This post, which almost didn’t make it, is part of the #AuthorToolboxBlogHop. Check out the main link for more!
I’ve had trouble writing this month.
I haven’t been sleeping particularly well, which never helps anything, and I had a cold for a while, but that’s nothing new. I’ve worked perfectly well under those circumstances before; I just couldn’t, this month … until yesterday, when everything suddenly clicked back in place like there had never been any interruption.
In honor of this, I thought I might as well offer my checklist of Things I Use To Combat Writer’s Block (with varying degrees of success). Some of these I’ve figured out on my own, others have been advice given by others, and by the time I get to the end of this, there will probably be at least one tip I’ve never actually tried but seems like a pretty good idea right now.
Starting off with old favorites:
✻ Try to Write Anyway
This is alternately intuitive and incredibly frustrating for me, depending on what’s stopping me from working. If I find I just don’t want to sit down, or I think I don’t know where I’m going or what I’m doing, I usually don’t have too much difficulty getting my butt into my chair. As mystery writer Elizabeth George says in her book on writing: “A lot of writing is simply showing up… day after day, same time and same place.” On the other hand, if I’m staring at a blank word processor then it doesn’t feel like a question of being willing to put in the effort. Something else is blocking me, and hammering at it won’t break down the wall.
That’s true sometimes, but I’ve also found that things aren’t always as bleak or inevitable as they seem. The best way I’ve found to tell the difference is by challenging myself to write one sentence. After that, try to write one more. I usually make myself go through that about five times; by that point, either the momentum starts to build or I want to pull out my hair and throw my computer out the window.
But at least I can say I’ve tried.
✻ Talk It Out
This one is contentious.
I’ve heard some writers that I really respect encourage people not to talk about their projects too much until they’re actually written. The excitement and drive you feel when you’re explaining a story to someone can lead to a false sense of accomplishment, or make you feel like you’re just retreading old paths when you try to go and actually write the thing. People who fuel themselves with a feeling of inspiration, or a spark, need to be careful not to burn it out before the writing is actually done.
On the other hand, I almost always find it easier to process my work when I’m talking to someone else. It’s a little bit like the way it’s easier to help someone solve a problem than it would be to solve the same problem for yourself; responding to another person’s curiosity or interest is a lot easier than trying to work with my own.
To avoid falling into the trap of talking instead of doing, I try to write down what I say while I’m doing it – usually just taking bullet point notes in a blank notepad file. Then, I can try to turn that shorthand into actual writing by fleshing out points, finishing ideas, using complete sentences. This works best if I do it right after I finish my conversation, while the excitement is still simmering away, although I’ll admit it’s fairly hit-or-miss.
✻ Talk It Out (again)
Bear with me.
Instead of having a conversation with another person, try talking to yourself – aloud, if you can stand the idea – and then write down what you find yourself saying, whether or not it seems relevant. Ask yourself questions: what’s happening in this scene right now? What do I want to happen? Why are the characters doing what they’re doing? What does the setting look/feel/smell like? Why am I doing this, oh god, please help me?
You know, normal sorts of writerly questions.
And then try to answer them, obviously. If the answers try to take you in an odd direction, let them – so long as you don’t get too off track. Narrating a grocery list probably won’t help anybody.
This trick really came together for me when a friend reminded me about speech-to-text software – which, it turns out, has come a long way since I last tried to use it over a decade ago. There’s something about talking that just feels easier than typing, like it’s less of a commitment and I’ve got more space to make mistakes and change my mind. Using command words also seems to help get my brain into a different space; something about saying “comma”, “new paragraph”, “erase that” jolts me out of my normal thought and speech patterns and makes it easier to get things out of my head and onto a page.
(Google docs has pretty decent free software, for anyone who’s curious.)
✻ Read Something
One of the things I realized in the last few weeks was that I’d stopped reading lately. I moved, and I was busy, and I was tired, and I probably had a bunch of other reasons that all made sense at the time and all seemed little, and all added up to a whole lot of nothing. It got to the point where I noticed that I was actually intimidated by the idea of picking up a book (/kindle/audiobook), although I couldn’t quite say why.
But I’ve mused before about how integral reading is to the process of writing, even when you’re not stuck. My simultaneous inability to write and to read did not feel coincidental, and it wasn’t long after I forced myself to read something that my writing started flowing back as well.
There are two main options here, as far as I can tell:
- Read something familiar, something that gets you excited, that reminds you why you want to write. I prefer re-reading for this, so that I don’t get distracted by analyzing new material (which is a dangerous sidetrack that can derail me for ages if I’m not careful). Find someone whose style is similar to yours, or who explores similar ideas, and let them do the first part of the creative heavy lifting.
- Read something completely different. If you’re falling into a rut, writing or otherwise, it can be really useful to take a step sideways and look at things a different way. As a person who loves fantasy and mystery, I’ve occasionally forced myself into sci-fi, or literary fiction, or memoirs. This week I started reading short stories, and now I’m trying to write one. Even if inspiration doesn’t strike directly, it can still be helpful to get out of your comfort zone.
✻ Try Again Tomorrow
One of the big challenges, I think, is recognizing when enough is enough. I tend to think of writing a little bit like falling asleep; sometimes you need to discipline your mind and just ignore the distractions, but if you get to the point where you’re just lying there in the dark for hours all you’re doing is forming negative associations that will make it harder in the future. When you’ve given it an honest shot, give your brain a break. Feeling guilty or stuck in the mud doesn’t do anyone any good.
Speaking of sleep, “sleeping on it” is also a useful suggestion my wife throws at me when I’m stuck on a specific point. Unconscious minds are often a lot better at solving problems than conscious ones, if given the chance.
Other tips that I do not personally use:
- Listen to mood music
- Set up rewards every x words, or x minutes
- Look for inspiring images that relate to the feel of your work
Any others? Let me know in the comments!