The ever-elusive muse has just paid you a visit and left you with an idea that itches through your brain and demands to be released through your fingers on the keyboard. You sit in front of your laptop, place your fingers on the keys, and poof the muse disappears faster than an ice cube in Death Valley. How do you get it back? How do you break through writer's block and get words down on paper? Here are some tips to break through and start writing.
1. Write every day.
This might seem like an impossible task when the words don't want flow, but creating a consistent schedule can help you get the creative juices flowing when it's time to write. It doesn't matter what you write. As long as you get some words down. If you're stuck on a writing project, work on a short story. Maybe develop a difficult character's back story. Get the words flowing. The key is to write every day until the routine takes over for your muse. Eventually, it will feel strange not to write during your writing time. The other piece to this is that this time is sacred. Meaning no emails, phone calls, research, internet surfing. Just you and your writing.
2. Take set breaks.
This seems counter to the previous bit of advice, but it actually goes hand-in-hand. I write during the week while my son is at school. I do my best to keep my writing time sacred. In the evenings and on the weekends, I don't write. If something pops in my head, I make a quick note of it and then go back to relaxing. My writing time has become more focused and productive because I allow myself a break from writing. I also take short breaks every hour or so during my writing time. I stretch, do some yoga, get a snack, walk away from the computer, maybe take a twenty-minute nap. The idea is to give your brain a chance to dump all of the previous stuff and start fresh.
3. Go back to the basics.
Writer's block tends to happen when the story wants to go one direction, but the writer insists on taking it another. The writer eventually hits a point where they've written themselves into a corner. Instead of trying to force it, go back to your character and outline and look for where the story got derailed. Present the draft to other writers and brainstorm ideas or talk it through with your cat. Cats are great listeners and talking the idea through out loud can spawn new ideas. Be prepared to gut your draft and start from scratch. Don't be discouraged if you need to do this. It's just another step in the writing process. Being willing to start from square one can be liberating once you realize that words flow when the correct stepping stones are in place.
4. Read. Or play a video game. Or watch a movie/TV.
But do this with purpose. By this, I mean look at the mechanics behind the storytelling that happens in these various mediums. What about the game's story holds your interest and pulls you in? How do they build the world in a way that is engaging but not overwhelming? What devices does the movie use to build tension? How do the actors use their bodies to convey emotion/mood? What about weather/color schemes? How do these subtle cues blend to add depth to the story? Take those mechanisms back to your story. Are you using all the tools in your toolbox? Are you missing some of the mechanics? All of these mediums use storytelling. Study them to learn new ways to make your story work better.
5. Use a writing prompt and do a word sprint. Or do a free write.
Sometimes you just need to clear the cobwebs. You get so locked into an idea or story that when you get stuck, you find yourself unable write anything. The solution is to break from the norm and produce something random. I love to pull writing craft books from my shelf and do one of the exercises. Write a paragraph that uses onomatopoeia. Write a six-word story based on a picture. Write a story using only dialogue. Use the exercises to get the creative juices flowing. Once the words are coming, go back to your story and see what happens.
6. Get back to nature.
Take a walk. Go for a hike. Meditate on the beach. Commune with the great outdoors. Give yourself a chance to breath fresh air and take in some sunshine. While you do this, let your mind wander. Let it roam. You’d be surprised at what solutions present themselves when you aren’t focused on digging them out of your subconscious. They tend to float to the surface when you aren’t beating your brain against the wall.
7. Start a new project.
Sometimes we get an idea for a story that we just don’t quite have the skills to write. That doesn’t mean you should give up on it. But, you should put it aside for awhile and work on something else. Eventually, you will develop the skills and tools needed to develop that project you shelved. Give yourself some time and focus on improving your skills and trying new things. Come back to the project in six months and take a look at it with fresh eyes. Does it need a new point of view? Maybe the main character isn’t really the main character. Time and practice will help you better identify the underlying issues and give you the skill needed to pull off what is needed to tell that story.
8. Read writing craft books.
My personal favorites books are The Anatomy of a Story by John Truby and Steering the Craft by Ursula K. Le Guin. There are a plethora of craft books out there and a wide variety of methods to study. Reading craft books gives you ideas about how other writers guide their stories. Some of them will resonate with you. Some won’t. Every writer has to come up with their own process of what works for them. The one thing that doesn’t change is story itself and how story works. Look for books that focus on the mechanics of story. I’m not talking structure (three-act versus four-act, story beats and where they fall). I’m talking about books that focus on the question of what is story? The better you as a writer understand what story is, the better you will be able to write a compelling story.
9. Explore different points of view and tenses.
I’ve heard writers complain that they hate first person, present tense. Or maybe third person omniscient. And my thought is, “Suck it up, buttercup.” Every story needs a certain pov and tense. Some call for third person close and past tense. Others need first person present. Poo-pooing a point of view and tense as a writer is a good way to get stuck. One reason your story may be hitting a brick wall is that you might be using the wrong point of view and tense. You may be writing the story in omni, and it needs to be close. Or perhaps you’ve chosen present tense, but it really needs to be in past tense. Take some time and explore the variety of points of views and tenses. It can take a lot of practice to write in first person present tense without it sounding like everything is filtered. It can take a great deal of patience and practice to write omni without it head-hopping from one character to another like a frog in a jumping contest. Be patient. Explore. Learn. Then turn your skills loose on your story.
10. Write a logline for your story.
Sometimes a story is so big that we lose focus on what the main story idea is. Loglines are a great way to solidify the main concept and keep you on target. Loglines are typically used for movies, but they work well for any story medium. When a story has lots of subplots, it can distract from the main storyline, and heaven knows I need fewer distractions. That distraction may be what is driving the muse away. I try to write a logline as soon as I start playing with the concept of the story. A logline forces me to focus on the central idea, character and conflict, then as subplots develop, I can better decide if they tie into the main idea or if they are spin-offs that could be developed later.
When the muse decides to take a vacation, don’t give in to the temptation to stop writing. Keep going and look for what might be the underlying cause.