When all the planning is done, or even if you prefer to write by the seat of your pants, you still need to find ways to beat the blank page and put words on paper. Find out how to overcome writers’ block and get your story written. (TW: This post contains foul language.)
This is the final piece in a 6-part blog series based on writing workshops called Chasing Your Tale: Building Your Writer’s Toolkit offered through the SheHive. “The SheHive exists to facilitate connection and growth for women seeking to live a life on the other side of should.” The Chasing Your Tale workshop will return in January. In the meantime, check out our weekly write-ins for National Novel Writing Month.
“Come at writing any way but lightly. Let me say it again: you must not come lightly to the blank page.”Stephen King, On Writing
Getting Past Your FFT
If this is your first time sitting down to write, you may have had this idea bubbling inside you for years. Maybe someone keeps telling you “you should write a book.” But the worry that you will screw it up keeps you from actually getting started. You are terrified that you won’t be any good once you begin. Inspirational speaker Brené Brown calls this the “Fucking First Time” (FFT) or Terrible First Time if you’re working with kids.
Identifying an FFT is a strategy to overcoming the terror of the unknown. It acknowledges that anything new is hard and that we face emotional inertia against that thing that we have never done before. Overcoming the fear connected to an FFT involves four steps:
- Name it. Call out the fear, shame, and confusion for what it is. “Oh, I recognize this. I’m in an FFT.”
- Normalize it. Acknowledge that, “This is exactly how ‘new’ is supposed to feel” – scary, wobbly, uncertain, and awkward.
- Put it in perspective. Recognize that being on unsteady ground about your new project doesn’t mean that you are no good, or that you aren’t thriving in other areas of your life. “I’m still new at this, and that’s okay.”
- Reality check expectations. Be realistic with yourself, and your support team (family, friends, and fellow writers) about what’s going on. “This is harder than I thought, and it’s scary.” It’s okay if your project is going to take twice as long and 10 times as much work as you thought it would.
As a writer, it’s especially important for you to reality check expectations with external partners, like your family, roommates, or kids. Writing happens mostly in your head. Closing yourself away for hours at a time can be confusing for those around you. By being transparent about what’s happening, and you are feeling, you can get the external support you need to keep writing.
Building a Writing Habit
When I was in college, my writing professor, aptly named William Penn, advocated writing every day. At the time, I didn’t take that advice seriously. After all, weekends and time off are important too, right? They are, but so is developing a writing habit, and that doesn’t come without setting aside consistent and intentional time to write. And that means creating cues for yourself that now is the time to put words on the page
When, Where, and How Should You Write?
Creating a writing habit depends on establishing a routine that wakes up your muse (and your fingers) and makes space for the words to find their way to the page. This includes:
- Time of Day: Writing when you are most creative (not after a long day at the office has drained the life out of you)
- Inspiration: Surrounding yourself with sensory stimulus that reminds you of your work, like vision boards, playlists, or essential oils.
- Avoiding Distractions: Shut out whatever will distract you from your writing. Close your door. Shut down your browser. Silence your phone and just write. If you need to look up a detail, write [FCK] (for fact-check) and keep going.
- Comfort & Snacks: Don’t give your body excuses to distract you. Feed it, water it, and give it lots of layers. Don’t leave the page unless you have to.
- Sprints & Breaks: Alternate periods of focus and relaxation. Push to write as much as you can in 10, 15, or 25-minute sprints, followed by a 5 minute break. (Don’t forget to focus on something far away during that break to relieve eye strain!)
- Daily Goals: Be intentional about each writing session by setting a goal. Give yourself small successes to celebrate. These could be word counts, time spent, or content-driven (i.e. finish this scene).
6 Strategies to Beat the Blank Page
Ultimately, the best way to defeat writer’s block is to come at the blank page with an arsenal of approaches that you can try. When it feels like you are pushing words through a sieve, stop, regroup, and come at it using a different strategy. Here are six tools for your writer’s toolbox:
- Situational Writing
- Stream of Consciousness Writing
- Rely on Your Prewriting
- Do Something Mindless
- Skip to the Fun Part
- Shitty First Drafts
Stephen King is the master of situational writing. A full-hearted “pantser”, he comes at each novel from the blank page.
“The situation comes first. The characters—always flat and unfeatured, to begin with—come next. Once these things are fixed in my mind, I begin to narrate.”Stephen King, On Writing
Think of situational writing like you are the director of a movie. You’ve got your situation (the set up), your actors (the characters), and their motivation (what are they trying to do). Put them all together and write down what happens.
Stream of Consciousness Writing
If you’re having trouble starting, a great strategy to beat the blank page is to write down your stream of consciousness for 3-5 minutes. Set a timer and hold yourself to it. During this time, do not let your pen (or fingers) stop moving. Write ANYTHING that comes to mind, even if it looks like “I’m supposed to be writing so I guess I’m writing about what I am supposed to be writing about…” If you start with the topic of your story in mind, eventually you should move on to some words about your characters, situations, or research that needs to be done, even if you don’t end up writing the story itself.
After the 3-5 minutes is up, go back and read what you wrote. Then spend another 2-3 minutes writing about how your stream of consciousness writing went:
- How did that writing make you feel?
- Did you uncover any new ideas while writing?
- Is there anything you need to investigate or decide?
Use this “loop” or retrospective writing to home in on topics for writing the story itself, or to identify pre-writing work you need to do before you get started.
Rely on Your Prewriting
Speaking of prewriting, remember all that work you did planning what you were going to write? The worldbuilding, character development, and plotting exercises you’ve been doing for the last several weeks? Now is your chance to use them! When you get stuck and aren’t sure where your story is taking you next, let your past self tell you what comes next by reviewing your prewriting notes for clues.
Do Something Mindless
Sometimes you do simply need to walk away from the page. If you’ve ever had “shower thoughts” or brilliant ideas on the toilet, at 3am, or while driving, you know that your subconscious keeps working on a problem even while your attention is elsewhere. You can use this to your advantage. If you get stuck, engage in some mindless physical activity to give your body something to do while your subconscious goes to work. Go for a walk, clean something, or take a shower. But don’t distract your brain while you do it: no podcasts, no browsing social media, no phone games. Busy your hands, not your mind, and give your subconscious time to work.
Skip to the Fun Part
Many new writers feel like they simply must write their stories in order. You don’t. There is no reason for you to limit yourself to what comes next chronologically (though if it works for you, do it! I’ve been a linear writer for years). Feel free to write that scene you’re excited about now, and then go back and put the boring bits in later. Don’t ignore your muse just because you haven’t “gotten there yet.” There’s no guarantee the ideas will still be there after you slog through all the other scenes. Who knows, you may just uncover something in the later scene that you want to foreshadow early on.
Shitty First Drafts
Maybe the most important tool to beating the blank page is giving yourself permission to write a shitty first draft. Don’t get hung up on perfection. Almost every writer has better taste than we do talent. That’s a natural consequence of reading more than we write. If you can’t think of a word, or don’t like the way a scene is playing out, write something down and move on. You can always come back and rewrite it later once your muse gets back from her coffee break. Remember: you can’t edit the blank page.
Find Someone to Write With
Even with all the best tips and tricks, writing is still a lonely business. If you truly want to commit to completing a draft and developing a writing habit, don’t do it alone. Find a writing group, pair up with an accountability partner, or attend a write-in to connect with other writers and push each other to the same goal. With all these tools in your writer’s toolbox, you are set up for success. Now go write.
Lisa J. Schmidt is a writer, owner of Your Law Geek, and facilitator of Chasing Your Tale: Building Your Writer’s Toolkit hosted by the SheHive in Ferndale, Michigan. If you are ready to get writing, attend one of her free weekly write-in events in November or contact Lisa directly here.