At some point, no matter what, you are going to get stuck. For whatever reason, you have no idea what to write next, and nothing is coming. Perhaps your page is blank, perhaps you’ve written yourself into a corner, perhaps your idea just fizzled and you can’t revive it. Here are some strategies for crashing through a writer’s block.
The Value of Previous Work
Pull out something you put away long ago–something finished. Forget about your current project, and start reading. Almost without fail, you will find something in your old work that you feel you could make better. The writer’s brain is not content to read without critiquing–even when you are reading something you know is completely done, your brain wants to write. So pull out some paper, and write down the corrections you imagine. Sometimes you will envision a whole new scene, or a way to take what you did previously in a whole different direction. Go ahead! After a little while of this, you should be able to go back to your current work with a clear head and a fresh perspective. Sometimes that is all it takes.
The Value of Other People’s Work
For that matter, you can do the same thing with something somebody else wrote. If you don’t have anything you’ve written (or don’t care to read it again) get out a book somebody else wrote–especially if it is one you have already read. Even if it is the work of your very favorite author, chances are you will find things you can change, or come up with new scenes and directions for it. A writer’s brain is like that.
Note that I am only suggesting that you should use that other writer’s work as a starting point to get you “back in the swing” of writing. Once you’ve started writing again, it’s time to go back to your own work.
Sleep on It
Here’s a piece of advice that sounds crazy, but actually works. Put it aside, and decide to worry about it tomorrow. Tell yourself you’re going to sleep on it, and be confident that you will have an answer in the morning. Consider your problem while you’re waiting to go to sleep–it’s almost like you are “assigning” a problem to your subconscious.
I know, it sounds halfway to Looneyville, but nine times out of ten this approach really does solve my dilemma, and I awaken in the morning with a clear sense of direction for my work, or at the very least a glimmer of an idea to carry it forward past the “sticky spot”.
Junk Food For Your Brain
Do you remember when you first started writing? If you’re like most of us, you started fairly young, and maybe you even still have things that you wrote then. They probably aren’t very good, but they sure were fun to write.
And if you are like most of us, you don’t do that anymore. We’re grown-ups now; we’re serious writers. We have fans and deadlines and we don’t write “silly stuff” anymore.
Well why not? You may not win any Pulitzer Prizes for it, but you will have fun. And a little while spent writing some fun piece of nonsense no one will ever read can totally refresh your brain and rekindle your enthusiasm for writing. And that’s the best way I know to cure writer’s block.
When All Else Fails, Reach for the Phone Book
If none of these approaches seem to help you, there is still one more thing you can try. Get your local phone book, and some blank paper–and start copying. A little while spent copying from the phone book will almost invariably give you something worthwhile to write about–the sheer tedium of it lets your mind wander. Or maybe your brain decides to surrender in self-defense. Whatever the reason, this last-ditch block-breaker has never failed me yet.
Is It Really Writer’s Block?
I’ve saved for last something that isn’t really writer’s block as we know it, but is very demoralizing to deal with. Something more like a creeping, leeching, writer’s fungus that sneaks up on you while you are happily writing away, cranking out new pages, or cleaning up old ones till they sparkle. Then all of the sudden–BAM–you just don’t want to do this anymore.
It isn’t that you don’t want to write anymore; that would be simple. You just don’t want to write this anymore. Maybe you’ve spent untold hours revising this manuscript and it just doesn’t seem to be helping. Maybe you’ve been squeezing every spare moment out of every day for weeks, but your story just doesn’t seem to be moving forward. Or maybe you’re remembering one of your favorite novels by another author, and thinking, “this will never be that good, so why even bother?”
Folks, this is no fun. You’ll find that writer’s block is often discussed; there’s even a term for it that everyone knows, even people who aren’t writers. But this other condition, this mental “fungus” that leeches the drive right out of you–nobody talks about that. It isn’t because we don’t all have times like that–heaven knows we all do–it’s just that this is so much more insidious than writer’s block, and there are so many less ideas out there about what to do about it. It’s also such a bad experience, nobody really likes to talk about it.
Here are my ideas on things that can get you through this.
Put the story draft away. Get out something else to write on–if you’re like me you are always picking up those neat blank books and fancy papers, but never writing in them. This is a good time to use one. You’re going to remind yourself on these pages why this story is important. Don’t start talking about your expertly developed plot, or your thirty-seven pages of character backstories, because that’s not the sort of thing we’re interested in.
Take a step back from your story. At it’s heart, what kind of story is it? What is your story really about? This is different than asking about the plot of the story. For example, your story might be about love, or about greed. It might be a story of hope overcoming fear. In general terms, what is your story about? Consider this a moment, then write down your answer. You probably won’t be able to answer it in just one sentence. Take as much time and space as you need, to write down what your story is really about. Too often, in the middle of outlines and character sketches and plot revisions, we lose sight of this.
That may have been a hard question. If it was, that may be part of the reason the story got hard for you to write. It also probably means you’ll need to do some thinking to answer the next question I’m going to ask you: Why is your story important? Why should this story be told?
Your answers to this question may have to do with the theme of your story. It’s possible that you won’t even know what the theme of your story is, until you answer this question. What does your story have to say? Does it force people to re-evaluate the way they think about certain things? Does it help define a gray area in our society? Does it make a case for some change? Does it make us take a hard look at something about our society we would rather not see? Or does it reaffirm our core values?
After you’ve listed the reasons why your story is worth telling, you’ll probably find you’re ready to move forward again. You’ve reaffirmed your purpose, and you’ve reaffirmed that your work has value. So go write!
If you can’t seem to come up with any reasons why your story is worth telling, though, it does not necessarily mean all is lost. You need to do some more thinking about your story, about where it is going and what is important in it. You may not know your story well enough to know these things yet, or you may not have developed your idea long enough to actually begin writing. It seems to be an unpleasant fact of writing that most ideas will require time to ripen–or fester!–before you can know whether or not they are “good enough”.
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