Beating Writer’s Block
Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson
When aspiring writers ask me for advice, the most common question I get is about overcoming writer’s block. I think perhaps the reason this question is asked so frequently is that more than one situation is given the label “writer’s block.” Obviously, writer’s block refers to not knowing what to write, but I think it can be broken down into three separate categories:
Problems with idea generation,
Loss of faith in your writing’s quality, and
Getting lost on your way to “the end.”
Having faced all of these issues in my writing life, I want to share how I approach each of these dilemmas.
Problems with Idea Generation
For me, this can be the trickiest block to overcome. I almost always have an idea, but I can’t always see how that idea can be molded into a story. Here are two tricks that have worked for me:
Stick to a schedule. If I let myself avoid my writing desk until I feel inspired, I would never get any writing done. For me, writing requires discipline, and this is especially true now that I write with professional deadlines in place. If I have nothing more than a character, an image, or a What if to work with, I sit down and start freewriting. It might be just a paragraph about the opening image of the story, or an entry in my main character’s diary. No matter what though, during the time I have scheduled for myself, I’m sitting at my writing desk and plugging away. Sometimes, my freewrite leads to nothing, but just as often, it leads to the kernel of an idea from which my new story will grow.
Change the scenery. If sitting at your writing desk is leading you nowhere, find a new environment in which to write. Maybe you do your best writing in a coffee shop, or maybe at the library, or sitting in the park. Better yet, don’t sit at all. I’ve found I do my best brainstorming when I’m on my feet. Make sure you have a notebook or your phone nearby to record notes, and go outside and take a walk. Let your mind wander. I’ve had some of my best bursts of creativity just pacing through my home talking to myself about an idea. The shower is another great place to work through your ideas. Just make sure you have a notebook on the edge of the bathroom sink!
Loss of Faith in Your Writing Quality
This happens to all of us: we decide we can’t move forward with our story because everything we’ve written so far is garbage. Fortunately, there are a lot of good techniques for overcoming this problem:
Consider changing the POV character. Sometimes a story that was exciting as an idea doesn’t have that spark as you put it on the page. Take a look at your cast, and ask yourself if someone else has a better angle from which to view the story. Maybe the character you viewed as the antagonist, or maybe the love interest, is really the main character who should be telling the tale.
Turn off your inner editor. This can be very difficult to do, but if you are losing interest in a story simply because you think the writing isn’t perfect, put that aside and finish the draft. Trust yourself to go back and fix the prose later. If you tinker with every word as you put down the first draft, it won’t be long before your lack of progress becomes frustrating. Just get the story on paper. You can go back and fix it all later.
Go back to the drawing board. If you are losing faith in your story because it seems flat or uninspired, revisit your outline. Does the main character face enough obstacles? Do the side characters challenge your MC? Revisiting the outline may mean throwing out scenes or adding new ones, but that may be what you need to get your story back on track.
Getting Lost on Your Way to “The End”
If you are feeling stuck because your plot has fallen apart, I can relate! This is one of my most common issues as I work on a first draft. Here are some techniques that have helped me in the past:
Get some help from your characters. Sometimes when I find a plot hole or an issue with story logic and I can’t figure it out on my own, I turn the problem over to my characters. Open a new document and type the problem you are having at the top. Maybe it’s How do they steal the amulet without being seen? Now ask your main character to help you with this question, and start typing her answer. This helps me get out of my own head and into the head of my character. I stop looking from the outside of the story, and start looking from within. This technique frequently leads to big revelations.
Always be thinking about your story. Whether I’m running errands or doing housework, I try to be mulling over my story all the time. Sometimes the answer to a problem comes to me while driving to the store or hanging up laundry. There’s nothing like the feeling of a solution popping into your mind when you least expect it. Just make sure you have your notebook or phone nearby to make notes when inspiration strikes.
Write out of order. Maybe your first scene, the midpoint, and the ending are perfectly clear in your mind, but you’re having trouble with the scenes that bridge those big moments. Give yourself permission to write the parts you feel strongly about first. This can be a great way to stay excited about your story, and it might reveal something about your characters or your setting that will help you write the scenes that come in between.
These are a few of the methods that have helped me get back in the flow when my creativity has suddenly dried up. Do you have techniques that have help you get unstuck when writer’s block strikes? Please share them in the comments!