When the words are not your friends...
There are many moments in the life of every novel, when the thought of trying to write feels like this:
You know that the ideas you need are somewhere in the murky depths of your brain, but now, they’re stubbornly, and persistently, refusing to surface. Frustration with your own uselessness starts to build, till you’re feeling like this:
Here are a few things I’ve found useful for navigating around writers block:
Write whatever excites you
The writing gods have bestowed upon you the kernel of an awesome idea – a Viking ship! Trapped in a frozen fjord! Overrun by zombies! You’ve breathlessly begun penning the scene-setting opening chapters, but now, you have no idea how to get your Viking from the tavern in Gokstad to the fateful encounter with the Longship? Leave that bit aside for now. Don’t save up the writing you’re passionate about in order to fill in first-draft plot holes, or while you figure out the geography of a fjord. Maybe you’re desperate to write the big romantic resolution, or the epic battle scene, or maybe you’re dying to use this one great line that you know belongs in the last chapter. Write whatever elicits an emotion. Write whatever scene or piece of scene or sliver of dialogue you feel like writing right at that moment. Write whatever makes you want to return to the pages of your world, whatever motivates you to keep on going, in whatever order that happens to be in. Keep in mind that when you are genuinely stuck, sometimes you need to jump ahead in order to figure out what goes before.
Be open to all ideas
You’re piecing together your story about the friendship between a girl in post-apocalyptic bubble city, and the mutant talking mouse that lives in her ceiling. You were super-keen on the idea, but now you’re part way in and you feel like you’re floundering. Suddenly, an idea barges into your brain – maybe the mouse has a secret conversation with the son of the bubble-city’s evil overlord! It wasn’t part of your plan, but the idea is gnawing at your brain and refusing to go away. Keep note books handy or spare documents open on your computer screen (I save mine, imaginatively, as ‘extra bits’). Don’t be afraid to write down any ideas that come your way – even if you’re not sure if or how they will fit into your story. You never know the use you might find for a fragment of dialogue, or a scene that might seem unrelated to your plot as it currently is. Some of this superfluous writing might never see the light of day; but some of it could also be the key to unlocking possibilities in your story that you didn’t even know you had. Writing anything is better than not writing – and in a first draft, anything goes.
Know a little about structure
You’ve been working on an amazing idea about two teenagers falling in love over the course of one wintery morning in detention. But it’s twelve chapters in, you’re still describing the layout of the principal’s office, your romantic lead has yet to make an appearance, and you’re starting to think that maybe this could be problematic. For fellow pantsers, stumbling through a first draft is totally fine. But stumbling through blindly without at least some knowledge of story structure is kind of like trying to build an IKEA wardrobe without ever looking at the instructions. It will probably be doable, eventually – you have a pretty good idea what a wardrobe is supposed to look like, and you can always undo things and start over – but an occasional peek at the construction advice will help make sure all those bits fit where they’re supposed to, and you’re not bolting a door where the floor is supposed to go. There are loads of books on the craft of writing, and hundreds of different variations on the idea of story structure. A basic one might look like this:
Structure is what will hold all your awesome ideas together, into something that will eventually form a readable book. Very simply, certain things should be happening in certain parts, and at certain times of your story. Keeping this in mind can be a useful tool when you’re stuck – knowing what needs to happen with your plot and characters at a particular stage, even if you don’t yet know how it is going to happen within the context of your story, can help give your loose ideas shape and focus.
Drink tea. Go for a walk. Read or watch something totally unrelated to your manuscript. See my previous post on research and writing-that-is-not-writing. Give your brain the opportunity to recharge, and for new ideas to grow. Pay attention to how other people tell their stories, and keep your eyes and ears peeled for inspiration. My favourite piece of first-draft advice is not mine, but the excellent Maureen Johnson’s (The Name of the Star) – give yourself permission to suck. Spend half a day looking at Avengers gifs on the internet while your brain mulls over ideas. Or better yet – if you’re really and truly stuck – take some time out and re-watch The Avengers. It really is an awesome movie.