You open your notebook, flip to a crisp page, uncap your pen and hesitate with that doe-in-the-headlights terror. You open your notebook, your fingers poised above the keys, typing, then erasing, then typing the word “the”, over and over again. And realize as the seconds tick by and the paranoia grows that absolutely nothing is there.
Stop. I have bad news: nothing you do is going to make you write anything new right now.
Stop. I have good news: you don’t have to write anything new to write.
There is so much more you can write than simply write ‘new’. In reality, the urge to write ‘new’ work can be addicting. New work is exciting, and we use it to impress ourselves or others, but when we can’t, it may be that there is something more constructive to do with our writing. Here are a few activities, exercises, and games you can try when you just can’t write anything new.
Read it aloud
Words change when they’re coming out of our mouths, even in an empty room. Words on the page can become a jumble on the tongue. Keep a marker with you when you read. When you stumble, something’s wrong. Pay attention when you get tongue tied; clean up the syntax or simplify your word choices. Eliminate unneeded clauses. Make shorter sentences with fewer, more evocative descriptors. Replace ten dollar words with well-chosen ten cent ones. Favor clarity, brevity and action.
In fiction, characters are king: without characters, our fiction lacks humanity. If their perspectives are rigid, our characters become caricatures. This is especially true of secondary characters, who often serve as foils to the main character. The main character may additionally represent a rigid emotional, psychological or philosophical perspective.
Remember this about each of your characters, no matter how minor:
1. They should have at least one goal, desire, or need (big or small, simple or complex, moral or immoral, attainable or unnatainable)
2. They should have a plan to get it (rational or irrational, effective or ineffective, sane or insane)
3. Somewhere between their goal, desire or need and their plan to get it, things get complex.
One easy way to start creating believable characters is to give them struggles. We struggle in a different way than we react to predictable situations. So will your characters.
One symptom a lot of prose suffers from is the symptom of a long exposition. Exposition can wither prose on the stalk; readers lose the first impulse of interest too quickly while being bogged down with frontloaded backstory and start to disengage. Try cutting out backstory, then jumping straight to the first piece of action and writing forwards. Integrate information you would have include in exposition with action and dialogue. This gives your writing a punch of momentum, and the shortened wait time gives your prose a more action oriented pace.
Often, a good piece of writing only needs one good sentence, one good line, one good phrase or a few good words to make it shine. Choose your favorite line, sentence or phrase from your work and write it down at the top of your page. Consider this thought experiment: your piece starts with this sentence, line or phrase. Start writing again. Accentuate, complicate, and juxtapose it with the rest of the writing. Maintain vibrancy and potency.
You could do this on your desktop but it is actually more fun to make a hands-on art project of this. It works especially well for poetry. Cut your lines apart so you have each by itself. Paste your lines one by one down on a fresh page. Whatever you don’t need, toss out. Try more than one combination if you’re really feeling crafty. What does each new combination become?
If you really want to screw with your prose, consider a variation on the formal experiment first described by William S. Burroughs. Take several pages of your writing, print them, cut them into almost equally shaped chunks, and rearrange them the way you would play Tetris. Pay attention to the edges, as overtly ragged and complex edges may require a few combinations to avoid. Read your new sentences, as strange as they may sound. Choose a handful of them that seem to interest you the best and start your writing around these core strange moments of coincidence.
You’re probably getting the idea of this activity by now, but here’s one more interesting game to radically remake your work. Cut an inch wide strip of your writing straight down your page. Spend a long time imagining what could go on either side of this strip. Write something wild.
This exercise may sound astoundingly simple, but it gets the mind thinking in the new directions. You can do game with a Word Document or a Thesaurus. For every word you sense is not ‘quite right’, use the synonym function or a thesaurus find a synonym for it. If the new word still isn’t ‘right’, find a synonym for it, and on down the chain until you stumble across a word that either fulfills your intention more fully or juxtaposes it in a way that provokes deeper, more interesting ways. Do not simply settle for the easy answer.
Remember this giddy game from childhood? It’s still fun. If your writing lacks rhythm, energy or action, delete all your verbs and replace them. If your writing lacks color, flavor, or flourish, delete your adjectives and do the same. If you want to restructure your writing, delete the prepositions, pronouns, and punctuation marks and work your way outwards.
These exercises are just starting points to inspire radical rewriting; doubtless, you’ll find the ones that work best for you. The point is that ‘writer’s block’ can be an opportunity to improve your writing from the inside out.
And I have good news: any one of them will almost likely inspire new writing.
Genelle Chaconas is Boulder Poetry Tribe’s Resident Submissions Expert. They earned their Creative Writing BA from CSUS (2009) and their Writing & Poetics MFA from Naropa University (2015). Their first chapbook is Fallout, Saints, and Dirty Pictures (2011, little m press). They enjoy industrial music, cheap takeout, shoot-em-up B movies, Facebook stalking, and long walks off short piers. They submitted their work 250 times in the last 365 days.