I’ve recently rediscovered my love of writing, and by “recently” I mean in the past couple of years. I started out as a teenager wanting to do nothing but write, but life happens, side roads are willingly and unwillingly taken, and it can take awhile to get back to the main path again.

After writing several short stories, I got an idea for what I thought would make a good novel. Indeed, I started to write it as a short story first and quickly found that there was no way I’d be able to flush out the characters and their story to my satisfaction in under 10,000 words. I sat in my desk chair staring at the screen and actually said aloud, “Right, I’m going to write a novel.”

That was a year ago.

Since coming back to the craft, I’ve had the good fortune to meet several published novelists and I ask them about their experiences writing their first novel-length work. It’s split right down the middle:  Half say it was easy, a great experience, and to the other half it felt like an eternal root canal procedure. Thus far, I would have to side with the latter group.

blankslateI’ve been working one idea after the next for about thirteen months now. The longest manuscript I’ve managed to write peaked at about 42,000 words, and then I set it aside because I felt it wasn’t really going anywhere. In each one of my projects, I could feel the dry rot of writer’s block set in and I just couldn’t seem to find a way around it. Each attempt to add something to the story felt contrived and phony. I felt like I was forcing it.

Desperate to find an solution, I scoured the Internet and copies of Writer’s Digest and The Writer magazines, read article after article, but nothing seemed to help. So, I made sure to archive my in-flight manuscripts and held out hope that someday I might go back and finish them.

Two weeks ago, I had an idea for a new story. It was inspired by a dream (cliché, I know, but true) and wrote it down before it faded into the ether of consciousness. I was excited about the idea and I rushed to my laptop to start pecking out the first paragraph. But I paused. I realized I’d been in love with all my other ideas as well, and none had worked out. Like Dennis Hopper used to say in those financial planner commercials, “You, my friend, you need a plan.

So that’s what I did. In two weeks I’ve managed about 20,000 words, and the story is still rolling along like wildfire. For the first time, I feel like I have nothing but a green field in front of me and that, this time, I’m really going to do it.

What magical solution did I find for my writer’s block? If only it were magic; now that would be a story. No magic, just a new combination and arrangement of practices that seem to be working well for me this time around. I’ll share them here (and thus, provide another discoverable guide for future writers struggling with the all-consuming Block) in the event that they might help you too. I hope they do.

  1. Know Thy Characters As Yourself. In past efforts, my focus was on plot. I knew characters were important, but I figured that they would reveal things about themselves to me as the story progressed. I pictured building a relationship with them as we spent time together, the same way I would forge a new friendship or business relationship in the real world. Unfortunately, the world of my story isn’t like the real world. The fictional world of my book needs to be created and it will be my characters that will do this. If I don’t know them intimately from the start, I’m lost. The story can only go so far. I’m not saying you even have to know all of the characters that will eventually be in the story, you just need to really know them before you write the first word about them in your piece.
  2. Nail Your Beginning, Evolve The Ending. Traditionally, I’ve always attempted to layout the full scope of my tale before I start writing. I know that many of my favorite writers (Dan Simmons, for one) work like this, but unfortunately, I’m just not wired that way. I start out going in one direction, but inevitably, some subtle plot twist introduces itself and I feel obligated to chase it down. More often than not, this leads me away from where I originally intended to land. Once I realized this about myself, I stopped worrying about. Now I focus on really nailing the beginning of the story, on creating an irresistible hook that will compel my reader to follow me on my journey. If I can do that, then the story that follows seems to fall into shape nicely.
  3. First Draft “Analysis Paralysis.” One of my greatest strengths as a writer is that I have always sought to write near-perfect prose. My greatest weakness as a writer is that I have always sought to write near-perfect prose. When I looked back on my other attempts at writing a novel, I found that I had fallen into the tar pit of analysis paralysis: The need to get the quality of a second draft in the first draft. Shedding this behavior, more than anything else, has helped me propel this new project forward. The purpose of my first draft is only to get the story out of my head and into the computer. I’ll worry about grammar, imagery, simile and metaphor, exposition, etc. when I get to the second draft. This has actually given me motivation to finish the story so I can focus on the more juicy tidbits later on.
  4. Write Something Every Day. If you’re going to be a writer, this is something you need to do anyway, but it’s especially important if you don’t write fulltime. Some days, when I’m finally done with my day job, when I’ve made dinner and spent some time with the family, the last thing I want to do is sit down and write. My brain is oatmeal. But it is so important to write something. Even if you can only manage a couple hundred words, that’s fine. If you need a break from your book, spend some time working on something else. Often a block in one story can be shaken loose by writing about something completely different. Answers can be found in the most unlikely places. When it’s all said and done, writing is like keeping a tidy home:  A little bit of work each day is easier and yields better results than trying to clean the whole house just once a week.
  5. Work Your Plot When You’re Not Writing. My standard modus operandi before was to walk away from the keyboard after a writing session and clear my head completely of what I was writing. This was a common practice in other jobs I’ve had in my life and I always felt that it allowed me to come back to the work with a fresh perspective. Of course, writing fiction isn’t like other jobs (or at least I’ve never felt it was). Now, as I go about my daily business, I try to work through the next section of the story. I don’t try to tackle the whole thing, just what I would like to get written the next time I sit down at the keyboard. This makes my writing time much more productive, enjoyable and actually increases the continuity of my work.

I make no guarantees that any of these tactics will work for you—everyone works a little differently—but they have paid off in spades for me. If you keep finding that you are the biggest blocker to achieving your writing goals, it will be worth your while to give these tactics a try. Please, don’t keep the results to yourself. Let me know in the comments section below if they worked for you or not.

Happy writing.