write on!

September 16th, 2010 | Category: writing

A student at the recent Brisbane Writers Festival asked me what he should do when he came to dead ends or flat spots in his writing.

The idea of ‘writer’s block’ is very common. But I don’t like the idea. I reject it. It sounds like a disease, or something you can’t avoid, something that can just land on your desk and bring everything to a screeching halt.

My writing background is in TV. There is no such thing as writer’s block there. There are just deadlines. And you’d better meet them, or no more scripts for you!

So I think there are times you don’t have great ideas, or times you don’t feel like writing, or times you don’t love what you write. But you can always write.

Here are my top four tips for avoiding the feeling that you’re stuck.

Sounds like a plan.
Write a rough plan for your writing project. This is equally helpful whether you are working on an essay, a short story, a script or a novel. Lots of people speak about planning as though it’s something very restrictive, or even uncreative. I love a plan. It holds my hand and reminds me where I think I should be heading. I give myself the freedom to change plans whenever I like, but the plan gives me the direction I need. A plan lets me write freely. I can choose to work on any part of it at any time. Projects that grind to a halt often do so because they are incomplete. A plan will show you the bits that might be missing.

Have a couple of projects on the go.
I think I read somewhere that Tim Winton used to do this. It’s a wonderful idea. When you feel stuck or stale on one project, move on and play with another one for a while. The fantastic thing about writing is that so much of it happens when you’re not thinking consciously about the work. So while you are busy focusing on one thing, your other projects are simmering along happily on the back burners.

Don’t be afraid of a totally crummy first draft.
Really, you could chew your way through a thousand pencils waiting for the first perfect line. Just start writing. (Straight after you’ve sketched out that plan.) Whatever you put on the page is better than nothing on the page. So much writing happens in the rewriting – the second or third drafts. So take it easy on yourself and don’t expect miracles immediately.

Be an observant reader.
There are so many ways to solve any problem. I can remember Helen Garner writing about writing years ago saying she would be working on something and wonder – how would Chekhov handle this? – and go away and do some reading. I’ve heard Paul Kelly say the same thing about song writing – choose a song you like and use it as a blueprint for writing your own song. If you feel a bit lost it’s often a good idea to take some time to read or reread something you think works really well, and ask why? how? and do any of these structures or strategies relate to my work?

So, I hope that’s helpful – and I’d love to hear about anyone else’s strategies to keep the ideas and words flowing.

8 responses to “write on!”

  1. DoctorDi says:

    Very wise and worthwhile tips, Fiona. I think that’s all *really* helpful. How do I stave off a block? I have an Ideas Box that I keep under my bed, into which goes absolutely anything that sparks an idea, or even just the merest unformed glimmer of one. I also have notebooks I keep in my bag into which I have scrawled any number of small observations and odd tangential thoughts.

    This is ironic given the forum, but I also think pulling out my internet connection is a good one, because I have a sneaking suspicion that ‘writer’s block’ is a euphemism for an acute case of procrastination!

    • fiona says:

      I couldn’t agree more about the internet, yes, notwithstanding the irony! My office doesn’t have a connection. So I have to wait till I get home for that particular brand of procrastination. I admire your recording and colllecting of ideas, and try with varying success to do the same but I’ve never been a good journal keeper and I’m very jealous of friends with piles of old diaries! In terms of staving off a block, I still think the idea of morning pages – a few pages of anything at all written upon first waking (Julia Cameron) – is a great way to keep the word sap fluid.

  2. DoctorDi says:

    Oh, that’s *definitely* my modus operandi, journal keeping – absolutely guilty as charged! You know, I hadn’t at all made the connection between that long-time habit and my little notebooks of incoherent scrawl, but you’re quite right, Fiona, they’re kissing cousins. Equally, that ‘turning up to work’ notion, just writing a few pages very first thing, I’ve always admired that from afar and thought it sounded like an excellent idea. It’s not how I work, but oh how I wish it was!

    • fiona says:

      So many different ways of working – and different ways for different times, too. And every piece of material is possible grist for the mill – as you noted during your big sorting and clearing out recently. Lucky you with the journals! For me morning pages were great when the kids were little – very early morning was often the only patch of clear time for writing.

  3. Amra Pajalic says:

    Great suggestions. Agree that writer’s block is more procrastination. I find I always have ideas, the problem is enthusiasm to sustain them. That’ where a few projects on the go come in handy. You’re always moving forward and feeling good about writing, while also having time to re-strategise.

    • fiona says:

      It’s true, isn’t it – maintaining the enthusiasm is the key – because you live with these manuscripts and books for such a long time.

  4. Robyn Bavati says:

    Great advice! It really does help to have a plan. It doesn’t have to be a complete plan – even a list of a few scenes yet to be written will do.

    • fiona says:

      Yes – I think plans can be as loose and light, or as detailed as you want. I’ve also heard of writers using the device of finishing the day’s writing by starting the next thing – next chapter, sentence or whatever – just so there is something already in train when they next sit down with the work.

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