There are some people in this world who are never afflicted with writer’s block. Some who claim that it doesn’t truly exist. I even had one person suggest that suffering from writer’s block was just a writer’s way of being lazy with out guilt.
Yes, I said Balderdash. Mostly because there are very few occasions that I can actually use the word balderdash and quite frankly it is a word that deserves more use. It is a fantastic word.
Now truthfully, there may be people out there who have never suffered from writer’s block. Who have never looked at the page and had no earthly idea what words needed to go onto the page next. Oh you happy blessed few. Go on with your happy lives knowing you are like unicorns; magical, mystical, rarely seen and often dismissed as fantasy.
For the rest of us, there are many reasons for writer’s block. Sometimes you have managed to paint yourself into a corner with your plot and can’t actually see a way to get to the end of the story. Sometimes your characters went left when you intended for them to go right. Sometimes other stories are nagging at your brain begging to be written. Sometimes life is too distracting for you to focus and sometimes you just don’t feel like putting words down on the page in this stupid story you never wished you’d started in the first place and wonder why you didn’t just become an accountant because numbers have to be easier to work with than words.
Okay, deep breaths.
Some of these methods will work better for some problems than others. And clearly there are other methods, but these are the five ones I use the most. So just choose the one you think will work best for what is going on in your brain at the moment.
1- The Sentence Starter. This is no surprise to anyone. I do a writing prompt every morning to wake up my brain and sometimes when I am stuck, I just pull down a sentence and write randomly on it for fifteen minutes. It gets my brain moving in ways I need to get me to write fiction. I focus only on the words and forget about the list of chores or upcoming …well anything, really. The trick is to not stop writing for the entire fifteen minutes even if you feel you’ve repeated the same word or sentence. The fun part about this is that if you really need to shake your brain up. You can take the sentence, write for fifteen minutes, walk away for a moment, get a cup of coffee or drink a glass of water. Don’t take too long but don’t just blink either, actually get up and leave your desk or wherever you are working for 1-2 minutes before coming back. Then take the same sentence and go for another fifteen minutes taking the sentence in an entirely new direction. I’ve had one sentence give me five or six different stories before. But generally after two to three times with the same sentence, I am ready to work with something new and can get going on what it was I intended to write that day.
2 – The List. In writing we attempt to show and not tell. But sometimes we need to tell ourselves so we can show others. Sometimes in the showing, we can get ourselves a little off topic and have to circle back to the plot. If you get too lost, I’m betting there is some editing in your future. But editing is seperate from writing. It is a whole other skill set that writers use. Writing gets the ideas out of your head, editing refines them, clarifies them, adjusts and pares down. We can go through that sometime later, but for now we have a story to finish and a blank page in front of us.
So we use that page and make a list. I find this helps me if I am not entirely certain what information needs to be conveyed in a dialogue or if I want my characters to do something and I just can’t figure out why they aren’t doing it. For example: Bob.
Bob is my main character and I need him to gear up and go after the invading slug monsters that have decided to take over his hometown. Bob is my hero, he must save the day (or die trying tragically, depending on the story you are writing). So I know that in the end, regardless of outcome, I need to get Bob into a position where he faces down the slug monsters. Up to this point I have written Bob as an everyman kind of character. He gets up, he goes to work. He eats, he sleeps, he does it again. Maybe he collects comic books and attends a comicon once a year. While this unlikely hero is a good one, at least if I’ve written him well, there is no reason that he would attack the slug monsters. Bob is a good guy and a sensible person. Sensible people would pack their treasured belongings in their car and drive out of town while law enforcement or the military deal with the invading slug monsters.But I want Bob to take them down. I just have to figure out why he would. So I make a list.
- The bridge is out and Bob can’t run away
- Bob’s car is in the shop and he has no way out of town or doesn’t want to leave his comic book collection
- Bob thinks for some reason that he is safe (come up with a reason)
- Bob’s favorite comic book shop is threatened and he wants to save it because he still hasn’t picked up the limited edition they special ordered for him
- Bob has a crush on a girl who lives in an area the slug monsters are attacking and he thinks this could be his chance with her
- Bob sees his neighbor has no way out, offers her a ride only to find out she wants to pick up her granddaughter first and then he gets stuck and has to defend himself
The list can continue until I find one I like that will lead me to Bob attacking the Slug Monster General with industrial sized salt shakers clutched in his hands. and using the list can help me with conversations that need to happen earlier. Does Bob need to order a limited edition something that is delivered to the comic book shop? Do i need to show him with a crush he has never acted on? Does he routinely do favors for his neighbor. By making the list I can generally work out whatever has put my brain in a tail spin. Often it provides me with little scenes I need to write and add into the story before the point where I got stuck. For me anyway it is because I didn’t have those parts earlie in the story that I got stuck in the first place. Once I figure them out, add them in and work back to where I was stuck, I find I am not stuck any more.
3- Get Physical. And no, I don’t mean try to beat up your characters. Or anyone else for that matter, real or imaginary. Unless of course you are a boxer when you aren’t writing and going a few rounds in the ring is your something physical.
For me, alas not a boxer, I go on a walk, or pull weeds in the garden, do dishes or laundry, swim laps in a pool. What the physical thing is, doesn’t matter. The point is that it is an activity that doesn’t require you to think in words. When walking, you may end up thinking about your story, but you also might see your neighbor planting silk flowers in their flower bed so they won’t look dreary over the winter when everything has gone brown. You may see someone trying to control an over excited dog. You may just have to decide whether to turn left or right at the corner.
No matter how you look at it, writing is not much of a physical exertion. Sometimes it can be emotionally and mentally exhausting and totally draining, but physically you are sitting in a chair of some sort and either writing by hand or with a keyboard. Stepping away and doing something that is more physical than mental can give you the break you need to just clear the mental fog out of your head. For me City of Wonder was emotionally draining and there were parts where after I wrote them, I had to step away and watch the dogs in the park go ballistic as they tried to chase the frisbees the disk golfers were throwing. I could not have kept writing it if I hadn’t taken those breaks to just breathe.
I recommend a half hour physical break. It is enough to accomplish one single task instead of juggling multiple ones, it doesn’t take too much time out of your day. If necessary a half hour is easy to make up as far as time goes and it provides enough of a break to get your brain clear. Plus, you can pretend your brain break is because you are taking the advice of health advocates the world over and adding more exercise to your day. So you can clear your head and make your health care provider happy.
4- Write a schedule. I know this is going to sound like a strange one. One of the things that will often stop me from writing is knowing that I have a long list of other things I really have to do. Sometimes it can be other things to do that day, other times it can be that week or month. These are things I need to get done so that the house doesn’t fall in around me, the laundry doesn’t pile up until i am left with only my fuzzy cookie monster pajama pants to wear, other articles need to be written, phone calls that need to be made or e-mails answered.
Whether work or home related these are things that need to get done. And as silly as it sounds, these can block me from writing. How can I sit and write when I am wearing my cookie monster pj pants and the only thing I have clean in the closet is a beaded cocktail dress I haven’t worn in six years?
Here is where the schedule comes in. I’ll sit and write out a list of all the things I have to get done that day, sans writing, and I will figure out how long it actually takes to do them. I will then arrange them on the page and assign them a time. At noon I will run my errands outside the house, grouping them all together in a two and a half hour block. Or at nine I will put in the laundry. At three I will make those calls and write that one e-mail I have been putting off.
Whatever the item is, I put it on the schedule, figure out how long it will take and then see what I have left. It makes everything more manageable, often breaking larger things into smaller chunks, and I can see where it is I can do my writing despite having a long list of things to do.
For example, Laundry. My laundry lives in a hamper that is divided by colors, whites and darks. It takes no time to move it from the basket to the machine. Especially since, let’s face it, most of my clothes fall into the darks or ‘its old enough it doesn’t matter’ category. I can then set the timer for 45 minutes. When the timer goes off I know I need to move the laundry from the washer to the dryer.
During those forty five minutes I don’t need to worry about the laundry (even though I marked off an hour on my schedule to ‘wash clothes’. I can either write during those forty five minutes or see how many other items on my list I can knock out while I am waiting for the time to pass and thus clear up time later to write. I know this sounds a bit silly, but I find if I don’t write down lists like this and figure out how long it is going to take in actuality, then in my head the one or two things I need to do other than write will grow into behemoths of monstrous proportions and sabotage any attempt at writing. Even if I manage to get words on the page chances are later I won’t like them and have to erase any work I did manage to do.
Knowing I have two hours or forty-five minutes, or however long to write because I don’t need to shift the laundry to the dryer or since I have lined up that call I need to make for a certain time helps me clear it out and pack it away so I can write. I can look at the page and see that everything will get done even if I do take the time to write.
5. Acceptance. You may write on your own in a place all by yourself, but you do not exist in a vacuum. There are other people in your life and even if you live alone and talk to no one on a daily basis, the world still exists. Things still happen.
Often things you can’t control.
A lot of the time, there are ways to put them out of your mind and move forward. Sometimes, though, you just have to accept that whatever is going on has eclipsed your plan to write today.
Bob will have to wait for his chance to take on the slug monsters. The back of my brain still may try to figure out why the bridge is out and if needs to be mentioned before the attack of the slug monsters or if it was taken out during the initial attack. Did the Slug monsters take it out as a way to keep all the humans confined to town or Did Crazy Jack accidentally blow it up during his ongoing war with the squirrels? These thoughts will still filter through my brain, but whatever else is going on may eclypse it.
And sometimes, you just have to accept that.
It is the curse of creating things with your brain.
Sometimes your brain has other ideas that you can’t get past at the moment.
Yesterday, for example I ended up watching far more live coverage of the ongoing election returns than I did writing. I jotted down handfuls of notes, but to be honest, real world characters sort of took precedence over the ones in my head.
Did it put me behind on my schedule, of course. But I know nothing I wrote would have been any good anyway since my mind wasn’t really on it. Sometimes not being able to write on something means you really just need to take a break. And that is okay too.
You may have a word count you want to hit on a daily or weekly basis, but there is no word count task force who monitors your output and issues citations if you are a couple of hundred words off come Friday. Sometimes the best thing for your writing is to not write. The ideas will still percolate in the back of your brain, no matter what else is going on. Then after your breather, you can go back refreshed, brain cleared and ready to work.
The words will come again and the blockage will clear. If still blocked, circle back through one of the other options listed. I’m sure you will be back on track soon enough.