to conclude that dogs are able to understand many languages but choose to not respond in any of them. Looking deeper into this issue indicates that dogs are obeying the Prime Directive – they are simply refusing to interfere with a lesser-developed species, like us. This, alone, strongly argues for their alien origins. There’s also the fascinating sub-theory that your dog may be a ventriloquist alien. In fact, there are many other alien-related possibilities, but we’ll skip over them for now.

As a related point of interest, I was able to track down an interesting photograph of what was alleged to be an alien dog. Sadly, it proved to be nothing more than the common variety chupacabra. The photo is courtesy of National Geographic.

Chupacabra Myth courtest of NatGeo

The second possibility is even more obvious. No, your dog is not an alien. There have been no recorded instances of aliens urinating on objects or other living entities. They have never been known to poop on rugs, bite people, snatch food, lick themselves, lick others, or stick their noses where they don’t belong. Those objects protruding from their head are not antennae, they are ears. That slithering object at the rear is not a probe, it’s a tail. Their lips, however large, are not landing flaps. They don’t even have four digits, a characteristic well known to the millions who have already been in contact with aliens.

The bottom line and the most likely answer is straightforward. You are a complete twit, you have lost touch with reality, you have been co-opted by the History Channel, you have only the mere semblance of a life, and you thrive on swamp gas. Leave your damn dog alone!

Hope this advice has been of some help, Franklin. As always, I love to hear from my readers.

Gregor, the Head Wrap Advice Columnist

Gregor’s Caffeine Characters

Gregor's Coffee HouseGregor has habits, just like you.

He likes to spend morning time at the local coffee house, nearly every day. Gregor finds his friends there. They come and go. He likes these folks and they seem tolerant of his lobotomy. It all works well, most days.

Gregor listens to his friends and makes mental characters from them. His therapist taught him this trick and Gregor always follows the advice of his keepers.

Here are some of Gregor’s coffee house friends, listed in no special order.

The Reporter. Knows where all the skeletons are buried. Completely aware of current events, big and small. Probably knows where all future skeletons will be buried. Better than a newspaper, faster than a speeding newscast, more interactive than a TV news feed. A complete necessity if you live in a small town.

The Artist. Multi-media is the way to go. Blend, scramble, re-touch, smooth, make edgy, color it in pastels. If it isn’t art, it isn’t real. That includes everyone and everything. Talks about it endlessly. Cannot focus. Words that let you take a quick nap. Too unreal for Gregor’s taste.

The Historian. An unlimited storehouse of all events in the area. None of these events are verifiable but they are finely detailed and vibrant. Each piece of wisdom interlinks with someone still alive, or nearly so. Often partners with The Reporter to produce information. Has some interesting moments, but not that many. Tends to repeat.

The Intellectual. Everything comes down to the provable, the tangible. There are no mysteries in life, nothing that cannot be known. If it’s here, if it’s ever been here, if it will ever exist, The Intellectual knows why and can explain it all. Sometimes you just want a wild ride without all that analysis.

The Humorist. The opposite of The Intellectual. If it exists, it’s humorous, funny, tainted, silly, wholly undemanding of great thought. If it’s out there, it’s funny. Sometimes inappropriate but usually entertaining. Like The Historian, can tend to repeat from time to time. Needs to take better notes.

The Skeptic. Believes nothing and thinks you should also believe in nothing. The world is a giant conspiracy and all the players are conspirators. Nothing should be taken on faith, ever. Interesting for a while but leaves you a bit thirsty for the magical.

The Politician. Always running for something but never quite gets there.

The Excuser. It doesn’t matter what happened. Everything is OK. It will always be OK. Even opinions are OK, regardless of who spews them and how outrageous they become. I’m OK, you’re OK. Everything is perfectly OK. None of this can be real.

The One-Liner. Gregor’s absolute favorite. Rarely speaks. When the words come forth, they never miss their mark and are sufficiently subtle to give everyone a chuckle. Well, maybe not for the target of the one-liner. Gregor just lies in wait for these.

The Whiner. Doesn’t need any description. Everyone nods and keeps quiet.

The Windbag. Good on those stuffy days but a bit tiresome. Welcome when your jaw hurts and your ears are not yet overworked. You never need to worry about missing a word or two, or even a long paragraph. Like The Whiner, gets a lot of nods and that quiet smile recognizable by all but the speaker.

The Happy Warrior. Another of Gregor’s favorites. Life is good. Life has great stories, never overused. At the end of the day, life is a fascinating journey. Makes you feel the pleasure of still being upright. Shows up just often enough to be a genuine breath of fresh air. Never overstays the moment.

The Bored. Not really there at all. Could be just another chair that no one will ever use. The facial expression tells all. It’s OK, though, because the words are few.

The Young One. Doesn’t stay long. Never bores others. Too much life on the horizon to sit around and over-analyze. Fun. Lets you know that the race truly does belong to the young, as it should.

The Smart One. Rarely shows up at all. Too many other distractions in life. On those rare appearances, doesn’t stay long but usually has something interesting to add to the conversation. Reliable. Real. Gregor likes this one.

Gregor lives here.

Secrets of the Dew Drop Inn: Dream Characters

Dew Drop Inn Forks WAYou’ve noticed the roadside sign, but have you ever stayed for the night? It’s the Dew Drop Inn and it’s much more than a cheap stopover. It’s not one place, it’s many. This is the sanctuary where writers keep their most valued treasures. You can think of it as a secret society for the pen-and-paper crowd, a storehouse of moldy mind tricks. Here’s one from the vaults.

Being an old geezer, I don’t remember where I first learned this little gimmick. It’s been with me for decades. The journey began because I wanted to remember my dreams. But, I was lazy. I didn’t want to bother with a dream journal and I certainly didn’t want to wake myself up in the middle of the night to scribble notes on a nightstand pad of paper. All of this was just too much work. What I wanted most of all was to discover if my dreams could help me with writing in some way. Like most writers, I was constantly on safari for inspiration.

This is the simple process I discovered, and it works. It’s a hybrid, four-step mind-game that basically takes only 90 seconds when you wake up and no time at all when you’re falling asleep. The three steps used when waking up are critical. I wish I could lay claim to these but I cannot. I just don’t remember where I read (or heard) about them. This is why they are enshrined in the Dew Drop Inn. All I know is that they work. My contribution is the first step, and I found it by accident.

If you’re searching for fresh inspiration, and you like to create characters, this might work well for you. Simple as pie. I’ve used it to create many characters and even produce an inner writer or two to help me with the drudgery of getting words on the page.

Step One: There are those few luscious moments just before you fall asleep. You are partially here, partially there, but nowhere in particular. You sense that sleep is on the doorstep and you can feel its shadow. Now is the best time to begin to create a character. Let your mind wander completely unfettered. Develop a new character or just enhance one that you’ve previously created. Give the character all the detail and dimension that your sleepy, nomadic mind will allow. Hold nothing back and let your character romp across your psyche. Now, just drop off.

Step Two: You begin to feel yourself come awake. Don’t move, don’t open your eyes. Just lay there for 30 seconds, motionless and peaceful with your eyes closed. Make no effort. Be still. Easy enough, eh? Doing nothing at all can feel so sweet.

Step Three: For the next 30 seconds, let your dream images ripple through your mind. Eyes still closed, still motionless. Just let them drift by and enjoy those few seconds of image-entertainment. Maybe they’re dreams, maybe not. They could just be waking fantasies. It really doesn’t matter. The critical point is to not interfere with the process regardless of how silly it may evolve. Don’t judge. Just enjoy.

Step Four: Mentally grab a character during this last 30 seconds. Yes, there will be a character in there somewhere. He or she will have drifted through your waking mind in Step Three. During this phase, just grab the character you like from the images you have enjoyed. Hold that character in mind as you begin to come awake and start to move around. Let the character continue to move through your mind, free of your interference. The character will self-develop right before your mind’s eye.

Now, keep that character with you for a little while as you begin your day. Maybe you’ll want to make some notes about the character, maybe you’ll just play with him or her in your mind. It really doesn’t matter, so long as you keep that character with you for a time. Once the character has taken seed, he or she will stay with you for a surprisingly long time. The evolution process will take care of itself.

This simple technique works well for creating new characters or enhancing those you’ve already given life. It’s your choice. Just use Step One as the launching pad for the dreaming/creative process to begin. You may fall asleep thinking about a particular character and wake up with a completely new one on your mind. It happens all the time. Whatever the outcome, your morning character is one of your own creation and he or she now belongs to you. If the character pleases you, entices you in some way, write about it. If not, there’s always tomorrow night.

Note to the uninitiated: This process doesn’t work too well with the dreaded alarm clock. If you absolutely must use an alarm clock, make sure it has a snooze function!

MY TV Is Spying On Me

The Sportsmanship of Cyber-warfare ...item 2.....

I live out in the boonies. The only way to get TV out here is by satellite. That satellite on my roof talks to something, somebody, somewhere. It pipes stuff in and out of my house, into my sacred living space. It’s connected to my TV and I know that my TV is just a helper-monkey for the spy box.

Like other satellite suckers, I bought the “All Cosmos” package that delivers something like 831 channels. I only watch maybe 6 or 7 of them. So, that leaves well over 800 channels that are doing something, all the time. I wonder what they’re doing? Why are they there? Who is running this game?

The box that sits next to my TV is always on. When it’s not on, it complains that it MUST be turned on to do secret, hidden things. The on-screen message tells me that it wants to update stuff. I don’t believe a word of that. Nothing out in the boonies ever gets updated. That’s why it’s called the “boonies.” So, what is that thing really doing?

The satellite people won’t tell me anything. It doesn’t matter if I beg, complain, or throw a dungal-fit. They remain stoic, unmoved. That’s how spies operate, I think. Well, maybe more likes moles. I think that everyone who works for the satellite company is a mole, operating a front for their spies on all those TVs out here in the boonies.

These spies are multilingual. I see it on lots of those channels. They also play music, all kinds of music. I think there are messages hidden in the music. The moles know all about this kind of thing. They bundle all of this together, make it very pretty, but it’s still unfathomable and far too secret. The worst part of it is that the spymasters, somewhere “up there,” charge me for the privilege of spying on me. That’s just not American.

Sometimes, the spy goes to sleep. This usually happens when it’s snowing like hell. The spy sleeps, the TV groinks, and the whole apparatus sends cryptic messages my way. It wants to “re-acquire” something. What’s it trying to re-acquire? Does it want to talk to the moles? The spymasters? What did it lose in the first place? Why doesn’t it tell me in plain English?

It doesn’t want me to know, that’s why. It speaks in code, the kind of code that only spies understand. I’m out of the loop, but it’s not. That’s one of the reasons I know it’s a spy. Only spies and moles need code. The rest of us mortals settle for a more common language.

My TV has a spy guide. My shooter has a little button. When I press it, it gives me the spy guide, a tiny peek into its private world. The spy guide is long, enormously long. I can’t get through more than a few button pushes before I get tired. I think it’s hiding all the good stuff way down on the list. So, I’ve tried to start at the end, which is what spies always do. Still doesn’t work. Where’s all the good stuff? Why is it all so secret? I can’t start in the middle. After all, I’m just human.

I don’t like to sit in front of the TV when it’s off. The spy box that sits alongside the TV is always blinking at me. Sometimes, it whirrs and makes strange sounds. It’s obviously alive and doing something. What’s it doing? Who’s it talking to? I can’t turn it off or it’ll send me those weird, encoded messages. When it’s turned on, it’s watching me. I know it is. I’m really stuck.

I’ve decided there’s only one way to solve the dilemma. I’m going to become a double agent. I’ll fight fire with fire. It’s pretty easy. I just turn on my Roku and flood my TV with stuff. It drowns out the spy box since the box wants to do everything on its own. The spy is selfish and that’s its downfall. The Roku takes over, gives me just one thing at a time. No spy satellite needed. It’s simple. No bizarre encoded messages. Everything’s in English. I’m happy once again.

I can even shut down my Roku on those days I’m feeling too spied upon. I just pull the plug and pick up a book. Books don’t spy on me.

Dear Gregor, What is Great Poetry?

GregorAlexis, thanks for writing to my Head Wrap Advice Column!

I rarely stray into topics like this, so thanks for the opportunity. I’m certainly not a poet, as you probably know from my columns. However, I love poetry and have made it a passion in my life. Of course, I’ve read all the great ones.

Throughout all these years of study, I’ve discovered some fantastic poetry that has gone virtually unrecognized. Today, I will share a bit of this treasure with you. As you read these wonderful lines, take the time to sip upon the meaning of the words and phrases, the striking images that arise so naturally and easily. This is how I define great poetry. I’m sure you’ll agree.

This wholly undervalued masterpiece was created by Barry Mann and Gerry Coffin. It has a beautiful music line also, which has been omitted to keep this column tight and as interesting as always. Anyway, the key is in the words, the construction of soul-moving phrases, and the impact of a finale like none other.

Again, thanks for writing, Alexis. As always, I love to hear from my readers.

Gregor, the Head Wrap Advice Columnist

PS. Alexis, I’ve included a rare photograph of the poets for your collection. I know this will be meaningful for you. (Thanks to Artie Wayne On The Web for this fascinating piece of nostalgia.)

Don Kirshner, Barry Mann, Gerry Goffin, Al Nevins

I’d like to thank the guy who wrote the song

That made my baby fall in love with me

Who put the bomp
In the bomp bah bomp bah bomp
Who put the ram
In the rama lama ding dong

Who put the bop
In the bop shoo bop shoo bop
Who put the dip
In the dip da dip da dip

Who was that man, I’d like to shake his hand
He made my baby fall in love with me [Yeah]

When my baby heard
Bomp bah bah bomp
Bah bomp bah bomp bah
Every word went right into her heart

And when she heard them singin’
Rama lama lama lama
Lama ding dong
She said we’d never have to part

So who put the bomp
In the bomp bah bomp bah bomp
Who put the ram
In the rama lama ding dong

Who put the bop
In the bop shoo bop shoo bop
Who put the dip
In the dip da dip da dip

Who was that man, I’d like to shake his hand
He made my baby fall in love with me [Yeah]

Each time that we’re alone
Boogity boogity boogity
Boogity boogity boogity shoo
Sets my baby’s heart all aglow

And everytime we dance to
Dip da dip da dip
Dip da dip da dip
She always says she loves me so

So who put the bomp
In the bomp bah bomp bah bomp
Who put the ram
In the rama lama ding dong

Who put the bop
In the bop shoo bop shoo bop
Who put the dip
In the dip da dip da dip

Who was that man, I’d like to shake his hand
He made my baby fall in love with me [Yeah]

Darling, bomp bah bah bomp, bah bomp bah bomp bomp
And my honey, rama lama ding dong forever
And when I say, dip da dip da dip da dip
You know I mean it from the bottom of my boogity boogity boogity shoo

Ooh… ooh… ooh… ooh… ooh… ooh… ooh… ooh… ooh… ooh…
Ooh… ooh… ooh… ooh… ooh… ooh… ooh… ooh… ooh… ooh

Real Writers Never KISS Their Characters

Alfred Hitchcock in Notorious

Remember the frayed and overused “Keep It Simple, Stupid” (KISS) way of doing business? The principle is attributed to Kelly Johnson of the Lockeed Skunk Works. It may have a valuable place in creating spy planes and other technological marvels but it’s often wrong-headed for fiction writers and their character-creations. Worse than misguided, it’s boring for your readers, the nadir of fates for any writer. Just don’t KISS your characters, ever.

Your characters need depth, and lots of it. They don’t live in a flat, two-dimensional world, even though they come alive that way on your page. Characters exist elsewhere – mostly, in the minds and hearts of your readers. It’s in this secret, personal gallery of images where characters truly come alive. This is why your characters demand dimension, breadth, facets and nuances. They demand life, and it’s your job to make that happen.

Character development cannot be simplistic, nor can it become a massive, instantaneous dump process into your readers’ minds. Their nature needs to evolve, encapsulate the reader, and help carry him or her through the story line, right to the last paragraph of the last page. Characters must evolve naturally, within the context of the environment that you have created for them. There’s nothing KISS about it. If you KISS your characters, you’ll probably kiss-off your readers.

Throughout the course of your masterpiece, any given character must be born, evolve, and become the glue that keeps your story line moving forward. It’s not just the story line itself that captivates your readers. More often than not, it’s the characters who do the heavy lifting, who convey the story line where it needs to go. They are the actors that make the action come alive. In some literary works, they are the entire point of the story line. It’s called a “character study” for a reason, and it’s the kind of writing that fascinates many readers for the pure enjoyment of watching a character come alive and move around the pages. It’s life, in a very real sense, when it’s offered by a seasoned writer.

Also, all characters are not equal, which is a vital point for any reader. Supporting characters help to define the story line and also help to define other characters. It’s the old game of “compare and contrast.” Not every character can be primary. Not every character needs to survive, overcome, enlighten, or even develop into a major part of your story. Still, even a minor character can play a crucial role. They should always be much more than a face in the crowd, even if they appear to be inconsequential.

Whether a minor or major player, each character still demands attention and dimension. Each character must be sufficiently realistic to re-create itself in the mind of the reader. Even if a particular character makes only a cameo appearance, that appearance must feel real and valid to the reader. A reader may not remember the character forever but he or she must remember the character long enough to wonder, to pause, to continue reading.

Key characters can be very complex and subtle. Many well-known authors are masters at developing their characters in such a way that they become works of art unto themselves. We remember these characters because they have dimension. We can create endless mental images of the character, add each nuance offered by the writer, and refine the process with many of our own musings. As readers, we want to participate in the creation and evolution of the character. We own that character and we care deeply about him or her. A reader needs to take part in your work, to be genuinely involved in your masterpiece. Let the reader be a critical companion in the creation process by offering characters that just won’t stay out of their minds or hearts.

The bottom line is to spend lots of time and energy in developing your characters. Make them multifaceted, fascinating and irresistible. Give them the moods and movements that captivate readers, the little quirks that make them soar beyond the ordinary. To do this effectively, your characters must be more than simple writer-creations. They must live inside you, move around in your brain, tug at your heart, walk with you every day. They must be your constant companions, your foibles, your friends, and your guides. When they take on this kind of reality for you, they will be ready to share with your readers.

When they begin talking to you, when they start to demand script changes, you’ve arrived. They’re ready for others. Or, you need a shrink. Not to worry. You’re a writer, so make it all come out the way that suits you best.

(A short note while revising this article. It seems a little obsessive, right? Perhaps, too much pontification? There’s a reason, or maybe just a compulsion, behind the mystery. See Writers Workshop: The Inner Writer for an attempted explanation.)