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Pep Talk from Varian Johnson

Dear Writers,

Congratulations! You've made it to Week 2. If the writing is still going well—if you're still marching toward your deadline—skip this letter and keep typing away. However, if you find yourself stuck on word 5,247, or wondering where to go next in your manuscript, or worried that the words on the page make absolutely no sense, grab a cup of your favorite noveling beverage and read on.

Every writer I know has been afflicted with the disease of writer's block at one time or another... it's unavoidable, like morning breath and Pokémon reruns. But don't fear—there's always a remedy. Here are the most common types of writer's block that I encounter, and the ways I get around each type.

Type 1: I can't find the time. I'd rather watch Pokémon and eat Oreos.

Prognosis: This isn't writer's block. It's avoiding your novel.

Remedy: Turn off the TV, unplug the cable modem, put your cell phone on silent, and get to work. But if it makes you feel better, you can bring the Oreos to the desk with you.

Type II: I can't find the inspiration. I'd rather watch Pokémon and eat Oreos.

Prognosis: See Type I.

Remedy: Again, see Type I. As E. Lockhart once said (paraphrased): We're writers—we always show up for work, whether the muse does or not. If you're lucky, your muse is just running a little late, and will appear right when you need her. Worst case, she calls in sick, and it's a sucky day at the office. But at least you're there, at the page, making progress.

Type III: I just re-read that last chapter, and it's junk.

Prognosis: You're editing while you're writing. It's hard to do one of these tasks well by itself, much less both at the same time.

Remedy: Simple—stop reading. I know you want to go back and read what you wrote during your last session, to try to capture the feel of the novel, but this often causes more trouble than it's worth. Just keep writing—don't forget, this is a first draft here. You'll get another shot at fixing those pesky, troublesome scenes when you revise.

If you absolutely must re-read parts of your novel to sink back into the world of your story, try ending your writing day mid-scene. Or even better, mid-conversation. This way, it's easier to get back into the flow of the novel.

Type IV: I'm stuck because don't know what happens next in my story.

Prognosis: You've written yourself into a corner. Or worse, you no longer care about your characters.

Remedy: Jump ahead to a scene that interests you. Just because your novel will be read in order doesn't mean it has to be written that way. You can always come back and fill in the blanks later. And if you're stuck because your characters are boring, do something to make them exciting. Have an unexpected visitor appear at the front door. Turn their world upside down with a natural disaster. Or my favorite—change or remove somebody.

Type V: I've been staring at the computer for 4/8/12/24 hours straight, and I just can't think anymore.

Prognosis: You're tired.

Remedy: Take a break. There's no point in finishing a novel in 30 days just to keel over on December 1. You have to take care of yourself—and that means setting realistic goals.

In order to keep my sanity while writing, I often schedule a few 15–30 minute breaks during the day. I'll take a walk. Or read a favorite passage from a nearby book. Or I'll take a shower. Whatever it is, I find something that recharges my mind and body so I can get back to work. And unless I'm under a very, very strict deadline, I never write more than a certain number of hours in a day. If I put in those honest hours—no matter how much I actually get on the page—I feel like I accomplished something.

So, these are just a few things that I do to circumvent writer's block. In time, you'll find what works best for you. But the most important thing is to keep writing! You can always go back and fix the manuscript later—after November 30th!

Good luck!

– Varian

Varian Johnson is the author of Saving Maddie, My Life as a Rhombus, and A Red Polka Dot in a World Full of Plaid. He is also the co-founder of The Brown Bookshelf, an online community showcasing African-American authors of children's and young adult literature. He lives in Austin, TX with his wife.

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