writer’s block

The debate on the existence of writer’s block is as long as it is tedious. There are those who would argue that it’s nothing more than an excuse for laziness but if you’re a writer, you’ll know these people and that statement are wrong. Yes, we all make excuses from time to time. When I sit down to write, I am often overcome with the urge to organise my entire music collection or—horror of all horrors—partake in housework. This is called procrastination, a term I’m sure you’re overly familiar with.

 

Writer’s block, on the other hand, is an entirely different beast.

 

And when it comes to defeating it, Google offers up a plethora of articles claiming to solve your dilemma. However, most articles will offer up poetic overarching statements like ‘let go of your fears’ and ‘forget about your expectations’. Now, there’s nothing wrong with this. It’s actually good advice. But it’s vague as all hell.

 

By all means, DO let go of expectations and fear and doubt and worry; these things will only hold you back and cause you to censor yourself. But if you truly want to kick-start your creativity again after a period of inactivity, arming yourself with a few specific, practical tips is perhaps the best way forward.

 

Here are six practical things I do to trick myself out of writer’s block:

 

1. Cut distractions.

Put every device (including the one you’re using to write) on Airplane mode. Make your writing the ONLY thing in front of you and force yourself to put one word in front of the other. Even if you ignore the rest of this list, this tip alone can get the ball rolling. The internet is built to distract us. Shut it out. (And no—doing ‘research’ does not qualify as writing.)

 

2. Hit fast forward instead of pause.

If you’re stuck on a chapter, jump ahead; you can always come back to the previous one. If the idea of this rattles your nerves and you absolutely MUST write in order, simply jump ahead within the scene. This may sound unhelpful but the difference it can make might surprise you. The beginning of a new scene plays havoc with my perfectionist’s brain so I avoid the pressure of constructing a perfect opening and skip it altogether. The ellipsis is your friend. Just add dot dot dot, hit enter, and write the first few words that come to mind. Keep going. Add an ellipsis every time you hesitate and focus only on the bits that are clear to you. By the time you reach the end of your scene, you’ll have found your writerly groove and will fill in those gaps with ease.

 

3. Write badly.

Give yourself permission to suck. Much like dancing like no one is watching, writing without censorship or editing of any kind will tap into your creative well. No author writes a perfect first draft. Write with abandon—write with the knowledge that the only pair of eyes to lay sight on this travesty will be yours. Use ALL the adverbs. Write monotonous drivel. Throw in XXX when real words fail you. Just tell the story. THEN go back and fix it.

 

4. Check that outline.

An outline is your map in the story wilderness. Just as you wouldn’t go on a trip without first finding out how to get there, don’t set yourself up for extra work and brain ache by skipping this important step. Story is important but knowing the structure and having a clear timeline of events by which to tell that story will save you a world of pain. I get it. I used to be one of those people who thought that writing a rigid and detailed guide would hinder creativity. It didn’t. And an outline doesn’t have to be rigid OR detailed. It can be as flimsy as you like. It can be as simple as listing the main events of your book. You can leave the ending wide open if that better suits your purpose and technique. But regardless of how much work you do or don’t put into the outline, having one will help you when you find yourself stuck or lost. And if you don’t already have an outline, make one. (Scrivener is perfect for this.)

 

5. Outline the current scene.

Like a micro version of everything I mentioned in the last tip, outlining on a smaller scale has helped me battle my way through stubborn scenes. Bullet-point everything. You know where your character was last seen and what she was last seen doing. So what happens next? Your main outline should tell you as much or perhaps you’re winging it. Either way, once you know where she is to be seen next, bullet point your way through each step she must take. This might sound like a stupid or redundant move but it does help. With the main course of action in place, it becomes surprisingly easier to fill in the gaps and flesh everything out.

 

6. Read.

This final tip might seem like a bit of a cheat. Reading won’t increase your word count. At least, not directly. Sometimes though, we really do need a timeout from our writing projects. By using that timeout wisely—by reading, for instance—you’re refilling your creative well. It does work. I’m still constantly surprised when something as simple as a well-constructed sentence in a book will spark a new train of thought for my own work. Or sometimes, after finishing a beautiful story, I’m compelled and once again inspired to redouble my writing efforts. By no means should you ever wait for this inspiration—but if all else fails, and you’ve been sentenced to the writing bench, reading another author’s work will fire things up again. Writing requires imagination and there is no better way to develop and nurture and harness your imagination than by reading.

 

These tips have worked for me, time and time again, and I hope they might prove useful to others. I’d love to know what other methods actually work for the rest of you. Leave a comment and let me know your personal tricks for beating writer’s block.

writing tips i wish i'd known on day one

We’ve seen them all, haven’t we? I’d need as many hands as a centipede has legs to count how many writing tips I’ve encountered and pondered over. Some were helpful; others weren’t. Most of what I know about writing I learnt from reading obsessively and spending an insane amount of time writing absolute garbage. Practice is vital: nothing makes for a better writer than writing itself—but still, even at the risk of adding to the mighty sea of advice, here are five of my own writing tips that I wish I’d known from day one.

 

Treat it like a real job.

Give your writing the time, effort, and respect as you would any other job. Show up or get fired. Develop a schedule. Stick to a routine. Write on a regular basis. Whether that’s a few hours in the morning before your day has begun or late at night when everyone else has ‘left the building’. Find what works for you. COMMIT. Treating it the way you’d treat a paid 9-5 job will beget dedication. The difference is this is something you’ve chosen because you are presumably passionate about it. Let that motivate you.

 

Use everything as research material.

I mean EVERYTHING. Had your heart broken? Lost a job? Grieving a loss? Been depressed? Harness that raw emotion and make it bow to your will. Draw on those experiences—the good and the bad (especially the bad)—and douse your writing with real and complex situations and reactions. This raw aspect of the human experience will make your story immersive and compelling, resonating with readers.

 

Forget the Muse.

It’s romantic as fuck to imagine ourselves as struggling artists. Like Shakespeare living by his pen, waiting for the beguiling Muse to whisper iambic verse into his ear. But Shakespeare likely knew the score—he was prolific as all hell. And to be a prolific, consistent, full-time writer means giving the Muse the middle finger—she’s tardy and unreliable. YOU’RE the writer. You’re the one that has to put in the hours and get the job done. Don’t wait for inspiration. Go and grab it by the balls.

 

Finish what you start.

We’re writers. We’re idea MACHINES. No sooner have we started one shiny new project do we have another idea beckoning at our writerly door. Ignore it. Tell it you’re not home. Send it to voicemail. Seriously. Ideas are brilliant but they’re a dime a dozen. They’re easy to come by. You know what isn’t easy to come by? A finished novel. So get writing. Create an idea bank and store that shit up. Treat it like a savings account and only dip in when you need to. When you’ve started a shiny new project, commit to it. Hell, marry it! And be faithful. See it through. Otherwise, you’ll end up with fifty-two incomplete files of three-chapter books, all of which have lost their sparkle. Completion is key.

 

Do it your way.

Yes, there are approximately 49 trillion rules out there for writing. By all means, learn some of them. But by no means do you HAVE to adhere to them. Do whatever works for you and for the story you have to tell. Then perfect it. Outside of grammar, punctuation, being well-read, and having a fierce grasp of language, there is no real rule to the art of self-expression.

 

What writing tips have worked for you? Which of them will you never get on board with? Let me know in the comments.

The Successful Author Mindset by Joanna Penn

GENRE: Non-Fiction | PAGES: —

My rating: ★★★★★

The Successful Author Mindset is as insightful as it is inspiring. It is so inspiring in fact, that it might actually be a hug disguised as a book. It’s also a treasure trove of quotes from other writers and professionals that’ll make you feel as though you’re doing something right if only because you resonate with the things they say. (There are days when this is all I can hang on to.)

“I’m afraid of failing at whatever story I’m writing—that it won’t come up for me, or that I won’t be able to finish it.” — Stephen King

More than that, though, The Successful Author Mindset is, as the title suggests, a book that maps out and offers guidance on some of the inner pitfalls of writer life—common writer problems such as the need for validation, creative block, and the infamous champion of them all: self-doubt. Along with well-selected quotes from other creatives, each topic is also accompanied by an excerpt from the author’s personal journals, documenting her thoughts, before moving on to an antidote that might help others to move past these problems.

Joanna Penn’s advice has always been my go-to in terms of the helpful writing and marketing tips she freely shares on her website The Creative Penn. But this book is not a book of tips. Instead, this is a (much-needed) look at the journey of a writer—and the inevitable trials along the way.

We have to learn to self-validate, to understand that the writing process is the point, rather than the reception of our work or the rewards that may or may not come. We need to nourish ourselves with the practice of creation. — Joanna Penn

I’d recommend this to any writer feeling the strain of self-doubt or the fear of failure. Some of us are lucky enough to be confident about ourselves and the work we create. For the rest of us, thankfully, there are books like this one.

 

See all reviews

 

 The Successful Author Mindset

 

Being a writer is not just about typing. It’s also about surviving the roller-coaster of the creative journey. Self-doubt, fear of failure, the need for validation, perfectionism, writer’s block, comparisonitis, overwhelm, and much more. When you’re going through these things, it can feel like you’re alone. But actually, they are part of the creative process, and every author goes through them too. This book collects the mindset issues that writers experience, that I have been through myself over the last nine years, and that perhaps you will experience at different times on the creative journey. Each small chapter tackles a possible issue and then offers an antidote, so that you can dip in and out over time. It includes excerpts from my own personal journals as well as quotes from well-known writers. I hope it helps you on the road to becoming a successful author.

how do I become a writer

What’s the best thing about being a writer?

My serious answer to this is that there’s nothing more fulfilling than doing what you love. My REAL answer is that there’s nothing more fulfilling than having a job where ‘pyjamas-all-day’ is practically required.

 

Why a writer?

It was never really about choosing to be a writer. I simply am one. I grew up in love with books and words and began writing my own stories as far back as I can remember. The only part I ever really chose was deciding to follow my passion and then dedicating myself to it.

 

Where do you get your ideas?

Everywhere. I don’t know if it’s a writer thing or a personality thing—maybe a little of both, but I find ideas for stories everywhere. From big life events and drama and dreams to people-watching from my third-floor flat window and eavesdropping during public transport ‘adventures’. Books are an endless source of inspiration. You should never, under any circumstances, copy the work of other writers, but reading books will undoubtedly spark a thought or an idea, and the wonderful notion of ‘what if’ will help that idea grow into something original and unique to you. The ideas are easy. There are perhaps too many ideas flitting around in my head. The more difficult part is knowing which idea is good enough to pursue. Which one is good enough to make a story worthy of the reader. Usually, it’s the idea that never leaves. If you can’t stop thinking about it; if it haunts your days and keeps you awake at night; if you feel yourself bursting with the need to get the story out of you—that’s the idea worth writing about.

 

Why did you self-publish?

In two words: Creative control.

Long answer: There is a plethora of content around, discussing the pros and cons of traditional vs. self-publishing. As far as I can see, there is no right or wrong path. It is as personal as writing is. For me, after months of research, I opted for the path that would allow me to keep my book rights, give my book an unlimited ‘shelf life’, and give me control over content, cover choices, and deadlines. And the biggest bonus of all? Time. The instantaneous wonder of self-publishing is the perk to end all perks, allowing writers to share their work with readers as soon as it is ready, with no gatekeeper deciding where and when or even if.

 

How do I become a writer?

Simple. Just write.

As Neil Gaiman said, it’s one word after another until it’s done. It’s that easy, and that hard.

Reading any and everything you come across is a necessity—how else will you ever know what makes a good story (and a bad one)? Classes and lessons on writing can be helpful but reading is fun, free, easy, and irreplaceable. Books are your most valuable tool and any writer worth his or her salt will tell you this. Reading will help broaden your experience, your vocabulary, and your appreciation for what makes a good book just that. However, the single most important thing I believe you need is: perseverance. It is what I lacked in the early stages. It’s why it took me so long to finish writing a single book. Free tip? Never wait for inspiration to come knocking on your door. Inspiration will not plop you in front of your computer and dictate word after word. More than half the time, inspiration (fickle bastard that it is) doesn’t bother showing up until you do. Relying on a creative muse is a sure-fire way to prolong your work process. It just doesn’t work. What does work is mustering the self-motivation to show up, do the work, and keep going. Keep going until you reach the very end of a single project, even when your muse is missing in action. Even when other ideas are beckoning—jot them down and file them away for later. Even when you’re knee-deep in housework and errands—it will all still be there when you’re done writing. Even when your spouse is wondering why there’s baked beans on toast for dinner, again. He’ll live.

When the idea of writing or editing has become your personal hell—and it will—as you read your manuscript for the twentieth time, remember: let nothing or no one deter you from your goal, especially yourself. Self-doubt is a part of the job description, and whilst often crippling, use it to your advantage instead and strive for improvement. Just keep going.

 

How do I self-publish?

Research, research, research. It’s the only way to truly know if self-publishing is the right path for you. If it is, thecreativepenn.com is a great resource for starting out, with everything from self-publishing tips to establishing your brand and marketing.

I use Scrivener for writing but there’s also a built-in function for exporting your finished manuscript as Mobi, ePub, Docx, and PDF files, which you’ll need to publish your work as an e-book and paperback. There are plenty of options other than Scrivener for this, some of which are free, like Reedsy, but I can’t fault the Scrivener software. 

Whilst publishing my first book, I found thebookdesigner.com to be a handy collection of articles on formatting the Docx file before converting to PDF, with brilliant tips on gutter margins, headers, pagination, and front- and back-matter. Even if you think you already know everything there is about good ol’ Microsoft Word, these articles will still prove useful for learning about the standard and correct layout of a paperback book (there was a hell of a lot more to it than I ever thought possible).

Canva and Gimp are brilliant free tools for DIY cover design. Always check copyright when using images—Creative Commons images are your friend. Pixabay is just one of the many sites with Creative Commons images for cover work, which do not need attribution and/or are free for commercial use. There are several paid sites featuring stock photography too, but this depends on your budget. If you can afford it, hiring a professional cover artist is highly recommended.

Self-publishing is a lot of work (and don’t get me started on marketing!) but it is ultimately rewarding, and since I didn’t have any budget to speak of to hire professional help, my bonus is the sense of achievement for having done it all myself. Eventually.

 

Is it all worth it?

More than I could ever imagine. Doing something you love is always worth it and overcoming the inevitable obstacles on the way makes the reward that much sweeter.

 

Will it make me rich?

You’re in the wrong industry. If you’re looking to get rich, look elsewhere. Writers hardly ever strike it rich, especially in the beginning. The outliers like traditionally published Rowling and King or the self-published authors, like Hugh Howey and Amanda Hocking, took years to build what they have, and even then, there’s no guarantee of becoming like them in terms of monetary gain. That’s not to say it won’t happen. No one can predict the success of a book or its author. Rather than paying attention to market trends, I try to focus instead on crafting the best version of the story I want to tell, staying true to myself and that story, firmly believing (if a little naïvely) that if a book is engaging, and you have discovered some means of promotion, your work will eventually find an audience.

If you’re truly in this for the joy of writing, the riches are in the form of knowing your stories are reaching and resonating with readers. For me, that’s the real success. Everything else is frosting on an already delicious cake.

 

Recommended reading for writers:

On Writing by Stephen King
How to Write a Novel by Nathan Bransford
Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott

Recommended websites for writers:

Nathan Bransford
The Creative Penn – Joanna Penn
The Book Designer – Joel Friedlander
Nick Stephenson
Jane Friedman
Anne R Allen
Jenna Moreci

 

“I would advise anyone who aspires to a writing career that before developing his talent he would be wise to develop a thick hide.”

—Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird

 

ON WRITING BY STEPHEN KING

GENRE: MEMOIR | PAGES: 367

My rating: ★★★★

Stephen King   has the writer’s toolbox of tips to end all toolboxes, all tips, and then some. He doesn’t offer the vague and generic bullsh*t like most how-to books do. Instead, On Writing is packed with insightful, and more importantly, practical guidelines on how to improve your writing craft. He doesn’t beat around the bush, he doesn’t sugarcoat sh*t; what he does is gives it to you straight, and he insists that as a writer, you should be aiming to do the same for your readers. The theme of faithful storytelling, of truth, runs through this book and all of the advice therein. As far as storytelling is concerned, there is no black and white—only story—and it is the writer’s job to tell it.

This book is one of those books you wish you’d read ten years ago. There are moments in here where you read something and think: ‘Holy crap! I do that!’, and for a second, it occurs to you that you must be doing something right, if only because it’s happened to Stephen bloody King. And if that doesn’t get you going, there’s this:

“Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work.”

That’s the kick up the a** we ALL need, right?

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft has become my dog-earred, thumbed-to-death reference/guidebook/bible. I haven’t read this just once—I’ve read multiple passages a thousand times over—and I doubt there will ever be another book on writing worthy enough to replace it. If there’s just ONE book you read on the craft, make it this one.

Needless to say, Stephen King has a new worshipping fan to add to his sky-high haystack. That dude rocks. (Now I just wish I had the balls to read his fiction. One day… *determined head-bob*)

“So okay—there you are in your room with the shade down and the door shut and the plug pulled out of the base of the telephone. You’ve blown up your TV and committed yourself to a thousand words a day, come hell or high water. Now comes the big question: What are you going to write about? And the equally big answer: Anything you damn well want.”
—Stephen King

 

See all reviews

 

 On Writing Stephen King book cover

 

On Writing: A Memoir is an autobiography and writing guide by Stephen King, published in 2000. It is a book about the prolific author’s experiences as a writer. Although he discusses several of his books, one doesn’t need to have read them or even be familiar with them to read On Writing.

How to Write a Novel by Nathan Bransford

GENRE: NON FICTION | PAGES: 236

My rating: ★★★★

How to Write a Novel: 47 Rules for Writing a Stupendously Awesome Novel That You Will Love Forever is a no-introductions-necessary guide to (… wait for it…) writing a novel; a frill-less, uncluttered collection of straightforward tips and advice on the entire process of book-writing. From the beginnings of that record-breaking awesome idea that just popped into your writerly brain in the shower—right through to the air-punching end when you’re too glad to rid yourself off the stupid sleep-stealing, sanity-crushing THING posing as a would-be book. (Love. Hate. Thin line.)

‘Writing is not always fun. It shouldn’t always be fun. You’re not doing it because it’s always fun. The only reason to write a novel is because you have some insane fire burning inside that years of therapy have been unable to extinguish, and you fear how disappointed you will be with yourself if you never do it. Or, you know, because you really, really want to do it. You have to want it. You have to work at it.’
Nathan Bransford

Nathan Bransford‘s blog has been a writing bible of sorts to me since first stumbling across it. So the idea of THIS? A whole BOOK that combines his stellar advice and humour in a writerly collection of rules? 

Yes, please!

Whether you’re merely entertaining the idea of starting to write (you fool!), or you’re already off and running (I don’t hate you, I promise), this book is a happy, helpful must-read.

I’m presently coming to the end of the Revision Fatigue zone of my long one-book journey, (otherwise known as Rewriting Chapter One #792), but having read How to Write a Novel, it’s comforting to know that everything up to this point in my journey is, as far being as a writer is concerned, completely normal. Even the ‘borderline psychopathy’. 

Just kidding…

(I’m not kidding.)

‘There will come a time in the course of writing a novel where you would rather rip off your toenails and light them on fire than write one more word. This is normal.’Nathan Bransford

Bottom line:
If you are a writer…
If you want to be a writer…
If you used to be a writer, but your half-formed manuscript tortured you into the pits of despair…
this book is for you.

It offers up a plethora of insightful information, and honest, useful, realistic advice. This is easily one of my favourite books on the craft, and with good reason. 

 

See all reviews

 

How to Write a Novel

 

The most important thing to know about writing a novel is this: You can do it. And if you’ve already written one, you can write an even better one. Author and former literary agent Nathan Bransford shares his secrets for creating killer plots, fleshing out your first ideas, crafting compelling characters, and staying sane in the process. Read the guide that New York Times bestselling author Ransom Riggs called “The best how-to-write-a-novel book I’ve read.

How to Be a Woman by Caitlin Moran

GENRE: Humour, Non-fiction | PAGES: 312

My rating: ★★★★★

“So here is the quick way of working out if you’re a feminist. Put your hand in your pants.
a) Do you have a vagina? and
b) Do you want to be in charge of it?
If you said ‘yes’ to both, then congratulations!
You’re a feminist.”

Moran is witty and clever and candid. Easily one of my new favourite books, How To Be a Woman is a must-read!

Read it! Read it now! NOW!

 

See all reviews

 

  How to Be a Woman

 

Though they have the vote and the Pill and haven’t been burned as witches since 1727, life isn’t exactly a stroll down the catwalk for modern women. They are beset by uncertainties and questions: Why are they supposed to get Brazilians? Why do bras hurt? Why the incessant talk about babies? And do men secretly hate them? Caitlin Moran interweaves provocative observations on women’s lives with laugh-out-loud funny scenes from her own, from adolescence to her development as a writer, wife, and mother.