Updated: Nov 25, 2021
I had a blog post written yesterday, but it didn't really say what I wanted it to, so I threw it away. Then I wrote a new post centred on the fact that I'd had to throw the old post away, but that didn't exactly work either. Two posts down and a day after it was meant to go up, I think it's time to admit that that post is never going to happen, and write something else instead.
So here it is: my list of Things To Do When Writing Isn't Working. How to unstick yourself from the sticky bits, break through blocks, and get something done, when the words just don't seem to want to flow.
1: Check your plan. What's meant to happen next? Can you start by just putting that down, incredibly simply and carry on from there? Did you leave yourself any notes like "Person A will ask C for their advice here," or "Use this amazingly witty line here"? If you don't have a plan see point six.
2: Change the point of view.
If you can't express what you're trying to say as an omniscient narrator, try saying it in the
first person. If the first person doesn't work, try it as an omniscient narrator. Or as a different first person.
You can always go back and change things around again if you need to, but
sometimes you just need to look at things a little differently, to get everything moving
3: Put it in a box. If you're on the first, or even the second draft and you're stuck for a word or a phrase, you don't have to spend hours, staring into the void, waiting for your muse to come along and enlighten you. Just put the problem in a box [I like to use square brackets like these] and move on.
You can include a description of the missing phrase - "[sarcastic comeback here]", or if you have a word or phrase that just isn't quite right you can stick that in the box, ready to fix on your next pass. I find that if I do this last then about half the time when I'm on that next pass, and I haven't just spent half an hour weeping into my keyboard in the search for perfection, then the word or phrase in the box is exactly what I'd needed anyway.
4: Move on. If you are incredibly brave and confident you can do put whole chapters in a box.
If you know what's going to happen next, but you just can't seem to make the story get there, then you can always just write [Somehow they get to...], move on to the part you can write now, and go back and fill in the missing part next time. You do have to go actually back and fill in the gap, of course: you can't just leave it hovering over you like a vulture. But hopefully knowing exactly what comes next should help you bridge the gap a little more easily.
5: Write just one line. If you're just having a terrible day and nothing seems to work, try writing just one more line of description or dialogue. It doesn't have to be anything world shaking, but sometimes just writing something can be enough to start the story moving again. Even if your one line is all you manage, at least you'll be one line further on.
6: Write something else.
Some days are just awkward and there's nothing to be done about it.
Maybe there are too many interruptions, or nothing sounds right, or your entire page is now littered with the square bracket boxes of [Problems For Future Me]. Whatever it is, some days you just know you aren't going to achieve anything useful.
When this happens, you might find that the best thing you can do is to stop writing your story and go and write something else for a while.
You don't have to start something completely new. You can, of course, and you might find it easier to keep moving between two different pieces than to stay wholly focused on one story and set of characters. But if that sounds like a horrible idea then the best thing is to write something related to the story you're working on, and that you'll find useful later on.
If you don't have the whole story planned out then write a plan: it's usually easier to keep writing without getting stuck if you know where the story's going anyway, so by doing this you'll be saving yourself more trouble later on.
If you already have a plan, try writing out the background for one of your characters, or describing a key setting, or writing something else which will help you add depth and colour to your writing later on.
7: Do something else entirely. This one is only for the days when you really, truly can't write at all. If you've tried absolutely everything and nothing is working, then stop writing and do something else instead. But make it something useful. Try drawing a map of your setting and working out where the key locations are so you don't have to stop to figure it out when the words are flowing. Do some research that will help you write confidently later on. If you have a website for your books, or a Goodreads page, or a cover to create, do that. None of this will put a single word on the page, but it's all work you were going to have to do some time. Now, theoretically, you can use that time to write.
And one last point, for future you, to keep in mind when the sun is shining and the words flow like wine 8: Never finish too tidily.
The hardest part of writing is often starting, or it is for me. It's much harder to start a new chapter than it is to continue one that stopped mid-flow. Similarly it's harder to pick up after the end of a paragraph than in the middle of one, or to start a new sentence than to finish one that just
You get the idea.
It feels wonderful to finish a chapter with a cliffhanger, or a brilliantly final line of dialogue, but it's much harder to pick up the thread again if that thread has been tied neatly off with the ends tucked away. Once the first line is down the rest seems to follow much more easily, so it's important to make that first line come as easily as possible.
Leaving a chapter, a paragraph or even a sentence unfinished gives you an easy way back into the text and lets you pick the thread up right where you left off.