Isn’t it the worst? You want to use some carved-out free time to write. Or you want to make headway with an ongoing project. Or you want to finish a WIP that’s been dragging on for aaages. But you’re stuck, you can’t seem to find the next idea, the next word even. Surely this must mean you aren’t a real writer? Rest assured, this is something that happens to everyone, and while you’re experiencing it you feel the well has run dry for ever. Go through the cycle enough times and you’ll discover the words do flow again, but are there ways you can kickstart things?
There is a lot of advice out there on how to get going again, much of it fairly conflicting, it has to be said. This seems to be the way with the funny old business of writing – what works for one person won’t work for another. Nonetheless, I thought I’d throw out a few practical ideas for things that have helped me. Hopefully there will be something here that will work for someone somewhere.
1. Use prompts and exercises. If you’ve really hit a dead end and are stuck for inspiration, prompts can be good for triggering ideas. Flash fiction expert Kathy Fish has a great article here about using ‘whatever gets you to the page’. She also has a multitude of prompts and exercises to get you started. Writer/teacher Tim Clare also has a huge number of writing exercises on his 100 Day Writing Challenge podcast series. At 10-20 minute chunks a day, they’re very achievable goals and I got several flash fiction pieces out of them that were later published. And if you are working on something but have gotten stuck, maybe find a way back into your WIP by doing a writing exercise using one of your characters. You could put them in a particular situation to find out how they’d react (they’re in a restaurant and can’t find their wallet or something). If I’m exploring a character, I might itemise what they’d have in their pockets, or their bag, or their car. Or what music they’d listen to. These are all tools to break the impasse, spark something. Even a small idea can lead to bigger things slotting into place.
2. Set a deadline. Competitions or journal submission closing dates are really useful to give you goals to aim for. I sometimes find that I drag my heels writingwise if I’m not working towards any set end point – I’ll tinker endlessly with a piece or procrastinate about even opening the file (“I’d better just check my Twitter feed first in case I’m missing something important. Oh look, a dancing parrot video, I love parrots” – click…). Knowing you have to knock something into shape by a particular date really focusses the mind and forces you to let go.
3. Accountability. Swap work with a writer friend to encourage one another over the finish line. There’s nothing quite like being shamed into getting some writing done because they’re ready to exchange, and you don’t want to look like some kind of eejit with writer’s block. Plus the feedback you get may well give you a fresh slant on your work – questions to consider, solutions to problems that have been eluding you.
4. Write any old rubbish. It’s better to write badly than not to write at all. You can always bin your terrible, terrible ramblings without anyone else ever seeing it, it’s for your eyes only. But it’s often helpful to get the cogs moving if you write anything, ANYTHING. Free association, what you had for lunch, your earliest memory, it doesn’t matter. When you read the work back afterwards, you may find it isn’t as dire as you thought while you were writing it. There might be some tiny nugget – a nice turn of phrase, an interesting concept – that you can use. Or maybe you’ll decide it is genuinely the worst thing ever conjured up. But so what? Think of it as your warm-up to the real writing, which will, of course, be breathtaking.
5. Do a workshop or course. There’s something to be gained from looking at writing in a different way. Between exercises, writing advice, feedback and being exposed to a diversity of writing styles and inspiration, you’ll often come away with something of value. Sometimes the participants themselves might intrigue you. And simply being immersed in writing, surrounded by like-minded individuals, can be revitalising in itself. It may be that you just need to remind yourself why you’re doing this – for the love of the written word.
6. Don’t beat yourself up if none of the tricks work. Earlier this year, the magnificent Marian Keyes did a series of four videos about the process of writing a novel, and one of the topics she covered was writer’s block. Interestingly, she referred to it as writer’s tiredness or writer’s emptiness. Maybe what you need is a break? Her advice was to rest, wait it out, go off and live your life until the urge returns. But if the problem is that you can’t seem to move forward with what you’re writing, maybe you need to go back and fix what you already have. The relevant video is below, but if you’d like to watch the series from the start, part one is here. I can’t recommend them highly enough, she is so wise, and funny, and down-to-earth.
Bonus extra thing I’ve learned: if all else fails, you could try writing a blog post about writer’s block. That’s words, isn’t it? Isn’t it? It always makes me feel like I’m being productive, in any case.
So good luck and – fingers crossed – happy writing.