WRITING IS AT THE HEART OF EVERYTHING I DO. I am a writer, pure and simple. I’ve got three years of hard grinding, a piece of paper and a photograph of myself in a graduation cap to attest to that, not to mention a few years experience dipping my fingers in various ink pots. Now, if I’d listened to my university tutor and his ‘holier-than-thou’ spiel on how you can’t call yourself a writer until you’ve got a novel published (in hindsight this was probably an echo of regret that he’d never personally succeeded as a writer – after all, those who can’t, teach) then I wouldn’t be calling myself one at all, nor would I be here offering my best advice… But as it is, I know in my heart that I’m a writer and I’m not ashamed to say it.
(If you’ve got these quirks, you probably are too.)
For me it’s an urge, as natural as eating, sleeping and breathing. I’ve been writing since I was seven years old: stories, scripts, articles, poetry. More recently I’ve been working professionally in the world of non-fiction writing and marketing; that’s nearly 20 years of writing under my belt. Whilst I may still be working on my first novel, I’d call that enough experience to have learned a few things along the way. You guys have asked me to write about writing, so here’s the most important thing I’ve picked up in the last few years:
Writer’s Block isn’t real.
And if it isn’t real, you can beat it. Writer’s Block is history.
How can I say it isn’t real when writers face Writer’s Block every day? Simple, really. It’s not called Writer’s Block. It’s not even called Creator’s Block, because it isn’t something unique to creative people at all – everyone in the whole world experiences productivity blocks from time to time, whether they’ve got an important sales pitch to make, a mile of wooden floors to buff or 10,000 words to write. By sticking a label on it and pretending writer’s block is something unique to writers, we’re making it special. We’re making it an excuse that we can use as writers to avoid being put on the spot for not getting our work done.
Just like everyone else, I experience heavy periods of productivity block whether it’s for my writing, filmmaking or even just picking up after myself at home. There is nothing I hate more than staring at a blank page with good intentions; the way inspiration always comes at times when I can’t write and as soon as I sit down to do so, it’s gone. There’s nothing worse than feeling sapped of creativity, unable to get a word down even when you’ve got a great idea or worse still, when you need to write for work, your blog or anything else; it can make you feel flaky, like you’re a fraud for calling yourself a writer at all. The good news is, you’re not.
Like with any other hobby or profession, writing is a skill and it takes practice. You’ve just got to put your back into it. And with a strategy and this arsenal of tricks, you’ll find yourself tapping away at the keys in no time. All of these tips are about prose writing, but they are easily applied to poetry, essays, blogs – you name it.
1. Start in the middle. If you find yourself sat down at a blank page with an idea but no idea how to begin, then don’t begin at all.
Start mid-conversation or halfway through the plot; whatever is in your head right now. You may even find this a more interesting opening anyway and you can always move back to ‘what happened earlier’ for your next chapter. This helps you to understand the story you’re writing and the voice of the characters you’re controlling so you can better introduce them to your audience. Anyone would be hard-pressed to describe the reactions and attitude of a stranger they’d never spoken to, so take them for a test run and get to know them first. Which takes me to my second tactic.
2. Develop your story. If you can’t write prose or paragraphs right now then it’s better to make extensive notes rather than write nothing at all.
Expand the world your story takes place in, come up with new characters all together or just make bullet points for your plot – once you’ve put a few ideas down, you should find inspiration taking you. If you’ve got no ideas but you’re desperate to write, pick a vague concept and get note-taking on all the ways you could expand on it to make it into different stories. And if you really can’t think, google a prompt then try to brainstorm a protagonist for it. You might not like your idea off the bat, but I promise you there are no bad ideas. Which takes us to the third battle manoeuvre!
3. Force yourself to write terribly. If you can’t seem to get anything good down on paper, stop trying to be good.
Whilst this one might seem more counter-productive than productive, in my personal experience it is very helpful. Jotting down a couple of hundred words you’re not proud of gets rid of that blank page problem and it’s a starting point you can build on. Remember, no one gets to see your writing unless you permit them and I’m pretty sure everything anyone writes is always at least twice as good as they think it is. It’s a plague creative people all share in suffering – not feeling talented. And if it really is terrible, you’ve at least written more than you would have if you hadn’t written anything at all.
4 .Create your perfect writing space. If you’ve got a whole room, use a whole room. If you’ve just got a desk or a corner that’ll do too.
Procrastination and distraction are the death of creativity and writing requires a whole deal of concentration to get into. Make a dedicated space where you can get into the groove of it, somewhere peaceful, filled with books and decorated with things that inspire you. Some writers say it’s better to have a blank canvas around you, but I always feel comfortable writing in a space that naturally incites creativity. I find the look and feel of my writing space influences my thoughts and in turn, my writing and I’ve often changed it up based on what I need to be writing at that time. Anything that gets your mind racing is a huge positive when it comes to getting over a period of creative stubbornness.
5. Collect visual depictions of your ideas. If you find you really can’t put anything down, not even notes, try moodboards.
In the same way your environment helps inspire you, so can visual cues for your story. Sometimes one image is all it takes to conjure up a whole new story idea or plot point and if you can’t put a sequence into words, it can help to lay it out in images. Where does the scene take place? What does the character look like? What are they wearing? Add anything that stimulates you – landscapes, objects, characters, abstract art, quotes, lyrics. Personally I use Pinterest. Some of my story moodboards have hundreds of images on them, like this one for the novel I’m working on and I can find inspiration just by glancing over them.
6. Read, learn, expand your horizons. Stephen King famously wrote:
Which is the honest truth. How can you know what constitutes good writing if you’re not reading? Similarly, writing what you know about (always a good place to start) is going to be a little dull if all you know about is yourself and your life. Reading fiction – both good books and bad books to learn the difference – is vital to knowing how to write fiction, but reading educational material and real life experience pieces can generate ideas out of thin air. Try travel writing, history books, investigative books (like those by comedian Jon Ronson) and news articles to find inspiration.
By that same merit, get out there and see the world. If you can’t travel to far off lands, try hitting your hometown; inspiration can be found anywhere. Maybe it’s watching a young couple picking out dinner at the supermarket, maybe it’s a conversation overheard in line at the gas station… Sometimes it’s just the way light plays through the trees in the morning haze. As a writer you must think of everything that happens to you and around you as a resource so get away from your desk, get out into the world, and find something new to write about. Sit in a coffee shop (like a real writer) and study your surroundings. Oh, and if that’s not working…
7. Steal other people’s ideas. Writers steal existing ideas all the time.
Look at how many times the Cinderella story has been retold, for example. Or how many people have used the character of Dracula in their own work. I’m not saying I plagiarise (I definitely don’t encourage plagiarism) but sometimes, taking a little inspiration from stories that you love and stories that are successful is no bad thing. Without a little idea replication, we wouldn’t even have Harry Potter. Loads has been written on the similarities between Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings and it’s easy to see why J. K. Rowling might have pulled inspiration from such an epic tale. Bask in the creativity of other writers, pick and choose themes and situations that appeal to you and completely rewrite them until they are non-comparable to the original source of inspiration. Sometimes you just need to lean on someone else’s genius for once.
8. Reorder your plot with this stupidly simple technique.
I came up with this one myself whilst I was at university; it helped me write the 27,500 word creative dissertation that earned me a 1st class degree and I’ve never looked back. You’re going to need post-it notes or a stack of scraps of paper – this one needs to be done without the help of technology. If you’ve got plot holes you can’t fill or you’ve just got no idea how a story is going to pan out, this one’s a real killer.
Start by writing down all your plot points and planned scenes, one per post-it note. Once every idea you’ve got is written down, begin laying them out as a timeline of events on the wall, desk, floor – whatever works. The ones you know where to place on your timeline should be placed first, followed by the ones you’re not sure about. Play around with the order of each scene until you’re happy with it and leave gaps where you’ve got nothing. You might find you drum up new ideas quickly to fill those gaps, but more likely you’ll find there aren’t gaps at all – you just didn’t realise it before. Congratulations, you’ve already got your whole story! If nothing else, this exercise is bound to give a new perspective on your work.
9. Overstimulation is a killer. Do something boring!
Thinking creatively for more than a few hours at a time can overload your brain and you’ll find you’re so mentally exhausted that you completely run out of steam. Do you ever find you have your best ideas whilst driving or in the shower? Doing something that doesn’t demand much mental effort or imagination, something that relaxes or de-stresses your mind you whilst still occupying your body is ideal for recharging your creativity.
If you’re stuck for words, take a break and rearrange your bookshelves. If you’re stuck for ideas, try doing all the washing up. Note, this doesn’t work if you ‘take a break’ by watching television. It has got to be something that isn’t stimulating for the brain. Take a shower. Do all the laundry or my personal favourite – declutter your house. Free yourself from your surroundings and you’ll free up some headspace too. You also might have writer’s block because you’ve been writing too hard and not taking care of yourself – remember to go and eat, drink a lot of water, or have a big old cup of coffee (I’ll take the coffee, black, no sugar.)
10. When you finish writing, finish in the middle of a sentence.
Does that sound hard? This is probably the easiest of all the techniques on here and it’s easily one of the best, too. With most creative block you’ll probably find that some days you can write for hours without stopping and other days you can’t even start. For those days, this is an indispensable trick. When your creative juices are really flowing try to finish before you’re finished by stopping writing in the middle of a sentence you already know how to end. Put down your pen or save your file and step back from your work. If you only ever finish when you’re out of ideas then you’re already creating a problem for yourself next time you try to write. Stepping away from your work whilst you’re on a roll means you can come back to it and finish that sentence, then that paragraph, then that chapter you’ve already made notes on. You’re skipping the part of writing where you sit and contemplate how you’re going to start altogether and getting back into the flow of it without giving yourself time to worry about not knowing how to continue.
Just like that, your writer’s block is history! Of course, I’ve got experience but I am by no means an expert in writing. This isn’t gospel. But the ten techniques above have really helped me when I’ve been stuck, especially when I’ve had deadlines to meet and the stress has almost killed me. Hopefully they can help someone else overcome their creative slump too.
Oh, and a bonus tip! Some people say it’s good to write in silence (others say to play music so loud you can’t think – Stephen King writes to heavy metal) but if you want sound without distraction, try white noise. I love the rain. Really love it. I frequently listen to rain simulators like Rainy Mood when I write. White noise is supposed to be good for your brain, concentration levels, and I really like the melancholy it inspires. Really sets the tone for my stories.
Good luck with your writing and if you have any tricks of your own, I’d love to hear about them in the comments below. Perhaps you can teach me a thing or two as well? If you liked this article, please consider sharing it on your social channels – you can tag me @paperstorms on Twitter.