A fleeting moment of blankness as you try to summon that first line, or an abject feeling that lasts for days or weeks. Whatever it is, writer’s block is a pain. To proceed with a piece of writing you need to overcome mental impediments large and small, terrifying or bothersome. Here are some ideas you might find useful when you are stuck.
1. Change one word
A common piece of writing advice is to set yourself a regular word count and to stick to it. Five hundred words per day, a thousand; just get it done and your manuscript will take shape. This is good advice, but if you’re staring at a blank screen or at a piece of writing that’s gone cold on you, setting big targets will only add to your frustration.
Here’s my advice: change one word. Your goal for your writing session when using this tactic is to change just a single word. Surely you can manage that, right? Either add a new word, change an existing word, or delete a word. That’s it. You’ve moved forward, and you can enjoy a cup of tea. Journey of a thousand miles, and all that.
When I use this method to help me inch forward, I often find that one word leads to two, then to a sentence, then to a paragraph. Sometimes this is all it takes for the block to be shifted, at least for a little while.
2. The Hour of Power
Time’s a funny thing. Seems to go on forever, doesn’t it? But then, all too soon, you realise you’re running out of it. You’ve hit twenty five, and still no book deal! Thirty flashes past, and you haven’t won a single Hugo award! Mick Jagger was wrong. Time isn’t on your side. Time is a fast moving river and you’re sitting on a rock checking your social media status.
Take the plunge. Use the ‘hour of power’ method of getting stuff done.
Once you are able to get a trickle of words going using method 1, now you can set a time frame in which to write. Doesn’t have to be an hour. I just call it that because it rhymes. In fact it can be as little as a minute, if you want. I personally find that 30 – 60 minutes works best for me, what with my oh-so-busy lifestyle.
This technique can work for an lengthy endeavour, from getting fit to weeding your garden. As a teacher who has to write 30.000+ words of report comments every year, I find the Hour of Power very useful to get moving on that somewhat unpleasant task.
Again, like the ‘change one word’ method, often I find myself reaching my time limit easily, and I’m in such a good flow I’ll just keep right on going. These are mental tricks to overcome block, and if you’ve smashed through, then let it ride.
3. Take your dog for a walk (even if you don’t have one)
I get a lot of my ideas from my dog. Not in a Son of Sam kind of way. Not yet. I mean writing ideas.
One way I come up with ideas is to lie on the couch in a darkened room, fingers massaging my temples, waiting for a bolt of inspiration to blast away the blue funk. But this doesn’t work very well. Usually I just wind up thinking about what’s happening in the cricket.
A better way to come up with fresh ideas or to work through existing problems in current projects is to walk the dog. When I got my dog from the animal shelter the people there told me that, as a feisty young kelpie, she would need a lot of walking. They weren’t wrong; she loves a good stroll, which is good for me too. Something about getting the heart rate up and the blood pumping helps your ideas to flow. I often give my mind a topic to think about as I’m walking and just let it roll. When we come home, if I’ve found a way through a block or have come up with a new idea to work on, I’ll make a note of it.
4. Trust yourself
I don’t know you. You might be a far better writer than I will ever be. You might be a semi-literate cretin. No matter what, I do know that if you are a writer, then the reason why you are a writer is because at some point in your life you made a choice. You chose to make things out of words. You decided that you had something to say. Each time you sit down to write, you honour that choice, and you make it again.
You need to trust that you still have something to say. You need to trust that you are capable of putting together a piece of writing, that you have the necessary skills to get something readable done and if you don’t you are bright enough to get these skills.
Writing seems to be a solitary occupation, but I believe that when you write you are not alone. You are being helped by your former selves, and all of the future selves that will sit down to the same piece of writing and take up the baton. That’s kind of cool, isn’t it? These people are there to build on your good work and fix up your mistakes.
Do you trust yourself? Can you trust your present and future selves to produce something readable? If not, perhaps you need to take a look at method 5.
5. Quit Writing.
I don’t mean for an hour or so. I don’t mean for the rest of the day. I don’t mean you should take a sabbatical at the beach and scribble down some notes in a moleskin about that tweenie zombie dieselpunk thing you’ve had on the backburner.
I mean quit writing for good.
Has anyone ever pounded on your front door demanding a fresh short story from you? Anyone phoned you and demanded you write them a novel, pronto? Maybe they have. But it’s yet to happen to me. Unless you’re an established writer with an existing fan base, nobody gives a tinker’s cuss about your writing, your pain and suffering to create, your sacrifices, your unfinished gems waiting to be polished. Nobody cares. There’s a million other people out there just like you (and that’s probably a conservative estimate) following the same dream. Good books will be written without you.
There’s lots of things you can do with your time other than writing that will be immediate and meaningful. Get out into nature. Listen to some good music. Go to a museum. Visit your relatives. Spend some time with your kids.
That’s all very nice. But you still want to write, don’t you?
Good, because it’s not an either/or proposition. You can lead a fulfilled, interesting life and be a writer. In fact, being a writer should enrich your life. Every time you sit down to write, you reaffirm your belief that this is a worthwhile activity, that this act of creating something from nothing gives your life meaning.
Stop reading blogs and get back to work!
These are by no means the only methods you could use to keep the words and ideas coming. I have shared what works for me; do what works for you. Just remember that if you are a writer, you have chosen to spend a large chunk of your life sitting alone in a room pressing little buttons. I personally made this choice because I enjoy writing. Sure, being stuck from time to time can be frustrating, but ultimately writer’s block can be worked through if you persist.
Time to change one word. At least.