Writer’s block? Writing something that doesn’t matter might help

Writer’s block gets between you and the page. It can be different things to different people: a crippling fear of writing something that isn’t good, a head as empty as the page you’re looking at or an inability to find the time to get started. Whatever it is, it stops you from writing.

Seth Godin wrote a post about writer’s block and how to get over it. In hsort, he writes that if the problem is that you’re worried what you’re writing is rubbish, then write more so that you get better. It is very good advice. Write something, just anything. If you free yourself from the demand of perfect quality, you allow yourself to learn and can enjoy the experience. Writing is a craft and one that can be mastered. With practice.

There are ways to get over writer’s block. Most of them involve writing something. NaNoWriMo works for me. It focuses on quantity not quality: it’s all about the words. Get huge amounts of words on the page and don’t allow yourself to edit what y0u’ve written, just charge on. Some sentences – maybe even paragraphs – will be good. Many will be rubbish but it doesn’t matter. Just doing it – writing – is tremendous fun.

You can also get weekly pushes through Write Anything. They post prompts for their Friday Writing challenge weekly. The challenge is really simple: look at the prompt and then write about it for five minutes. You don’t have to stop after the five minutes – keep going if you want. Again, much of what you write might be nonsense but it doesn’t matter. What matters is that you wrote something.

The more you write, the easier it gets. After working as a technical writer for over a decade I have no problems getting words on paper. My issue is finding kernels of a story I think is worth writing about. But I’ve learned to start, get going and just continue. Not everything I write is worth keeping or sharing but each effort makes the next one a little easier.

The art of plotting

I haven’t mastered plotting but I’m working hard to learn it. A lot of the time, I just take a character or a situation for a spin to see what happens: I improvise. When I write something longer I like to have an idea of where I’m going. I can only improvise for so long before I run out of steam and need directions. Or a map.

NaNoWriMo is getting closer. Last year, I had a character and took her for a spin. This year, I’m taking her and the world I created for her for a spin. But I want to write fewer moody words about walking through Edinburgh and more interesting words about Anna and the case she’s working on, so this time I need a map. And here it is.

NaNoWriMo2011 plan
Is this enough planning for 50,000 words? Well, it's more than I had last year.

Reading fiction for research

Last year I wrote a novel as part of NaNoWriMo. It was great fun and I produced many words. I’ve been editing it down into something that can be shared with people not my boyfriend ever since. As part of this process I’ve been doing research to make sure that I don’t lie more than necessary.

Research can be great fun. You learn a lot of interesting stuff. But only a fraction of what you learn will feed into the final story. Sometimes I research things and realise that none of what I’ve just learn needs to go in to the story. It’s like doing research for an academic essay: only in first year do you include everything you know. After that you do a lot of research that you don’t refer to. (Hurrah for bibliographies: you can show off in fiction writing too but most of the time no one cares. Unless you get it wrong.) But that’s for a different post.

A lot of my research has been in and around the type of novel I wrote last year. This means reading many, many books in the same genre. Yay, you might think, but no, it’s not all good. Urban fantasy, which is one name for what I wrote, is fairly popular at the moment. There’s a lot of books out there set in modern settings but with an alternative super-natural edge. I’ve found that there’s a particular type of this kind of fiction that I don’t love. It’s vampire fancier fiction.

It gets on my nerves

When I was 19 I fell in love with Lestat. When I was 23 I fell out of love with him again. Many years later I have completely lost interest in the problems of going out with a vampire and rather enjoy the kind of tales where there is no vampire romance or, indeed, no romance. (Gasp! According to the research I’ve just lost the female audience. Because we’re all the same.)

The spurious love story is one of my pet peeves. It irritates me equally in films and books.

What I read

Here’s a list of what I read as part of my research:

  • Ben Aaronovitch: Midnight Riot, Moon Over Soho
  • Brom: The Child Theif
  • Gail Carriger: Soulless
  • Larry Correia: Hard Magic, Monster Hunter International, Monster Hunter Vendetta
  • Laurell K. Hamilton: Anita Blake: Vampire Hunter (1-11)
  • Deborah Harkness: A Discovery of Witches
  • Charlaine Harris: Southern Vampires (1-11)
  • Kim Harrison: The Hollows (1-8)
  • Tobsha Learner: The Witch of Cologne
  • Malcolm Pryce: Aberystwyth Mon Amour
  • Phil Rickman: The Wine of Angels
  • Brandon Sanderson: The Final Empire

(Why are the H’s so very prolific?) Sometimes I go too far and read too much of what’s of no use to me, but there you go. I think I’ve had a fairly good grounding in contemporary urban fantasy and caught some steam punk and other genres too.

What I like

What I have found is that I have a European, and possibly male, sensibility. I get bored with descriptions of clothing and hair styles. Colour is good: I like background and texture, but there’s only so much detail that I want.

I like solid characters from a moral universe similar to mine. Overt religiosity, sexual squeamishness or intolerance irritates me. (Unless there’s a reason for it to be there.) My cultural upbringing shines through in my tastes: I’m northern European in my attitudes. This is what I learned by doing research into my genre. It wasn’t what I had expected to learn. My hope was to unlock the secret of a successful urban fantasy novel.

Maybe I did unlock the secret only to find that the ingredients bore me.

How do you go about having ideas?

So you want to write? Great. Provided that you have basic language skills and the tools for writing (be it pen and paper or a computer) there is nothing to stop you. You just need ideas, and off you go.


Ideas. Yeah, the kernels of a story, the bits and pieces that makes things happen: a full plot, a character or a situation. Something that intests you and makes you want to tell a story. It doesn’t all have to be brand new – there are only so many stories – but some of it must be.

So, how do you get ideas? Now there’s the rub… In my experience, one idea generates another. The problem is having those first few ideas that get you going. I’m trying to learn how that is done. Thinking seems to be part of it. Not obsessive “I need to have an idea” thinking – that kind doesn’t help at all. Rather the “waht if” kind of thinking.

“What if” thinking can be done anywhere. You’re in a queue waiting to pay for your morning paper. What if, as you were standing there, the cashier got eaten by a monster from beyond? What it your paper went up in flames? What if everyone in the shop fell down, died, turned out to be zombies, started speaking in a language you didn’t know..? Thinking what if when you’re doing something mundane won’t net you an interesting idea every time, but it will every now and again. To date, my most interesting ideas have come from tiny, banal events or observations. Life seeds inspiration.

Finding the peace to write

Ideas isn’t the only thing I sometimes have problems finding. Calm is another. I get off work and want to sit down and write but it’s easier said than down. Most people have impressive strategies for procrastination, faffing and “I’ll just…” that gets between them and doing what they want to do. Writing takes concentration so you need to get into the groove as quickly as possible.

Strategies for getting going

  1. Don’t write where you work.
  2. Avoid distractions:
    • Separate research from writing and close all internet browsers.
    • Turn the television off.
    • Tell your loved ones to leave you alone.
    • Don’t answer the phone.
  3. Avoid editing until the story is down.
  4. Just write. Any which way.

I write until I run down or get stuck. It’s probably not the best approach. Ernest Hemmingway wrote three hours every morning, I’m told, and stopped when he knew what was happening next and had a good flow so that he’d be eager to start again. That would work. I’ve not yet managed to stop when I’m mid-flow, though. It’s hard to stop when it’s going well.