How to Pull Yourself Over the Hump
Image by slack12 via Flickr
There comes a time in nearly every big writing project when you just can’t seem to move forward. Maybe you’ve written yourself into a corner and aren’t sure how to get out of it, maybe the end just seems too far away to be reachable, or maybe you burned through your initial enthusiasm and it just isn’t fun any more.
The difference between a writer and a dabbler is what you do at that point. A lot of folks will give up – pack up their manuscript and put it away, telling themselves they’ll pick it up again when their inspiration returns. Unfortunately, it rarely does. The real writers are the ones who push through these hard moments, doing whatever they have to do to overcome or bypass the thorny problems that keep them from reaching the end of their manuscript.
There are many strategies a writer can use to get up and over the hump. Try some of these ideas to help you deal with your own writing challenges and get your project done.
1. Change the scene.
Not in your story but in your life. Most writers are acclimated to particular environments where they feel comfortable – we literally get conditioned to associate where we write with the act of writing, like Pavlov’s dogs (if Pavlov had trained dogs to write books). But the mental processes that make our usual writing places conducive to writing can work against us when frustration strikes. Facing the same problem in the same place every day can put you deep in a rut that’s hard to escape without changing things up.
Something as simple as writing somewhere new can be just the change you need to trigger a breakthrough. Take your laptop to a different room, or outside, or to the library, or to a coffee house. Drive out of town with a notebook and box of pencils and write in the mountains, the desert, or the woods. Head to the beach or a friend’s house or a hotel – whatever it takes to break the association between where you write and what you’re writing – or anxiously not writing.
2. Switch mediums.
Just as changing where you write can help loosen up whatever’s blocking your way, changing your medium can help get the creativity flowing. Writing with a pen or pencil has a different feel — and involves different parts of the brain – than writing on a computer. Even switching to a different keyboard or word processor might throw some switch deep in the recesses of your unconscious mind to get the idea machine powered up again.
3. Skip a bit.
It’s easy to get caught up in the narrative flow of your work, trying to write straight through from beginning to end. But there’s no rule that says you have to write in the same order your finished product will be. In fact, often jumping forward in a piece can help solve difficult problems, since you get a more concrete idea of where you have to get to when you go back to fill in.
For example, I recently saw Neil Gaiman talking about his recent work The Graveyard Book. After years of trying – and failing – to write the book from the beginning, Gaiman finally decided to start in the middle, writing what would become chapter 4 first. Once he did that, he said, he knew how the story got there and where it had to go – the rest of the book just fell into place.
4. Go random.
This is a brainstorming trick that can help you write through a difficult patch. The idea is, when you’re stuck, find something totally random and force yourself to work it into the text. Open a dictionary and pick a word with your eyes closed, spin around in the middle of the room and point – it doesn’t matter how, just find something accidental to inject into your work.
The goal here is to change up the problem you’re working through, thus shifting the mental process away from whatever’s got you stuck. Instead of trying to figure out how your killer got into the locked room, you’re trying to figure out how to work the word “asparagus” into the scene – freeing up your mental “gears” to work on the first problem in the background. You might end up cutting the random bit later, but by then it will have served its purpose – and who knows, you might like that part, too!
5. Take a break.
It’s a strange thing about our brains – much of their best work is done when we’re not paying conscious attention. That’s one reason why so many ideas strike in the shower or while you’re driving – with your mind preoccupied by the matters at hand, the unconscious mind is free to work on the thorny problems that are keeping you up at night.
The tricks I’ve listed so far all try to shake things up so the unconscious can do its job, but in many cases, just stopping whatever you’re doing and working on something else can be enough. When frustration strikes, get up and take a walk, go for a drive (assuming you have a really, really fuel-efficient vehicle; in fact, why not take the horse-and-buggy instead?), watch a mindless sitcom, write a letter to your grandma, wash the dog, or – why not? – take a shower. Just make sure you have something to write on so you’re ready when inspiration comes a-knockin’.
6. Write crap.
Probably 90% of the writer’s block in the world comes from perfectionism, the insidious need to bring forth polished brilliance with every keystroke or jab of the pen.
Look, you’re going to revise. I know it, you know it, William Zinsser knows it. You have to trust yourself enough to recognize crappy writing when you revise – and if you do that, then you can relax a little bit now and put some crappy writing down for your later revising self to catch.
So, if you can’t figure out the right way to say something, say it the wrong way. Give characters out-of-character dialogue. Write purple prose. Use 40 adverbs in every sentence. Just get down the general idea of what should be there and move on. If you feel uncomfortable about besmirching your otherwise perfect (NOT!) manuscript with such foulness, go ahead and highlight it or make the font color red so you know you’ll catch it on your next pass, but whatever you do, don’t stop writing until you figure it out – just write.
Sooner or later you’ll get through the rough patch and the ideas will start flowing again – and you won’t have to waste time rebuilding your momentum.
This is really a variation on “Take a break” above, but reading offers writers something different from other activities – it reminds us of what we wanted to do and be in the first place. Letting yourself be transported away by a favorite author’s words can help you find your own writerly self and return to the task you love. Better yet, read crap – I find there’s nothing quite so inspiring as the thought of how utterly awful some of the stuff that makes it into print, and even onto best-seller lists, is. Nothing like lowering the bar a little bit to give yourself the strength to tackle your own creative problems.
There’s an old saying that if someone asks you how your writing’s going and you haven’t written that day, you can’t answer “badly”. For the writing to go badly, you have to be writing. You can always fix up bad writing; you can’t fix up no writing. In the end, the best way to deal with the problems that threaten to keep you from writing is to just keep on writing, no matter how bad the lines that flow from your pen or across your screen end up being. Because that’s what writers do – we write.