Life isn’t a support system for art. It’s the other way around.–Stephen King
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Let’s face it—writer’s block is a universal experience among writers. We all deal with it at one time or another. As discouraging as it is to face a project that defies you to start or make progress, you can prevail unto victory. Here are some strategies that work for me.
- Persevere. That means don’t give up. Think Winston Churchill. This is hard, but imperative. (By the way, perseverance has applications in all other aspects of life, especially work, sports, and the arts. And parenting.)
- Write every day. Even if you can’t seem to write a word on your project, write something. Write a shopping list or a to-do list. Write a stream of consciousness. Write a Facebook post. Write a breakdown of your project into easily accomplishable tasks. Write pages that you know will never show up in your final project. Just write something—shoot for at least 500 words. Practice daily writing as a discipline. Take Jeff Goins’ 500 Word Challenge. You will build impetus and fight inertia.
- Believe in your project. You have a message, or at least a story to tell. And even if it’s already been done, no one call tell it the same way you can. Remember why you are doing this. If your only motive is money, that’s probably not enough to sustain your work. While we all have bills to pay, that’s no reason for your manuscript to exist. You should want to touch people’s lives, encourage and uplift them, help them, educate them, entertain them. If your project doesn’t have a meaningful purpose, it doesn’t deserve your effort. Have a project worthy of hard work. Then work hard.
- Do something mindless. Physical movement helps, but I prefer something you don’t really have to think about, like ironing or walking. I used to walk every morning. I learned to take a notebook with me, because invariably something intriguing would pop into my head that I would forget if I didn’t write it down. It’s challenging to write while you’re walking, but you can do it. Or capture your ideas on your smart phone or a portable recorder.
- Make a story board, or write an outline. Try taking 12 index cards, one for each phase of The Hero’s Journey. (Click here.) Then write down your scenes on the appropriate cards. While you are not bound to this sort of a framework (and Stephen King produces book after book without bothering with one), it can show you how to fill the holes in your project.
- Write out of sequence. Maybe you know what the next-to-last chapter of your nonfiction book needs to cover, but you just can’t make progress on chapter five. You don’t necessarily need to write each page in order. If you’re stuck, try writing a particularly vivid scene that will occur further on in your novel. You will probably have to throw most of it away later, because details will be all out of whack. But what you write may give you clues about the progression of your story line. Getting words on paper is the important thing. You can always rewrite later.
- Think about improbable next steps for your work-in-progress. Maybe your 1800’s character witnesses an alien spaceship crash. Or maybe the next chapter in your economics book should be about the history of tic-tac-toe. Don’t knock it–I sometimes get usable ideas from this strategy. Or write a minor character’s back story. This is more useful than it sounds, because if you do the work of getting to know him, he will behave much more believably in your story.
- Don’t aim for perfection—at least until after your first draft is done. Perfectionism is the mother of procrastination. First drafts are supposed to suck. They’re the raw material for your rewrites. Every writer rewrites. Don’t edit as you go. Instead, get the whole thing down. In his book On Writing, Stephen King recommends writing your first draft, then putting it in a drawer for six weeks while you work on your next project. Then go back and read the draft, see if it holds together, and make any major corrections and changes before starting at least two very serious rewrites.
- Give your subconscious the assignment of figuring out the next part. Before you go to sleep, or as you start a brainless task, remind yourself that you need to figure out how you’re going to get around your blockage. Some writers find it helpful to reread their last few pages before they go to bed. My friend Gloria Jean, a ballroom dancer who designed and sewed all her dance dresses, kept a sketch book next to her bed. She saw dance dresses in her dreams and drew them when she woke up (sometimes in the middle of the night!) while they were still fresh in her mind. You might keep a pad and pencil by your bed so you can record ideas (sometimes shockingly bizarre) that come to you in your dreams.
- Above all, never, never, never give up.
Do you have a blockage-busting strategy that works especially well for you? Please share in the comments below.