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Guest Post by Joanna Neilson: 5 Ways I Beat Writer’s Block

I am very proud to host my blog’s first ever guest post, by Joanna Neilson, aka Jo aka JKNeilson. You can find out more about Jo below her wonderful article about how she beats writer’s block!

5 Ways I Beat Writer’s Block
by Joanna Neilson 

As a writer, often trying to do several different projects at once, there’s nothing scarier than an attack of writer’s block. The blank page jitters. The word well running dry. I define it as a combination of either not knowing where to start, what to focus on in the writing itself, or just being devoid of an idea and the drive to do the work at the crucial moment. It can hit at any stage of the writing process, and particularly when there’s a hard deadline coming at me.

However, there are several ways I’ve discovered to circumvent this scenario. Say I’m trying to write this article, for instance, or inspire myself to continue with a tantalising story idea that won’t quite gel. Those are the times when writer’s block needs its ass kicked, and listed here are the top five ways that I handle it:

1) Google is your friend. Hit search and allow yourself about half an hour, maximum, for reading related articles and finding pictures. Ideally try to learn something new about the subject, and keep digging. Something out there is certain to stimulate your imagination and give an incentive to build on your own thoughts or narrative. This is not an excuse to browse for random distractions, this is research. Stay the hell away from gossip sights, cracked.com and TVTropes, or you’re a goner.

2) Talk to mentors, visit relevant online forums: This is very different from point 1) which was only browsing online. ‘Talking’ involves engaging with actual humanoid people who you trust to share their experiences and ideas in a positive way, and to give you some solid writing encouragement. Of course, they might also reject your idea and laugh, in which case they are not your best bet. Find people who will explain WHY the idea needs tweaking, or who you think will reignite your interest in the subject. Their enthusiasm will inspire you and you need people whose curiosity and support will deliver a boost, even if they’re fairly distant on a writing forum. You want constructive advice and a buck-up of morale, not someone who’ll laugh their asses off at your first stuttering suggestion. For this reason, I’d avoid negative forums like geek paradise Ain’t It Cool, where everyone and everything is snarked to pieces. A shared brainstorm with someone you trust is often a vital part of completing a piece. New perspectives may burst from you as you integrate fresh ideas to the article or story. You can always edit and rephrase things later. Note, this is not the same as plagiarism.

3) Apply the stimulant of your choice! For me, it’s coffee. Two strong cups of it, and a decent breakfast. This can also be music and imagery to kickstart the imagination. Use whatever you need to get revved up and to visualise your finished piece (ahem, within legal boundaries, if that concerns you). Other useful prompts include a little meditation, getting hold of photos of what you’re working on, mind-mapping, exercise, and sunlight – use anything you can to nudge your brain towards the goal. It also helps with reaching a level of detachment, because what you might need is a way to mentally step away and trust your first instincts so you can just…write, dammnit!

4) Close Twitter, emails, Facebook: One of the more insidious distractions. These portals are very helpful but are best consumed in smallish doses. Turn off the phone, too, or at least silence it. Lock the door. Let everyone who might interrupt know that you’re working, or find somewhere where they won’t bother you (there’s a reason having a laptop in Starbucks is a cliché). It’s advised all the time, but if there’s some way to separate yourself from these constant interruptions for a decent chunk of concentrated time, chances are your brain will plug into that whole ‘create a frickin’ masterpiece’ request you’re trying to get out of it, and it will start to deliver. Then you can check the Twitter feed.

5) Draft, leave it, repeat: Perhaps you’ve just been staring at it for too long. Switch off your inner critic, keep to the crux of your concept, and bang away at the keys (ideally after point 3) typing out your first thoughts like crazy, and then bounce away from it until you’ve decompressed a little. Also, try writing by hand for a bit. This isn’t quite the ‘hundred monkeys working at typewriters’ principle but I find it another useful way of tapping into the inner creativity lurking under all the brain-clutter. When you’re literally tapped out, take half an hour to complete a chore you’ve been putting off, or try catching up with a friend and talking about something else. One exception is that, if you do have a steady flow of words coming, however slow, it’s best to keep going until bathroom break or body fuel is required. If you’re at that awful point where the words aren’t quite working, take a very short break and maybe make some notes as you stretch and walk around. Do not give up. Not until you feel better about yourself for putting in the effort. There is a slight risk that you can lose the thread when you step away, so try to stay in tune with your mood and your mind. Keep a notebook or similar close at hand.

After beating out writer’s block, the fun of editing begins. Keep going over the words. Check for any weak sentences and sneaky typos. Cut it back, only add to it where necessary, overall make sure you thin it out. If there’s a word count of any kind, stick rigidly to it. The best way to hone your piece is to question and rewrite. There are lots of ways to save different versions of the text or just cut and paste extraneous sentences to another document.

Make sure you constantly ask,’ does this text fit what I was trying to say?’ as you edit, and really trust your instincts. Apply all the ideas above. There are plenty of other things to try for surmounting a dry writing spell, but nothing beats hitting your stride. These ideas are the major ways I’ve learned for surviving it. Over time I’ve found that the more writing I do, the more I can do in the time given. Constant writing strengthens consistency and removes fear of making mistakes. They’re only words! Ultimately, that practice will do the most to slay a beastly attack of writer’s block. Just trust yourself to get started and try not to pause for very long. If you want to create your masterpiece, it’s time to start.

Also recommended:

About Joanna:

It seems inevitable that Halloween baby Joanna would develop a fascination for the strange and bizarre.   A writer from the age of three, one of her first professional writing assignments, for the Hampshire Chronicle newspaper in her native UK, was a report on a Halloween Ghost Watch at a local theater.

She is currently inspired by writers from Christopher Hitchens, Alan Moore, Philip K. Dick, Stephen King, Clive Barker, Neil Gaiman and Patricia Briggs, but she believes in a varied literary diet and devoured more than 100 books last year. Joanna also reads a wide range of graphic novels and enjoys watching films. She catches up on decent television shows when time allows. Books remain her first love, and she is never far from a notebook and her Kindle. This year she looks forward to creating books of her own.

While carving out a professional writing career Joanna has had reviews published in the Hampshire Chronicle (UK based), and also interviewed a notorious British ex-politician and his wife (the Hamiltons). More recently she has begun writing for new horror site Dark River Press, and she is currently hard at work on completing her first full length novel for the end of 2012.

On her original fiction-themed WordPress site ‘Joanna K. Neilson: Create or Go Mad’ she keeps her muse hopping by writing short stories (and contributing to Flash Fiction Fridays), and she also runs the busy media review site ‘The Haunted Eyeball.’  Please check out her detailed Portfolio on these sites. A particular highlight is her work for the ‘Tracy Island Chronicles,’ a site devoted to the original Gerry Anderson series Thunderbirds, for which she writes fan fiction under the pen name ‘Pennyspy’ and contributes regular episode guides for TIC’s bi-monthly newsletter, ‘Ned Cook’s NTBS Newsflash.’  She’s continued her media interview trend for the Newsflash, with interviews with Shane Rimmer, the voice of Scott Tracy, and Matt Zimmerman, the voice of Alan Tracy. She is also interested in interviewing other writers, actors and artists, and in promoting indie authors and giving them greater exposure to potential readers.

Contact her on joanna.neilson@gmail.com, or through her WordPress pages. You can follow Jo on Twitter @Pennyspy.

Joanna Neilson AKA Pennyspy


…You Might Be a Project Manager (With Apologies to Jeff Foxworthy)

  • If you think someone asking, “When can you have this done by?” requires a Microsoft Project Schedule and a consultation with your online calendar before you can even begin to respond, you might be a project manager.
  • If your child asks you for extra help with their homework, and your answer is, “I’m sorry, but Mommy doesn’t have enough resources to cover scope creep,” you might be a project manager.
  • If the only way you can outline your next novel or screenplay is by creating a Microsoft Visio diagram, you might be a project manager. (That would be me.)
  • If your next family get-together requires a meeting invitation with a PowerPoint presentation attached, you might be a project manager.
  • If you handle finding out which movie your friends want to go see Friday night by sending out Microsoft Outlook voting emails with the choices Approve or Reject and a firm deadline for responding, you might be a project manager.
  • If you know more about how to manage scope, schedule, budget and resources than the contractor renovating your house, you might be a project manager.
  • If you can successfully implement a five million dollar project, but find the prospect of balancing your meager checkbook intimidating, you might be a project manager.

But here’s the most important one, and all kidding aside:

  • If you have ever had to do something that required even a two-step plan to accomplish, you ARE a project manager.

No, really, I’m not joking with that. Trust me, I’ve been a so-called “professional Project Manager” for over eight years now, and even have a Masters Degree of Project Management. No, really, I do! Colorado Technical University’s where it’s from. It means I get to put the letters MPM behind my name if I want to try and make myself seem more important than I really am.

Hence why you never see those letters behind my name. So why’d I get the degree? I don’t know. It seemed like a good idea at the time (back in 2004/05).

I found it highly amusing last night when I was speaking with my publisher about the timeline for my next two novels (which will be “TAKERS II” and “TAKERS III”) and my next two feature-length screenplays, that I was automatically planning out the timeline in my head, including estimating how long tasks would take to complete, analyzing dependencies and constraints (my writing time vs. my two editors’ availability, desired release dates, etc.), determining whether any up-front costs would be required and the implementation plan for each of those deliverables.

There, I just used a whole bunch of project management buzz words. Now, let’s talk to each other like normal human beings.

At its simplest, project management is nothing more than trying to figure out how to do something with the best possible chance for success. I am probably pissing off a whole community of project managers because they tend to take themselves way too seriously as a whole, but I’m a no-nonsense sort of person, and here’s what my no-nonsense wants to tell you: it’s not rocket science.

I can prove it. Know how? I never cracked a textbook open during my Masters degree program, yet aced it, top o’ the heap. Why? Well, mostly because the principles of project management are intuitive for me, much like writing is. Do I know how to break apart a single sentence and identify precisely what word is which technical grammar term? Oh, dear Lord, no, nor do I ever care to, thanks much. Can I tell you what a noun is? Yeah, that I can do. Can I tell you the first thing about the origins of the word onomatopoeia or what that even means? Sure, if I look it up on Google.

What I can do well, is slap a whole bunch of words on a page that actually do stick together and sound fairly decent, most of the time. This reminds me of a quote from Hawaii Five-0 that makes me howl because it’s just priceless. I love the writers of that show. They crack me up. One of these days I have got to interview them.

This is from the Season 1, Episode 7 entitled “Ho’apono.” Starring Alex O’Loughlin as McGarrett and Scott Caan as Danno, for those who don’t know.

Danny “Danno” Williams: Okay… Let’s say I am you, and you are the bad guy here. I would know that all the ways onto the ship are visible somehow. So, how would you outsmart yourself and get yourself onto that ship without yourself seeing yourself?
Steve McGarrett: Okay, was that an actual question, or were you just throwing words together and hoping they made sense?

I’m with Steve on this one. As much as groups of people like to get together and try to make what they do for a living sound ever-so-important and ever-so-difficult and this-is-why-you-should-pay-me-the-big-bucks-because-I’m-smarter-than-you-are-with-my-jargon…well, that’s not me. I don’t throw words together just hoping they make sense (unlike Danny, apparently).

So when I say to you that you are probably just as much a project manager as I am, let me ask you some questions that will also serve as examples of how and why I think that’s the case.

  • Have you ever had to get a 2-year old up in the morning, and get Her Royal Highness bathed, fed, dressed and safely to day care all before the time you have to be at work?
    • I will bet you a McDonald’s large coffee that fathers and mothers familiar with the ‘joy’ that this process can bring are nodding vigorously over the difficulties inherent in such a daunting undertaking. And they do it daily.
  • Have you ever had to take a trip somewhere by car, boat/ship, airplane, helicopter or any other means?
    • Where are you going? What’s the best method of transportation? How do you secure that transportation? Do you have to borrow or rent a car? Buy an airline ticket? Book passage on freighter? Wait, you have to book passage on a freighter? Call me next time, that sounds like fun.
    • Do you need to pack clothes? Toiletries? Food? Something to drink? Is anyone coming with you? What do they need to have brought with them? Do you need a book or two? Your Kindle? A magazine? Your laptop? Your iPad? iPhone? Blackberry? Android? (No, not Lt. Commander Data, ST:TNG fans.)
  • Have you ever written a story, book, script, screenplay, poem?
    • What’s your subject matter? What genre are you writing in? Who are your characters? What are their personalities? What is your story about? What do you want to happen? Where is it set? If it’s a poem, is it going to rhyme?
    • Indie filmmakers are kick-ass project managers, by the way. Especially if it’s a movie they wrote, they are producing, they are directing and, sometimes, they are even starring in. I cannot imagine what it takes to pull something like that off, and yet so many people do!

Let’s get back to something no quite so entertainment industry-related.

  • Have you got more than one child, and they all have to be at different fields on Saturday at the same time for different sports games/practices?
    • In this case, I would seriously consider looking into getting you and your family vehicle cloned.
  • Do you have two essays to complete, a mid-term to study for, five chapters in a textbook to get through and a documentary you have to watch all by Monday morning…and it’s Friday night?
    • Students everywhere, don’t despair…college isn’t nearly as hard as real life. Enjoy the pretend stress as much as you can before you get to the real stuff!

I could go on forever with examples, but I won’t because you’re probably already bored. Suffice it to say that while I will tell folks yes, I am a project manager, and yes, I have been a project manager for several years and have those silly letters that I can stick after my name to boot, the fact is that we are all project managers.

Just like we are all writers.

These days the term ‘writing’ is used much more loosely in that we’re technically ‘typing’ more often than we are actually sitting down with pen or pencil and writing. I get a cramp in my hand penning a single sentence fifteen times, so no, longhand and notebooks and I don’t get along too well.

But just like we can all manage projects on some level, so, too, can we all write on some level. Ever written a note in a Christmas card? Ever typed an email to a friend? Ever posted something to LiveJournal or Facebook? Ever left a comment on someone’s blog? (hint, hint)

Then you’re a writer.

Are you a novelist? Well, I don’t know, have you ever written a novel?

Are you a screenwriter? Not unless you’ve actually sat down and written a screenplay of some sort, whether good or bad.

Are you a poet? (Roses are red, violets are blue, this doesn’t count, but it’s writing, too.)

My point is that while I’ll happily sit here and give myself all sorts of names and titles like project manager, journalist, screenwriter and novelist, the fact is that I’m stuffing myself into predefined definitions because it’s the only way I can get taken seriously in any of those professions.

I’m not a snob because I’ve got a book published. I’m still just me. I will never become pretentious or unavailable to listen to what people who spend their precious time paying attention to anything I say or do want to tell me, good or bad. I may be busy as hell sometimes, and so it might take me a while to respond.

But no matter how busy I get, I will never forget that I’m just a normal Jane/Joe like the majority of the rest of the world’s human beings, and that I am a one-time cubicle dweller myself who’s had to work for Corporate America (and Corporate Canada, while we’re at it), too.

(Why do you think I want to make writing my full-time job??? Hello.)

I’ll leave you with one final thought:

If you think that because your job gives you the ability to:

  • tell other people where to go;
  • how to get there;
  • what to do when they get there, and
  • crack the whip when they don’t do what you told them to, then

you might be a project manager.

But consider this: while the fact is that the job description I just gave is definitely for a project manager, it’s also exactly the same for a mother, father or a BDSM dominatrix.

If you’re wondering how many risks I might be taking treating such serious subject matters with this much irreverence, then you’re either a project manager or you’ve been in the business too long, my friend.

When You Just Have To Talk About It

I think I’m correct in stating that the majority of women are not inclined to talk about their weight, whether it’s to say how much they weigh, or whether it’s to speak of gaining or losing weight, period. Luckily, I’ve never had any barriers talking about my weight, my age or anything else. Not so typically female, me.

So when I reached an important milestone for myself this morning, I felt compelled to share my story because, according to the Weight Control Information Network, “over two-thirds of adults in the U.S.are overweight or obese.” Specifically for us women, it’s 64.1% of us that fit those two categories.

For most of my teenage years I was chunky. Then I went to college and managed to get myself down to 180 poundsand on my frame, that looked GOOD. I’m five feet and five-and-one-half inches tall, but I’ve got a wider build, so I held that weight very nicely and was in a Size 12. I looked hot. No, you do not have to be a Size 2 to look hot. Get over it.

I was always able to stay completely stable at 180 pounds, right up until I had my first child. Apparently my body didn’t like the whole pregnancy thing because I gained nearly 100 pounds during that pregnancy even though I wasn’t pigging out. It was awful.

After my son was born, I got rid of 80 of those100 pounds(and no, that was not easy). But I could never shed those last twenty. So I stayed pretty much around two hundred pounds for years until I moved to Canadato live and work (I was there for three-and-a-half years), and then, inexplicably, I started ratcheting up on the scale again. It was pretty bad.

At my peak, I reached nearly 260 poundsin Canada. Then I became pregnant with my second child, and the weirdest thing happened. Throughout the entire pregnancy, I lost weight. Steadily. My OB/GYN was beside herself every time I went in for a checkup because I had dropped between one and five kg (I never did get used to not measuring in pounds, ugh) each time.

I had managed, after nine months of carrying my daughter, to make it down to around 220 pounds. Then she was born, and my body decided it was time to balloon back up again. I made it all the way to 253 poundsby the time my editor and publisher, Jaimi, told me about something a gal she works with told her about.

This coworker had been losing weight like crazy, and when Jaimi asked her what she’d done, she told her all about the hCG Diet. As is normal for those of us who are used to being overweight and used to people hocking fad diets at us, hoping we’ll spend all our money on crap that’s not actually going to do anything for us, Jaimi was skeptical. She started doing research, though, because she’d seen how her coworker’s weight had changed with her own eyes.

And that’s when she realized what it was all about. I had told her consistently throughout my pregnancy about how weird it was that I was losing weight rather than gaining it. And guess what hCG is? Wikipedia has a good definition:

Human chorionic gonadotropin or human chorionic gonadotrophin (hCG) is a glycoprotein hormone produced during pregnancy that is made by the developing embryo after conception and later by the syncytiotrophoblast (part of the placenta), but it is not known whether this production is a contributing cause or an effect of tumorigenesis. hCG is also produced in the pituitary gland of males and females of all ages.

I don’t know why my first pregnancy slapped so much weight on me. But the reason I lost weight throughout my second pregnancy was because of the extra hCG coursing through my body, and once Jaimi put two and two together, combined with what she’d seen of her coworker’s success, she said, “We’re doing this.” And I can never thank her enough!

One thing I want to make clear to you is this: I am not here to try and sell you something. I am simply sharing my story because I am so proud of shedding extremely stubborn pounds after everything else, including simple diet and exercise, had failed me so miserably. (And for the record, Jaimi’s lost over one hundred pounds on this already…and she was suffering from diabetes, a busted thyroid and edema on top of everything else.)

I am in no way anywhere near done with my weight loss. My initial goal is just to get back down to the180 poundsthat I looked so good at for so many years. But if I take a look at my body in the mirror once I reach that goal – which is only NINETEEN pounds away right now – and decide that I could stand to lose more, then I will. One milestone at a time.

Am I still overweight right now? Yes. But I am not morbidly obese. I am itching to get back to exercising once I’m off the hCG diet, because I have so much energy to burn it’s really the only way for me to burn it. But one thing at a time. First, I’m going to get down to where I can walk into any store and buy clothing off the rack without having to check first to see if they have a “Women’s” section.

Actually, believe it or not, I’m already there. When I started out back inCanada, I was wearing a 3X top, and 24W pants. Right now, I’m able to wear a size LARGE tee shirt or blouse, and I’m in a size 16 pants. So you see, I’ve dropped 5 pant-sizes already.

If that’s not something to celebrate, I don’t know what is. Feel free to ask me anything you want. I am an open book. I will talk about this, because I am not ashamed of the fact that I got really, really fat but as I edge closer to being 40, I am kicking the extra weight’s ass in spades.

And for those of you who want to know about the HCG diet that’s been doing wonders for Jaimi and me, check out http://www.newbodywithhcg.com/ – always make sure you get the REAL hCG and not the homeopathic version, okay? That’s really, really important.

(By the way, when I lived in Canada, I couldn’t get real hCG shipped to me, so someone would buy it from that site and then ship it to me. I’m not sure how it works outside theU.S. other than knowing they couldn’t ship to Canada, but if you’re not in the U.S., hit Google in your country and see what you can find out.)

For people who have never struggled with their weight…for people who scoff at those who are overweight and say things like, “Oh, she’s just lazy and won’t exercise,” or “It’s her own fault, she probably eats like shit,” I say this: do not judge that which you know nothing about. I have a severe carbohydrate intolerance which I didn’t know anything about and didn’t understand. On the hCG I’ve cut nearly all the carbs from my diet and lo and behold, am healthier, have more energy, and am dropping one, sometimes two, pounds a day. And it’s not taking off muscle or any of that – it’s getting rid of nasty, disgusting, stubborn fat that regular diet and exercise very rarely can do anything about.

I’ll go back to what I said in my movie review of Alex O’Loughlin’s Feed. “…don’t be so judgmental about what other people do in their lives.” Just because it’s easy for you to stay skinny and/or fit (those two do not go hand-in-hand), just because you have never had the types of health problems I and other friends have had which make your body do things you can’t control…just because society tells you making fun of those who’re overweight is acceptable, doesn’t mean you have the right to judge other people.

It’s like most things in life: you have no idea what’s going on with another person, no matter what your own brain is telling you. For me, this weight loss signifies the beginning of a whole new era, where I’m going to be healthy before I hit my 40th birthday, and proud of it. I’m also, at last, going to be a published author before this year is done, and I’m working hard at being able to live out my dreams all the while.

I will keep you all updated on how this weight loss is progressing…my next update will probably be when I reach that first goal of180 pounds, and then maybe I’ll even put up Before & After pics so you can see the results for yourselves.

I think…no, I know…that I’ll be hitting that goal by the time my book “Takers” is out. Now those are two really, really HUGE reasons to celebrate!

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    The book series "Takers," the screenplays contained on the "Screenplays" page and the screenplays discussed and contained on this website are copyright Chris Davis. Novels are published by Plotfish Press, and screenplays are registered with the Writers Guild of America (WGA) West.
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