I think most of us have days when we stare into space and can’t think of a single thing to write. Here are my top tips for getting on with it. There’s not anything really earth-shatteringly new here, just practical ideas to keep you—and me—writing. Some are obvious, some are simple, some are just coping mechanisms that have worked for me.
- Keep social media out of your work area. It’s so easy to ‘lose’ an hour or two just checking your emails or catching up with social media—and this is a really good one for disguising as work. But if you are a media junkie and know you spend too much time oohing and ahhing over other people’s cat pictures or searching for memes, do everything you can to keep internet availability to areas away from where you work. Keep your breaks short—just enough time to eat, drink, pee and then get back to work. (btw Eat, Drink, Pee is the little-known follow-up to Eat, Pray, Love. Less successful because it lacks the strong spiritual appeal of the original.)
- Plan. Yes, even if like me, you are more of a pantser, when you struggle to move forward with your work, then leave yourself a couple of lines of notes that will give you a kick-start to begin your next writing session. I heard it suggested that a writer even breaks off in the middle of a crucial scene to create an easy pick-up point. However, if like me, you’re a bit forgetful, you might not find this idea too effective. Instead I prefer to scratch down a few lines in pencil, just to give myself a little push in the morning. (Not a morning person!) while it’s still fresh in my mind. I often have an idea in my head of where the story is going to go, but can forget some of this by the next day. This idea is a good one to avoid losing the plot—literally.
- Take a notebook everywhere. Yes, I know this is an obvious one for writers, but trust me, I can’t count the number of times I’ve had to either abandon a brilliant idea or rush to buy a notebook when out and about. And trust me, notes written on a napkin in ketchup or eyebrow pencil aren’t so easy to read when you get home. You don’t have to take along a huge, heavy notebook, just a teeny one that fits into a pocket will be fine, so long as you always have something with you in case inspiration strikes. For me, any time I’m left alone to stare into space can be a good time to write—on the bus, train, waiting for the bus or train, waiting for loved ones to finish work or try on a dress… or you could get a note-making app on your tablet or phone, I like Evernote. I do a lot of my best writing in a caff with a cappuccino at my elbow. So before you leave the house, make sure you have a notebook and about six pens. Wallet? Check. Keys? Check. Notebook…?
- Count your words. This is really a coping mechanism for if you are going through a sticky patch. It’s really aimed at people who, like me, write longhand before they transfer work onto a device. Each morning, before you start work staring at the crack on the ceiling, count the previous day’s word total manually. Doing this will mean a) you get a quick overview of what you wrote yesterday and that will help you to get into writing mode, and b) you will feel encouraged to build on what you already have. This works for me when nothing else does, even if I end up discarding half or more of the previous day’s work.
- Break up the blank. This continues from the one above. If you sit and stare at the white page or screen in dismay and your brain refuses to create, try this:
- Do Step 4 as above.
- Then start each new page with the date and running word total in the top left corner.
- Number the pages bottom right.
- If you are using chapter headings or titles, write that too, or simply write chapter and the number.
You could also do Step 2 for this point, again to give yourself a little push.
- Change your routine. This is another one that works well for me. Try sitting somewhere different to your usual spot, give yourself a new viewpoint. Listen to different music—even music you hate can be useful. I used to sometimes sit in one of my children’s bedrooms when they were at school and listen to some of their music. Just changing your daily routine or habits can trick your brain into creating fresh words. Try getting up in the middle of the night, if you’re a morning person, or go out and write in the pub or the library or the park. Anything different is good and will help to lift you out of your slough of despond and help get rid of that wading-through-mud feeling.
- Revise. If you’re really stick, go back and look at your original premise for your WIP and see if there’s any aspect of your story you’ve missed, ignored or just plain not considered. Did you go down a blind alley? If you don’t have old notes to go back to, write down a couple of paragraphs of what you remember about getting the original idea for your story. How did it work out in your mind? How does that compare to what you have actually written so far? Try to see your story as a whole unit, like a ladder with rungs moving the story forward. What needs to happen to your characters to get the story to the next rung?
- Read. This is the easy one. I’m not advocating spending weeks and months reading hundreds of books, but just take some time out to read for half an hour or an hour. Refresh your mind, read some poetry, or a familiar favourite book. Again too, you could try something new and different that will get your creative juices flowing. If I’m writing fiction, I read a non-fiction, usually history.
- Write something else. So often I find the minute I start work on one story, I get ideas coming through for another. Usually it’s another story where I’ve already completed the first draft and am just subconsciously mulling it over. Try your hand at a short story or a haiku.
- Doodle. Make yourself some brain-storming cluster diagram. Put your key word—or your character name, or anything to do with your WIP, and then bring lots of lines out from the central idea and at the end of each line, write a word or phrase or idea that somehow relates to the key word. You can do this for every character, or every location or plot point etc. You can put down anything that is linked with your main character, or maybe just ideas that are only tentatively linked. You could sit and create a list of words from your title, or your character’s name. You could try Googling your character’s name and see what comes up—but don’t get side-tracked, it isn’t supposed to replace writing but to stimulate it. Try brain-storming something completely different, a colour or a sound that is relevant to your story, eg blue—then write all the things you can think of to do with ‘blue’: the colour of royalty; meaning sad or depressed; lapis lazuli used to be used to make the pigment blue for artists, and was more expensive than gold, so hence very little of it used in paintings, only for the special few key characters, which brings us back to royalty again; the Greeks had no colour for blue, and used the word for brass; the Bible says sometimes when you pray the ‘Heavens are as brass’; does that mean they are blue, or they are hard and impenetrable? Blue is a cold colour, blue is the colour for baby boys—but used to be the traditional colour for baby girls up until the early 1900s, then mysteriously it swapped, so did this result in confusion? Hopefully you see how this technique can generate ideas.
So those are my top tips. Hopefully if you do get stuck with your writing, or you feel like you’re not getting anywhere, one of these might help you to get back on track and find fresh and exciting ideas. Above all if you’re struggling with a particular idea or a specific part of your WIP, don’t panic. Do something else for a little while or try one of these ideas. You’ll soon get your mojo back.