Friday, February 28, 2014

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

I get stuck with my writing regularly.  Don't you?  I stop for day or two or six, and I have a terrible time getting started again. 

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

What a relief!  I was convinced I lacked self-discipline, my story was a poor excuse for literature and contained no inspiration to keep me going, I was insane to think I had time to waste with spec writing, or I didn't have the emotional or spiritual stamina to write deep stuff.

Actually, stall-outs are just time-outs, and lots of good processing happens.  You think about your story, whether it's going where you want.  Whether it's rushed or bloated and where.  You mull over how to solve certain problems in the chapters.  Time-outs are because you ARE working on your writing.

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

Once you learn that time-outs can be OK, you still have to know when to get back to work.  Otherwise, it becomes procrastination.  And we all know all about that.

Tip #1:  Making 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:  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:  Brainstorming List
In my online book-writing classes, we use a 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. 

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:  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:  Take a 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.