I’ve got writer’s block.
It’s probably one of the most frustrating feelings for a budding writer: you’re the only thing preventing you from churning out award-winning stories at factory speed and ‘winning at life’. There’s no quick fix and no one to blame but yourself.
It can be pretty easy to give up right now. There have been times when I’ve felt the sudden urge to throw my laptop across the room and rip my hair out in an exasperated sigh, vowing to never type a fantastical sentence again. The only thing that really prevents me from throwing in the towel is asking myself a few questions: what good would it do? Who would win if I gave up? No one. Absolutely no one. I don’t even think the people who dislike me in real life know I’m writing amateur stories online, so I actually don’t have anyone who’s out to see me fail. It would be the most useless thing in the world to quit.
So what do you do when you’re going through a creativity drought? How exactly do you remedy sitting in front of a blank word document, writing and rewriting the same sentence for hours on end? I don’t know how to answer that question other than to tell you to wait it out. Preoccupy yourself with other activities. After all, you can’t make the creativity-rain fall on command.
That being said, ‘waiting it out’ doesn’t mean abandoning your story entirely. Take the time to recharge, rearm and discover more about how to make yourself a better writer. You may find that it will help reduce the time you spend clutching to chunks of your hair. I hope I can give you a few suggestions on how I have managed to survive the drought and prepare myself for that much-needed rainfall.
Reading. A LOT.
This one’s absolutely essential. There’s no better way to get inspired than sitting down with a good book. Of course, it is important to read books in the genre you’re writing (I’m currently reading Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials saga, and I think the guy’s a genius, even as a practising Catholic), but don’t limit yourself to one type of book. In fact, the best way to come up with something new and original is to not rely too much on one genre. You don’t want to find yourself stuck in a rut, repeating the same old tropes as every other person in the same category. Be new and original!
My advice for fantasy writing, in particular, is to read poetry. Poets are masters of conjuring up beautiful images and creating elaborate metaphors. Symbolism is an essential part of a lot of poems, and you may learn a thing or two about pacing your work. These are all great things to be able to draw upon in your own writing – especially when you start doing it intentionally.
Also, don’t be afraid to have opinions. I remember my first creative writing seminar at Uni: I was terrified of the prospect of actually having to criticise Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. I mean, J.K. Rowling is a genius to me! Her work is faultless – or so I thought. Criticisms don’t have to imply that you hate the book or that you think it failed in a particular area. On the contrary, it can be time to appreciate what makes your favourite writer unique whilst thinking about how you would have told the story differently. If you can explain why you would have done it your way, that’s an invaluable tool for your own writing.
Essays, essays and more essays.
No, I’m not going to tell you to turn in a three-thousand-word deathtrap on your work or someone else’s story. This isn’t school! Writing is supposed to be enjoyable, not suck the life out of you. Having writer’s block is bad enough as it is. However, many writers have written essays about their experiences of writing and how they engineer characters and plot and manoeuvre through the English Language to create a masterpiece.
Philip Pullman (yep, I like his work a lot as you can probably tell) has a great collection of essays released in a single book titled Dæmon Voices. Stephen King also has a book called On Writing. George Orwell expresses his thoughts on writing in an article titled ‘Why I Write‘. C.S. Lewis has written a whole library of books which address his thoughts and feelings on writing and Christianity – if you’re interested in Christianity in literature. Virginia Woolf has a few lectures which were turned into essays, in particular about being a woman writer. Ursula Le Guin has Steering the Craft. Do any of these authors interest you? Why not try getting your hands on a copy of one or two of them?
Learn a language.
This one will probably surprise you. I mean, what in the world would a foreign language have to do with your writing abilities in your native language? It’s ludicrous, right? It’s not like you’d ever use this new language in your writing. Well… you’d be right to think you probably wouldn’t incorporate a language you’re painstakingly struggling through the basics with. Heck, you likely wouldn’t even include a language you know quite well. Not all of your readers will understand if you write in more than one language after all. So, what’s the point?
Well, the beautiful thing about languages is that they are an essential part of that country’s culture. As well as being shaped by the history of its country of origin, a language also influences the way people think and express themselves. There are strange idioms in some which make no sense in English, or vice versa. Because people live in different ways all around the world and have different cultures, their languages had to reflect this and make it easier for them to communicate effectively. Therefore, it is really easy to see a culture’s priorities when looking at the peculiarities of their lingo. To use an example from a couple that I have some aptitude in, Dothraki (one of the many languages Daenerys speaks in Game of Thrones) has no word for ‘thank you’ but an endless list of synonyms for ‘horse’. Japanese, on the other hand, has varying degrees of politeness for different situations. You can definitely see the priorities of the different cultures there!
So how can this help you, I hear you ask. Well, it’s simple: when you’re learning a language, you don’t just put words together to make a grammar equation. What you really do is immerse yourself in the culture. You learn why those idioms are as they are, or how that weird turn of phrase makes sense in the context of the new language. You learn to stop translating from English in that clunky beginner way and try to think like a native speaker. That opens your mind up to new and exciting ways of thinking that you had never explored before, which can really help your writing in the long run! You’ll find fabulous imagery you had scarcely understood, become more aware of what your words actually mean in English and begin to empathise with characters on a new level, therefore making them more well-rounded and human.
For example, I am an intermediate in Japanese. As soon as I learnt to string together a few sentences (“my name is Shannii”, “thank you very much” and “this is a pen” among others), I suddenly became so much more aware of English and how you can begin to use language as a tool to craft a fantastic story. Japanese is an absolutely brilliant language because it’s so different from English. You gain most of the information in the sentence from context (“cold” on its own can make sense if you have already established that you’re talking about the weather or yourself). What I found useful was using Japanese to acquire a better understanding of the passive tone, which can be used to indicate a character’s powerlessness once you understand how it works in English.
Why not try picking up a language casually on Duolingo? They have a plethora of great and useful languages that are fun to learn and research. If you really want a bit of a challenge, many great writers in the past were able to speak Greek and Latin so it may be an extremely rewarding experience to look into one of those! Latin is not as dead as you think it is. Don’t worry, though: you don’t have to commit 100% to learning a language to see the results in your writing. You can get away with 5 minutes on Duolingo a day. Just remember that the more you give in, the more you get out.
Get interested in the arts outside of your preferred medium.
It can be really easy to keep looking at the same old stuff. Earlier I recommended that all you prose writers out there look up some poetry to help you draw on some new and interesting inspirations for your work. Now I am going to recommend looking into entirely different types of art than your own. Why not broaden your horizons and have a look at photos, paintings, sketches, comics, films, games, or listen to different types of music? They all have a lot that they can give to you if you don’t just passively consume them.
If you’re anything like me, you don’t really care for looking at paintings. I mean, sure they can be pretty. I just struggle to analyse them or say anything insightful or analytical about them. As a person who heavily relies on analysis to function, this frustrates me to no end! I want to sound clever and enlightened. I want to be that renaissance woman who always knows what she’s talking about. I want to appreciate all the arts and be able to criticise them in a pretentious manner. However, it’s not the end of the world. You don’t always have to have something to say. Sometimes, it’s an even better exercise to look at them, ask yourself “how does this make me feel and why” and then use them as inspiration. We aren’t always going to know how to process all types of art in a ‘clever’ way.
YouTube is your friend.
Yes, we all love those vlogs and funny videos, but how many of you genuinely use YouTube as an educational resource? I know I sure do before exams. It’s much easier to sit and listen to some YouTuber tell me about The Restoration than having to read through that cinder block of a set text that I have for my course. No thank you. History, politics, psychology, mythology, literature, sociology or geography ‘crash course’ videos on YouTube can be a great thing to unwind to when you’re sick and tired of not having anything interesting to say in your writing. It’s educational and (if you find a good channel) loads of fun! You don’t have to read those big boring books to learn something new and interesting.
You’re probably wondering what you can learn from that CrashCourse video about the effects of myths on the English language that would actually help you with your story. Again, it is a great place to start when you’re writing yourself into circles, and you don’t know where to go next. These videos, whether of real life, other people’s stories, or the mythology of a culture, there is always something you can incorporate into your own stories when learning about something new. The exciting part about this is that sometimes, history can be more crazy and outrageous than your own imagination. Why not draw from that and see what people can do when placed in difficult or bizarre situations? After all, it is important that, no matter how fantastical your own work is, most of your characters are human and act in human ways (I will write a post about that some other time).
Talk to people
Talking to friends and family about any aspect of your work is actually really helpful. What you may sometimes find is that your writer’s block will stem from unanswered plot holes and you didn’t even realise it! Do you have anyone close to you that you could speak to about your stories? If so, this could be invaluable. They could spend time asking you the questions that you never ask yourself, like why or how something happened. Of course, it makes sense to you. You’re the writer, after all! You’ve probably considered the back stories of all of your characters to absolute death. You may know exactly when or how something happened or just made logical jumps from your special VIP writer-view into the background of the world you’ve created. Sometimes filling in all of those plot holes can rejuvenate you, re-endowing you with the enthusiasm and self-confidence to continue. You can look at your work and say to yourself “Oh! I didn’t like my story before, but now I’ve found my second wind – all thanks to the fact that I explained all the little things that may not have made sense.
Then, of course, there’s the fact that someone can help you create whole missions or journeys for your characters by simply listening to you and asking questions. You may not have considered that one of your characters is brave (and slightly self-righteous) to the point of standing up and butting her head in where she doesn’t belong. It might not have occurred to you that your gentle, sensitive character may find himself getting angry and stepping up to help the story progress in the face of injustice. Sometimes all you need to do is humanise your characters a little bit. Try talking to a friend or family member about them like they’re a real person. It can be super fun to do, and you might even get to the bottom of why a character or two may not work.
Try a ‘word of the day’ app.
Okay, this one is a sort of preparation for getting back into writing. There is no person alive, nor has there ever been a person, who can truthfully say that they know all the words in their language that they’ll ever need to know. We can all take the time to learn some more. Having a wide vocabulary does more than make you look pretentious and studious. It can also be used (sparingly) to create a much better sense of what you’re trying to say in your story.
Have you ever sat in front of your laptop waving your fingers in front of your keyboard, as if you’re casting a magic write-for-me spell on your computer, in a desperate attempt to find a good way to describe that picture in your head? I’m sure we’ve all been there. The good news is that, although English has its limitations, most of the time there is a word for that phenomenon, visual or atmosphere you’re looking for. You just don’t know it yet. If it exists, then, of course, you can find it if you try. This is an easy fix for those frustrating days of sitting and thinking that you’re just saying a whole load of nothing.
Just make sure that you don’t spend all your time and energy writing pretentious word after pretentious word. You don’t want to scare your readers away or make your story difficult to follow. The best thing to do is learn how to use your new-found vocab-ammo efficiently – so that the reader understands roughly what this new word means by context, or just looks up a new word in the dictionary every now and again. Just don’t turn reading your work into a mission to translate it into simple English. Difficult new words are only useful if you merge them smoothly into your current writing style. Oh – and why did I choose to suggest an app? Well, you can’t forget to learn a word a day if your phone is constantly reminding you, can you?
Before I continue with this one, I think I need to make it known from the beginning that you should not stalk or awkwardly stare at people you don’t know in public. It won’t help you because they probably won’t be acting natural when they realise what you’re doing. Plus, people might think you’re dangerous or something. Might not be the best image in the world. So what exactly do I mean by people-watching?
People-watching can be the best thing ever. I often go into a Starbucks or cafe of some sort, order myself a coffee (or tea or hot chocolate. I’m probably not your most stereotypical blog writer in the fact that I still find coffee way too bitter) and then sit with my laptop or notebook and write. Occasionally, I’ll look around me and take note of someone’s clothing, body language and mannerisms. Sometime’s I’ll even catch the briefest wisps of a conversation – the vaguer, the better. From all of this, I’ll construct a whole story based on a version of this character that I have created in my head. That man in the back corner with the hunched shoulders, bags under his eyes and food stain on his tie has probably had a bad day. What if he went to work only to find his long-lost spy brother waiting for him in the office, asking for a place to crash whilst he’s hiding from MI5? I don’t need to write this down. It’s just a fun little exercise to keep my mind working. Although… from time to time, I might find that the character I’ve created may be so fun and interesting that I find a place for them in my story.
You don’t have to just do this in a cafe either. On a sunny day, I’ll go out and sit on the field of my local park, armed with a book, and sprawl out under a nice shady tree. When I’m travelling, I’ll take the time to look around the bus, train or plane and consider why the other travellers may be going in the same direction as me. If it’s descriptions I want to improve on, I may think about how I would describe someone in front of me in my own words. The whole world can be your inspiration if you let it be.
Try personality quizzes for your characters.
For this one, I recommend the 16 Personalities quiz. This idea works twofold in my opinion: not only do you gain a better understanding of what kind of personality your character has through the classification on the quiz, but you also learn to answer questions from their point of view and therefore empathise with them better. Filling out good personality quizzes, naturally, enables you to gain a better insight into how your characters interact with one another. This particular quiz can be really useful because it goes into detail about the different personality types. You can learn about their strengths and weaknesses and how they function in friendships, relationships, families, parenthood and at work. If you’re willing to pay extra, it will even tell you how different personality types interact with one another – something that’s really interesting and useful if you do the quiz for multiple characters.
Well, then! Those are all the tips I can think of to help you shorten your writer’s block and prepare to get straight back into writing once you’re ready. You don’t have to take all of the tips on board, but it sure can help you overall if you consider one or two of them. The most important advice I can give you is don’t get frustrated. You’ll get back into it! Getting angry at yourself just makes it more difficult to get the motivation to write, so just go with the flow! Happy writing!