Sometimes it seems the hardest part of writing is just getting started. When words don’t come, what is there to do? Some call it writer’s block: the challenge to start (or keep) writing or to find the right word. But what do you do when you have it?
To celebrate HMH’s Spark a Story contest, we turned to some of our authors and novelists to get their tips for how to overcome writer’s block. Not everyone believes in it, but they all give great advice on how to sit down and create a piece of writing worth reading.
Lois Lowry, author of The Giver, Number the Stars, and Anastasia Krupnik
Did you ever go to have your braces adjusted and hear your orthodontist say, “Oh, I’m sorry, I can’t do it. I have dentist’s block today.” Of course not. There is no such thing. There is also no such thing as writer’s block. It is just a made-up phrase that means: I don’t feel like writing right now. Everyone feels that way now and then but for some reason writers, maybe because they have better imaginations than dentists, are the only ones who have given the feeling a silly name. The way to get over it? Yawn and stretch and go back to work.
Linda Sue Park, author of A Long Walk to Water and A Single Shard
I’m not sure I believe in writer’s block. I think it could be called ‘I-don’t-feel-like-writing’ block, and I suffer from this condition frequently!
In spite of that, I write almost every day. Here’s my tip: When I sit down at my laptop, I give myself a TINY assignment. Example: “Today, I have to write ONE paragraph of this story.”
And here’s the important part: IT CAN BE TERRIBLE. (Because at some point, I’m going to rewrite it a lot.) One terrible paragraph—is that all?! I can do that!
When I finish the paragraph, I give myself a pat on the back—and another tiny assignment… You can write a whole 300-page novel this way. I know, because I’ve done it.
Jacqueline Davies, author of The Lemonade War series
If you’re stuck in the middle of your story, staring at a screen and the words won’t come, get up and do something physical and repetitive: take a walk, go for a run, go for a swim, jump on an elliptical. Do something where your body has to work, but your brain has nothing to do. So if you usually listen to music while you run, don’t. If you usually watch TV when you’re on the treadmill, don’t. If you usually talk on the phone when you walk, don’t. Just figure out a way to move your body and leave your brain completely blank. I guarantee you will think of the next (possible) idea for your story. Something to try. You won’t be stuck. You’ll be moving forward.
Joelle Charbonneau, author of The Testing Trilogy and Need
When I'm working on a book, I write every day because it is the only way for me to keep that story moving even if I have no idea what should happen in it or I know the scene I'm writing isn't quite right. If I wait for my writing to be perfect (which is what I believe writer's block is – the waiting for perfect inspiration to strike), I wouldn't ever write. On days when I am struggling to write (which feels like every day), I have to give myself permission to make mistakes. It's important for any writer to remember that imperfect writing can be fixed, but it is impossible to fix a blank page. So write until you get to the end. Write whatever comes into your head even if it doesn't seem like the "right" thing or is too ridiculous for anyone to think it's any good. Write whatever you can to keep the story going until you get to the finish line. Once you hit the end--all things are possible.
Peter Ho Davies, author of The Fortunes and The Welsh Girl
The great Canadian writer Margaret Atwood once compiled a list of reasons writers through the ages have given for why they write – a list that runs for three pages (you can find it in a pdf of her book Negotiating with the Dead starting on page xix).
Alongside such artistically noble reasons as “to record the world as it is,” “to produce order out of chaos,” “to speak for those who cannot speak for themselves,” her list includes such refreshingly down-to-earth (not to say downright ignoble) reasons as “to satisfy my desire for revenge,” “to please myself” and (my favorite!) “to make myself appear more interesting than I actually am.”
I like to read this list to my students at the start of classes and ask them to put their hands up when they hear a reason they share – they all do, many times – by way of a reminder that there are a lot of reasons why any of us write. When we’re blocked, when one of those motives is frustrated, I find it often helps to remind ourselves of all those other reasons. (I also like to note in passing that nowhere on Atwood’s lengthy list is the reason “because my teacher made me.”)
Amy Stewart, author of Girl Waits with Gun and Lady Cop Makes Trouble
I don't believe in writer's block, but I do sometimes have trouble figuring out what to say. When that happens, I print a page from the previous day’s work and re-type it.
Or I’ll open a book to any page and type a paragraph of someone else’s writing (and then delete it!). Usually that gets me rolling.
If that doesn’t work, I fill a page with all the things I want to say but can’t. Before long, I’m saying exactly what I want to say. The important thing is to keep typing – that physical act always kicks my brain into gear.
John Joseph Adams, series editor of Best American Science Fiction & Fantasy
When you finish a story, don’t submit it right away. Set it aside and don’t look at it for a week or so. Meanwhile, work on your next story. After you’ve let it sit for a week and you’ve distracted your brain with other creative projects, then look at the story again one last time—with hopefully fresher eyes—and see if you can find some ways to improve it before sending it to an editor. Giving yourself this distance can be essential in finding a story’s flaws before sending it out into the world.
Put these tips into action: HMH is currently seeking the nation’s best short stories written by high school authors for the Spark a Story contest, open until October 7.