My friend posted a status on Facebook asking for fellow NaNoWriMo participants to form an accountability group. I sporadically attempt NaNoWriMo– well, I do my modified version of NaNoWriMo, which really means that I cheat– so I scrolled through the comments. Someone mentioned that she had a great idea, but chronic writer’s block. Which got me thinking about how I might solve writer’s block on my own projects.
As I’ve mentioned rather recently, I try to write 250 words every day, which is one good way to keep going when you’re hitting the wall.
There are a lot of opinions about writer’s block. To oversimplify, the “butt in chair” school tends not to believe in it; the “muse” school does. My thoughts fall somewhere in between. I believe in writer’s block, but I think that timing can lie at the root of the issue. If you keep hitting your head against a wall, you start to ask “why?”
Sometimes an idea– even a great idea– is not yet ready. It needs to marinate for a little while longer. It needs another element. It needs a different narrator, a switch from first to third person, a plot twist, a transition from A to C.
I come across this problem all the time in my own writing. I’m a longform writer. I like novels; I like television. But even long projects come from a single germ of an idea. I once wrote a novel from a title. I’ve written from a line of dialogue, from an image, from a scene. I’ve finished these projects. But there are a lot of ideas I’ve had that sit in a notebook. I let them rest. Sometimes, another idea pairs with them down the road.
Here is how I write. Everyone has a different process; everyone should have a different process. (Additional strategies for combatting writers block that I do not use will be detailed below).
I need to know where a story is going before I get into it. I’m a planner, not a pantser. If I don’t have an outline for where the story is going, I get stuck, usually around the 1/3 or 1/2 mark.
When I have an idea I want to play with or a premise that I love, I allow myself to write 5,000 words with no guarantees. By the time I hit 5,000 words (which falls anywhere between 1 and 3 chapters), I force myself to write an outline.
I start slowly with novels. My word count per session grows the closer I get to the end. By then I know my characters, I know what’s happening, and I’m exhilarated by the final act. So while I write my 5,000 words, I’m usually jotting down notes. Plot points, scenes, characters, great lines I need to jam in somewhere. By 5,000 words I take a step back. I spread out my notes and figure out how to structure this novel. I make a chapter-by-chapter outline– not extensive, anywhere from one line to a paragraph about the action in each chapter or the problem it needs to solve–just something that I can look at when I get stuck. I don’t always stick to the outline; often, my best plot twists are the ones even I don’t see coming.
My brain thrives on structure. I like to think I can inflict structure on any chaos. Every time I start something new, I believe that my idea is so sound, it’s going to fall into place flawlessly.
A lot of the time, I fall flat on my face.
The outline has a way of pointing out flaws.
I’ll give you a couple examples.
- I was writing a YA novel about a girl who decides to carry out her dead sister’s bucket list. It pains me to admit that I thought this was a fantastic idea. The first two chapters flew out, but I started to get stuck on the third. I had some notes: characters to introduce, bucket list items to check off. Then I spent three weeks promising myself to write an outline. I couldn’t get past chapter five. I knew my three acts; I knew the climax and resolution of each one, but I couldn’t fill in the middle. I couldn’t come up with more bucket list items that would fit into the story. And after three weeks, I admitted that I needed to put it aside. I would have another idea. And I did.
- I’d been playing with an idea based on a short news article about a dead body in the LA River (which is not strictly a river). I wrote a great prologue/first chapter. Really. I remain immensely proud of that page. Then I tried to figure out the rest. I had a couple characters, some ideas for who this man was, how he ended up there, but it just wouldn’t gel. I decided to let it sit and hope that it would untangle in my mind. Months later, I had a breakthrough. I had the wrong main character; it needed to be told from two perspectives. I was energized, but as I tried to parse it out, I became stuck again. Someday, I think, it’ll work out. But for now I’m moving on to other things.
This is why I have a rule: if I can’t make an outline work after some serious effort, the novel isn’t ready. And that is okay. Ideas take nurturing. You have to trust them to grow.
I think that a lot of writer’s block can come from not being ready or from being scared. You need to know when to push through and when to rest.
Here are some other ideas for writers block:
- Try working on the most vivid scene in your head. Even if you’re working in order. The more you exercise the writing muscle, the more in shape you get.
- Write about your day. The logistics, thoughts, feelings, your plans for tomorrow. The story doesn’t need to spring from your imagination, but it will get your brain thinking about writing.
- Take a walk. Listen to music. I like to get into my Spotify Discover playlist. Go through a few songs. Sometimes I challenge myself to pick a random song and imagine a scene around it.
- Read a book. Copy down a page you really like. What do you love about it?
- Don’t write. Seriously. If you’ve been trying and hitting the wall for several days, take a couple days off, then come back to it. Sometimes taking a step back is what you need.
I hope this is helpful. Do you have any tips for combatting writer’s block?