The other day I received an email from one of my newsletter subscribers (and if you haven’t subscribed to my newsletter, you can do so here: http://timwaggoner.com/contact.htm). The writer told me that she’s been dealing with writer’s block recently, so I promised her I’d write an article on the subject for my blog and send her a copy. I sat down and brainstormed ideas for an article, but after I had a list of topics to cover, I started thinking … Didn’t I already write a blog on writer’s block? So I logged onto Blogger, checked my blog, and sure enough, I’d written an article about writer’s block six months earlier. But when I read over the article, I saw that while some points overlapped between it and my newly created list of ideas, there were a lot of differences, too. I figured, what the hell? Why not do an updated article on writer’s block? So that’s what this is. I’ve included points from the original article so people won’t have to go back and read it (see how good I am to you?) along with a significant amount of new material. So here it is: Overcoming Writer’s Block 2.0!
WHY ARE YOU BLOCKED?
I think an important part of getting past writer’s block is to diagnose the reasons for it. You can’t fix a problem if you don’t understand it. There might be multiple reasons for being blocked, and there might be different reasons for it at different times, necessitating different strategies for dealing with it. So let’s figure this thing out.
Fear of failure?
This one’s obvious. You’re afraid you’re going to screw up your story/book/poem/article, so rather than keep going and experience the pain of failure, you stop writing. But if you’re going to have a career as a writer (whatever shape that career takes), you need to accept that failure is part of the gig. Every piece of writing we do is, even if in only small ways, different from anything else we’ve written. There are new problems to solve each time – how to begin, what organization to use, what information to include, how to phrase that information, what tone to use, how long a piece should be, how to end it – and this means that in a very real sense, each piece of writing we do is an experiment. We try out different approaches and techniques and see what happens. And if a piece doesn’t work on any level, we toss it out and start again. More often, a piece just needs to be redrafted and revised until it does work. We have to accept that writing isn’t a product. It’s a process that results in a product. Accepting the process – accepting that you’re going to make wrong turns, go down blind alleys, need to back up and try a different route, maybe more than once – is a huge part of being a writer. You need to redefine failure. Producing a piece of writing (whether it’s an entire story of just a few paragraphs) that you ultimately decide to junk isn’t failure. It’s part of the process. It’s normal. It’s not failure. It’s how stories/poems/articles are made. The process isn’t always fun or comfortable, but that’s okay. As the saying goes, the only way out is through. Accept and honor the process and don’t disengage from it. Keep writing.
Fear of success?
This one sounds like a joke at first. Who would ever be afraid of succeeding? Isn’t success what everyone wants? But success brings a whole new set of problems. What if you don’t succeed next time? What if you don’t succeed ever again? What if you produce another piece and it’s not as good? What if nothing you produce is ever that good again? Success brings expectation – from others and from yourself – and that brings pressure. And pressure causes second-guessing, and second-guessing causes creative paralysis. A number of years ago at a con, writer Gary A. Braunbeck, writer and editor Charles Coleman Finley, and I were speaking to a group of aspiring writers. One of the writers asked when we knew we’d made the transition from trying to produce professional-level work to actually doing it. Without conferring ahead of time, Gary, Charlie, and I told the same story. Each of us was working on a short story, and each of us got a point when we suddenly realized it was the best thing we’d written so far. Each of us stopped writing at that point because we feared we were going to screw it up, but eventually each of us sat down to finish our stories. The story I wrote was “Mr. Punch.” It became my first professional sale, and Ellen Datlow selected it for an honorable mention in The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror. Gary, Charlie, and I felt the fear of success, that our story was a fragile, tenuous thing and, if we weren’t extremely careful, it would pop like a soap bubble and disappear forever. But in the end, we kept going. We resumed the process. Staying in the process – focusing on it and not our fears – is the most important thing any of us can do to prevent writer’s block.
Fear your writing isn’t good enough?
There are a couple ways to look at this fear. One is to realize that when you feel this way, you’re again focusing on the product, not the process. Until you complete the process, there is no product. A story can’t be “good” or “bad” if it doesn’t exist. Another way to look at it is to accept that your writing will never be good enough. Perfection is a goal that’s forever out of our reach. There’s an old saying that no piece of writing is ever finished, just abandoned, and there’s some truth to that. A piece of writing can always be improved, but if you continually revise it seeking some ultimate level of perfection, you’ll be working on it forever. I had friend who outlined a fantasy series set in medieval Russia. He even traveled to Russia to research it. When he returned home, he wrote chapter one. Then he rewrote chapter one. Then he rewrote it again. And again. And again. He was never able to get past chapter one because he never thought it was good enough to move on to chapter two. Don’t worry about good enough. Make each piece of writing the best you can and try to do even better with the next piece. Again, focus on the process, not the product.
Fear of how people will respond to your writing?
Will unhappy readers leave one-star reviews on Amazon? Will they send you emails to tell you that your writing sucks? Will friends, family, and coworkers read your twisted horror story and think you’re a serial killer in the making, or will they read a sex scene you wrote and start wondering what kind of kink you’re into? (You usually don’t have to worry about these kind of reactions, though. People won’t change their reading habits just because they know and love you. Even if they’re supportive of your writing, most will never read a single word you produce.) Worrying about reader response while you’re in the process of writing – or worse, before you even begin – can hobble you big time. Sure, you want to be aware of your audience when producing a piece of writing, but not overly aware, not when it takes the focus off the writing itself. I’ve written a number of tie-in novels based on the TV show Supernatural. The series has a crazy huge fandom, and if I let myself worry about trying please every single person who loves the show when I wrote an adventure of Sam and Dean Winchester’s, I’d never write a single word. I focus on the characters and telling their story. You should, too.
Fear that people won’t response at all?
This outcome is far more likely than people having a bad reaction to anything you write. You produce a story, poem, or novel, and after it’s published, all you hear is the sound of crickets. And maybe you don’t even hear that. You feel like you might as well have chucked the goddamned thing down a hole for all the effect it had on the world. I’ve been there. Every writer has. I once saw a well-known writer of literary horror who, after his latest collection was released, post this on Facebook: I feel like I wrote an invisible book. I can’t think of any better way to express the feeling when your work seems to elicit no response whatsoever from readers. Hell, it feels like no one’s read the damned thing at all. It’s hard to keep writing when you feel like what you’re creating won’t matter to anyone, but it’s another case of focusing on the product instead of the process. Focus on the process during the writing; focus on the product when it comes time to market your work.
This is so common – the fear that you really aren’t a writer, certainly not a good one, and that any moment the world is going to find out what a fraud you really are. Imposter syndrome happens because we have an unrealistic view of what it means to be a professional writer. Professionals tend not to talk about their fears and worries in public, so we don’t know they have them. They seem poised, confident, relaxed, brilliant, and untroubled. This is bullshit. They’re just like everyone else, and they have all the same neuroses you do. Professionals are simply more practiced at not letting their fears stop them. Instead of holding yourself up to some imaginary – and in all likelihood unattainable – standard of what a Writer with a capital W is, focus on being yourself, whoever that is, whenever that is. Don’t worry about who you’re not. You can’t be anyone else.
Fear you won’t be able to do justice to what you imagine?
Often when I finish a story or novel, I think, How close didn’t I get this time? No matter how I initially envision a piece of writing, it always comes out different. Sometimes it’s better, but most times I feel I didn’t quite manage to capture what I was hoping to in a given piece of writing. This is not a fun feeling, and if I focused on it too much, I’d start wondering what the point of writing anything is if I can never achieve what I’d hoped to, and then I’d probably quit writing altogether. (As it is, I contemplate quitting all the time anyway. I do my best not to pay attention to myself when I get like this. It’s just part of the emotional ups and downs of being an artist.) It’s the striving toward a goal that ends up producing a finished piece of writing I can sell. If your goal is perfection, you’ll never reach it because there is no such thing. No two people could agree on a single standard that rises to the level of perfection. It’s the striving – again, the process – that produces art.
Fear you won’t measure up to The Greats?
I saw a lot of this in grad school. I was an English major (big surprise), and almost all of us wanted to write, but most didn’t try. They knew they could never be Faulker or Fitzgerald or Plath or Austen or whoever it was they idolized, so why bother trying? I tried to explain to my fellow students that the writers we studied were the fabulous freaks of literature. In the zoo of writing, they were the rare, exotic animals. But in the classroom, they were treated as normal, as if they were the only exemplars of great writing. But each of the Greats (however you define them), produced such highly individualized an often idiosyncratic work that we can never copy them even if we wanted to. We will eternally fall short if we insist on comparing ourselves to any other writers, especially ones our culture deems one of the Greats. Comparing our work to that of others can be a useful learning tool, but not when we believe we can never measure up to what others produce. Focus on writing your work your way. Don’t compare yourself to other writers in destructive ways.
Psychologist and author Eric Maisel has written a number of books to help creative people deal with the mental and emotional challenges of living the life of an artist. I recommend his books Mastering Creative Anxiety, Creativity for Life, and Unleashing the Artist Within.
It’s hard to be creative when your mental and physical health aren’t at their best. Are you . . .
· *Getting enough sleep?
*Tending to your health/medical needs?
*Getting enough exercise?
*Getting enough downtime?
*Tending to your emotional/psychological needs?
*Dealing effectively with work stress?
*Dealing effectively with interpersonal/relationship issues?
*Tending to your health/medical needs?
*Getting enough exercise?
*Getting enough downtime?
*Tending to your emotional/psychological needs?
*Dealing effectively with work stress?
*Dealing effectively with interpersonal/relationship issues?
These are all things we need to do to be healthy people in general, of course, but problems in any of these areas affect all aspects of our lives, including our creative selves. Self-care is a lifelong task, and it’s impossible to have all aspects of our lives in balance all the time. The point is to do our best to take care of ourselves, so that we can be healthy and happy as much and as often as possible, not only so we can live well, but so we can write well, too. I’m dysthymic. This means I suffer from a low-level constant depression that will never go away and, if I’m not careful, can turn into a major depression. I also have sleep apnea and type-2 diabetes. I need to tend to all three of these major health concerns in order to be a functional human being. So I take my meds, try to watch my diet, use my CPAP machine when I sleep at night, etc. Some days are better than others, but overall, I’m healthy, and I have the mental, emotional, and physical strength to do my writing. Although ingesting a significant amount of caffeine helps.
PRACTICE GOOD “CREATOR HYGIENE”
I’m not talking about showering regularly, using deodorant, or brushing your teeth. (Although I do encourage you do these things at least semi-regularly.) Sleep experts say people should practice good sleep hygiene, which means following a set routine every night that prepares your mind and body for sleep. Writers (and other creators) can do the same thing to get their minds ready to be creatively productive. Following are several things to try to improve your creative hygiene.
Have a special place for writing.
At the moment, I’m writing this sitting in a chair beneath skylights because it’s raining and I love the sound of rain. I guess it’s this morning’s special place for me. In general, I have two special places that are dedicated solely to writing. One is a home office, and the other is Starbucks (any of several in the area where I live, although I do have a couple favorites). My house is where I live, and even though my family know not to bother me when I’m writing, I find myself tempted to go talk to them and procrastinate, or worse, to do household chores instead of writing. It feels like home isn’t just for my writing, I guess. But when I go to Starbucks, there isn’t anyone or anything there to distract me. I can sit and write as long as I want and no one needs me, as might be the case at home. Plus, I grew up in a noisy household, and I need a certain amount of sound and activity happening around me to concentrate. At a Starbucks, there’s usually just the right around of noise and bustle to allow my mind to relax and work.
If you have a home office, decorate it in ways that mark it as your writing space. I have different toys – a shelf of Godzilla figures, several shelves of Funko Pop horror figures, a collection of writer figures, all of my author copies arranged on bookshelves, a display of books that were important in my development as a writer, a display of awards and nomination certificates, etc. All things that make my home office feel like Tim’s Writing Place.
Have special materials for writing.
I usually write fiction longhand first and then type it into my computer later. I do the former at a Starbucks and do the latter in my home office. Why this process works for me, I couldn’t tell you. I came to it after years of experimenting with different methods of composing prose. I like to use 70-page spiral bound notebooks, the cheap kind, nothing expensive. And I like to use black gel pens. I have a black bag that I carry my writing stuff in, and when it’s time to type, I use a laptop. I like to have a cup of coffee when I write – a venti black coffee from Starbucks, or I may brew one at home. All of these materials are special for my writing, and they tell my mind that it’s time to write whenever I pick them up/touch them. Having a comfy, office chair with good back support is important, and there was a time years ago when I liked to wear a “writing sweater.” I would leave it hanging on the back of my office chair and put it on when it was time to write. I only wore it when writing. It was another prop that, when I put it on, it told my mind that writing time had arrived.
Create writing rituals – things you do every time to prepare you to write, like brewing coffee, choosing music to listen to, wearing special writing clothes, etc.
I mentioned coffee and my old writing sweater above. I don’t always listen to music when I write, but when I do, it’s instrumental music. Music with words distracts me from writing my own words. Simply driving to Starbucks is a ritual that gets me ready to write. Whatever rituals you create, going through them will prepare your brain to be creative.
Write at the same time every day, write for the same length of time each session, or write with a specific page goal/word count every day. Any of these habits, like writing rituals, will help get your brain ready to go.
Get to know your writing biorhythm.
I’m usually good for a two to four-hour writing session at a go. After that, my brain becomes sluggish. But I can do two of those sessions a day, one every twelve hours. I don’t usually do two sessions per day unless a deadline is fast approaching, though – or if I’m getting into the last third of a book and I’m energized and excited to complete it. Are you a morning person? A night person? Do you work better in a number of small spurts throughout the day or do you work best with long stretches of uninterrupted work time? Knowing your writing biorhythm will help you work when you’re at your most effective, and you’re less likely to feel blocked then.
GET OUT OF YOUR DAMN HEAD
Writers can be our own worst enemies. The busy mind that allows us to create can also get in our way when it starts to get too busy and begins doubting and second guessing itself. When that happens, try to keep the following in mind.
Forget the audience – write for yourself.
Some writers advise never thinking about readers when you write. Otherwise, you might become so self-conscious about the choices that you’re making that you’ll stop making them altogether. Some writers prefer to keep the audience in mind the entire time. After all, we write for others to read our work, don’t we? If we don’t keep them in mind, how can we ensure we’re communicating effectively?
Both ways of working are valid, of course. But if thinking about readers paralyzes you, then need to forget about them. After all, you can’t have readers if you don’t finish your story/article/poem, can you? Think about the words you’re putting down. Readers will (hopefully) come later.
And while you’re at it, forget about yourself, too.
Being self-aware is vital for an artist. Being self-focused to the exclusion of all else? Not so much. Worrying whether your writing is good enough – whether you’re good enough – with every single word you write is a fast track to creative paralysis. And even if you do manage to produce writing, it probably won’t be your best work. How could it be? You were working with a good portion of your brain cells tied behind your back. (How’s that for a mental image?)
Forget career concerns.
Worried that you should be working in a more marketable genre? Concerned that your thriller doesn’t have enough action or your steamy romance doesn’t have enough steam? Are you driving yourself crazy worrying that your science fiction novel is too similar to other books on the market or is too wildly different from what’s out there? Afraid that your new novel isn’t on brand? Thinking (especially to the point of obsession) about your career while you’re working on a project can kill it before it even gets started. We all want success however we define it, but if we’re constantly searching for some magic formula that will give us the best chance at success while we’re writing, we once again risk summoning our old enemy creative paralysis.
Don’t think about editors, agents. teachers, friends, or family members . . .
For the same reasons I’ve already mentioned, worrying about what others think – regardless of who those others are and how important their approval might be to you – is a great way to find yourself blocked.
Forget others’ advice – including mine – on what and how you should write, and just write.
I’ve known writers who take class after class, read one how-to-write book after another, attend every workshop and conference they can. They absorb so much advice on writing, some of it contradictory, and they try to keep it all in mind as they write. How can someone write with so many other writers’ voices in their head, constantly exhorting them to do it this way and not that way? The only voice you should listen to when you write is the voice of the story (or poem or song or whatever).
Think STORY and nothing but STORY.
This, I think, is the best defense against writer’s block. Focusing on the work (again, whatever it might be) will keep your mind from wandering down unproductive avenues. Only the work is the work; anything else is a distraction. Just write. When you’ve got a completed draft, then you can get feedback and revise. But you need to get the work done first.
USE DIFFERENT WRITING TECHNIQUES
There’s no magic bullet that will kill writer’s block, but there are some writing techniques you can use that can help you break through it. Here are a few.
Make a choice – ANY choice!
I often tell students that in many ways, writing is nothing more than a series of decisions that we make, one after the other. This idea, not that idea. This word, not that word. The easier it is for you to make decisions, the easier it will be for you to write. I’m lucky. I usually don’t have much trouble making decisions. But I know that’s not the case for everyone. When you feel blocked, maybe what you’re experiencing is fear of making the wrong decision, of taking a wrong turn in your writing that will require you to throw out a significant chunk of text and start over. But if you’re paralyzed with indecision, you can’t move forward. Isn’t it better to chance taking a wrong turn? At least you’re moving. And there’s a chance you won’t take a wrong turn at all. And if you can’t decide what’s the best choice to make at a specific point in your writing, make a random one. Do the very first thing that pops into your head. Is your character asleep? Have them wake up because someone is standing outside on their lawn reciting Shakespearean sonnets at the top of their lungs. Continue from there, see where the story goes. Maybe it won’t go anywhere and you’ll back up and try again. But at least you’ll keep moving, and that’s the important thing. And who knows? You might end up writing a story that’s a lot more interesting than the idea you started with.
Try a different point of view.
Maybe you’re telling your story from the wrong perspective. If you’re using third person, try first or second. Maybe tell it from the point of view of the family dog instead of the father. Tell it from the point of view of a distant but intrusive narrator, as in a fairy tale or parable. (Like Lemony Snicket does in A Series of Unfortunate Events.) The right point of view can be the key that opens up the world of the story to a writer. And sometimes when we’re confronted with a locked door, we have to keep trying different keys until we open it.
Skip what you don’t know and write what you do know.
Beginning writers think that writing is created the same way it’s experienced when it’s read: the first perfect word followed by the second perfect word followed by the third perfect word in an unbroken chain until the end. Even experienced writers who should know better sometimes fall into this trap. After all, we never experience a piece of writing from conception through drafting and revision to the final – including all the thoughts and artistic intuitions that writers never record. We only experience our own writing this way. We experience everyone else’s as final drafts. (Unless we teach or are in a writers’ group or do developmental editing on the side. And even then, we only see a draft or two. We never see it all, including all the stuff that happens in a writer’s subconscious. We can’t.)
You can create a story/poem/article in any damn order, whether you choose that order or it occurs organically. All that matters is that all the information – the concepts and the words you use to express them – are in an effective order in the end. So if you’re blocked because you don’t know what’s going to happen in the next scene, skip to what you do know and write that. Jump around all you like. You can organize your bits and pieces later and create connective tissue for them then. The point is to keep writing, keep moving. I think of being blocked not as having an obstacle ahead of me, but instead as being stalled. I need to turn the ignition, get the engine going, and start driving forward again.
Change your main character from passive to active
A common problem I see in student fiction – whether at the undergraduate or graduate level – is that characters are too passive. In these stories, things happen to the characters instead of the characters choosing to do things. Characters in fiction tend to be more active than people generally are in real life. You need your characters to make choices so that stuff happens. Even if your character is initially reactive – as often happens in a horror story – you can make your character actively reactive. If your character is confronted by the ghost of her dead brother, what does she do? Stand there and look at it? Boring. She could scream, run, try to talk to her brother, try to touch him, try to hit him with something, yell at him to go away because he doesn’t exist . . . And if she does stand there in shock, describe what’s actively happening inside her. Too many student science fiction/fantasy/horror stories have characters that show absolutely no mental and emotional reactions to weird shit happening – shit that’s beyond their experience and completely upends their view of reality. Keep your characters active, keep them doing stuff, and you’ll keep your story moving forward.
Shake up your story’s status quo
I tell students that stories are constantly in motion. Once they start, they don’t stop moving until they finish. Sometimes the movement is faster or slower, sometimes simple or complex, but they never ever stop before The End. So if you feel stalled on a project, maybe it’s because it’s gotten into a rut. It’s ceased moving. If that’s the case, shake things up. Kill a character, introduce a new character, reveal a hidden secret, go back and change a character’s gender, race, sexuality, profession, personality, history, etc. Keep injecting new elements into your story until you get the damn thing going again. Plus, if your story has no status quo, it’ll be fresh, interesting, and unpredictable.
Ask yourself what couldn’t possibly happen now and make it happen.
I pass along this tip to students all the time. When you get stalled in a story, ask yourself what’s one thing that couldn’t possibly happen now and make it happen. I don’t mean make something silly happen, like suddenly the universe ends for no reason, or everyone turns into cartoon animals who only communicate by singing showtunes. I mean if your character is driving across town for an important job interview, and your plan is for the character to get there and go through the interview, make that not happen. Have the character’s car get a flat tire. Have another driver T-bone their vehicle. Have someone run up to their car at a stoplight, pound on the driver’s side window and plead for their help. By doing this, you wake up your mind and get it excited by this new story direction you’ve given it. And if you’re creatively engaged by this sudden unexpected turn in the plot, your readers will be too. And who knows? Your story might head off in an entirely different – and maybe better – direction.
If you don’t outline, do so.
Maybe you don’t outline. Maybe you hate it. Maybe you don’t normally need it. That’s cool. But if you find yourself blocked, maybe it’s because this time, for this project, you need to know where you’re going ahead of time. You need a map. You don’t need to outline in exhaustive detail (unless that helps). Just a simple list of this happens, then this happens might do. And once you get going, you may not need the map after a certain point and can start navigating by your instincts again. As long as your map got you going again, that’s all that matters.
If you do outline, throw it out and write by the seat of your pants.
On the other hand, if you’re normally a planner and you outline like crazy, have outlines for your damn outlines, if one day you find yourself blocked, throw out your map and start heading off into the great unknown without any navigational aid. One of the downsides to outlining (and I say this as someone who always writes novels from outlines and often – but not always – uses them for short stories) is that once you’ve created them, you’ve already told the story to yourself. It’s like chewed meat. Bland, tasteless, gross. Readers read for the joy of discovery. Writers write for that joy, too. Sometimes over-outlining can rob a writer of that joy. If you think that might be the reason you’re blocked, throw out your outline, just start writing, and see where it leads.
Work on two projects at the same time
Maybe you’re blocked because you’re bored with your project. Writers, like a lot of creative types, suffer from ADHD – or if they aren’t clinically ADHD, they’re functionally this way. One way to combat this is to have more than one project going at a time and switch between them as needed. These projects can be in different genres, too, to keep things even more fresh for you. I tend to work on one project at a time, but I remember seeing Brian Keene post projects updates on his blog. He works on multiple projects at a time, and he posted bar charts showing his progress on various books. One book might’ve been at 15%, another at 78%, and still another at 94%. Moving between projects keeps things fresh for him while at the same time keeping him moving on various projects, until he eventually completes them. I think I’d find this overwhelming, but it could be a great way to keep you from getting bored with your own work.
Use different tools.
The old saying “A change is as good as a rest” applies here. If you usually write on your laptop, try writing longhand in a notebook. Or vice versa. Use a different color pen. Alternate between different colors of pens. Write your story on notecards. Outline it using PowerPoint (I did that for this article, and now I have a presentation I can use in classes and workshops. too.) Draw pictures of characters and settings (if you don’t normally do this). Dictate your story into a voice recorder. Video yourself acting out a scene. Keep trying different tools until your writing gets moving again.
Write at different speeds.
Maybe you’re normally a slow writer. Try writing faster. If you usually blaze through your writing, force yourself to go slow. Switching up the pace of your writing can be a good way to break through whatever mental or emotional block that’s hampering you.
Write at different times of the day.
Earlier, I mentioned getting to know your writing biorhythm. I suggested you experiment with writing at different times of the day to see when you’re at your most productive. Now I’ll add that writing at different times of the day can also be a way to shake up your routine. Sometimes a regular habit can help us focus and be more productive, but sometimes varying our routine is what we most need.
Write at different lengths.
If you’re stuck on a long project, try working on a short one for a while. Maybe a very short one, like a small poem or a fifty-word piece of flash fiction. Completing some small projects can restore your confidence and help you remember that, yeah, you can do this.
Write in a different genre.
If you normally write romance, try a mystery. If you write articles, try a poem. Even if all you do is play around with a different genre and never finish the piece (let alone publish it), the whole “Change is as good as a rest” might be all you need to get your writing flowing again on your main projects.
Write something that’s not for publication.
No concern for publication means no worries about whether what you write is going to be any good. No one’s going to read it. You don’t have to worry about pleasing agents, editors, readers, or reviewers. Just yourself. You can play again, simply for the sheer joy of it – and that joy is a big part of why we started telling stories in the first place. As with my advice about writing in a different genre, you don’t need to finish your “just for fun” pieces. You might even have a specific file on your computer where you save your play-time writing. You can be absolutely committed to never publishing any of your fun writing, or you can mine it for material that you’ll eventually use to create something for publication. All that matters is that you can play when you need to, that you can relax and reenergize yourself so you can return to your work-writing refreshed and renewed.
Write using a pseudonym.
This might sound like a silly technique, but it goes along with the play-time writing I mentioned above. Writing is at its core imaginative play. It’s a game of pretend. And sometimes it’s fun to pretend to be someone different from ourselves. If you’re having trouble making progress on a project, try picking a pseudonym for yourself and writing the story as that author. Writing is all psychological anyway, and if a small trick like using a pseudonym gets you going again – even if you’ll eventually publish the work under your own name – that’s all that matters, right?
Flip a coin – literally.
Can’t decide what your protagonist should do next? Can’t decide which scene should come next? Get a quarter, assign one direction heads and one tails, flip the coin, and abide by its decision. Taking the choice out of your hands can keep you from worrying over every little decision. You can be like the Batman villain Two Face and let fate decide.
Use The Cup of Destiny!
My dark fantasy novel The Forever House comes out in March of 2020. I reached a certain point in the book when it was time to start killing off some of the main characters, but I liked them all so much I couldn’t decide which one should go first. So I made The Cup of Death. I wrote each character’s name on a piece of paper, put them in the cup, and selected one. I chose the one character I wanted to live until the climax of the book. I tossed the name back into the cup and asked one of my daughters to select one. She did, and she chose the same damn name. I figured the Universe was trying to tell me something, so I killed that character first. In the end, I think it made the novel better.
So I suggest creating a Cup of Destiny. Whenever you’re stuck, write some story elements on pieces of paper. These can be characters to die (like I did) or actions characters can take, places they can go, etc. Toss the bits of paper into the cup, and when you find yourself stalled, select a piece and do whatever it says. This technique, like others I’ve suggested, removes the pressure of decision-making and gets you writing again.
START MOVIN’ AND GROOVIN’
Earlier, I suggested getting out of your head. Now I’m suggesting getting out of wherever it is you live. Physical movement can often be the key to getting things moving mentally for us again. Humans have a tendency to forget that everything about us is physical, including our brain, which creates and houses our consciousness. Getting other parts of your body moving can get your brain moving, too. I spoke about exercise in the section on self-care, but it also fits in this category as well. And getting out of your living space can also mean a change in venue that stimulates your mind.
Go for a walk or a drive.
Some writers go for long walks to break creative blocks. Some incorporate walking into their regular creative process. Kevin J. Anderson dictates his books into a voice recorder while hiking. Whenever I feel stuck on what do next in a story, I often go for a drive, maybe run some errands while I’m out. By the time I get back home, I’ve usually solved my story problem and I’m ready to resume writing again.
Do something that requires mindless repetitive motion so your mind will wander.
Ever do a job where your body had to repeat the same motions over and over? If so, remember how quickly your mind began to wander? When your body is occupied performing repetitive actions that don’t require the active participation of your brain, your mind is free to flit around wherever it likes. I suspect this is a big part of why walking and driving helps people think. Some people get ideas in the shower. Others get them while doing household chores. Others might play a simple, repetitive videogame. Try doing different (and simple) body-occupying activities and see if they don’t help you break through your block. Just be careful that you don’t do chores as a procrastination technique, as a way to feel productive in one area of your life when you’re out being productive with your creative work.
Change your writing venue.
If you’re blocked trying to write at home, going somewhere – anywhere – else might help. As I said earlier, I go to Starbucks. Sometimes I write in the library at the college where I teach. You might go to a bar or a park or a restaurant or an all-night diner. Sometimes a change of scenery is all we need to get our creative juices flowing again.
Set up a writing date with a friend.
I’ve known a number of writers who work alongside a buddy, someone who is supportive, someone who understands how difficult writing can be. Writing dates can help create a habit and can help get your mind ready to be creative because you anticipate the writing time to come. Just don’t spend too much time gossiping or commiserating over your latest story rejection. Make sure you spend most of the session writing.
Go on a writing retreat, alone or with writing friends.
Maybe you need a big chunk of solitary, uninterrupted writing time to break through your block. Check into a hotel for a weekend where you can write in peace. Maybe go to a hotel in another town for a change of scenery as well. Going on a more formal retreat with friends might work better for you. It’ll feel more like an event, and you’ll have support and people to help hold you accountable (in gentle ways) for getting work done. Once you’ve made some significant progress on a project during your retreat – whether it’s with a group or solo – you’ll hopefully be able to keep that momentum going when you return home.
Attend a writers’ workshop or conference.
A lot of writers, myself included, feel creatively energized and recharged after attending a workshop or conference. You get to spend time with like-minded people who are interested in the same weird shit you are, people who get you. That’s something many of us aren’t fortunate enough to experience on a daily basis. You also get to have stimulating conversations, share tips and tricks, talk to people about writing problems (like being blocked) and hear how they deal with them.
Join a writer’s group.
When a writers’ group works well – when it’s comprised of people who are serious about writing and who are supportive and provide honest, useful feedback – it can be like a miniature workshop or conference, but one you can attend more regularly (and more cheaply). A group that isn’t creatively stimulating – or worse, which is toxic – is to be avoided at all costs. If you don’t live close to other writers, you can try hooking up with some via social media and create a virtual group that “meets” through the Interwebs.
Feed yourself creatively.
Go to a concert. Check out a museum. Attend a dance performance. Take in a theater production. See a movie. Surround yourself with artistic expression. Feed your creative self. You can do this by reading, too, of course, but I often find myself more energized from experiencing different forms of art than the one I work in – especially if I have to leave my house to experience those forms. I prefer live events to watching a performance on TV at home. I find it more stimulating to be surrounded by an audience who’s experiencing the same things I am but who might have very different reactions from me. There’s an energy there that I don’t find in any other situation. I always feel ready to write once I’m home. Maybe you will, too.
Damn, I guess I didn’t have writer’s block writing this article. I didn’t expect it to turn out this long. But I wanted to give you as many ideas as I possibly could to help you stave off or recover from writer’s block. I hope I’ve succeeded. Now go write something.
But before you go . . .
DEPARTMENT OF SHAMELESS SELF-PROMOTION
My Alien novel for Titan Books, Alien: Prototype, came out this week. It’s available as a mass-market paperback, a trade paperback, an ebook, and an audiobook.
So far, reviewers seem to like it! Dread Central calls the book "An exciting new addition to the line-up, both for fans of previous books and those looking to discover this extended world.” And Amy Walker (aka Amazing Amy) says, "Waggoner... has managed to create one of the most interesting and uniquely creative variations of the Xenomorph I've ever seen... the perfect novel for any Alien fans."
If you’d like to purchase a copy of my latest magnum opus, here are some linky links:
Mass-Market Paperback: https://www.amazon.com/Alien-Prototype-Tim-Waggoner/dp/1789090911/ref=tmm_mmp_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1564019410&sr=1-1
Trade Parback: https://www.amazon.com/Alien-Prototype-Tim-Waggoner/dp/1789092191/ref=tmm_pap_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=&sr=
I mentioned earlier that The Forever House is due out in March. You can order it from Amazon (although the link for the ebook isn’t up yet.) You can order all the versions – hardback, paperback, and ebook – at the Flame Tree Press site. An audio version should be available eventually. Here’s a synopsis:
In Rockridge, Ohio, a sinister family moves into a sleepy cul de sac. The Eldreds feed on the negative emotions of humans, creating nightmarish realms within their house to entrap their prey. Neighbors are lured into the Eldreds’ home and faced with challenges designed to heighten their darkest emotions so their inhuman captors can feed and feed well. If the humans are to have any hope of survival, they’ll have to learn to overcome their prejudices and resentments toward one another and work together. But which will prove more deadly in the end, the Eldreds . . . or each other?
Flame Tree Press (all versions)