Got writer’s block? Here are some brainstorm ideas

canstockphoto1509708We all get stuck with writer’s block. And who hasn’t gotten bogged down in the murky middle? If you find yourself stuck, it’s good to stop, brain storm and think about “what if…” Ask a few questions to get those creative juices flowing again. Here are fifteen “What If…” questions you can ask to spur your imagination and hopefully get those fingers back on the keyboard.

What if…

  1. A character makes a startling revelation?
  2. The sleuth is tricked?
  3. There is a reversal of fortune and/or power?
  4. A supporting character dies or is found dead?
  5. There is an act of betrayal?
  6. There is an act of forgiveness?
  7. There is an act of self sacrifice?
  8. A past lover suddenly shows up?
  9. A trusted ally turns out to be an enemy?
  10. You changed the murderer’s identity?
  11. A storm knocked out the power?
  12. A character who was thought dead suddenly showed up alive?
  13. The sleuth’s significant other or most trusted friend abruptly leaves in anger? Or dies?
  14. The character’s greatest fear is realized?
  15. A character loses an arm or leg?
  16. The Sleuth gets sick or poisoned?

Beginnings are often scary, endings are often sad, but middles are murkey

canstockphoto16654781When I start writing a book, I know exactly how it’s is going to begin. It starts off with a bang. Someone is murdered. A mystery develops. The amateur sleuth is introduced and identifies the suspects. I also know how the book is going to end. There is great peril. It’s intense. The sleuth may lose everything. The murderer may get away. Those two sides of the story are vivid, well thought-out and, best of all, practically write themselves.

It’s the middle that’s challenging.

Middles are like crossing a busy highway. I can clearly see the end point and I know where my characters are headed. Now I’ve got to get them across six lanes with honking trucks, speeding SUVs, clanging firetrucks and rushed Soccer Moms in mini-vans barreling down on them. How do I keep them moving between the oncoming traffic without becoming so much splattered roadkill? Well, first I get them to the safety of the median where they stop and breathe. There, it seems, they often get stuck.

When I was writing Prey of Desire, I got stuck about two-thirds of the way through the book — Kimberly, the heroine, finally learns that her boyfriend Ross is dead. (That’s not a spoiler since the Reader sees him get killed in chapter one — but shhhhh, don’t tell Kim!) At that point, I knew it was time for Kim to confront the killer. I had the scene planned out, I just wasn’t sure how to get there. And, in early drafts she took some crazy, zig-zag detours, but nothing seemed to get her to the other side. There were more murders, and car chases, and an exploding aquarium in downtown Tampa. It seemed I was just throwing things into the story  — from characters to plot to pacing  — and was hoping something would catch, carry and create the momentum to get Kimberly to that final confrontation with the Big Bad. However nothing quite worked.

So I did what most writers do at some point. I put the manuscript down… for nearly ten years, in fact. And poor Kimberly and dead Ross and all the other characters in that book were left stranded on that median in the middle of a busy highway. But during that time, I read a few books on writing the best seller, took some classes at the University of Florida and attended several writers conferences, like Sleuthfest. It seems that the murky middle of all good thrillers have some common plot points.

The antagonist has the upper hand.It appears the sleuth will fail. An innocent person will take the murder rap. All is on the verge of being lost.In other words, they’re in the middle of a busy highway and don’t know how to get across.

Just like I was.

I think making your way through the murky middle is just a step in the process of writing a novel, as much as the characters have to navigate the murky middle in the story. In fact, as the author, what if I need to get stuck at this point to find the right direction to the end? Maybe getting stuck forces me to think outside the box, to look for new paths? Are the raging semi trucks, screaming ambulances, speeding soccer Moms, and so much roadkill in my way all part of the game? I believe they are. They’re obstacles to avoid, maneuver around, speed bumps along the way, the reasons I need to run for dear life…each step bringing me closer to the opposite curb. From that perspective, they seem less like obstacles and more like challenges.

So bring it on. After all, if writing (and finishing) a novel was easy, everyone would do it, right?

Writer’s Block: Stuck on What’s Supposed to Happen Next

canstockphoto12444307For me, writer’s block hits for one real reason: I’m not sure what’s supposed to happen next. I generally have a clear outline, and I know I want to take the murder mystery from point “A” to point “C.” It’s “B” — or the murky middle — that either veers off path or writes itself into a corner. When this happens, I have to go back to that outline and take some time to plan.

One surefire tip I use to get back on path is to give the Protagonist a backseat and focus on another character. Returning to the outline, I pick a supporting character (often one of the key suspects) and plot out his story. What was he doing when the murder occurred? Where was he when the sleuth began the murder investigation? I take it scene by scene and explore what this character was doing. This will often reveal bridges from points where the narrative veers off path to the critical scenes that lead to the climax.

Plotting a supporting character’s story arc will hopefully develop into an exciting sub plot, one that leads the sleuth and the reader on a wild and bumpy ride away from the true murderer. However, if the supporting character’s story turns out to be just outline material, where very little of it is actually fleshed out and written into the story, that’s okay. It will still help strengthen the continuity of the mystery as a whole.

So, if like me you find yourself reluctant to to even think about your mystery novel, it could be you’re not thinking about it enough. Instead of forcing yourself to write the next scene, let the keyboard sit idle and invest thinking time in plotting a supporting character’s story. You may be surprised where it takes you.

De-Zombiefy Your Brain: 3 tips to knock-out writer’s block

canstockphoto3700564Sometimes I’m so in the zone and writing so fast and furious that my fingers can’t type fast enough. Then there’s yesterday…

I don’t think I could have written a grocery list.

It seems like the creative process in novels have a natural momentum, at least for me anyway. The first draft always writes itself. The words just flow; the story just goes naturally where it wants to go. There is no discipline, and absolutely zero concern for narrative shifts, or the overuse of adverbs and pet words, or character names changing halfway through the book. First drafts are generally fun to write but rarely fun to read.

I spent last weekend revising a second draft of an upcoming murder mystery. As I sat on the couch with my laptop in my lap, I discovered I’d been zombiefied. In other words, I was brain dead with the dreaded Writer’s Block. So instead, I thought about a few ways to re-energize.

1. Hit the treadmill and focus on one scene
I like to write out a scene outline on a large flip chart sheet of paper then tack it to the wall in front of my treadmill. Once I can adequately stare at page on the wall, I hit the treadmill for 30 minutes and focus on the scene. Playing out dialogue and structure in my head as sweat drips down it seems to break through my writer’s block. Obviously jogging releases endorphins, which make you feel good,  
but a solid cardiovascular work-out pushes blood through your brain and body too. It de-zombiefies you, so to speak. I often find myself back at the laptop shortly after any light exercise. 

2. Get out of the house and write
Shake it up. Personally, I like to go to a crowded location with lots of people and noise — such as the food court at the mall or a local fast food restaurant — and set up shop. I spread out my papers and laptop and note pads and pens. I take over an entire table, and people watch and eavesdrop. But, it generally works. I’ll be blowing through a scene and not even aware of time passing .Since I live alone, that activity is stimulating my zombie brain and pushing me past the writer’s block. For writers who live in a crowded, noisy house,  the opposite is probably true. They like serene picnic areas by the lake and secluded tree houses that look down on scenic, inspirational views. To each his own, I guess.

3. Put the current project away and dust off an old story
When treadmill and the food court just don’t clear the cobwebs out of my head, I resign to surrendering the current project and switching tracks. Personally I have about 20 different murder mystery manuscripts in various stages of completion. Digging an old story out of the archive — especially one that I haven’t touched in a couple of years — can spark the creative bonfire. When that happens, I’ll work on that old story for a few weeks  to a month, then come back to my current project with fresh eyes. I often find the writer’s block is a bottleneck in the plot that I instinctively know isn’t working, but either don’t see it at the time or can’t write my way out of it. Coming back to the story after a short break brings clear skies and a clear head, and the proper path for the plot is right there waiting for me.

Of course, I didn’t attempt any of these exercises to knock out writer’s block this weekend, and just simply embraced the affliction and turned on the TV. Appropriately, there was a season four ‘Walking Dead’ marathon on AMC.

It was a good weekend after all.

Do you ever doubt your book is any good?

overcome-writers-blockIt’s frustrating and completely natural. Every writer doubts his or her story at some point. And I’m always worried that my story is boring. To me, that’s the worst thing that could happen.

One thing I do when I start feeling that way is to put it down for at least a week and work on something else — either writing a different story, reading something written by someone else or even just taking a break from writing & reading all together. But I always give myself a date that I will jump back in.

There’s been a few stories that I’ve (partially) written and feel like they just aren’t working. Even when I come back to them, I still don’t feel that spark I had when I first came up with the idea. When that happens, I often cannibalize pieces of it into new, different stories.

How to Conquer Writer’s Block!

medium_2987926396I think sometimes when I get writer’s block, it’s because I’m working from the left side of the brain. I’m either too worried about editing and word choice, or I haven’t left the office at the office. Try to take a jog or hit the treadmill for half an hour. Do something physical that takes you away from your desk and away from your laptop. Do something to get the blood flowing along with the creative juices from the right side of your brain.

I know when I sit back down, I at least have a clear head. And often, I have started thinking about that scene on the treadmill and I have something to put on paper.