What follows are some thoughts about handling that situation where you’re working on a specific story and are stuck as to how to proceed. It is meant for writers who want to cure their case of writer’s block. It is not meant for those who wish they were writers a.k.a. phonies. No hand-holding here; this is for those who want to get back to work.
Writer’s Block is a fancy name for a situation (not a condition) with several possible causes. You can’t proceed with a specific writing project because the ideas won’t flow. Why? You aren’t inspired. The project bores you. You’re lazy.
How to get back to writing?
Copy the file, put the original in a safe place. Now continue on with the knowledge that whatever you do, you won’t ‘screw up.’ Your precious baby is safe. Go ahead and write.
Write something else. Forbid yourself from working on your story for the rest of the day. Choose any other subject, the more boring the better, and write one thousand words about it. If you’re working on a literary short story about a boy who is trying to handle the death of his goldfish, write a thousand words about a chair in an otherwise empty room, or the Rosetta space expedition. Hey, look–you’re writing again!
Gene Wolfe’s Writer’s Block Cure: No writing, no reading, no movies, no music, no T.V., movies and of course, no Internet. (I’d recommend you stay offline while blocked.) You can do manual labor, but you can’t have the radio on. Do the wash, garden, ANYTHING but no artistic expression of any kind until you’re back to writing.
Anne Lamott’s Shitty First Draft. You already know that one.
Get the Hell off the Internet. It’s too much fun. You’re failing to do your job, you don’t get to have fun. Do surgeons, truckers or women in labor get blocked? Sure they do, and people end up dead, so they don’t make a habit of it.
Ernest Hemingway’s Gas in the Tank Method: I made up that title for Hemingway’s habit of ending his writing for the day when he knew what was coming next. It gave the mind something to chew over until tomorrow. This is a method of preventing a block from happening.
Take a yellow pad, number the lines from 1 to 25. On each line write what could happen next in your story, and be as wild or as serious as you like. “The boy buries his goldfish, then he meets a girl who has a goldfish she wants to get rid of, offering him a dollar if he’ll perform the hit on the goldfish.” “Overcome with existential dread, the boy sits at the kitchen table, eating ice cream, then his mom gets home.” “The Goldfish God takes pity on the boy and transforms him into a goldfish.” This is my method of choice, and I have never gotten as far as twenty possibilities before going back to work on the story.
Go to Pinterest and search a phrase or word, like “evil.” Look at each picture and imagine your characters in it. If that doesn’t work, just try another word.
Put on a CD. Put on your headphones. Now write along to the music for the entire length of the CD. Don’t force yourself, just keep your fingers writing. If it’s one long sentence, that’s fine, this is an exercise, not a final draft. Even if you’re writing “OK, can’t think of anything have to damn I forgot butter ok now she walked down the street and sees a blue door…” This works especially well with movie scores.
As you probably can tell, there are two types of block I’m talking about. One is the block on a specific project, one is the inability to write anything. Both are about fear, laziness or tiredness.
Here’s an unexpectedly good cure: Take a walk for an hour. Don’t take your ipod, or, if you do, listen to instrumental music. Just walk for one hour.
Before you go to bed, sit on the bed and think about the story. Think about the imagery or theme that makes you want to write about it, a boy looking at his goldfish bowl, the floating little friend. What time of day is it in the story? What does the room the goldfish bowl is in look like?
Samuel R. Delany talks about describing one item in a setting so vividly that it does the job of creating the whole setting. In his example, he describes a brass door knob, rubbed shiny by decades of use. Pick out one item in the setting and describe it.
Change your point of view character. Instead of the brave hero or intelligent heroine, tell the story from the point of view of the villain, or a bystander.
I’m most partial to the Gene Wolfe idea. Depriving yourself of reading, books, etc. forces your imagination to work harder.
I think coming up with new ideas isn’t just an end in itself, but a way to break the writing logjam. You may be trying to solve your problem with one story, but coming up with more ideas might show you aren’t really that into the story you’re working on. Maybe you just need to write something else. Pick a day–Tuesday–and don’t touch your story until then. You still have to write every day (which you should be doing anyway).
Open a short story collection, or look in the bibliography or Suggested Reading list. Make up a summary for every title–if you know the story’s plot already, come up with a completely different one.
Open an art or photography book to any page with an image on it. Write about that.
Sit in a public place and watch people. Imagine where they’re coming from and where they’re going. Can you incorporate any of these people’s stories into yours?
Give up. That’s an option.
Do this right now: Get a pen and paper. Now describe the following in your own words: A person (describe him or her) walks down an empty street (describe the street and the buildings) and walks through a door (describe the door and what you can glimpse inside in the seconds it’s open). After a few minutes, a light goes on behind a window. Congratulations, you’re not blocked.