6 June 2010 3 Comments

How to avoid writer’s block

Writer’s block has nothing to do with writing.

That might seem obvious. When a writer wants to write, but can’t get anything out, he’s blocked. Not writing. Blocked.

But it isn’t the writing that causes the block. Neither is it some psychological problem or an inability to conjure up the Muse of inspiration.

It’s because the writer didn’t put everything on little index cards first.

I’m often asked how to avoid writer’s block by would-be writers and by journalist friends who’re making the step up (in length and ego pressure) to writing books. (“I can do seven hundred words just fine,” these journalists usually say, “but a book…I don’t have the attention span. I’ll get blocked.”) They ask me because while they stress and agonize over writing, I appear to enjoy it. I also have never had a moment of writer’s block in writing the four novels and one book of nonfiction I’ve published in the last six years.

How do I help them? I buy them index cards.

The key to writer’s block is avoiding the tendency to think that the whole book has to be in the front of your head all the time. Put it in the back of your head – or anywhere else in your body you’d like to carry it. What you need in front of your eyes is simply the next, smallest-possible bit of the book you want to write.

Let’s look at how you’d do that for nonfiction first.

In writing “Cain’s Field: Faith, Fratricide, and Fear in the Middle East,” which I published in 2004 and which focuses on the internal divisions within Israeli and Palestinian societies, I figured out a method that’d give me structure and momentum.

I took all my notes from 10 years as a journalist in the Middle East and cross referenced the most important points to index cards. I ended up with a pile four inches thick.

I figured I’d need eight chapters, because I wanted to examine eight elements of these societies – the battle between Hamas and Fatah, the conflicts between ultra-religious Jews and secular Israelis, and so on. So I sorted through my index cards, placing each one in a pile representing a single chapter.

I took each pile and divided them into what I called “sequences.” In the Hamas-Fatah chapter, for example, I had a sequence about a young man killed in Gaza from the perspective of his brother who was a Hamas gunman, another from his cousin’s perspective, his father’s viewpoint, then another about the history of Hamas, and one about a young boy killed at the same time as the first guy.

Within each sequence, I figured out how I’d lay out the story. And that was the book done. I just had to fill in the gaps by writing out what was already there before me on the index cards. I didn’t have to worry about what came next – it was right there on the face of a single index card next on the pile. All I had to do was write and, as I mentioned, writing isn’t part of writer’s block.

The same method works for fiction, too.

In writing my Palestinian crime novels, I take an index card for every chapter. It includes cross-references to my notes from trips to Palestinian towns and conversations with Palestinians on whom my characters are based. I fill the cards with reminders about phrases I want the characters to use; I write the date and time in which the chapter will take place in a different color ink, and I do the same for the characters who’ll be involved, specific clues that’ll be revealed, and objects that must be seen/events that must be foreshadowed.

So when I start work on a chapter I always know where it’s going. That’s why for me the only moment of nerves, which I feel as a queasy lightness in my stomach, is the day or two when I’m really trying to figure out how the detective gets from the murder to the solution. What’s the clue he needs to uncover to make the connection and identify the murderer? It’s the nearest sensation I get to writer’s block, and it isn’t a pleasant one.

Which is why I wrote this. I hope it helps.

3 Responses to “How to avoid writer’s block”

  1. Stewart 6 June 2010 at 9:38 am #

    Interesting post (which I found through SOHO).

    Although I don’t think it necessarily has to be index-cards-or-failure, being organized and knowing where you want the story to go is definitely important. Your step-by-stepness is definitely helpful, though.

  2. Matt Beynon Rees 7 June 2010 at 8:15 am #

    It could be index cards; it could be a big whiteboard. You’re right, Stewart: It simply has to be something in which you’ll see the next, small step you need to take on the long road toward a finished book. Index cards are good because you can shuffle them around. They’re also small, so when you sit down to write you won’t be faced with an alarming amount of work. You’ll also not be tempted to look further along your diagram or whiteboard. Just you and that one card.


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