If I know where I’m going next in my writing, it is no problem to sit down to my computer and get words on the page. I can wrack up a good word count in no time.
But if I’m not quite sure what to write next, forget about it. My brain gets fuzzy. I can’t seem to connect with my work. I don’t know what to do next and so more often than not I don’t do anything.
This goes for my to-do list as well. Sometimes it gets so overwhelming that I just stare at it–and then go look for an interesting knitting blog to read. Or, better yet, a writing blog, because then I can pretend I am working!
So lately my process with my to-do list has been to make a decision on what needs to happen next. In today’s case, it was writing this blog post. And then I just focus on that until it is finished and I can move on to the next thing. Here’s the key: if other things crowd my brain for attention, as they do, I remind my brain what I’ve decided to focus on. Once it is finished, I can look at the other things clamoring away and decide what’s next.
Funnily enough, as I was pondering this post, this post came to my attention. It outlines a very similar process, called the Ivy Lee process for productivity. (It is worth heading over there and taking a look.)
So how does this relate back to writing? For me, it means always knowing where I’m going next so that there’s no time for indecision to take hold. Once I’m rolling on a project, this is usually not a problem. But sometimes writer’s block does strike–and it’s always, always, always because I’m not sure where to go next.
Things I recommend to prevent indecision from stymying your writing:
If you start to feel blocked, even a faint whiff of it, free write. Take the last line of the last scene you wrote and use that as a prompt. Or just write out the problem as a prompt.
Maintain a list of ideas in a dedicated notebook. Anytime you have a moment of indecision, check out the list. It might get you going again.
Don’t slavishly adhere to chronology. If the scene you’re working on isn’t lighting you up, move on to another one.
Create a loose outline. Doesn’t have to be anything fancy. Mine is just a list of scenes with notes about each scrawled about each one. But it really helps those moments of indecisiveness.
If all else fails, just choose something and go with it. Not sure if your character should jump off a bridge or ride a merry-go-round? Just commit and write. You’d be amazed how often this works. And if it doesn’t, you’ll soon figure it out.
How do you deal with indecision that blocks you? Leave a comment!
This is an embarrassing confession from a writing coach, but last fall I got blocked on a project. I was working on the rewrite of a novel for my agent. She and her staff had given me excellent revision suggestions and I was excited about them. But part of it involved giving the protagonist more motivation, digging into her backstory. And to do that, I had to add a couple of chapters. And to do that, I had to figure out to make them flow seamlessly into the book.
Usually I’m pretty good about such things. I wring my hands for a couple of days and then get to it. But this took weeks to get over. Meanwhile, I wasn’t doing any other writing, either. And when I get into that state in life, I am a very cranky girl. Finally, I began writing a short story set in the same world as the novel I was supposed to be rewriting (there will be a whole series of novels set there) and that got me going again. I turned in the revision to my agent earlier this week.
As I ponder the process I’ve just been through, the song running through my head, is Do What You Can. (Apparently I made the song up, because even though it is playing in my brain on a constant loop now, I can’t find lyrics or a video anywhere.) I wrote that title down on the note pad that is always beside my computer a few days ago to remind myself of its importance.
Because, I don’t know about you, but I tend to get stuck on one thing. I tell myself, I must finish that novel, or I have to write my newsletter, or any one of a million other things. And then if that particular thing doesn’t go well I’m either wringing my hands or farting around on the internet, reading stupid or upsetting stories.
This is at least partially about setting impossible expectations for myself. As in, I’ll sit down to that rewrite and it will flow smoothly from start to finish. Right-o. Can’t think of when that has ever happened so why do I place such ridiculous ideals upon myself? I think it has to do with an outdated image I carry around in my brain. I know better than this based on years of experience, but still it pops up. I hear the word romance novelist or English author and there it is my brain immediately: an image of a woman (beautiful, of course and dressed impeccably), devoting every minute of her days to writing her novel. She sits at a beautiful desk in the country somewhere, stops only for tea, and never gets blocked.
I swear to you, this is a thing I carry around in my head. And the reality for all novelists and authors is quite different. We stop and start. We wear yoga pants, or, often, jammies and drink coffee by the gallon. And there are plenty of times when the writing ceases (witness my afore-mentioned recent experience). This outdated image I can’t seem to shake is part of the reason I don’t turn my attention to another project when I get blocked. Because I’m starting to believe that doing whatever I can on my writing is the best way to have a prolific writing practice.
Others reasons I don’t do this might be:
I’m afraid I’ll get totally absorbed in the new project and never go back to the old
I’m afraid I’ll forget where I am in the old project and lose the thread entirely
I’ll do so much switching back and forth that I’ll never finish anything
All valid concerns, and yet also easily dealt with. Because, ultimately, isn’t getting something done better than nothing? You know the old saying–energy breed energy, I’ve found that to be true. If I sit for too long I become one with the chair and I feel sluggish and lethargic. But when I’m making an effort to get up and walk around often, I feel much more energetic at the end of the day.
And the same is true of writing–writing breeds writing. If you’re blocked on a long project, write something shorter. Scribble a blog post or a brilliant missive to a friend. Start an essay or a short story. Writing breeds more writing for sure, and somewhere in all of that you’ll find your way home to the thing you got blocked on.
It takes quite a bit of single-mindedness to finish a long writing project like a memoir or a novel. You must continually turn your face back to it despite all the marvelous distractions of life. And I think we end up taking this single-mindedness too seriously sometimes. But once in awhile, maybe you could unloose the grip and give yourself some rope.
Do you focus all your energy on one writing project at a time or many? Please do share. Also, if you’re having trouble with any aspect of your writing, I do have some coaching slots open. I’m currently revamping my coaching pages and they are a bit of a mess, so the best thing to do is contact me and we’ll chat!
Before we get started, I have a guest post today over at the wonderful Samara King’s blog. It is called Born to Be Bad, and it is about the importance of wielding your creative power. Go read it!
Okay, so I promised you a tip for when you are blocked. This is so ridiculously simple that you’re going to think I’m crazy, but it works. It’s based on one of the laws of the universe (possibly physics, though I am not scientific enough to know) with which you are familiar:
Nature abhors a vacuum.
And so does creativity. And so here’s the idea: you create a space in which to allow your writing to flow. I know. I told you it was simple. But it really works, because not only are you telling the universe are ready to riot, you are also easing yourself into the work. Here are some suggestions as to how:
Open a file. Opening a file is telling yourself (and the world) that you are serious. You’re going to do this thing. You are creating a place in which to actually write it. Woo-hoo!
Buy a notebook. Ditto above. Only analog, not digital. Claiming your space!
Create a binder. And ditto again.
Fill out a template. This can be a character dossier, or a form (or forms) that you find in a book or online. Sometimes having somebody tell you what to do helps, and if they’ve given you a ready-made outline, so much the better. (Though take everything anybody tells you, especially even me, with a grain of salt.)
Title a blank page (on the computer or in a notebook) with Chapter One (or whatever). Now you’ve created a vacuum. I’ve been known to have a file open or a notebook created for days or weeks at a time before actually writing anything in it. And that’s okay, because the energy is there, gathering. This draws on the Japanese productivity theory of Kaizen, which advocates small increases in productivity. As in, one day you open the file, and the next day you write one word, and so on. Sounds crazy, but it works.
Kon-mari your workspace. Creativity is messy and sloppy, yes, but getting things organized creates, yes, you guessed it, a vacuum into which words can flow. And yeah, I’m the worst person on the planet to be preaching this, seeing as how I’ve been re-organizing my office for years months.
These simple actions tell the universe that you’re ready to receive. That you’re serious. You’ve fashioned a vessel into which the ideas can flow. And before you know it, you’ll be writing like crazy again.
Do you ever create containers for your creativity? What’s your favorite way?
And hey, don’t forget about connection calls. Just click here to schedule a time to chat about writing!
I don't know about you, but I sure want writer's block.
I have absolutely no interest in writing quickly and easily. Or feeling like the words are tumbling off my fingers so fast I can barely keep up. Uh-uh, not me.
I would MUCH rather sit and stare at the blank screen on my computer. And when that gets boring, look out the window. I'd prefer to do laundry, or scrub the kitchen floor. Or organize my junk drawer. I don't know about you, but I find that surfing the internet all day is vastly preferable to getting a lot of writing done.
But, writer's block. No matter how hard we try, sometimes it is just damned hard to get there. So I offer the following suggestions so that you, too, can spend whole days not writing:
1. Don't know where you are going. Start randomly anew each day, without any concern for what came before. Just pluck inspiration out of thin air and write. Because, you know, that happens. Not. But fortunately you don't want it to, so you are all set!
2. Don't do any prep work. Similar to above, remember that you don't need to know anything about your characters, or where they live and work, or the theme, or absolutely anything about anything at all. Just tell yourself to write! Not knowing any of the above will bring on writer's block faster than you can whisper grammar.
3. Don't write regularly. Nah. Much better to give yourself, oh, say an hour every month or so. Because then by the time you've remembered what it was you thought you might write, your time will be up–and you won't have written anything! Which is, after all the goal. Writer's block, baby!
4. Focus on how blocked you are. Because, you know, what you focus on, you get more of. So pondering your writer's block in all its glory is a surefire way to make sure it sticks around!
5. Check email every five minutes. Surely something to distract you will have arrived. Oh look–here's a missive from a nice man in Nigeria who wants to give you money. It's probably worth writing back to him, don't you think?
Wait, what? You're tired of having writer's block after all? Your kitchen is sparkling, your laundry is finished, and there's nothing happening in the world worth reading about on the internet You want to write again? Geesh. Some people. Well, if you insist, here are the antidotes to the above suggestions:
1A. Always have a place to go. Hemingway famously stopped mid-sentence at the end of a writing session. That may be a bit much, but leave off somewhere that you know what happens next. And/or, write yourself a note about where to go. Time and time again I find that I flounder when I'm confused about where I'm going.
2A. Do your prep work! This will help enormously with #1A. A really fun approach is this book called The Writer's Coloring Book, which I just discovered today. But even if it doesn't suit your style, do some advance work. Think about character, setting, theme and plot. It will pay you huge dividends if you do.
3A. Write every day. Just shut up and do it.
4A. Good, better, best. The Qi Gong master I follow emphasizes this. Do your best in the given moment, whether that is five minutes of writing or two hours. And focus on what you've done, not what you are not doing. Good is better than nothing.
5A. Shut out distractions. Ha! I'm the queen of checking email and looking up news stories. But I also use Freedom, which disconnects me from the internet for a pre-set amount of time. It is a lifesaver for a writer, and at $10, a steal of a deal!. (I just went to the website to check the link, and you can also download a tool that blocks you from social media.)
That's it for my suggestions. How do you encourage writer's block–or find ways to get over it?
You're sitting at your desk, staring at your computer. Maybe the chapter of your current project is up on the screen. Perhaps you don't have the freaking slightest of clues what to write next.
Your brain is empty. It's like there's a brick wall between it and what comes next. You simply can't figure it out. Your writing is stalled. We won't go so far as to call it blocked, as in writer's block, because that term is big and scary and implies people burying their heads and not writing for years.
But, you are stuck.
And you don't know how to get yourself unstuck.
However, I do.
Because, over my many years of writing, I have figured out a thing or two about getting stuck. Namely, thatthere's always a reason.
So all you have to do is figure out the reason, and voila, you will be writing again!
I know. It's not always that easy. What follows are some suggestions for discerning why your writing progress is stalled.
1. Look at location. This is the first thing to check. Is the scene set in the right place? Sometimes moving a scene makes all the difference and it is an easy, quick fix, which is why I say to look at it first. Can you move the scene outside and make it more active? Does it need to be in the bedroom rather than the kitchen, or vice-versa? You'd be surprised at how much insight looking at setting can bring when you're stalled.
2. Is the scene necessary? This week, I was working with a client who'd gotten stalled. We looked at the beginning of her next chapter with an eye toward moving the location (see #1) and realized that there was no reason for the scene. Everything that came out in the first part could be fed in later in flashbacky dribs and drabs or through dialogue. Sometimes you are blocked because you're trying to make something work that simply doesn't need to be there.
3. Do you know everything you need to know about the plot? I got stalled on my WIP novel at the start of the summer. I'm a believer in having lots of irons in the fire, so I moved over to working on some shorter pieces and continued to ponder. And as I pondered, things started popping. A new character introduced herself, as did a crucial plot element in the form of a rolling pin. (It makes sense in context, truly.) My main character confided a deeply-held desire that changed everything. And I realized I had needed to take a break in order for this information to come through. I likely wouldn't have thought of any of it without the mental bandwidth stopping working on it gave me. This might be the case with you, as well.
4. What about your characters? I write somewhat on a "need to know" basis. I'm a big believer in planning, but I abhor over-planning. So I start out writing character dossiers, figuring out what I need to know about my characters to get rolling. And then, as I write, I'll realize I'm in a place where I need to learn more about a character and I go back to my dossier or character backstory and fill more in. So maybe you need to get to know your people better if you're stuck. Use prompts and freewriting to uncover their secrets.
5. Do you need to do more research? Maybe you don't know enough about something important to the novel. Do you need to study rocket science? Practice tying five different kinds of knots? Learn more about the genre you're writing in? Find out what kind of grass grows in Louisiana? The smallest of things can trip up a writing session. Learn what you need to know and it will enhance the novel.
A couple bonus pieces of advice:
6. Trust the story. You're stalled for a reason, and the story knows what. It's also trying to tell you, if you'll but listen. Look at all the elements and see which one wants changing. Trust your story. Which leads me to the reminder that:
7. What you resist, persists. So if your writing stalls, be Zen. Go with the flow. Move over to working on something else. Let thoughts percolate. Sometimes you just can't rush the creative process.
Please welcome guest poster Julie Duffy today. Julie and I connected on Twitter and I'm glad we did! She is a writer and also the creator of A Story A Day--the extreme challenge to write a story every day in May. (And guess what–you can start any time. If you get going now, think how many stories you'll have by the end of the month.) Please join me in welcoming Julie, I think you'll like her ideas for overcoming writers' block.
Writer’s block can come out of nowhere. It can be temporary and related to one project, or it can be chronic, stopping you from writing anything creative. Sometimes, it’s important to figure out the underlying problems that are contributing to the block. Is it a technical problem with the work? Have you lost the plot? Do you hate the characters? Finding out the root cause allows you to start forming strategies for tackling the block. But sometimes you just need to knuckle down and do the work. For those days, here are 15 fundamental fixes to help you work through your worst writers' block.
1 – Lower Your Standards
Don't strive for greatness. Go for entertainment. Especially on a first draft. And a second. Save the sixth revision for making it perfect. For now it's enough to ask: is it fun to read (by that I mean enjoyable and entertaining, even if it's sad)
2 – Rewrite Something
Take a look at something you've written before. Don't waste time worrying about what doesn't work. Start it again, rewrite it (or sections of it, if it is a longer work) without the use of 'cut and paste'. Just take another stab at it. Or retell a classic story, just to warm up.
3 – Start
Sometimes you literally have to put the pen on the paper and start making shapes. It doesn't matter what you write, but putting something — anything — on the page will snap you out of your terror. Keep the pen moving until you're thinking only about the story and not about yourself. Put your pen on the paper. Put your fingers on the keyboard. Make some words.
4 – Free-Write
If you are horribly blocked, don't try to write a story as soon as you sit down. Free-write. Write about anything: about what you want to do, about why you hate your project, what you're trying to do with this story. You should either solve some of your problems or get so sick of listening to yourself whine that you decide you'd rather be writing a story than complaining any more.
5 – Turn Off Distractions
Turn off the Internet. Yes you can. Unplug the router, if you're home alone, or turn off the WiFi on your laptop. If you can't pull the LAN cable out of the back of your computer without upsetting your techies, do the next best thing: turn off email notifications, Twitter pop ups and Facebook, IM or any other chat windows. Ignore your calendar. Set a timer or a word count and go. If you have an old busted laptop, use that and store your work on a USB key. Turn off your phone if it gets email alerts. Do whatever you have to do to kill all the distractions.
6 – Write From A Different P.O.V
If a scene or a story is not working for you, try writing it (again) from a different character's point of view, or in a different voice. Even if you decide not to use the piece, writing it from a different point of view may show you why it wasn't working before, or why you were resisting working on it.
7 – Work On A Different Part Of The Project
Here's a tip: you don't have to write your story in the right order. If you can't get excited about the scene right after the opening, leap over it and get into a meatier part of the story. Then at least, you'll know exactly what you need to set up in that ho-hum scene that you don't want to write today.
8 – Accept that Writing Is Hard Work
If it wasn't everyone would be doing it (and they're not. Trust me. Even though you know a lot of people who write, there are actually a larger number of people out there who aren't writing. Weird, but true.) Every professional writer who ever gave an honest answer in an interview has said some version of, "I just have to sit down and write, you know? It's a job." You have to take it seriously. No matter how much you love your job, there are days when you'd rather not be doing it. The same goes for writing. But you have to turn up anyway.
9 – Change Projects
It is OK to be working on more than one project at once. Now, don't go crazy because you'll never finish anything if you keep abandoning projects when they get hard. But it is OK to switch between a project or two when you need a change.
10 – Write A Little Then Stop
If you're having trouble writing a lot, then don't worry about writing a lot (unless you have someone standing over you with a contract and a stop watch). Write as much as you can. Write a little bit more, then stop. If you can get away with it, don't make yourself sick of a story by pushing too hard.
11 – Edit Something Out
If your story is stuck, maybe it's because your characters can't take that road trip you've been setting up. Even if you really, really wanted to write about a road trip, maybe you need to accept that this is not the story where it happens. Trying to write something when you know it's not working is a sure route to writer's block.
12 – Write First
Make writing the first thing you do, before the distractions of the day get their claws into you.
13 – Write Every Day, Even If It's Twitter Fiction
The act of writing every day proves to yourself that you are serious about this writing business. Writing something as small as Twitter fiction (140 characters) on a busy day at least means that your imagination knows it can’t go to sleep. If you know you HAVE to write something today, your imagination and your subconscious will keep looking around for ideas. In the process you will pay much more attention to the world around you — something that will pay off later, when you are working on another piece.
14 – Don’t Be Fancy
Use simple words. If you are trying to write something and it’s giving you trouble, just say it as simply as possible. Don’t worry about saying it in a beautiful way. You can get hung up on searching for the perfect word and it can stall your whole project. Come back and change it later if it needs changed (it probably won't.)
15 – Write What You Love
Maybe you've got high-flown ideas about writing what you think you 'ought' to be writing. Or maybe you've heard that a certain type of fiction sells better, or is better regarded, or is more likely to get you an agent. Maybe all these ideas have got you writing work that isn't you, that you don't love. Take some time out and write something with no thought of publishing. In fact, promise yourself you won't show it to anyone, that it's just for you. Above all, keep writing. Even if it's bad, even if it's just OK. Words on the page can be fixed. So stop worrying and write something!
What about you? What tricks do you use to jumpstart your writing?
Some people swear by them, while others shudder at the thought of using a writing prompt in their work. Because, too often, using random writing prompts can lead you astray. And let's face it, most prompts are a bit on the random side, aren't they? Those books of prompts are great, but they have about as much as common with your novel in progress as flying to the moon does to a wedding dress.
Say you're stuck on your writing project, so you open one of your books of writing prompts, choose one and begin writing. All well and good. Except that you're just writing, not really writing about anything of much interest or use to you.
Now, I'm a great one for writing something, anything, on a regular basis. And I often exhort people to do just that–particularly when they are stuck. But writing mindlessly for any great length of time can be as frustrating as not writing. Writing aimlessly is bad for your creative morale, because your heart and soul won't be in it.
The trick is to find a way to make your writing prompts relevant to your current project, so that they are enhancing your writing, not taking away from it. When used in this manner, writing prompts can be wonderfully helpful in a couple of ways:
To generate actual writing
To get a flow of ideas going
To get yourself unstuck
And, remember, the best way to use prompts is as freely and loosely as possible. Take your prompt, write it at the top of a sheet of paper, and set a timer for 15 to 20 minutes. Then write. And write and write and write, without stopping, until the timer goes off.
If you want to use writing prompts with your current project, here are some suggestions:
1. Take the last line of the previous scene or chapter and use it as a prompt. Or take the first line. Using a sentence from your work is a great way to drive deeper into the writing. Because you are writing freely and loosely, your inner critic is silenced and you may be surprised what you come up with.
2. Put a location from your book into a sentence and use it as a prompt. You can do this for the city or area your book is set in, or do it on a smaller scale, using a building such as your character's workplace or his home to write about. This technique can help to uncover details you'll later use in description, or even ideas your character might have about her surroundings.
3. Put your character in a sentence. Of course, this is sort of the whole point of writing a novel, but do this in a random way, having your character do either something unexpected or completely mundane and then write about it for 20 minutes. You'll be amazed what you'll learn.
4. Use a line of dialogue from your project.
5. Use keywords as prompts. Quick, tell me three words that describe your writing project. Now use those words as prompts–either one at a time or putting them into a sentence.
6. Use theme as a prompt. Maybe you don't know what the theme of your book is–don't laugh, it takes many a draft to figure it out sometimes–or maybe you have a vague idea of it. Make a sentence out of what your don't know or that vague idea and use it for a prompt.
7. Riff on the title. Most works-in-progress have a title, even if its only a working title. Use that for a prompt and see what comes up.
Those are some ways I've used prompts with my work-in-progress. Any more suggestions?
As is my usual wont, I woke early (6ish), grabbed my coffee, and went to work on my writing. Lately I've been thinking deep thoughts about my novel rewrite and writing them down, which leads to more deep thoughts and more writing. I'm writing about characters, trying to get to know them better, and pondering plot points. All of this is intense work.
On Friday morning, I wrote a couple paragraphs and stopped, because I knew I was done. Just…done. My pen wouldn't move. I couldn't form any more thoughts connected to the novel. Nothing. Nada. Zilch.
My brain, however, seemed to have plenty of room for thoughts about, oh, the missing child in my city, Kyron Horman. Or the oil spill in the Gulf. Or the World Cup. (No, I'm not really a soccer fan. I'm trying to be. I have this idea that it would be really fun to buy season tickets for the new pro soccer franchise that is coming to Portland. But first I have to learn to enjoy the game. And that seems to be slow going.)
In other words, my brain wanted to focus on anything other than writing.
My brain, poor thing, needed a break.
What I should have done was recognize this right away and take some time off from thinking and writing about my novel. Lord knows I've got tons of other things to work on. Or, if I didn't feel like writing, I could read. Or take a walk. Or go look at art at a gallery.
But did I do any of those things?
Of course not.
Instead, I soldiered on. I was determined, absolutely determined, to get more done on the novel rewrite. So what if my brain didn't want to work on it anymore? "Pathetic, lazy brain," I told it, "buck up and let's get going here."
And you can imagine how well that worked.
Yeah, right. About as well as….well, I can't think of a metaphor so provide your own. And so, instead of intentionally deciding to take some time off and give my brain a rest, I kept at it. And ended up reading endless updates of the Kyron Horman case and pondering all sorts of interesting websites I'd never seen before.
This kept up all day Friday and Saturday. Finally, by Sunday, my brain had had enough rest, the dam broke, and off we went again. However, I suspect if I had just taken the time off on Friday morning, I'd have probably been back at it by the afternoon.
Lesson learned: it is not always a good thing to soldier on. Though the prevailing point of view in this society would have us believe otherwise, which is one reason I think it is so hard. In the future, I'm going to do my best to pay attention when my brain rebels and give the poor hard-working thing some time off.
What about you? How do you know when you've hit the wall? What do you do when you splat against it?