Two days ago, I turned in a manuscript that I truly feared I would never finish. That has never happened to me before, and to have it happen when the final installment in a trilogy was DUE NOW, was as potentially disastrous as it was unacceptable.
Keep in mind that I am one of those people who does not subscribe to the belief that you must write every day; for me, forced writing does not always equal useable writing and can often times derail the story. I also believe that sometimes fallow periods and distance from our manuscripts are the best thing for them and those philosophies have served me well in the past. However, there are times when you simply have no choice.
My first option is always to try and coax the muse out to play, using music, collage, artist dates, whatever I think will work. But sometimes, she just isn’t coax-able. In this particular case, I think she was simply exhausted. And that’s okay, but as a writer with contracts and deadlines, I can’t always wait for her.
Here are eighteen tips I use to help me produce words when my creative muse packed up and left me, leaving no forwarding address. You can, in fact, get an entire book written this way, although it is not the most joyful of processes.
Some of the things on this list are about assembling the raw materials you will need to write the story. Others are about priming the writing pump to get the words flowing. Often, the suggestions will do both. But all of them are about building forward momentum and finding a way—any way—to get those damn words on the page.
I tend to think of them as the equivalent of hauling the bricks, bag of cement, mortar, etc. over to where I am going to build the wall, assembling all the things I will need. Sometimes, having them all there and ready provides motivational juice. Other times I still have to build brick by brick, but at least I don’t have to go hunting for all the parts.
And look! Just in time for NaNoWriMo!
1. Write in short bursts of 20-30 minutes or 500 words.
2. Take a short 10-15 minute walk. Bring a small notebook or recording device.
3. Even if you’re not an outliner see if you can at least find your story’s turning points. It is much easier to build drama and write across shorter distances and can seem more doable. Exploring either of the internal or external turning points can often produce scene ideas and help propel you forward.
External turning points are those moment when everything shifts for your character; surprises or twists are revealed; or the stakes suddenly become higher. (And if none of those happen, then brainstorm some immediately.)
Internal turning points—think about your character’s emotional arc, who she is at the beginning of the story and how she will be different at the end. Be sure there is enough there there, then look at the incremental steps she will need to take in order to achieve that emotional growth.
4. Assemble the story’s descriptive details and building blocks. Map out the world of your story so all the info you need will be there when you’re ready. Map of the word, the neighborhood, history of the players involved, floor plan of the castle, whatever. This is not procrastinating because at some point you will need to be grounded in the story logistics enough that you can block your scenes and character movements.
5. Journal your characters wounds and scars and early life traumas. Once your character is fleshed out more, you often get a better idea for the sorts of obstacles she will need to face in the story, which in turn creates dramatic events and scene ideas.
6. If your antagonist is not a POV character, consider writing a few short scenes from his POV anyway, just for your own benefit. Knowing what your antagonist is doing, thinking, planning often helps you understand what needs to happen next and what your protagonist will need to do.
7. Repeat the above for the love interest, especially if they are not a POV character. It gives you a better feel for the push/pull of the relationship dynamics.
8. Plot out the beats of the main romance/relationship. What characteristics/attributes/specific moments/personality details feed the attraction between the two characters. Writing them down will help you see what needs to be woven into the story and will often generate scene ideas.
9. Create character cards. This can be especially helpful for secondary characters and creates a wonderful shorthand to help you focus the way the character interacts with other people, which in turn can help provide scene momentum. Oftentimes just being reminded of character’s dominant traits and the way they move in the world can help get things started.
Take a 3 x 5 index card for each character with their name on the top: Baron Geffoy
List three characteristics for that person: jovial, opportunistic, nurses grudges.
Add a hidden core motivation for both his personality traits and actions: impotent
Next, list a handful of dominant physical features that will help you key into that character and can also act as tags to help anchor the reader:
pale read beard hides a weak chin,
blue eyes watery from too many evenings spent drinking wine,
Lastly, come up with two or three mannerisms the person uses:
stroking his beard,
rocking back on his heels
10. Assemble a list of physical actions for the story in general, individual scenes, and for each character. These physical actions characters perform are a great way to pull action into the scene—action you can then tweak to create DRAMATIC action and subtext. For example, let’s say one of your characters whittles wood to keep his hands busy whenever he is sitting still. If he does that enough times, at some point he can fumble the wood or drop it or the knife can slip and you won’t even have to tell the reader that he was surprised or perturbed by what just happened. How he whittles–slowly, vigorously, carelessly–will add depth of emotion and subtext to the scene. And really, there are thousands of everyday actions that can be used to give the scene some extra layering.
11. Write whatever scene is most vivid in your mind, regardless of where it will come in the book. I know this is hard for a lot of people, but sometimes those vivid scenes will provide story juice or clues or touchstones that we can then use to work back from. Yes, it does involve some scene stitching later on, but if you are on a deadline and that’s all you’ve got to work with, you sometimes can’t afford not to try it.
12. Assemble a book specific thesaurus. We all have words we overuse, and each manuscript has it’s own special set of words we use too often. Mysterious, dangerous, dark, compelling, whatever words you see coming up thematically in your work. Take some time and a really good thesaurus and fill your word well with new choices that you haven’t used or thought of before. (Not overly fancy words or those that force people to use dictionaries—this is more of a way to break out of your word rut.)
13. Scene sketching – This is a great tool for brainstorming a scene and getting some bare bones down that you can then fill in with more detail. You can pick one of these per scene or throw the full monty at it, depending on how utterly blank your mind is.
a) gather the descriptive details you will need for the scene, location, weather, clothing
b) block out the physical action and logistics of the scene
c) list what has to happen here—what is the reason the scene exists.
D) write the dialog only—as if you are listening in on a conversation—what can you hear the characters saying to one another.
14. Write transitions. These are those chunks of writing that propel the reader from one scene to the next or across time and space where nothing happens. It’s a great way to jump through swaths of time and keep moving. You also might find in the end that you don’t actually need anything there. It’s a great way to avoid boring daily accounting of characters’ activities and keep the story moving forward.
15. Switch into a telling mode if you need to. This allows you to ‘tell’ the story. You can then go back in and convert it to showing/action based scenes later but being able to ‘tell’ helps you keep moving forward.
16. Give yourself 10-15 minutes to research visuals for your scene—the location, the room, the clothing, a picture of what your character either looks like or expressions that convey the emotion she is feeling. Sometimes it can be easier to describe what we can actually see.
17. Pick five or six dramatic events that you know occur in your story. Take those moments and really dig deep, delving into your characters deepest layer of thoughts and feelings. Sometimes the story stalls out not due to lack of action, but because we don’t truly understand what our characters would be experiencing in the moment and how that would impact their future decisions and actions.
18. Turn off the internet. No, really. Just turn it off.
And there you have it! All my quick and dirty tricks for getting words on the page. What about you? Do you have any tricks you fall back on for getting the words to flow when your well is feeling dry?