Does this door beg you to open it? Are you curious what’s behind it? When I came across this door in a hidden corner of the library in a Scottish castle, I was intrigued. I turned the handle, but… Alas, it was locked.
Sigh… So I didn’t get to see inside. My imagination conjured up a secret stone staircase that led down, down, down to the dungeon deep underground (and yes, I did get to see the dungeon). Who knows? Maybe my invented spiral staircase was more exciting than what really lies behind that door. It could be a dusty, old broom closet. Or a safe to hide treasures from prying eyes.
I consider each doorway I see as a gateway for my imagination. You never know where that door will lead. Like all authors of middle grade novels, I need those doorways to jumpstart my creativity and imagination, and to invent stories.
What happens, though, when you struggle to come up with ideas or get stuck partway through a book you’re writing? I’ve found these methods helpful in beckoning the muse to return:
1. ) Do something mindless. Many writers say taking a shower, washing dishes, or taking a walk can help. I’ve found sewing on buttons, scrubbing the sliding door track with a toothbrush, or pulling out the toilet bowl brush (just the act of picking it up; no need to actually use it) all make me long to get back to writing.
Seven Stories, England
2. ) Sit in a new place. Changing your point of view can free the creative side of the brain. Would sitting in this chair do the trick? You can alter your setting by moving to a different place in your home or office. Or get out of your rut and go someplace unusual. Try a bookstore, library, coffee shop, park, or bus station. Eavesdrop, people watch, and take notes.
3. ) Use your other creative abilities. Even if you feel don’t have special talents, experiment with painting pictures, playing an instrument, dancing, etc. Any creative activity can stimulate the flow of ideas and help your writing.
4. ) Play. Have fun. Try acting out scenes, putting on costumes, using props. Have a sword fight. Be a princess, a knight, a dragon. Save the world. Escape from prison. Fly on a magic carpet. When you return to your writing, you’ll have some magical experiences to record.
5. ) Write something else. It should be a totally different project, a new genre, a journal entry, a letter. Or opt to skip the section or chapter you’re supposed to be writing. Go to the middle or the end of the book and write a scene. Choose whatever spot makes you feel energetic and excited. Writing a random scene or section will not only increase your word count, but often it will provide an incentive for finishing the earlier parts.
6. ) Take advantage of brain fog. Often the most creative time of day is when you first awaken, while you’re still in a hazy state. Writing from that state often makes you more productive. If it’s too late in the day for that, take a nap. Even a short cat nap will help.
7. ) Switch point of view. Tell the story or the chapter through a secondary character’s eyes. You can choose to keep it, insert it later in the story, or discard it. You might discover the new narrator is a better choice and rewrite. Another trick is to switch from third person to first, or vice versa.
8. ) Use a dictionary or random book. Pick up a book or a dictionary, and with your eyes closed, open it and point. Use the word or phrase you’re pointing to began writing randomly, then find a way to insert it into your work-in-progress.
All of these can help you come up with some fresh ideas or start a new project, but what about the dreaded writer’s block? The kind that totally makes you freeze. What can you do if you’re partway through a project and get stuck and none of the simple methods above work?
One of the main reasons for writer’s block is FEAR. It may be a voice in the back of your head whispering, “You’re not good enough,” or “No one will want to read this.” These warnings come from feelings of inadequacy. A related problem is perfectionism. You worry about making mistakes or doing things wrong. And although many writing books encourage you to write horrible first drafts, it’s not easy for those of us who are perfectionists to lower our standards enough to put anything less than our best on paper. And then we worry our best isn’t good enough.
All of these fears pale in comparison to the BIG, HIDDEN FEAR, the one that causes long-term writer’s block. The FEAR OF EXPOSURE. Often when you’re blocked, it’s because your facing a part of the story you don’t want to write because it’s too scary, too private, too gut-wrenching to deal with.
This is actually the best block of all because it means what you write is going to be real, raw, personal. You’re exposing yourself on the page, you’re digging into deep emotions. This is a painful process, so your mind tries to avoid it by blocking your writing. If you can move past this block, you’ll do some of your most powerful writing.
A few exercises that work best for overcoming this block are:
9. ) Try visual journaling. Open an unlined journal or sketchbook, or take two blank pieces of paper. Also get some markers, crayons, or oil pastels in a variety of colors. Close your eyes and ask yourself where in your body you’re feeling that fear. Once you’ve gotten in touch with it, open your eyes, and draw whatever comes to mind. It doesn’t have to be a picture; it can be random scribbles. As soon as you’ve finished, pick up a pen and freewrite whatever comes to mind, whatever the drawing brought up. You can do it a few more times if needed, but usually once will unblock the deepest fears.
10. ) Write about a childhood smell. Close your eyes and remember a smell from when you were young. Try to flesh out the picture in your mind. What memories does it bring up? When you open your eyes, write about the experience without taking the pen from the paper. Keep going until you’ve explored all the thoughts, connections, and memories. Then ask how this experience connects with your book, and do another freewriting exercise.
11. ) Write a letter to your character or vice versa. Ask your book characters to explain why they’re refusing to act in your story. Or have your character ask you to explain why you won’t let him or her finish the story. Stream-of-consciousness writing can be a great help to unblocking you when you’re stuck.
These are only a few of the many techniques that can help to get your writing unstuck. We’d love to know what you do to come up with creative ideas or get past writer’s block. Please share them in the comments below.