Or, The next best thing to handcuffing yourself to your writing desk
My impression of “writer’s block” is that it stems from uncertainty about how to move the project forward. Maybe your enthusiasm has waned because your subconscious has picked up on something that’s wrong with the story that you haven’t seen yet. Maybe you consciously don’t know where to go next and feel lost and scared of moving for fear it will be in the wrong direction. At least, those are the most frequent reasons I find myself unable to get work done when I sit down to write on a story.
I have been spinning wheels for a good two months now, first with a pair of novellas that weren’t coming together well and then with a new story that stalled out after an easy 10,000 word opening. In the time since I realized I was stuck I’ve seen probably three posts on various writing websites about getting unstuck. I found one or two suggestions that were helpful, and a lot that weren’t–at least not for me.
This weekend I had a breakthrough, and my enthusiasm for this story, my confidence in where it was going, and my obsession with wanting to follow it down that road, were restored. Sails are wide, full speed ahead.
Here are the tricks that helped me reach that breakthrough.
1. Write a detailed outline.
I am an outlining kind of writer anyway, but often the outline is either very general–maybe 10 points long–or only mental. Writing out not merely every scene but every piece of action that must happen within that scene, what the mood should be, how the emotional progression of the characters is moved through and/or as a result of that scene, etc., can really help you start writing again. Once you have a list of points to address, you know where your scene(s) need to go, so you don’t have to stumble through the darkness and hope you come out the other side in one piece.
A solid outline also helps you figure out where you are in the story, where you are going, how long it will take to get there, and if you have any blanks on the map along the way. Those blank spots may not need to be filled in before you can go forward, but now that you’re consciously aware of them you can get them sketched in before you hit one of them in your writing and stall out again. Here be dragons, indeed.
2. Run your story through the seven point structure analysis.
I saw this on Dan Wells’ site recently and immediately wanted to try it for my stories. Verdict: I love it as a clarifying tool!
I don’t know if the structure would be helpful for those who are still creating their story, but for those who have most of it established and are trying to fill in those blank spots, this kind of analysis is a really great tool for pulling out the salient points. I would compare it to the rising/falling action structures you study in high shcool literature classes. If you run this diagnostic before/while outlining, it can help you figure out how much more story you need and where those blank spots are.
3. Go back to the beginning.
By this I mean, go back to the idea that made you excited to write this story in the first place. Has that theme/idea/character gotten lost in the shuffle of plotting or writing or scenes that don’t do what you need/want them to do?
Basically this is just about reminding yourself why you wanted to write this story at all.
4. Rifle through your ideas file.
You do keep an ideas file, don’t you? A collection of moments/character profiles/descriptions/emotions/lines of dialogue/scenarios that you think might be interesting to use in a story, even if you don’t know which story? If not, why on earth aren’t you? They are indespensable tools for writers. Ideas might grow on trees in your imagination, but like trees your imagination can experience a drought season or go dormant in winter. Harvest your ideas when you have them, and stick them in preservative!
If you have an ideas file, flip through it to see if any of the ideas you haven’t yet used (or maybe even those ideas you have tagged for another project, if it’s not written yet) would work for your story. Can you fill in one of the gaps in your plot/7-point structure with one of those scenarios or plot twists? Would one of the character sketches work with a character you’ve put in the story but feel isn’t quite fleshed out, or isn’t working the way you initially drew them?
5. Skip ahead to a fun/dramatic/important scene.
Not much to expand on with that one. If your current scene is stumping you, see if a scene a bit later will be easier to write, either because it’s more interesting intrinsically or because what needs to happen in it is more clear. Often, once you know exactly where you’re going, it’s easier to see how to get there. If you skip ahead, when you go back to that scene stumping you, you might find it suddenly obvious and easy to write.
6. Approach every new scene/chapter like it is the opening of the book.
This is an idea I picked up from another writer’s blog, and if I could remember which it was I would link back, so, if anyone else read this and remembers where, please let me know so I can link to the original!
I was skeptical of this idea at first, but she’s absolutely right–if you want to keep your readers engaged, you need each new scene to be crisp, catchy, interesting. The reader should be coming in with an angle that makes them look and then look closer.
Better, it keeps you engaged as a writer, because there is absolutely an excitement, an enthusiasm, an energy, about starting something new. Approaching each scene/chapter opening as if it’s the opening to the book makes every single one an opportunity for you to hook both your reader and yourself into the story all over again.
7. Put yourself in a position where you can’t write.
This was an accidental discovery, but it works. I had a houseguest last weekend, when weekends are often my primary writing time, and not being able to write because I was spending time with my guest made me want to. It’s reverse psychology, but it is effective. So go on vacation and don’t bring so much as a notebook. Invite friends to come for a weekend or a week. Pile so many life obligations (like vet visits, doctor’s appointments you’ve been putting off, getting that car inspected, etc.) into your usual writing time that you don’t have time to choose not to write. Somehow having that choice taken away makes you want to do it, same as your sibling playing with a toy you otherwise wouldn’t have looked twice at suddenly makes it the most interesting toy in your room.
8. Change something in your writing space.
Or your routine, if you don’t have a dedicated space so much as a dedicated process.
This can be anything from taking your writing to a different space in your house, away from all those failed attempts to write–that would be akin to leaving your bed when you have insomnia so as to keep your bed from becoming a place of anxiety and fear–to changing how you write (typing to longhand or vice versa) to simply adding a new element to the space. For me, I tried going back to my teenage days and putting music on in the background. Not just any music, either, but particularly inspiring and emotion-rousing classical/instrumental pieces. My “Tears to Joy” mix, played loudly enough to keep my brain from blocking it out entirely, is an aural reminder to me to concentrate, to keep working, to stay focused. I don’t know if it would work for everyone, and I don’t know if it will work for me indefnitely–but for now it’s calming my ADD way down and allowing me to keep my attention on the task at hand: writing my story.
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So there they are. My newfound tricks for getting through an unproductive phase. Did any of them work for you? Does something else? Let me know!