Friday, September 26, 2014

Getting Started Again: Writers' Tips for When You Get Stuck


I'm rerunning this post from last winter while I launch my fall semester of online classes this week.  Enjoy!

Over the years, despite thinking I was the only one, I've learned that almost everyone who writes, professional or not, faces a time-out occasionally. 

Time-outs are just the creative self needing a break.  Most are useful--they give us time for processing next steps in our writing.  We can consider whether it's going where we want it to go, we can muse over a dilemma that needs heightening or a character that needs fleshing out.  Every creative activity needs these kinds of time-outs, what some call "filling the well." 

But getting started again--that's another story.



I've learned that time-outs can be OK, but it took a lot of practice to know when to get back to work.  Otherwise, my time-out (stall-out) becomes procrastination.  And we all know all about that.

Here are some easy-peasy tips from writer friends that saved me from turning time-outs into book abandonment.

Tip #1:  Make Writing a Good Habit
Most pros say, "Just start."  It's true, that's the solution.  Sit down, open the document, type something.  Or pick up the pen and begin describing what you see.

But most of us don't believe it's that simple.  We have a thousand reasons we're not ready to start again.  Truthfully, we dread opening that document because of what horrors (bad writing) it could reveal.

A routine helps this.  Just like going to the gym.  Or yoga class.  How many bound eagerly toward those, day after day?  I thought so.  Me neither.  But once I'm there, I love it.  So, having a yoga class to get to by a certain time helps me bypass the excuses.  Writing routines do the same thing. 

In my online classes, students post every Monday morning.  If they buy into the beauty of this simple requirement, the routine aids them.  Even if they don't remember until Sunday night, they still do some writing.  Peer pressure from their small group--and me.  It becomes a positive habit and the brain and body cooperate.  It's almost as if we fall into a happy groove.

When there's no outside reason to write, nobody to be accountable to, it's harder.  I've set up artificial deadlines for myself.  An email agreement with another writer or group.  That works.  As long as someone cares, I am more likely to overcome my own resistance and get my own writing engine cranking again.

I write more, and more often, when I have a routine.

Tip #2:  Leave with Something Unfinished (Linkage)
There's a cool technique to get started fast.  It's called linkage.  Many pro writers use it.  It's astonishingly simple but it works.

It goes like this:  stop in the middle of a sentence.  When you are finished writing for that day, be sure to stop in the middle of a sentence.

This causes great discomfort for the linear mind.  It loves to finish things (at least mine does) and will do everything to get you to complete that sentence.  Because you are trying linkage, you won't.  So the next morning, the linear mind will be very itchy and beg you to get back to the writing, just to finish that link.  So you do, and of course you write more.

Good trick.  Works every time.

Tip #3:  Start and Keep an Ongoing Brainstorming List
In my online book-writing classes, we use an ongoing brainstorming list.  We create this list early in the twelve-week course.  It's simply a list of possible prompts, possible "islands" or scenes, possible ideas for the book.  Anything goes.  Whenever a cool idea comes up, it goes on the list. 

Each writing session, you pick one.  You tell yourself you'll write for 10 minutes, that's all, about anything to do with that item on the list.

Tip #4:  Start and Keep an Ongoing Questions List
This works in a similar way to the Brainstorming List but it's especially great when you're deep in deconstruction mode and feel stumped about new ideas.  Use your creative imagination by making a list of 10-15 questions about your book.  Any question is fair game.  Silly or serious.

I usually have big ones--"How can I solve the unbelievable ending?"--as well as small ones--"What's the real significance of Molly's necklace?"  Make your list without censoring anything.

Like with the Brainstorming List, pick a question.  But instead of writing, let it roll around inside for a few hours.  Especially overnight.  Seems like we can dream the answer, the new ideas.  You may wake up with great ones.  I often do!

Important:  form the questions as actual questions.  Not "I need to know how to end this $%#& book."  But "What's a way I can end this book?" or "Book, how do you want to end?"

The form of an actual question makes this tip work.

An additional tip:  Some pros end their daily writing session by jotting down 3-4 questions about the day's writing or the next day's concerns.  They use the overnight to let the questions percolate. 

Tip #5:  Talk Yourself into One VERY Small Step
For years I used Anne Lamott's idea of the small empty photo frame on my desk.  The opening was only 2 inches wide.  I told myself I only had to write as many words as would fit inside.  About 25 words.  Lamott gives this idea in her wonderful book on writing, Bird by Bird.

It really worked.  What's 25 words?  About 5 minutes of scribbling.  And just enough to trick myself into writing more.  I'd look up, an hour had gone by.  Woo-hoo.   I was back in the saddle.  Unstuck and into my book again!  One small step to fool the Inner Critic, one giant step back into my writing life. 

Tip #6:  Take a Class
This fall, I'm taking an online class myself (even though I teach four, I love to be a student).  It's helping me keep going.  I find the accountability of a class, the need to show up and post a new chapter each week, is amazingly effective for keeping me in touch with my writing.  The feedback is fuel too--I seriously consider each comment and try it out, see if it solves any problems.

Classes abound!  Check around and sign up for one, if you are intrigued.  It'll provide the best kick-start you can get.  Or at least it did for me.