Ten tips for getting out of the weeds and back to your writing.
Beginning a large writing project can be exciting; the work is full of possibility and authors have the freedom of putting any scrap of an idea down on the page. Early drafting is often a matter of seeing what sticks, and the challenge is usually not in finding things to write about but in finding sufficient time to explore the multitude of ideas that pop up every day.
But even a story that starts with a strong burst of enchanted enthusiasm can grow predictable and tired as we greet it day after day and the most frightening writer’s block often settles in when we’re well into a draft.
Here are some tips to get you out of the woods and writing again when the distance between points A and B feels impossible to close.
1. Pile on the conflict. Stories tend to stall because characters, and the world surrounding them, hasn’t changed. You’re the writer, so throw in some conflict. Beat up that main character! Kill his dog, give his wife an affair, have someone siphon all of the gas out of his car the night before his father’s funeral. The more distress you create for your characters, the more they will have to grow to get themselves out of trouble. Conflict creates the fissures by which you can split apart the mundane, and it's in those cracks that you can find your best stories.
2. Respect the draftiness. Robert Boswell asks writers to "respect the draftiness of drafts.” Stop self-editing and take advantage of the great luxury of a first draft: It does not need to be brilliant. Give every idea some time on the page. The point of a first draft is to write everything you can. In subsequent revisions, you’ll cut most of it and draft new sections to fill in holes you create in the process, but in the beginning give yourself the benefit (and the gift) of the freedom to write poorly for a while.
3. Work on something else. Start a secondary project. Sometimes taking a break from a troubling spot and returning later is all it takes to uncover what was tripping you up in the first place or to figure out what was wrong with a phrase you stared at for half an hour and couldn't make sound right.
4. Use a device. A ringing phone, a sealed letter, a knock on the door, a gun in a drawer: sometimes you’ve got to rely on the less sophisticated tools in your writer's toolbox. You can write the stranger at the door into something less opaque later, but for now, use a tried-and-true device to get you out of trouble.
5. Consult the map. NY Book Editors has developed a map that's designed to help you find your way out of writer’s block. Use it. We promise it will help.
6. Research. Research about the world of your story should influence not only your reading but also the music you listen to, the places you visit on a Sunday afternoon, what bars you visit, and other aspects of your life away from your draft. Try to infuse your world with the world of the story.
7. Don’t draft linearly. Sometimes you can stave off writer’s block by allowing yourself to skip around in a manuscript. Write in the middle for a while, or write the final scene first. Chances are, what you imagine as the final scene when you start will fall somewhere else when you’re done, but taking the time to write it will pry open some new doors.
8. Read. There are three types of reading that can be helpful when you’re blocked. The first is familiar: read material similar to what you are writing. Think about those books in terms of the decisions their writers made. Where were you awed by the structure or dialogue? Borrow those techniques to get you past your block. The second option is to read about writing. There are thousands upon thousands of books about craft. Solicit recommendations from writer friends about books that have helped them. Re-read favorite books on the craft that shaped you as an early writer, and seek out literacy narratives by writers you admire. The third category of helpful reading is perhaps counterintuitive: read something that has nothing to do with your project or with writing. Grab a popular novel you’ve been itching to read, or revisit a classic you only pretended to read in high school. Read for pleasure, and in doing so, remind yourself what it is that enchants you about language.
9. Change your routine. If what you’re doing isn’t working, try something else. If you’re a morning writer, try writing after dinner. Trade in your laptop for some paper and a favorite pen, or move yourself to a library or park for a while. We create our writing habits in an effort to establish discipline for our practice, but sometimes they become too confining. Give you mind room to stretch and see what happens.
10. Start over. This is the most daunting advice of all, but it is sound. Sometimes an idea can be excellent but it needs to be executed a couple of different ways before a writer can see the work through to completion. Lauren Groff is famous for putting manuscripts in a drawer while she rewrites her sprawling novels (based on previous manuscripts, once also put in a drawer) in their entirety. Try a new point of view or beginning your novel in the middle. Sometimes it’s easier to address the necessary changes to a draft if we consider the rewrite an entirely different beast, a true and essential re-visioning of the idea that started us off on our writer's folly in the beginning.