How to Beat Writer’s Block

jenga_distortedI remember my second grade teacher… whenever a student would complain about getting writer’s block, he would pretend to pull a Jenga block from their ear and hand it to them.

“See?” he would say, “I took care of it. The block is gone, now, so you can get back to writing.”

He was the best.

Anyway, I remember looking at him when he did that and thinking to myself, “That’s a nice trick, but there’s no way it’s that easy.”

Though his placebo didn’t work on me, he was definitely right about one thing: writer’s block is all in your head.

There are a few different kinds of writer’s block you might be dealing with.

  1. The “lack of inspiration.”
  2. The “lack of direction.”
  3. The “I just can’t make it work.”

– Point One: No Inspiration

So there you are, halfway through your project. One day, you sit down to type, and… nothing. You stare at the words vacantly, not really seeing them, and when you try to add more, it feels like there’s a weight on your soul—a weight on your hands—that’s keeping you from working. So instead, you go back to Twitter or Tumblr or the T.V. You find page after page of inspirational quotes, you reread your writing handbooks, you skim thousands of pages of blog in the name of writing, but for some reason, you can’t actually write.

The reason? Deep down, you’re bored. You don’t want to write. You want to want to write, but you’re sick of your characters, you’ve lost faith in your plot, and you’re struggling to make yourself care.

The solution? Well, there are a few.

  • Go for a walk. Step away from the computer for a bit and do something to get the blood pumping. Sometimes a bit of fresh air and a break for your brain is all it takes to melt away that block.
  • Talk to a writing buddy. I know a lot of people say that talking about your story is the surest way to make sure you never write it, but I disagree. There are few things I’ve found to be more inspiring than a good conversation with a good friend.
  • Set a deadline and have people hold you to it. Not necessarily a “finish the book by X date,” deadline, but a smaller deadline. I like to have a few friends read my stories as I write them—when I know they’re expecting so many words at the end of the time period, I find it much easier to force myself to get it done. I can’t bear to slack off and to disappoint them.
  • Push yourself to write anyway. Even if it’s hard, even if it sucks, you can drill through the block with sheer force of will and get the words flowing. Oftentimes the only way to get writing again is to… well, to get writing again.

– Point Two: Lack of Direction

You sit down to write, you’re ready and raring to go, but when you start typing, you realize you have no freakin’ clue where your story is going.

(This is me more often than I’d like to admit.)

Let’s go back to the bullet points to discuss solutions:

  • Write an outline. It’s a lot harder to get lost when you have a map. This doesn’t always work—I’m one of those people who likes to let a story grow organically—but sometimes charting a course forward is the best way to get forward. I usually favor simple outlines. Really simple outlines. They look something like this: “intro ->  wyvern -> knights -> ??? -> ??? -> wedding -> figure out rest later” but that’s usually enough for me to have some idea where I’m headed, while still leaving enough room to make new things up as I go.
  • Wing it. Seriously. Just throw yourself at the scene and see what happens. Even if you don’t know what the heck you’re writing, if you just keep typing anyway, your characters might surprise you. If you’re desperate for direction and your brain shouts “PICNIC!” send your characters on a picnic. Who knows? Maybe a picnic was exactly what you needed. If nothing else, writing the one scene might give you ideas for the next.
  • Skip to the next scene you have planned. This one doesn’t work very well for me personally, because I’m a very linear writer, but I hear a lot of other people say it works very well for them. After all, you can always go back and insert a scene in between later, right? You can connect the dots once you see the shape of the picture.
  • If you’re really stuck, try writing a summary. Sometimes it’s not just “I don’t know what happens between point A and point C,” sometimes it’s “Point C? What’s point C? My alphabet stopped at A!” If this is you and you have literally no idea what happens next in any way shape or form,  a summary might be the way to go. Take your whole plot and condense it into a sentence, if you can. “Frodo must go on a dangerous journey to destroy an evil ring of power.” This sentence should tell you your main conflict. Having that refocused in your mind can help you figure out where your story needs to end up.

– Point Three: The Scene Won’t Work

You know exactly where this scene should go. You’re itching to write it, but every time you start to type, it just feels… wrong. For some reason, you’re wandering in circles, there’s no life to it, you can’t move forward, and you can’t figure out why.

This is where you need to trust your intuition.

If something feels wrong, there’s a good chance it is. 

-Maybe the scene you thought you needed actually comes later, and you’re getting stalled because you subconsciously know you need another scene as a buffer between now and then.

-Maybe it doesn’t feel right because you’re trying to write from one character’s point of view, when really the scene works best from his friend’s perspective.

-Maybe you’re just coming at the scene from the wrong angle, and the character feels differently about things than you thought he would.

-Or maybe your timing is a bit off, and the scene needs to start sooner or later than you’d anticipated.

One way or the other, the best way to overcome this third breed of block is to identify the flaw nagging at the back of your brain and correct it before you drive yourself into a corner. If you can identify the reason things feel off, you can get through the scene without having to skip around or reimagine the entire plot from the ground up.

In summary, if writer’s block has you stuck,

  • Stop and think about the reason you’re stuck.
  • Keep a selection of tools in mind to help tackle the problem—everyone writes differently, so different strategies work better for different people.
  • Trust your gut. You know more than you know you know.

How to Start a Novel

Let’s talk about beginnings.

We all know they’re important—they’re the first thing a reader sees, and they’re the first impression that we as writers get to make. They’ve got to be snappy, exciting, they have to hook the reader and carry them into the rest of the novel, it’s vital that they—

Well, you get the point. Beginnings are important. They’re important, and because they’re important, they can often seem rather intimidating.

“How the heck am I supposed to figure out how to start this thing?” you ask, “I mean, I know it’s gotta be great, but I don’t have a clue what to do with it!”

To which I reply, yeah, starting is hard, but there are bunch of different techniques you can use to get that snowball rolling.

  • Know the story you’re trying to tell

This might seem obvious, but bear with me. Let’s say you have this awesome idea for a story—you’ve got an epic battle between good and evil, a ton of cool characters you’re just dying to work with, a mess of conflict, and a whole web of interlocking subplots. That’s awesome. Really awesome.

It’s all so awesome, you just don’t know where to start.

The problem here is that your idea is big, and you can only actually write one word at a time. There’s so much going on with so many characters, it’s really difficult to decide where to begin.

So here’s what I do: take your story and summarize it in one sentence.

Yes, I know how crazy that sounds, but seriously. Try it. Leave out all the fun little details, all those awesome subplots, and give me the meat of your story in one single sentence. Maybe two, if you’re really having trouble.

“Harry Potter leaves his abusive family to go to wizard school, where he learns about his mysterious connection to a Dark Lord.”

“Frodo Baggins must go on a dangerous journey to destroy an evil ring.”

“Buttercup only agreed to marry the prince because she thought her true love was dead, and since he’s not, he’ll have to do whatever it takes to win her back.”

“When Kyrin tries to prove his worth by robbing the Knighs of Alinor, he gets swept up in a quest to prevent a beautiful witch from destroying the city.”

This one-sentence summary represents your Main Plot. This is the core story that lies at the heart of your novel in the making. It’s a great tool to help focus your narrative, and a great tool to figure out the best place to start writing.

Now that you have that sentence, think about your beginning again.

I’ll use the Lord of the Rings as my example. Even though there are all sorts of subplots and histories woven through the Lord of the Rings, the main plot is about Frodo destroying the Ring. That’s why, even though just about everyone else in the world was busy with something more intense than some old guy’s birthday party, Tolkien decided to start the book where he did. Bilbo’s birthday is the first incident where Frodo’s fate intersects with that of the Ring, and so it serves to set up the rest of the conflict.

  • Open with something interesting

Now that you have your plot squared and have a general idea of where to begin, you have to find your opening segment—the scene that leads the way into the rest of your novel.

Please please please do not start with your character waking up, looking in the mirror, and going about her morning routine. Unless the character is waking up to explosions and aliens and her morning routine involves hand to hand combat with mashed potato monsters, the reader probably is not going to care.

Instead, find an event that is unique to your character and your plot, if you can. Show us someone we’ve never seen before doing something unusual or special.

Basically, try and open with some sort of conflict. They don’t have to be dueling potato monsters—they could be engaged in something so simple as an argument with a friend or a walk through some particularly dreary weather, but there should be something going on.

My latest project, for example, starts off with my character on break at work, rehearsing the marriage proposal he’s planning. Then his friend comes in and tells him it’s time for his shift. It’s simple, it leads nicely into the rest of the story, and it gives the reader something to follow from sentence one.

  • Open with a scene that foreshadows the main conflict or theme

This relates back to that first point, but I figure I could ramble about it a bit more. If you’re having trouble deciding where to begin, think about that Main Plot again.

What’s the main conflict?

This is just a personal thing, but I love dramatic irony. I love setting things up so that the end reflects the beginning. I feel it makes for a well told, unified story.

Let’s go back to Lord of the Rings, for a moment.

-Spoiler Alert- for those of you who somehow haven’t  at least absorbed the story through cultural osmosis, already.

The story ends with Gollum jumping into Mount Doom, thus accidentally destroying the Ring when Frodo proved too weak.

If you look at the beginning, there are all sorts of little reflections. You get to see the effect the Ring has had on Bilbo, for example. Tolkien uses that to set up for the effect the Ring has had on Gollum. And speaking thematically, it makes a lot of sense to open the story with the birthday party of an unnaturally preserved old man who’s stretching on and lingering, even though he should be growing weak—it mirrors the state of all Middle Earth, with the dwindling elves who are existing on even though their place in the world is fading.

-End Spoiler Alert-

In summary, if you’re having trouble starting your novel,

  • Try summarizing your idea in one sentence. It can help you figure out the Main Plot—begin there.
  • Open your story with conflict—something new and exciting for the reader.
  • Try finding a scene that reflects what you want the rest of your novel to do/stand for.

At least, that’s what works for me.

Thanks for stopping by.