Writer’s Block or How to Jumpstart Your Imagination

I wrote this blog post for Poe's Deadly Daughters on July 20, 2013.

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 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 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 Tam 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?
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message 1: by Nancy (new)

Nancy Adams Setting really works for me. My current WIP is set in Paris, and the novel wouldn't work anywhere else. I love the idea of a series set in New Orleans. I was only there once, but it is truly a one-of-a-kind, magical city. I've been meaning to get to your series books for some time, and now I have a double incentive!

Thanks for sharing all the great ideas!

message 2: by Polly (new)

Polly Nancy wrote: "Setting really works for me. My current WIP is set in Paris, and the novel wouldn't work anywhere else. I love the idea of a series set in New Orleans. I was only there once, but it is truly a one-..."

Thanks for commenting, Nancy. Yes, New Orleans does have a magical quality. The best part is when a reader says s/he lives there and I captured the feeling of the place. I'm trying in the third book to make NO more of a character. Maybe I need to take a vacation. :-)

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