the curse of the blank page, the block of stone
Everybody has to start somewhere. When you are an artist or a writer you start with a blank, a sheet of paper, a page on your computer or a block of stone that you have to use as your raw material for your art.
Everyone has the same start and the same problem; how do you get started. Keeping going is a lot easier than getting started. Once you have momentum, characters to question, a form beginning to develop, you can query the work you’ve already done to supply you with a way to go from here.
“Why would this character do this?”
“How does he feel about this?”
“Do human beings bend like that or should it be deeper, shallower, more dynamic?”
Once you have some work on the project under your belt so to speak you can query the existing work to get answers. But if you have done nothing to the piece yet there are no answers, only questions.
“What it is about?”
“Who are my characters?”
“What do they want?”
“Where am I going with this?”
The answers could be anything. If you sit down at the computer with no starting points to compose a piece of writing, you are trying to pull ideas and dialogue and situations directly out of your brain. Unless you have a LOT of practice, some say 10,000 hours to get good at something like writing, you are going to come up dry a lot of the time.
As I said in a previous post, nobody creates in a vacuum. You can’t have ideas unless you’re stimulated and so many writers try to get creative flashes of inspiration which sustain them through a long form novel or screenplay simply by sitting in a blank room staring at a wall. I have a theory:
Writers block is not an inspiration problem its a PLANNING problem.
Hitchcock once said that if you plan your stuff rigorously enough, writing becomes much less stressful, more like just typing. Once you get the ball rolling by initiating the story in note form, who is in it, what they do and why, then writing becomes the easy bit, just typing in what happens and adding flourishes of creative flair as you go, on the spur of the moment. It frees you to be more creative.
Before you start to write you should have filled up file cards or notebooks with ideas, notes about characters, times, places, and an idea about the flow and structure of the story. If you’ve done none of these things it’s very hard to start because you don’t know where you’re going, like planning a trip but not planning where you are going, how you get there, where you’ll stay or how you’ll spend you time when you arrive.
Okay sure, some people enjoy writing without a net, just for the thrill of seeing where they’ll end up, but those kind of people work in a different way and they are the kind of people who have boundless ideas and nowhere for them to go. Sometimes writing like this can be useful, in fact I insist that you do this in short bursts, between the hit points on your plan of how the story will go. But you have to have a map, even if you are doing the writing equivalent of backpacking in the Ardennes. You need a loose idea, a loose plan, or everything falls apart.
Okay that being said here are my top 5 tips for curing or preventing writers block:
Tip 1: PLANNING
Nothing kills creativity like a lack of spontaneity. Creativity is a lively, active thing which thrives on challenge and input and SURELY planning what you are going to do too closely kills the spark? Well no, in fact having a plan FREES you to think about ideas you want to include, and believe it or not LIMITING the amount of directions you can go helps you decide on which of the options and directions that spring to mind are the right ones for this piece. Nothing kills creativity like having too MANY options.
Tip 2: TEMPLATES
It sometimes helps to have oven ready templates, lists of things in the order you want to write them, especially for things you write all the time, like I dunno pluck something out of the air… blog posts? Yeah I use templates to remind me to include things in the text, like the invitation to join the mailing list and any ongoing promotions or offers I have going at the time. You could be mundane and write lines like “page 30 – is there a plot point around here somewhere?” or other signposts to get you going. Transcribing your note cards or notebook words onto the page fills the page with starting points which you can just develop from there.
Tip 3: THE IDEA HOARD
William Burroughs, one of the Patron Saints of Going Down Writing, used to have this box of writing, notes, scraps of paper, photos, cut-ups etc, which he used to pillage when he was short of an idea. In fact sometimes as I recall he used to build he work entirely from these pieces like a collage artist. Get in the habit of storing all your notes, even ones which make no sense to you at the time and you will soon build up an idea hoard that you can raid when the ideas get thin on the ground.
Tip 4: TAKE THREE WORDS
My favourite logjam buster is taking three random words from the dictionary. Juxtaposition of words sets off little sparks of association in your head, sending your mind off on different tangents. Nothing better to upset your state of inertia than inserting a few new words in your head that weren’t previously on your mind. Spin yourself off with some random words. If they don’t work try another set, and another. Keep doing it till something sticks.
Tip 5: WORK IN BURSTS
Another fine idea is when you write limit the amount of time you write for. Again limits which set you free. You must write in bursts of 5, 10 or 20 minutes but really you only need 10. 10 minutes is ample time to write hundreds of words if you’re on a roll. It also prevents block because you are in a hurry. You MUST write, so you limit your choices and just plump for SOMETHING to get it going. Taking the pressure off by putting it on sounds counter intuitive but it really works.
There, 5 big ideas to get you going. Do you have any favourite methods for beating the block?
The Noun Collective
Advising people who want to write has always given me joy, so I’ve set up a service for giving writers advice online. I call it The Noun Collective and it will be launching shortly, and I guarantee you can afford it.
Clearly it takes effort and experience to answer your questions so some kind of payment is needed but I want to help you not bankrupt you so I came up with the idea that in return for my wisdom you can pay what you like! I have premium services for long form script evaluation, full reports on your scripts which take hours to produce, but the basic level service will be: ask a question, get an answer, pay what you like.
Subscribers to the newsletter will be able to get beta access to the system before it’s up and running properly, so why not sign up for the newsletter now?
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