You’re facing the blank page, and nothing’s happening (either in your mind or with your fingers). No words are appearing on the screen (I almost said “on the page,” but my tech-geek gene stopped me). Writer’s block has arrived. Or has it? True writer’s block, I think, is more feared than experienced. (Pause for the sake of clarity: We’re only talking about first draft — or sometimes second draft — writing, not editing or polishing, that’s a whole different ball game).
What do I mean? Obviously, as writers, there are times when we find it easier to write than others. Unless you’ve come up with a foolproof formula or technique to make outside influences disappear, our days are filled with constant interruptions that impede our ability to generate the words we desperately need in order to complete a project. Sometimes the interruptions are external (like the errands I have to go run today), but most of the time it’s the voices in our heads giving us reasons to do something else, and (in my case, at least) usually temporary.
But, if you’re really stuck (even though the brain is obviously functioning, because it’s saying things like “stupid, moronic, son-of-a-stupid story”), here are some suggestions that have worked for me in the past.
Don’t get stuck in the first place. I know. Easier said than done. The Nike motto, “just do it,” is actually very zen-like. Be in the moment with your writing, not in the past or the future, and the negative part of your mind (the critic) won’t be there to interfere and slow you down. Like most aspects of zen, it’s as easy as “just doing it,” and also as hard as letting go of everything else in your life that’s interfering. The way to achieve the ability to allow that frame of mind to be present, is to not try (see below). If you can manage to do this on command, you’re 90% ahead of the rest of the pack.
Don’t try. Listen to Yoda. In The Empire Strikes Back, Episode Two or Episode Five of Star Wars (depending on your viewpoint), Luke is trying to learn the ways of The Force, and he is “blocked.” Nothing is working. Yoda gives him this piece of advice.
Always with you it cannot be done. Hear you nothing that I say? You must unlearn what you have learned.
All right. I’ll give it a try.
No. Try not. Do, or do not. There is no try.
“Trying” to do something already has a built in negativity, a hint of potential failure. “Doing” something implies completion and success. Jump in with both feet every day and write (no matter what). Even if it’s crap, it’s a starting point (and it’s more than you would have written if you’d done nothing).
Don’t be led astray. Multi-tasking is the enemy of good writing. You can’t be in your characters’ minds, or following the action playing out in your own head, if you’re also trying to answer e-mails, look at puppies and kitties on the Internet, or check the ball scores. When you’re writing, close your web browsers, close your e-mail, shut off your phones. For those two, three, four hours (or whatever time you’ve allotted for writing) be with your characters, getting their story onto the hard drive. (Note to self: Back up hard drive).
Make an exceedingly long, painfully detailed, excessively stupid list (about your story). If you’re stuck, however temporarily, it will almost always be for one of two reasons, something is or isn’t happening in your life, or something’s happening in your story (that you don’t want) or isn’t happening in your story (that you do want to happen). If you are dealing with problems in your own life (physical, monetary, relationships, etc.), those will always be in the way while you’re writing, unless you can find a way to write about them. (Note to self: Start writing more about my own crappy life). If you’re trying to navigate one of your characters’ problems, or a structural problem with your story, making a list can help. Do this during research or brainstorming time, not writing time.
Let’s assume it’s a problem with your plot. Make a really long list of potential ways your characters can get out of their problem. Make it as long as you think you can make it, and then add some more ways. Stop and glance through the list. Add three more things. Do these as quickly as possible. Set yourself a timed deadline (it will make you write faster), and a minimum number of ideas to generate (say twenty, then do a few more). Don’t stop to think about any of the ideas as you write, just jot it down move on to the next one. No matter how stupid an idea seems at the time, write it down anyway. Writing the bad ideas down does two things: It clears it out of the way so you can think of another; and it will give you a comparison point for the truly brilliant idea you come up with a minute later. Yes, this is a form of brainstorming. What it also might do is provide you with a number of choices for your characters to pick from when they are facing other situations later.
If you’re in a rut, move sideways (or turn around). If your characters are heading down a particular path, and you can see it’s a boring place for them (and your readers) to be, shift sideways, or do a complete reversal. An unexpected phone call with bad news, a car veering into their lane, or a mushroom cloud appearing on the horizon would change their motivation (and the direction of the story). One of your characters could actually speak the truth (instead of holding back like they have been so far in the story). A character could discover they are pregnant, or their hair is falling out. A character could pull the keys out of the ignition on a busy freeway (in anger), and throw them out the window. Have one of your characters do something unexpected, or not in their nature. Then write about it (don’t stop to think about it, just write). Scenes like this will sometimes develop into important scenes for the novel. Sometimes they will be utter crap, but you will have worked your way around the blockage, and can throw the scene away and continue.
Don’t research during writing time. Separate your research time from your writing time. The going away from your story and coming back is wasted time, but more importantly it interrupts the flow of your writing. Just insert a note wherever you are on the page, and research it later, things like [[do dogs have pits?]], [[what’s that round knob on a banister called?]], [[can a man outrun a lion?]], etc. I put my notes in double square brackets [[like this]], so I can (later, during research time) use the Find feature in my writing program to locate my notes easily. Just search for two opening brackets [[ and there your notes are.
Don’t just start in the middle, stop there too. You’ve heard the advice to “start your stories in the middle,” meaning to place your characters at a crucial moment in the story (bullets or fists are flying, a crisis is underway, etc.). Treat your writing the same way. Don’t start each day’s writing at the beginning of a new chapter. At the end of your day’s writing, stop in the middle of a chapter. I usually stop in the middle of some bit of action, or some moment of conflict, in the middle of a paragraph. I often stop in the middle of a sentence. That forces me to think about what will happen next. Sometimes I will envision it before I go to sleep, and I’ll dream about it. The next morning I don’t have to think about what to write first, the rest of the chapter is already spread out in front of me, ready to be written.
And always remember what Steve Martin said, “Writer’s block is a fancy term made up by whiners so they can have an excuse to drink alcohol.” (Note to self: Buy more scotch).
Do you have any techniques (for block-breaking) that have worked well for you?