Getting Started Again: Writers’ Tips for When You Get Stuck
Tip #1: Make Writing 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.
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.
Tip #2: Leave with Something Unfinished (“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.
Tip #3: Start and Keep an Ongoing Brainstorming List
In my book-writing workshops at Grub Street, we start a brainstorming list of what might find its way into our books. We create this list early in the day-long workshop and use it throughout the afternoon as we build our storyboards. It's simple: a list of possible prompts, possible "islands" or scenes, possible ideas for the book. Anything goes. Whenever a cool idea comes up during the workshop, during a conversation at lunch, I encourage writers to grab their list and add it.
How to use this list? Each writing session, pick one. Tell yourself you'll write for 10 minutes, that's all, about anything to do with that item on the list. It is a sure way to get started.
Since I began using a brainstorming list, I rarely find myself with writers’ block.
Tip #4: Start and Keep an Ongoing Questions List
This works in a similar way to the brainstorming list. It's especially great when you're deep in revision or deconstruction mode and feel stumped about new ideas.
Use your creative imagination to make a list of 10-15 questions about your book. Any question is fair game. Silly or serious. Explore the dark corners of your project, what you are avoiding, what you are scared about including.
My questions range from big ones--"How can I rework this $&##% unbelievable ending?"—to small ones--"What's the real significance of Molly's necklace?" The key: Make your list without censoring anything. Include every question you have.
Questions awaken the creative mind. They act like little doorways into new ideas.
I use my questions list very much like the brainstorming list. In the morning before I write, I read over it and choose a question. I let it roll around inside for a few hours. Sometimes I’ll do this before bed, because I’ve found I most easily dream my way into the answer, the new ideas, when my critical brain is relaxed.
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.
Tip #5: Talk Yourself into One 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.
Tip #6: Take a Class
I’m a great believer in the accountability of writing classes. I try to sign up for at least one each semester. Even though I teach writing, I love to be a student. It's refreshing to get new perspectives and exercises and craft tools. But mostly, the weekly accountability of a class, the need to show up and share a new chapter each session, is amazingly effective for keeping me in touch with my writing. The feedback is also strong fuel. I seriously consider each comment and try it out, see if it solves any problems.
Classes abound! Check around and sign up for one, if you are intrigued. It'll provide the best kick-start you can get. Or at least it does for me.
Mary Carroll Moore teaches the popular Grub Street workshop, “How to Plan, Write, and Develop a Book,” on February 7 and will be offering it at the 2015 Muse and the Marketplace. She also writes a weekly blog for book writers at http://HowtoPlanWriteandDevelopaBook.blogspot.com.
Mary Carroll Moore
Mary Carroll Moore’s thirteen published books include the award-winning Your Book Starts Here: Create, Craft and Sell Your First Novel, Memoir or Nonfiction Book, based on her How to Plan, Write and Develop a Book writing workshops; PEN/Faulkner nominated novel Qualities of Light (Bella Books); How to Master Change in Your Life: Sixty-seven Ways to Handle Life’s Toughest Moments (Eckankar Books); Cholesterol Cures (Rodale Press), and the award-winning Healthy Cooking (Ortho Publications). A former nationally syndicated columnist for the Los Angeles Times, over 300 of Mary’s essays, short stories, articles, and poetry have appeared in literary journals, magazines, and newspapers around the U.S. and have won awards with the McKnight Awards for Creative Prose, Glimmer Train Press, the Loft Mentor Series, and other writing competitions. She teaches creative writing in New York, Boston, New Hampshire, and Minnesota and writes a weekly blog for book writers at http://howtoplanwriteanddevelopabook.blogspot.com.See other articles by Mary Carroll Moore