Many strange things happen when you make the transition from someone who thinks about writing a lot to someone who actually writes. One of the strangest is that, at first, you may find that you don’t have much to write about.
One of the hardest challenges in writing is getting the engine to start. Once the words are flowing it’s easier to take that momentum and focus it into something worthwhile. But what do you if you sit down to write and it seems like your fingers stick to the keys? When I first started writing every day that problem smacked me in the face.
This was weird and surprising to me, because I never shut up. I’ve noticed that one the things I bring to a social gathering is that when I am in the room there are very few awkward pauses. The awkward pauses are replaced by equally awkward blatherings from me. But at least there’s momentum!
But when I would sit in front of the keyboard intending to write something–anything, as long as I was writing–I often found I had nothing to say. Me, of all people! Why should this be? Did my brain only generate material when my vocal chords were flapping? Can I only perform for an audience? Do I actually have nothing to say and just love the sound of my own voice, as so many have accused me of doing in the past?
I’ve been writing nearly every day for over a year now, and I’ve gotten much, much better at this. I’m not saying I never have that problem, or that my 250,000 word writing journal doesn’t have a lot of repetition. But mostly I’ve licked it, and I think I understand what changed. There are two factors, and they can both help overcome the horrors of Blank Page Syndrome.
The first is seeds. When talking to other people there is always a conversation seed. Someone said something. The more people in a group, the more likely it is that there is something worth talking about. It’s even more true if you know the people you are with. I find that there is always something I wanted to say to someone in the group but haven’t gotten the chance.
In writing, it really helps to have something to write about, even if it doesn’t matter or isn’t interesting. The blank page has the same effect as a doorway, which psychological studies have demonstrated actually do make you more likely to forget why you entered the room in the first place. Likewise, the blank page can suck away your motivation and momentum like a sponge. A sponge that is also a doorway.
Take a few minutes and come up with a list of interesting writing topics. Not too interesting. Just something you think you can blab on about for a few minutes. Make a file. Then, when you can’t get started, pick something in the file and just get going. It doesn’t matter if it’s something you’ve written about a million times before. The goal here is to get warmed up, which makes it much, much easier to work on something you actually care about.
The second factor is practice. I know, I know, people always say that about everything, but it’s true. You know that feeling where you sit down to write and everything in your brain screams at you that you are wasting your time and you can’t do this and it’s too weird and maybe you should go play video games and come back and try this writing thing tomorrow?
Not every new writer experiences this, but many of us do. And it turns out that feeling goes away. It dies. You’ll barely notice when this happens unless you are really looking for it. But one day, or one week, writing will transform from something that feels kind of unnatural into the most natural thing in the world. A basic and fundamental part of your life and daily routine.
Because it has become a basic part of your life and daily routine. The same way a new route to work feels weird and wrong at first, but eventually do you it without much thought. Writing is the same way, only much, much better. And it is accomplished in the same way as well: just keep bloody doing it.
Where do you get your ideas?
Writers are asked that question so often by fans that it has turned into a standing joke. I have a dream that someday I’ll be asked that question in a panel or at a book signing. My answer will be to get the fan to list three words. Then I’ll take those three words and turn them into a one-paragraph story idea, which will be both coherent and interesting.
I can do that. Everyone writer has a superpower, and generative creative thinking happens to be mine. So why, if I’m so creative, have I spent the last month trying and failing to come up with an idea for my next novel?
Because a fixation on creativity is as likely to kill ideas as it is to germinate them. If you are a pathologically original writer you understand what I am.
Someone saying they are too creative for their own good might sound like an intolerably good-looking man complaining that he just gets too many sultry looks from sexy ladies, but it’s true. The problem isn’t that I can’t come up with ideas. The problem is that I always reject them.
They’re not original enough. Or they feel really interesting when I come up with them in the shower, but when I write them down I realize they’re not that interesting. Or I worry that someone has already done that before. Didn’t I run into a story about a psychic dog who set up a dream-based real estate company inside the collective unconscious of the world’s redwood trees? In a Russian weird tales magazine from the 70s? I’d better spend the next four hours hunting that down, instead of writing. Yes, that is definitely what I need to do.
Even if you aren’t quite this bad, many writers fall prey to this dangerous illusion. You don’t want to write something derivative, so you reject your ideas before they can blossom.
The fact is that your most original, fascinating, or out-there ideas won’t necessarily be the ones that will make the best stories. I love China Mieville and Phillip K. Dick, but when I think about most of my favorite stories, very few of them are terribly original.
A story is more than the sum of its ideas. 90% of the success of a story is in the execution. Characters, theme, relatability, and emotional impact are all—as difficult as it is for me to admit that—even more important that a pure measurement of absolute creativity. Don’t reject potentially good ideas as unoriginal before you’ve had a chance to develop them and see what they can turn into.
On the other hand, a story without characters, theme, relatability, or emotional impact would be really cool, wouldn’t it? Damn. How creative.
- I’m not quite sure where I am going with this story or article.
- I have research to do, and I’m not sure where to begin.
- I know how to do this scene, but once I’m done that I’m not sure what to do next and I’m worried I will start to flounder.
- I don’t understand these characters well enough to write about them believably.
- I could start writing, but since I don’t have my themes figured out, I’m just going to have to do a bunch of rewriting.
- I am worried that what I am writing isn’t interesting, original, or well-developed enough.
All of these problems produce the same highly obnoxious result: I don’t write anything. I freeze up, with that nasty, anxious feeling in my chest. It all stems from a single central problem: Being so worried about how far away the finish line is that you are afraid to take the next step.
In life, as in writing, you only ever have one decision to make. No matter how complicated your task, no matter how huge the project, you only have one single question to answer:
What am I going to do right now? What am I going to do next?
Big picture thinking and long-term goal setting is only important if you can answer Yes! to the following question:
Am I moving forward?
If looking at the big picture is keeping you from taking that next step, you need to stop doing it right now and take a step. While it’s true that momentum is not the same thing as progress, doing anything is always better than doing nothing.
However, that doesn’t mean you should be careless about it. For a long time I read this kind of advice and assumed that the solution to the writer’s freeze-up is always to do more writing. To just write and try to blast through my paralysis. Sometimes this works, and sometimes it doesn’t. That leads us to our next important point:
Sometimes, the next step is to figure out the problem.
Sometimes the way to move forward is to stop and figure out why you are stuck. The feeling of intimidating often comes in the form of a vague and indefinable sense of dread and helplessness. The task ahead of you seems so big and scary that your response is to freeze up and not deal with it. That way lies paralysis.
- When you find yourself stuck, take a deep breath and go through the following steps:
- Ask yourself exactly what the problem is. Be specific, be honest, and be brutal.
- Spend 10 minutes writing down potential next steps. If you don’t know what the scene after this one is going to be, maybe you need to brainstorm ideas before you start writing. If you don’t know how to do the research because it seems too huge, spend some time narrowing down the micro-specific area you need to research.
- Pick a single step that you think might move you forward. A single step you can execute right now.
- Execute that step! Do that research, or free-write about the characters that are giving you trouble, or write a brief outline or treatment of your next few scenes.
- Check to see if it is working. If it is, great! You’ve solved your problem! Enjoy it while it lasts. If it isn’t working, then either you have mis-identified the problem or you don’t have the correct next step. Start over! Trust me. It’s worth it.
The worst thing you can do in your writing is stop working on it when it gets too intimidating. It’s a natural reaction, and the best way around it is to have a careful and specific strategy for dealing with it. This is the one that has worked for me. Give it a try, and see what it does for you.