With the end of the semester in sight, all my writer friends and I are eager for a break so we can have the chance to focus on our own work for a change. One thing that is sure to dampen my summer is struggling to find the right words to put my ideas into motion. Quite often I find myself staring at a blank screen with a good idea in mind to write about, but for some reason I just can’t. Unfortunately, this feeling seems to last for weeks at a time, and there are times I almost want to call it writer’s block, but I don’t want to use that term. Writer’s block is when you can’t think of anything to write. But this experience is more like a rut, like you’re stuck thinking about the right words to use for your great idea, not that you can’t come up with good content.
If you’re having trouble getting ideas down on the page, try going back to the basics of your story. Revisit the characters and the setting for a bit. Don’t critique yourself. Rather, try asking yourself questions about the characters and the settings, even if they might seem trivial. Exploring a story can always potentially open up doors you didn’t even see before. I did this recently with one of the characters in a story. I was really looking at who he was and what he meant to my protagonist and I realized that he was doing too much as a character. I was stuck because his character was in the way sometimes, yet useful in the next chapter. Then I got the crazy idea that I could split him into two different and new characters. This really helped to clear up the confusion and road blocks the original character was giving me. I liked his personality and he had relevance to the plot, but not in the most useful way. I quickly drafted a quick bio for both of the new characters and found they were both pieces I was missing for my story. The important part here was that I wasn’t criticizing my work or looking for errors. I was looking for what wasn’t working and what was getting in my way of telling a great story. Sometimes you might have to cut things out, but other times you might want to explore areas that you haven’t considered yet.
There’s a lot of ideas that I come up with that don’t even make it into the rough draft, and I’m left with little short stories or scenes just floating around that I haven’t even tried to write. Just because they won’t make it into the draft or the published version, that doesn’t mean you can’t write them. If you’re stuck in a rut, what’s the harm? You would otherwise just be staring at a blank screen anyways. During this time, I like to write about the things that are off-screen, like maybe a wild dinner conversation, or someone’s birthday party. Exploring these scenes or side stories can help me get a different perspective on my characters, or it might end up revealing something useful to me that I can use in my actual draft. Not only that, put side stories can turn into short stories. Some characters are the disappearing and reappearing kind, and sometimes I make a side story for them and what they’re up to when they disappear. It could be something simple, like what a side character did on their spring break.
Listening to music is another great way to get ideas. Sometimes they inspire new ideas, or they can help revitalize your creativity on a current or old project. I like to build different playlists for different stories that I work on. Depending on your taste or how picky you are for each playlist, this could take a while, but if you have the time to do this it does help create an atmosphere that is unique to your story. The unique atmosphere helps me stay focused on what kind of characters or world I want to create. This really helps me get in the writing zone, even when I’m not at my desk. I listen to my story playlists when I’m at work sometimes, and so I think about my characters, the plot, or I might troubleshoot some plot holes or things that I haven’t explained quite enough. Music can help in other ways too. Sometimes just finding the right song and listening to the words carefully can cause a new spark of inspiration. I’ve gotten interesting ideas from songs, and I have a friend that had an idea for a whole new book series just by listening to one Gorillaz song.
A new technique I’ve been trying is to re-read books or stories that I’ve already read. Since I’m not a fan of writing in books, I use loose leaf paper and fold it so the ink is facing in, or I use sticky notes. When I re-read a story I analyze it for what works and why, not for things like theme or diction. I don’t plan or write a paper about it. I just want to take the story apart and look at the pieces as individual elements to the story, to see if there’s a unique quality about them that made them enjoyable. Since it’s something I’ve already read, I’m not distracted by the plot, and so it’s easier to see the work the author put in and appreciate the little nuances that add up to give the story a complete feel to it. I ask myself things like “in what way did the author tell this story that made it unique and fun to read?” Then I think about the answers and see if I can put my own twist on them.
Any and all of these ways have helped me in the past when I got stuck in a rut. I try my hardest not to critique my work. That’s what editors are for. Instead of thinking of what went wrong with a story, I try to think about how to re-work it in order to make the story progress and develop.