Writers get stuck. Pretty much all of us. If you never do, please tell me how you’ve achieved that because I (and a lot of other people, I expect!) would kill for that secret. But chances are, you do get stuck. I do all the time. My writing frequently hits a ‘block’ and there I am, sitting at the laptop, staring at the same paragraph or page, occasionally hammering out a sentence only to delete it again because it’s complete rubbish. Sometimes it’s worse. Sometimes it’s hours staring at a completely blank page, with a looming deadline, and I’m fighting an almost irresistible urge to a) bang my head on a wall, and b) quit this stupid writing lark forever.
So yes, this happens to me a lot. And, as such, I’ve looked up, tried out, created and collated strategies. I’ve formed battle plans. Weapons to unleash when the time comes. Here are the five I rely on most. They’re simple and they work for me.
Guest column by Sangu Mandanna, who was four years old
when she was chased by an elephant and wrote her first story
about it. Her debut novel is THE LOST GIRL (Aug. 2012, Balzer
& Bray), the story of a 16-year-old "echo" who was always told what
she had to be—until she found the strength to decide for herself.
Kirkus called it "a provocative and page-turning thriller/romance
that gets at the heart of what it means to be human." Sangu lives
in England with her husband and baby son. Find Sangu online or
on Twitter (@SanguMandanna).
1. Try new methods, tools or software.
Do you write by hand in a spiral-bound notebook? Try a laptop for a short while instead. Or do it the other way around. Do you use Word? Try a different program. I use Word when I write, but I recently hit a tricky patch in a chapter I was working on. I couldn’t get it right. I rewrote it several times and each time I couldn’t feel what I wanted to feel from the scene. Eventually I realized I was repeatedly writing poorly simply because I’d been put off by staring at the same page over and over. So I tried Scrivener instead. The corkboard beauty and drastically different layout made me feel like I had a completely fresh start. It did the trick.
I’m also very obsessive-compulsive about my writing. It’s bizarre, but the words have to look right on the page, which means they never do and I spend far too long messing about with fonts and character spacing. Then I discovered an app for the iPhone that had no settings or options whatsoever. You open it and you type. That’s it. It freed me up.
My point? Try switching things up. Try using the huge and spectacular array of tools available in stationery stores and in the digital world. Sometimes you’re stuck because you’re exhausted, and fed up, and all you really need is a clean slate.
You’ll notice that concept of a clean slate, of change, is something of a theme here.
(Meet literary agent Jody Klein, who is seeking clients now.)
2. Write something completely different.
A teacher at school gave me this advice. When you’re stuck, don’t just try to think outside of the box. Try a whole other box. If you write YA, try writing a steamy scene. If you write thrillers, try writing a picture book. The change in format and tone will force you to break out of your comfort zone, to push your boundaries. You’ll discover new ways of expressing yourself, new limitations and new freedoms, and you can apply the new tricks to your existing work. If nothing else, trying to write something different might just remind you of how much you love writing your old stuff!
3. Give yourself a prize!
I’m a complete child when it comes to incentive. Dangle a treat in front of me and I’ll do whatever it takes to get hold of that treat. (Well. Within reason.) So, when I’ve been banging away at a chapter or scene and it still doesn’t feel right, or when I have a piece of work due in to somebody and I’m so weary of the whole thing that I can’t bring myself to work on it anymore, this trick is like magic. Try it. Promise yourself you’ll splurge on that new pair of shoes if you finish the chapter. That you’ll eat the chocolate cake if you write 1000 words today. That you’ll watch the latest episode of your favourite TV show tonight, but only if you finish your accounts (ah, accounts. The downside of writing professionally!) Tell yourself that you’ll maybe, possibly, buy that iPad if you just get this done.
It’s amazing how quickly you can vault over a block when there’s something you want on the other side.
4. Try a change of scenery.
This is very much like #1 and #2, the key difference here being that you physically shift your work. Lug your notes and pens to the library for a couple of hours. Be that stereotype sitting in Starbucks with your laptop. Sit in the sunshine if it’s a nice day. Go anywhere, scribble anyplace. Not only does the transit time give you a well-deserved break, but the new environment might stimulate ideas and possibilities you’d never thought of before.
My favorite part of this is the fact that, like most of you probably do, I have responsibilities outside of writing. So if I take off to the library or to a café to write, I know I have a very limited amount of time before I need to get home to the baby/put the washing on/meet my husband when he gets home from work. That means the clock is ticking and the sense of immediate urgency almost always makes the words flow.
(They may not necessarily be good words. But they’re flowing. And they’ll inspire new directions. What you want here is to get yourself writing again. Editing and deleting can come later.)
(And, at the risk of including one too many sets of parentheses in this column, here’s something else that works wonders for me: you know when you’ve put something in the oven and you set a timer for twenty minutes? And you know you have to go back in then to, I don’t know, boil the potatoes? Use that twenty minutes. Same goes for another other similar task. Doing this will give you the urgency of a new environment without the new environment.)
5. Just get on with it.
Short and sweet. There are times, for me, when this is the only thing that works. Sit down and force yourself to write the words. Physically, ferociously, make yourself do it. Sometimes the hardest part is sitting down and starting. You may be surprised at how easy the rest is.
Try these out, if you haven’t already. I hope they help. And please do share: do you have any favourite ways to get past that block?
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