I’d been sitting here for fifteen minutes, staring at the blinking cursor, trying to think about what kind of pulpy spin I can put on this week’s column. I wouldn’t exactly label that ‘writer’s block’, but the idea pool seemed a bit dehydrated. Normally, when I park myself in front of my PC, I have no problem coming up with an entire bucketful of possibilities to write. There’s just something about a looming deadline that makes it harder to raise that windlass out of the depths of the creative mind. Add in a half dozen other pressing projects milling around like lost sheep in my cerebellum, and the demands of a busy household intensified by the upcoming holiday; and is it any wonder this bucket’s got a hole in it? So, based on all that desperation, I decided this week I’m writing about what you have to do to get things on the page when you haven’t got a clue what to write next.
Piece of cake you know…
While I am not a Tommy Hancock-style ‘never-ending hail of bullets’ idea mill, mine do tend to come in a steady stream, or at least sort of a fast trickle. It’s rather disconcerting when I hit a speed bump that throws me off track and I get stuck by the wayside trying to invent something worth working on. In fiction writing, that can be the death knell of even a cherished project. A non-fiction column like this one is a bit easier to kind of ‘fake’ your way through, though a lack of conviction on a topic will announce itself fairly quickly and make you look pretty stupid in the process. If I’m going to bother to hammer out something on this keyboard, I need to have a solid concept of what I want to say and at least somewhere to go with it. The rest of it is details, and they tend to lay themselves out as the lines begin to fill the page.
So that’s all fine and dandy—now what do you do when the words just don’t come easy?
Fiction or non-fiction, when the well inside doesn’t produce, go outside yourself. Talk to someone else; maybe lots of people. Bitch and moan if you have to. You’d be surprised how opening up about what a rough time you’re having nailing down or fleshing out a story will suddenly put what’s stopping it from flowing into perspective. There’s nothing embarrassing about saying, “I haven’t got a clue how to approach this.” Hey, you think those folks on the best seller lists don’t have these days? Of course they do! And while you’re beefing about not being able to get the words out, be a good listener too. Let those kind souls who are willing to bear your ranting throw some advice your way, even if they’re not writers and don’t understand you or the process. This isn’t just about tea and sympathy; it’s getting your prose machine restarted. You can’t just sit there thinking about what you didn’t do today and feeling blue. A poor idea that gets you back at the keyboard is better than no ideas at all.
When it’s just not happening, take a short break, because the more you strain at forcing the project to be done, the harder it’s going to come. Fold clothes, play with the dog, or organize your files. Maybe cruise around online, read a couple emails, key up some awesome images, or check out posts on the social sites. Watch a favorite program, or a movie that is inspiring for what you’re trying to write. Change the environment a bit, move to another spot. Go to the library, pick up a newspaper, chase the significant other around the bedroom, trade gossip with the neighbor—even take a nap—just get away from the frustration for a bit. Set a time limit to be away, and then use that time wisely. When you come back, you’re going to be more relaxed and a lot less aggravated, and who knows; you might just have picked up an idea or three along the way.
When you do have excess ideas and no time to write them out completely, jot them down and shove them in a file. Likewise when you come across a picture that sparks a reaction, an article or news story that you might be able to mine for story fodder, or details on an interesting person, place, or thing; get it saved somewhere. Times like this, when the words don’t come, you pull up that file and browse through it, and I can almost guarantee something is going to ‘click’.
Networking with other creators also helps immensely, as the more ideas that fill a room, the more that seem to get generated. There must be some unwritten atomic law of the universe about that, because if you’ve ever been at a convention, in an online chat or podcast, or trolling through a social site devoted to writing, you’ve seen it happen. Someone says something off-the-cuff, all the assembled minds start to click and whirl, and before you know it there is a kaleidoscope avalanche of wacky fringe possibilities burying you up to your neck. Plug into your fellow writers and see what kind of buzz you can get from all that kinetic brain energy.
One big secret that the ‘expert’ books and articles don’t tell you is that the actual writing of a story is only one part of what makes the magic happen on the page. It’s the hardest part some days, but every story or article starts out in your head, and then you have to translate that into words that make the mental scenario come alive again. Daydreaming is not just a pleasurable diversion, it’s absolutely vital to making a jumble of symbols resemble a mental movie scene in someone else’s mind. So you need to take some time to visualize whatever is going to happen on that page, and then translate it into the language of the reader. No wonder it’s so much work, huh? Like making a movie, a good book has a lot of important little jobs behind the scenes that only get end credits when the lights come up and everyone is exiting the theater.
The most exasperating part of writing, is rewriting. You have to edit, and copiously, to get that prose sounding as smooth as bare skin sliding over satin sheets in a courtesan’s boudoir. Now in a way, it can be very freeing to know that no matter how rough that first draft might be, you’re going to go over it anyway, sanding it down with increasingly finer grit passes. I strongly suggest that you find a trusted someone who is willing to act as a sounding board and then actually listen to what she or he has to say about what you’ve written. Chances are even a non-writer is going to pick up on something you missed or that doesn’t make sense, and you’re going to be a lot better off for having run it through a beta reading test. If nothing else, handing it over gets your mind off the piece for a bit. Knowing it was read at least by one person adds an additional layer of confidence that you can carry into your next project. It’s hard to find that time when there is a deadline looming, but the editing has to be done at some point—if not before you turn it in, it certainly will be edited afterward. At least read it aloud before you hit SEND or PRINT, and see how it sounds.
When the writing gets tough, and the words run drier than a Death Valley afternoon, adopt the impressionistic artist approach. Stop trying to lay out the entire thing all at once. Picture one scene or a bit of dialogue that seems doable and build from there. Think about that blank page like a big canvas, and you’re going to put little swipes and blobs of words here and there with the aim of making something appear in their midst. I can’t tell you how many times I started a story with a random sentence and just constructed the rest around it. Sometimes it wasn’t until far later in the writing that I knew what the title and main thrust of the piece was going to be. Less often, I already knew where I wanted to go, but had to focus on one small detailed step at a time to get there.
Don’t be afraid to fail! Every single one of us has ideas in our files that didn’t work out well. Often enough they can be revisited, revived, and rewritten later. That’s why I don’t worry about length or side plots that develop within the main story anymore, because anything can be pared back, with the juiciest tidbits tucked away for later use. Ditto on proposals that get rejected or projects that you started on and then they got cancelled. Never be unwilling to cannibalize old ideas for new work. They really help fill in when that well runs dry and you’re sucking up nothing but dust and splinters.
I’m not going to lie to you and say you will always have a gushing inner spring of ideas to draw off of. Some days are just going to be harder than others when it comes to getting words on the page. What separates the pros from the wannabes is not only having the drive, self-discipline, and perseverance that makes you sit down in that chair and get at it, but the wisdom to know when it’s time to get up and try something different. You won’t pump sweet water out of a dry well unless you drill deeper, or seek out a new underground subconscious stream that flows more freely.
Now go write something pulpy for me!