Monday, April 12, 2010

How to Write When You Have Nothing to Write

Writer's BlockI've been asked before what I do for writer's block and I've said several times that I don't get writer's block. I suppose there should be an asterisk after that sentence because I have had writer's block--but only with certain kinds of writing.

Here at the blog writer's block has never been much of a problem (for better or for worse) and my husband will gripe about how I will sit down and pop out a post in between commercials while we're kicking back in front of the television in the evening.

He's exaggerating, but not by much, and I'm here to explain how it's done. There's no big mystery when it comes to being able to write on demand and here are ten tips for those wondering "What do I say today?"

1. Practice thinking.
Remember that you don't need anything terribly epic to make a good post, life tends to present all sorts of things for your comment, the trick is to have an opinion. Now maybe Andrew and I are strange freaks of nature but you could pretty much ask us our opinion on any subject and we'd be able to talk for longer than you'd care to listen.

The funny thing about blogs is that you can say so much in a blog that you'd never be able to get away with in person. What I mean is this: if you were at a dinner party and someone asked you how you felt about disciplining children and you were to talk about how children nowadays are so rude and impolite and that parents should discipline them better (just hypothetically speaking of course) every woman at the dinner table would hate you because she'd assume you were talking about her child.

However, you could write a post, say exactly the same thing, and while people may disagree with you or tell you you're whacked as soon as you're speaking to a group everyone assumes you're talking about the other guy and there are suddenly a million reasons why whatever you're saying doesn't apply to them and that they're different. It's just human nature.

So my point is, go think about things and formulate some opinions. They may be right, they may be wrong but I bet they'll be interesting and people like reading someone else's opinion--even if it drives them crazy.

2. Learn to look at life in terms of conflict, crisis, resolution.
You have the great formulas of life. Force equals mass times acceleration, volume is height times width times depth and in storytelling it's "story equals conflict, crisis, resolution."

Conflict can be as great as a car wreck or a trip to prison or as small as missing an appointment or fighting with a loved one. As a blogger (or writer) it's your job to see that conflict and exploit it. Heh. Kidding--well, kind of. Just remember that conflict is what drives your writing and only conflict. I don't care if you're the most eloquent person in the world if there is no conflict you're not giving anyone a reason to push their eyes to the next word. Conflict, and only conflict is interesting. It may be sad, it may be funny, it may be ridiculous or ironic but it is the only thing that works so get used to recognizing it.

Also, remember that you might present conflict but too many bloggers forget the last two parts. Your rising action is critical and the crisis should be the high point of emotion and resolution must happen or readers will leave the table still feeling hungry and wondering what it was they just ate. Conflict without resolution is merely whining.

3. Use life markers for ideas.
Old photos, family stories, a journal entry, a souvenir from a trip, a collection you love or a piece of clothing--if you've saved it for a reason there is most likely a story there (unless of course you're just a compulsive hoarder then it may just be a sign of deeper issues). Tell that story and make us care about it the way you do.

Life isn't made up of possessions but stories often are.

4. Go through past posts for ideas.
If you wrote something years ago go back and take another look at it with fresh eyes. Maybe the story has come to a new conclusion, maybe you feel differently about it now, maybe you've learned more since then, maybe there's more to develop. If you haven't wrote in the past, old journal entries or letters can serve the same purpose.

Even if there is nothing more to tell sometimes just going through past writing (especially if you like what you wrote and it's a quality piece) will inspire you to a new thought or a new idea. You might remember a detail you'd forgotten or a way to expand on what you've already done.

Reworking an old post is a good exercise even if you never publish it because it's always helpful to touch up and improve what you've already done for the sake of good writing. And you want to improve your writing, write?

5. Look at your life as if you're a stranger.
This is a helpful exercise for life in general--being able to take an objective assessment of your situation or performance--but it's particularly helpful when writing. Try to look at your home or surroundings with a fresh perspective. Pretend you're a tourist in your life and see what might be interesting then write about it. This can be hard if you've lived in the same place forever but give it a try and imagine what it might be like to see a tornado for the first time (I've never seen one) or to find a snake in your house (haven't had this happen either). What family recipes have you eaten forever that are stale to you but new and interesting to a guest?

Good writing is made of details so learn to see the details of your own life.

6. Use other people's writing to inspire.
Whether it's a fine episode of the Simpsons or Pride and Prejudice with Zombies you can see examples of how one thing can play on another (parody alone has sparked a whole canon of work). Look at what inspires other people's creativity and then put your own personal spin on it. Use it to branch out and continue the story, take a counter approach or see the story from a new perspective.

Reading other blogs is particularly good for this--read something controversial and use it to inspire a rebuttal or a concurring opinion. No one says you have to agree but I would recommend being polite and professional.

But whatever you do make it your own and bring your own life and talents to the task.

7. Make lists.
What are your favorites? Foods, colors, flowers, cars, games, habits? What are your pet peeves, your thrills or your favorite vacation spots? Use lists to spark an idea and run with it. Think of some of your favorite things to do and then write about how to teach someone else to do it. Change a spark plug? Bake a cake? Plant tulip bulbs? If you find it interesting then chances are someone else will too and the process of teaching someone else to do it will be a good experience in organized thinking and as we all know organized thinking leads to organized writing.

8. Keep a notebook on hand at all times.
I would perhaps even extend this to even taking notes in the shower because I actually do some of my best thinking in the shower (assuming no one is pounding on the door saying "Mom! Mom! Mom!" which is about one time out of five).

Keep track of funny things your child (or husband) says, keep track of thoughts you had or ways your day was different from the day before. Write down your reactions to things you heard on the radio (I do this frequently) or plans you have for your week or your life. If you want to know a secret, Moleskines are about the coolest thing in the world anyway. Much cooler than an iPhone. You'll look even cooler with one of those little black notebooks than all the tech gadgets in the world.

Sponsored by Annette Lyon, whose new novel Band of Sisters is now in print.


Kathy G said...

Thanks, I needed this. I'm feeling a bit of the block the past few days.

Rebekah C said...

Excellent advice, thank you!

Annette Lyon said...

Great tips for ALL kinds of writing, especially for moms. Thinking ahead is pretty much the only way I got as much writing as I did when the kids were little. That way, when I did have 30 minutes to race to the computer, I didn't have to waste half of it trying to come up with something to write. I was ready to crank out 1,000 words right then.

Bethany LaShell said...

Great tips! Thanks for sharing. I ran into one of those "Oh no! I have to write a post right now for tomorrow morning" yesterday. So, I looked in my "writing ideas" folder and pulled out out notes I had written to myself on how to write a review & turned it into a blog post.

Pat @ Mille Fiori Favoriti said...

Wonderful writing tips! I love to take photographs so when I have a writers block I look at my photo files for inspiration.

Daisy said...

I've been keeping a list of errors in the closed captioning. When I have enough, we'll have a post. It is truly hilarious sometimes.

freebies said...

Great article and great advice. Thanks!

I can't find my blog said...

Really good list. I've needed this!!

Heather said...

These are exactly the things that I do when I am stumped. (Often I am still stumped, but it helps a bit!)

tara lynn said...

love this post. I'm feeling inspired already :)

Stephanie said...

An excellent post, Michelle!

It reminded me of a conversation Tim and I had a few weeks ago.

I was writing a post and he said, "You never get writer's block, do you?"

And I said, "No, I don't."

We're similar in that regard.

In fact, I think you + your husband would be perfect dinner dates for us. This part of your post reminded me so much of us: "Now maybe Andrew and I are strange freaks of nature but you could pretty much ask us our opinion on any subject and we'd be able to talk for longer than you'd care to listen." ;)

Beth said...

Thanks for this post, I am just staring out and need any help I can get. Especially becasue I have never considered myself a writer.

(I am, however, quite a talker and I think I can morph the two!!)

Unknown said...

I've been having writer's block lately but was comforted in knowing that pumpkin season kicks off next week. And pumpkin season ALWAYS produces oodles of blog fodder!

a Tonggu Momma said...

Loved this post! Thanks for the tips.

Janet said...

My problem tends to be the opposite. I have so much to say I don't know where to start!

Maria Soto Robbins said...

Thank you for all of those great suggestions! I have a narrow focus when I blog (my art)which makes it easy but you offer some neat ideas which I'm planning to save for future reference!

Music and Movie Treasures By Brenda said...

I write about movies and I'm generally not without something to say. However, having said that, I have two posts to do today...and at the moment a blank but I know once I sit down and stop trying to do everything all at once, an idea (or two) will come.

Leisa Hammett said...

(Hi, Michelle!) I actually use a lot of these and never run out of ideas and have a huge backlog. As a writer, honestly, I've never been able to understand not having something to write about. My challenge is the time to write it all!

Sarah said...

Got my little notebook! And I find when I get on the bus, or in the car, or on the treadmill, I better have a pen to hand!
Sarah - Afterhood

Joe McDermott said...

Great ideas. I find that I'm often pulled in so many directions during the day that I can't seem to slow down enough to focus my mind. I particularly like the idea of making lists. A few words jotted down on my day planner (yes I still us paper) will remind me of the idea and, more importantly, the mood I was in at the time my idea hit me. Thanks for what you do.