know what to write

What to Do When You Don’t Know What to Write

Thoughtful-creative-moved-22614-lSo there you are.  You've cleared your schedule and made time to write.  The kids are farmed out, the dog is asleep, your partner is happily watching something stupid on TV.  You open a file, place your hands on your keyboard, and ….. nothing happens.

You don't know what to write.  And when you don't know what to write, writing doesn't happen.

This can occur whether you are starting something new, or in the middle of a writing project.  And no matter when it happens, it can stop you cold.  Maybe you're trying to parse out the plot of your novel, or maybe you're partway through and you thought you knew where you were going but suddenly you don't.

One of the single best pieces of advice I can give you, writer to writer, is this: always know where you are going next.  (My daughter-in-law drove up to Bainbridge Island last weekend to hear one of her favorite authors, Annie Barrows of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society fame speak, and guess what?  That's the exact same advice she gave.)  I'm experiencing this first hand as I get up and work on my new WIP every morning.  The days I know where I'm going next, my fingers fly.  The days where I'm not sure, I meander.  And on those meandering days I get nothing done.

But what if you find yourself at the page and you don't have a freaking clue what to write?  Here are some suggestions.

1.  Write about your project.  Don't worry about writing within the project, write around it.  I always keep a spiral handy for notes and "writing about" sessions.  These help me clarify where I am and can get me back to the project at hand.  I thought everyone did this, so much so that I'd never bothered to mention it–but then we had a long discussion about it in the writing group I lead and to most, it was a novel idea.  Go figure.  Anyway, for me, inspiration always comes through the writing itself.

2.  Use a prompt.  Yeah, I know.  But they work.  There are tons here and a million other places on the web.  The thing to remember about using prompts successfully is to not make yourself hew to them religiously.  By this I mean, use them as a starting point.  Doesn't matter if the prompt is about a cat and you write about dogs.  The idea is to get you getting words on the page.

3.  Fill out a character dossier.  This is another thing I thought everyone did.  Turns out, not so.  I have standard character forms I've developed from a variety of sources over the years–and I invariably find myself figuring things out as I write fill them in.  (If you need a template for that, just email me and I'll send you mine.)

4.  Remember, nothing is wasted.  Sometimes it is valuable just to plunge in.  Put your character somewhere and start writing.  It may not turn into anything at all, but then again, it might.  And even if you don't use it this time around, maybe it will work itself into your next WIP.  Who knows? The muse works in mysterious ways–but she's happiest when you meet her partway.

5.  Also remember that maybe something is wrong.  If you are in the middle of a project and you don't know what to right, consider that something isn't working.  Maybe you've conceived the scene wrong, or it belongs in a different place.  Maybe it needs to be in a different location or with a different set of characters.  In order not to get stuck here, either move on to a different scene, or write something else–play around with a short story or an essay, for instance.

6.  Make a list of what you know and don't know.  Approach this like free writing and set a timer, then write down every thing you can think of that you don't know.  Ask yourself questions.  Make odd connections.  See what comes out on the page.  You know more than you think, you just need to unlock it from within.

7.  Change up your routine.  I rarely listen to music while writing, but at the moment I'm listening to a soundtrack that purports to zap you into the right brain and allow the words to flow.  It seems to be working! (Though I must admit I found the bird calls on it a bit distracting at first.) I've written recently about how working outside every morning has improved my writing.  So try something different–it may give you inspiration, and that's really what we're talking about here.

8.  Write a description.  Some people love it, some people hate it, but writing it is good practice.  Maybe you'll actually use it somewhere–or maybe it will spark the words you're looking for.

9.  Walk away.  If all else fails, go do something else.  Take a walk, mow the lawn, pull weeds, something.  It amazes me how often I don't know what to write next, get up from my chair, and find myself running back to the computer because everything has clicked into place.

10.  Keep a writer's journal.  Carry a journal around with you and take notes.  I don't do this as often as I should but when I do, it makes me happy.  Write about the woman with magenta hair and tattoos sitting next to you at the coffee shop, make notes on dialogue.  You can do this quickly, in phrases and lists, or elaborately, whatever your pleasure.  Then when you're sitting back at your desk, despairing because you don't know what to write, flip through it for inspiration.

So….what do you do when you don't know what to write?  Please share in the comments.

Photo by corpitho.

7 Ways to Knowing What to Write

When I was the mother of two young children, I would beg babysitting time from friends so that I could write.  For awhile, I had a desk stuck in a back hallway in amongst the coats and baseball bats and mittens.  I'd take the kids to my my friend's house and sit at the desk and marvel at the quiet for a minute.  And then I'd pick up my pen…

And not write.


Here I suddenly and at long last had time to write and no words came.   No matter what I did, the words wouldn't arrange themselves on the page.  My brain was simply too frazzled from rushing about getting everything organized to have the ability to form sentences.

And this still sometimes happens to me.  Every morning when I first get up is the time I devote to my creative writing.  It is how I start my day–with a cup of coffee and my writing pad.  Usually, I know exactly what I want to work on and I get right to it.  But some mornings, like today (it often seems to be a Monday), I take a sip of coffee, stare at the page, then take another sip of coffee, stare some more…and not much happens.

It happens to all of us.  We set aside precious time to write and then once we get there, we can't write a thing.  Or suddenly it seems imperative to do laundry.  Or we write a few words and they don't sound right so we quit.  The problem becomes not finding time to write, but knowing what to write when we do make the time. 

Here are some ideas on how to avoid this:

1. Be Prepared.  I know this might not be a pleasant topic for us creative types, for whom the thought of preparation or organization or structure is anathema.  But a little advance planning can serve you well.  It can be as simple as reading over what you last wrote the night before or as complicated as writing up an outline for what you want to accomplish.

2. Make Up Your Own Prompts.  I have a love-hate relationship with prompts.  Sometimes I think they are silly and inspid, and others I'm grateful for them, because they've jump-started a writing session.  To me, the best prompts are the ones I make up myself.  Keep a list in your journal and add to it often.  You can use quotes, lines of poetry, first lines from published novels, a line of dialogue you heard, a phrase that is ringing about in your head.

3.  Maintain a List of Topics.  This is similar to #2.  Keep an ongoing list of topics that you want to write about.  They can be of a general nature or specific to a project.  For instance, if you want to write a novel, some topics might be character bios for each character, descriptions of locations, etc.

4. Work Your Subconscious.  Putting your subconscious to work for you can be a huge help.  The idea is to give it something to chew on, so read over your latest writing before going to sleep.   You might dream a new scene, or wake up with a line of dialogue on your mind. You can also ask your subconscious questions.  Then let the question go and do something else.  You'll be amazed at the answers that pop up.

5. Surround Yourself With Ideas.  Writing is an inner game and an outer game.  And if you're a visual person, like me, surrounding yourself with images really gets the juices going.  Create a vision board for your book, tack pictures on a bulletin board, get yourself a giant post-it notepad and write huge notes and lists on it.

6. Write When You're Not Writing.  Extend your writing time into thinking time.  Ponder your novel while cleaning house, or compose a line of poetry on the morning commute.  By keeping your writing front and center, it will be easier to access words when you do actually have time to write.

7.  Read.  You'd be amazed how many people I run into who want to write but can't be bothered to read.  Um, there's something seriously amiss with that picture.  When I'm heavily involved in a writing project, its words in, words out for me.  I feel I have to read a ton to absorb enough words inside so I have them available to spit out onto the page.  A little strange, I know, but there it is.  Reading will inspire you, and it is the absolute best way besides writing to teach yourself to write.

Those are my ways to assist yourself to know what to write.  Any other suggestions?


Photo by mmagallan, via everystockphoto.