So, to summarize...
- Professionals don't wait for inspiration: they go to it, but first they must battle past the resistance guarding it.
- Professionals are ready to both get past resistance and handle the task that resistance was guarding.
- Professionals know putting in the work is more important than what comes out of the work, and that gaining experience and making progress is far better than rewards.
- Professionals put off immediate rewards for long-term gratification.
Many of us know how to write, but don't write. Worse, what drives us crazy is that there are those we think of as terrible writers who get published and have their works made into movies. So, what's the big difference? Facing resistance: the smartest writer in the world will never leave any more on the world while facing down the dragon of resistance without the sword to slay it, while some random idiot can easily take the boon because they brought a dragon-slaying shotgun.
So, are you ready to slay the dragon of resistance? Then put this guide down and start writing.
"But I don't feel like it."
That's resistance talking. Fuck resistance. Start now, and the ideas will come.
"But I still don't know what to put."
Put anything down! Get moving! I wrote this for NaNoWriMo, and your goal is a wordcount, not quality!
"But what if I do want to write for quality?"
A "good first draft" is an oxymoron: all stories eventually need to be edited or improved.
Now WRITE!!! Tell resistance to go fuck itself! If you "don't feel like it," that's exactly what resistance feels like! The goal is more important than resistance!
You can do it! Just START!
Stop preparing! Start before you're ready! Learn as you go! Just START NOW!
Close this guide, open up your word processor, and just WRITE!!!
You're still here? Then looks like resistance won out.
But in that case, let's see if I can at least equip you with a better sword...
Craft: Okay, so I can sit down to write, but now what?
So, I said being prepared was important, so I might as well give you a few techniques for getting unstuck.
In writing, there are various fields of the craft, and areas where you may get stuck in. I'll rank these by order of how much people showed interest in the poll that prompted this:
- Plot: The arrangement of ideas and events.
- Inspiration: Where to get and organize potential ideas.
- Setting/World-Building: The world of the story.
- Characters: Who's in the story.
- Theme: What is the story about in terms of ideas? This is also where you'll find conflict.
If we boil down a story to its basics, a story is about a character doing something, stopped by something, and what they do to overcome that to get to the goal. As the old storytelling axiom goes, "Get a protagonist up in a tree, throw rocks at 'em, and see how they get down." Of course, some stories can be more subdued or bizarre than others, but that's the basic gist. Plot is what happens, setting is where it happens, character is who it happens to, theme is why it happens, and inspiration is how you get the ideas for all of that.
The techniques I offer are both used by myself and others. Although some techniques may work for you, others may not, just as I don't use every technique on the list, either. Just do what you can to get past the previously mentioned resistance and get words on the page.
Plot Block - Getting unstuck from plot.
Writing beginnings are easy: a character's life is thrown out of balance, and they embark on the journey to fix that balance with either a conscious goal (stop the bad guy, destroy the asteroid, etc.) or an unconscious goal (maturity, calmness, etc.) as the spine. Writing endings are easy: wrap up the subplots as the protagonist takes one final climatic action that resolves the plot, for better or for worse. But then there's the infamous "act 2 problem": how do we connect the two?
I've already talked about outlining in the NaNoWriMo 2018 prep guide
, but not everyone outlines, and even when you do outline, what do you put in the scenes that you did
outline? That's what this section is for. Here are some techniques that both I and others have used to overcome plotting problems:
- The Magic "But": A classic scene technique, even endorsed by the writers of South Park, is the magic "But": "Character or characters do X, but suddenly Y happens, therefore..." Improv teacher Keith Johnstone also calls this "tilting the platform." Basically, if you have a scene you think is going where nowhere, introduce either a new piece of information or an action that would radically upset the status quo. It can be as simple as bringing up an opinion someone disagrees with or an important character leaving while two others characters remain in the scene alone, wildly varying the dynamics, or as explosive as a sudden character death or a major revelation (or both). Even NaNoWriMo's Chris Baty offers the suggestion of killing off characters to advance the plot: it radically upsets the balance and forces everyone else to react accordingly, thus giving you plenty of new scenes.
- Know how to end the scene: As an addition to the previous one, just knowing how to end a scene is enough: it can end on a character revelation, a character action, or both. For example, two characters get into a conversation, one of them says something pretty important in either or a good or a bad way, and you got what you need to coast down to a final line to cap the scene. Bam! Onto the next one. Or, two characters get into a conversation, and then one does something based on what they had heard, and you got what you need to coast down to the final line to cap the scene. Bam! Onto the next one. Once you get the feel for the final moments, what improv teachers call "finding the button to the scene," you can coast down to a final line.
- Write anything, even if it sucks. "But wait," you might be saying, "I want to write quality work!" Hear me out. As I said before, there's no such thing as a perfect first draft. Writing teacher Natalie Goldberg, most famous for her freewriting guide Writing Down The Bones, offers the following technique: for a select amount of time, just write anything, as quickly as you can, no filter, no censoring, giving yourself permission to write whatever. Once your timer goes off, then you can go back and edit for a little while, all before starting again. This way, you can come up with ideas you didn't previously think of consciously, as well as draw inspiration from what you wrote, and you can edit down this stuff for later. Speaking of which...
- Don't go back and edit: keep moving forward. You can always edit later, but traversing into new territory is the hard part. Keep writing new scenes, keep venturing into the unknown, just keep writing!
- Know your goalposts, whatever they may be. If you outline your stories, you know where your scenes are building to. If not, you should at least have some vague ideas of major scenes in your head. My own 2017 NaNoWriMo novel, Virgin Killer Club!, wasn't outlined by plot points, but rather by sex scenes: every scene built up to the main character banging one of the heroines. Rudimentary? Yes. Did it work? Hell yes: I finished by Day 22, and even after NaNoWriMo, it's what kept me going forward, building wordcounts that win individual NaNoWriMos with each chapter. Maybe your work is connected by fight scene set-pieces, or by dance-offs, or by cooking contests. Whatever it is, know what needs to be done to lead up to it.
- Know what your climax requires, then build scenes around it. As writing teacher Robert McKee once put it, once you have your climax, you should work backwards so that every scene leading up to it supports it. Similar to the goalpost idea, once you know how the story ends, you should have an idea of where to go, right? If not, try this: write down everything your characters need to do for the climax to work, then go back and make individual scenes setting up the actions the characters will later take during the climax. You should have enough scenes to carry quite a bit of Act 2 by itself.
Is this enough for to start writing? If so, go back to your manuscript and WRITE!!!
Still here? Okay. Onto the next topic.
Inspiration Block - Coming up with new ideas.
Luckily, this one's pretty easy to fix...
- First of all, NEVER LET BRAINSTORMING POSTPONE YOUR WORK. Sooner or later, you need to stop coming up with new ideas and actually sit down to write the damn thing. Only use these are jumping-off points. Remember what I said about resistance: its aim is to trick you from doing your work, such as telling you, "You're not inspired enough to start. Just make some more outlines, come up with more ideas, and you'll be ready later!" Later's not coming: sure, a good list of ideas can be a good launchpad, but a launchpad is no good if you never launch.
- Creative Wishlists. This one is pretty simple: write everything you want in your story, then write everything you don't want. If what you don't want pops up in the story, delete it and write something more fun. Alternatively, look at your favorite works, and then dissect what you liked and didn't like about them.
- Mindmapping. Similar to wishlists, a mindmap is a visual outline where ideas are connected to parent ideas. I personally use Freemind, an open source mindmap tool. From this, you can expand your ideas into sub-categories and so on.
- Beware censoring "bad" ideas. You'll find plenty of inspiration in the ideas you don't use, because all those "what if's" lead to new, better ideas. When you brainstorm, don't censor anything: capture ideas like you're casting a wide net for fish. Even if you catch a tire or a boot in your net, those things can later be recycled.
- What makes you happy? And what pisses you off? Where your passions lie, so do your ideas. Emotion makes for good story material, because the vast majority of us share the same need for truth, justice, goodwill, and other positive values, while shunning deceit, corruption, selfishness, and other negative values. A good satire takes what we hate and holds it up in such a way where we laugh. A good pastiche takes what we like and holds it up in a way where we pump our fists in celebration.
- One major caveat: This doesn't necessarily mean making a rant piece or a love letter, but rather these are just things to harvest ideas for fictional stories. If you're solely doing it to rant or to worship, beware: you (or rather, resistance) may get a kick out of the initial high from the immediate gratification, but if the story is any good, the initial high will wear off, and with it, the inspiration to keep it going. If you want the work to breath, you'll have to set your immediate emotions aside and let the work grow on its own merits.
- Orchestrate your writing: Get a music playlist of what sort of tone you want your story to have, and then write to that playlist. If you don't know what to pick, use an internet radio like Pandora and filter out the songs you don't want until you get a personalized list.
Now, is that enough? If so, WRITE!!!
Otherwise, let's talk about setting.
Setting Block - When you don't know the story world.
Much of what can be fixed with setting can be fixed under plot or inspiration...
- Know the dimensions of setting. When, where, history, and culture. If you don't know what goes on in your setting, take a minute to think of what's going on...
- When in history does the story take place, if at all, and how long do we stay? Days? Hours? Years?
- Where in the world does the story take place, and if the location is made up, if it has a real-world parallel or parallels.
- What happened in our setting that's relevant to the story?
- What's the culture like? Is this a place with high or low levels of conflict?
- Alternatively, make it up as you go. Like with plot, you can always go back and make it make sense, or once you introduce something, you keep it going for the rest of the story. As an audience, we'll accept it: you're the storyteller, after all, and you made this world.
- Look at real-world parallels. History tends to repeat, and as Joseph Campbell observed, many cultures share the same ideas and characteristics. If there are certain events that happen in your story, look at what similar events happened in history to draw ideas. Alternatively, if your setting has a specific culture, look at similar real world cultures as well.
Okay? Are you good to write yet? If not, remember what I said: resistance loves to tell you that you're "not ready," but right now, if you've read this far, you're more prepared than most writers. Trust in yourself, and WRITE!
Okay then. Onto characters.
Character Block - When you don't know what your characters should do.
Characters and plot are interconnected. In order to have a plot, you need characters to act them out. However, getting from Point A to Point B may be easy on paper, but not when writing actual real people. Well, here's your ways around that...
- Think like the character. In a way, writers are improvisational actors. When you write a character, especially from first person, you're improvising as that character. When you write a character, get in their head and ask yourself, in-character, "What should I do, say, or think next?" Get into their heads. Then, jump into the other character's heads. You'll be a one-person improv show, jumping from character to character, acting out everything in slow motion. Unlike real theater, you don't have to worry about a live audience, so you have time to think like your characters and choose a next line or action.
- In addition, if you're writing a first-person story, try briefly writing it from the perspectives of the other characters. It'll give you tons of insights you may not have previously seen before.
- Just like with setting, you can make up backstory as you go. I have always shunned the idea of backstory as a requirement. Sure, backstory can be useful, but only if you use it, and I don't use it. I like making up backstory as I go. You may not like this idea, but in NaNoWriMo, where wordcount is key, making up backstory on the fly is a great way to flesh out characters on short notice (and, of course, add words to the wordcount). You can always go back and fix this later.
- Know your characters' motivations. What do they most want out of life? Or to be more concise, what do they want in the story? How did they react to the inciting incident, the first major event that upset the balance for the rest of the cast? Give them a goal, and you got their actions and reactions for the rest of the story.
- Know your characters' arcs. I don't mean a classical character arc where they overcome a weakness, but just knowing where in the story are they personally. Sure, they can have a classical arc, but you can also have tragic arcs, steadfast arcs (they remain the same, but fight harder for their ideals), or any combination. Just as you outline your main character's arc, do the same for the rest of the cast, and it'll give you plenty of scene ideas and character-related bio stuff.
Now are you ready? At this very moment, you could go to your manuscript and start typing away (or writing longhand if you prefer). By now, you should have more than enough to get started.
Seriously? Okay. Next topic.
Theme and Conflict Block - Why am I writing this?
Also known as premise, theme is all of the story elements combined. If you made it this far, maybe part of the reason you're here is because you don't even know why you're writing what you're writing about. Well, let's get into why...
- Define "what's to stop my character from getting what they want?": There are three levels of conflict: internal, interpersonal, and external. Internal is battling our own emotions and reactions (and in your case, fighting writer's block/resistance is internal conflict). Interpersonal is against other people, from close relatives to strangers. External conflict is everything else: society, nature, God, destiny, shortness of time, etc. All stories, no matter how benign, are about achieving a goal through conflict. In a scorched African Sahara, parched from a dry summer, the animals are all seeking water. Some wait for rain, others look for a watering hole, but the only watering hole is guarded by predators. This alone has enough material to make numerous nature documentaries from that tell the simple story of nature itself. If your story is a muted, quiet portrait of a normal person facing very little, there is still material for conflict: asking somebody out on a date is still a huge deal to a shy person who must face internal conflict, or to a social pariah facing interpersonal conflict, or a poor person asking out a rich person facing external conflict, or going further out, there could be a time limit as well. Once you figure out how to stop your character from getting what they want, you should be able to generate plenty of material needed for them to overcome it.
- Defining the forces of antagonism. Life is not merely black and white, good and evil. We also need to account for the middle ground and the levels of evil. Look at your stories in terms of good, bad, neutral, and evil. What's at stake in your story? Mark whatever is good as "good." From this, you have what's bad, and what's in-between is neutral, while evil can be defined as what's bad, but masquerades as good. This will help generate a ton of ideas of where you can take the plot, characters, and conflict.
- For example, in a typical crime story, you have truth and justice as the "good," lies an injustice as "bad," white lies and unfairness as "neutral" (while not entirely good, most people tolerate it), and at the far end, you have legal crime, tyranny, and purposeful disinformation masquerading as truth as "evil." From this, you can have just heroes, injust criminals, unfair politicians and bureaucrats impeding the case, and a ruthless crime ring antagonist that can pay off any of its crimes.
- Or for a typical love story, you have love as "good," hate as "bad," indifference as "neutral," and you can have false love or self-hate as "evil." From this, we have the protagonists striving for love, avoiding hate, frustrated by indifference, and doing whatever they can to avoid a lover that pretends to be loving, but really isn't, or being themselves unworthy of love even when somebody is finally able to accept them.
- Westerns and folks tales often run on these values at stake: order and peace being good, disorder and chaos being bad, stagnation and blindly accepting the status quo as neutral, and using chaos to create order as evil. Look at Blazing Saddles: we have a good sheriff, indifferent townspeople of Rock Ridge, lawless bandits as bad, and the corrupt attorney general who uses the bandits to drive people out of the town for his own purposes as evil. In the finale, Sheriff Bart and his unlikely band of misfits, Jim "The Waco Kid, Fastest Gun in the World" and cabaret performer Lili von Shtupp, rally the indifferent townsfolk to settle their differences and join the side of good, all while attorney general
Hedey Hedley Lamar rallies his own bandits, resulting in a final battle so explosive that it literally spills out of the movie set and into the Hollywood studio it's being filmed at. So, if you think this theme stuff is "boring," just watch that clip...
Much of the rest about theme I've covered in plot: once you got your climax, you can work backwards, and what your characters do will support or negate your theme.
Well, I guess here are the last bits I can tell you...
Still blocked? Try these:
This is the last bit of advice I can give you. After this, you're on your own.
- Schedule your free time instead of work time. Dr. Niel Fiore, who studies procrastination, recommends blotting out your "guilt-free play" time instead of your work schedule. This way, you don't have to worry about work getting in the way of your fun time, or live under the illusion that work means more work and no time to have fun.
- Again, use the pomodoro technique. If you're not going to schedule when you write, at least tell yourself, "I'm only going to write for 5/10/15 minutes, then take a break." Set a timer, then go. You'll find that you end up writing more than you thought.
- Stay healthy. Exercise to keep your metabolism going and blood flowing. Have a healthy diet to keep your body and brain functioning right. If you know how to meditate, do it, and if not, learn (Eckhart Tolle has a lot of great ideas that simplify meditation, so look him up on Youtube). Get plenty of sleep: don't fool yourself into thinking you'll get more work done by staying awake longer. Don't drink caffeine eight hours before bed: this will give your body enough time to metabolise it so you can sleep. A working body means a working mind, and vice versa.
- Go deeper and figure out what's holding you back. Study cognitive therapy, figure out what limiting beliefs and ideas are holding you back, what hidden fears you need to uncover, and resolve them so you can overcome resistance.
- Most importantly, STOP READING THIS AND START WRITING! Right now, you can mouse over to the X button, close this window, and start writing. You could put down nonsense words in your manuscript, and it'd be better than "waiting for inspiration" or thinking you have to keep "preparing." You're ready now. You can do it now. The only thing holding you back is resistance, tricking you with fear, with self-doubt that you're not good enough "yet," with obligations you didn't have until you thought about writing, with all sorts of rationalizations that make no sense. I'm writing this right now having not eaten since I started typing it, but I won't fool myself into thinking, "I'm too hungry to write. I'm too tired to write." I'm just writing, and so can you. We all know the phrase, "Just do it," but we keep forgetting why we do: resistance and the lies it tells us, and if we slip up for one second, resistance conquers us for the day and we lose our word quota. As Stephen Pressfield says, when we fight resistance, we're in a fight to the death. This is war, and war is hell, baby.
You can do it. Unfortunately, I too know that while everyone else can believe in you, you yourself may be an agnostic when it comes to believing in yourself. But from here on out, this is your fight. Pick up the sword, slay resistance, get that word quota, finish your story.
You know what to do.
Good luck to all National Novel Writing Month participants, and to all struggling writers out there,