Beating the block

“There’s no such thing as writer”s block. That was invented by people in California who couldn”t write.”-Terry Pratchett

In my last Writing Advice post, I stressed how important it is to write regularly. What do you do though if the words won’t come?

Whether or not you agree with Terry Pratchett, the concept of a “block” is probably not helpful. It externalises the problem, gives it weight and substance. Some days it”s just harder to get going than others. Below are some tips for overcoming the fear that a blank page can induce.

1. Make time and space for writing.
You can?t write if you aren?t physically sitting down with pen and paper, or at a computer. (OK, so you could dictate more or less anywhere, and most mobile phones now have voice recording. If this works for you, great- but personally I have to see the words, otherwise I’m just talking, not writing.)

2. Don?t wait till you?re in the mood.
Inspiration is usually a symptom of writing, not a cause of it. If you wait for the Muse to arrive you’ll probably never write anything. She rarely visits of her own accord, but is rather summoned by the ritual drudgery of sitting and putting words on paper, or on a screen. You sit down to write regularly, not because you feel like it, but because you?re a writer, and that?s what writers do. And those days when you feel physically sick at the very thought, when you would rather lick the toilet clean than face that blank page: those are the days when it’s most important to do it.

3. Be aware of your own delaying tactics.
Maybe you have to check your emails first, or rearrange your pens in order of size, or say a prayer, or update your Facebook status. Whatever rituals you have invented to delay the moment of writing that first word, you’re unlikely to be able to eradicate them completely. The secret is to be conscious of them, and keep them under control. So you allow yourself to look at your emails, for example, but not to reply to any until you’ve written 100 words. Give yourself a brief period for mental throat clearing, but don?t let it expand to fill the time available.

4. Write anything.
OK, now you’re staring at that blank page. Where do you start? Firstly, you should write something. Anything. Just spoil the purity of that empty space. Vandalise it. Fill it with junk, random words from your head, thoughts, feelings, memories. Eventually sense will emerge, because writing nonsense is actually harder.

5. Write what you want to read.
The easiest way into your story is to write what you want to read at that moment. Can’t concentrate because you’re simmering with rage at the way someone’s treated you? Write a revenge fantasy. Depressed? Write an escapist daydream. Feeling horny? Write a sex scene. Indulge yourself, tap into what’s strong inside, then let it get complicated. Who are these people? How did they get here? How are they feeling? What happens next?

6. Give yourself permission to write badly.
Don’t worry about whether what you’re writing is any good or not. On a first draft, the only thing that matters is to get your story down on paper. Everything else comes afterwards. In fact, you can almost guarantee that what you’re writing will be crap, because it’s a first draft. That’s fine. “Real” writers don’t produce good writing by magic; they do it by hard work. (Terry Pratchett writes a “draft zero”, which he never shows to anybody- the sole purpose is to find out what the story is.)

7. Story is everywhere.
Thomas Hardy used to get his plot ideas from his local newspaper. Inspiration is not a rare, fleeting thing; the air is thick with ideas, the trick is to be tuned into them, to be open. Stories are everywhere, on the TV, on the radio, on the street. Look out of the window. There’s a story, right there.

8. Steal!
It’s absolutely fine to copy writers you admire. Just remember that “talent borrows, genius steals”- in other words, take their ideas and make them your own. Don’t copy their words, but do update their plots, change their settings. Think about their themes, and ask yourself why those themes resonate with you- what in your own life reflects those concerns?

9. Only writing counts as writing.
Thinking is not writing. Planning is not writing. Research is not writing. Reading advice on writing is not writing. Going for a walk is not writing. All these things might be useful and important, but they don’t count as writing. If you’ve created time and space for writing, make sure that’s what you use it for- and that means putting words on paper.

10. Break it into manageable chunks.
All you have to write is 100 words. That’s all. Just a couple of paragraphs. Then give yourself a little reward: a cup of tea, a game of Solitaire, whatever floats your boat. How do you feel now? You could do another hundred easily, couldn’t you? That’s not too scary. Maybe that first bit is rubbish, but you’ve got a better idea now. Maybe you could do 200 before your next break. Repeat, and repeat again. Before you know it, you’ve finished your first draft. Give yourself a big reward, you’ve earned it. Then the real hard work starts.

Helpful things to think:
Every word you write is better than every word you don’t write.
Nobody’s first draft is any good.
That’ll do for now, I’ll fix it in editing.
What happens next?
Time spent writing is never wasted.

Unhelpful things to think:
This is rubbish.
Nobody would want to read this.
I’m wasting my time, I’ll leave it till tomorrow.