How to beat writer’s block

AUTHOR’S NOTE ADDED 9/5/13 – This is one of the first blogs I wrote.  I didn’t really know what I was doing, and it embarrasses me.  I rewrote the article here, but I thought I would leave the old draft up for posterity.

I don’t want to write this blog.  I actually never feel like writing.  I am a goddamn Rhodes scholar at not writing.  It’s my particular genius.  It’s a kinship I share with the bulk, if not the rest, of humanity.

And yet write we must.

People often come to me with the old complaint, “I don’t have time to write.”  What this boils down to is that in their perfect world they’ll have (X) number of hours to write, and if that becomes untenable they say, “Whelp, I don’t have three uninterrupted hours with which to commit my acts of genius writing, better stall until tomorrow.”  And then tomorrow comes, and so on, and even if those three hours do show up, the weight of all the subsequent procrastination raises the expectation until all the joy and life get crushed out of the writing time.

Writing isn’t about reorienting your entire life.  Writing is about making use of the time you do have (see my other post about maximizing time).  So when you’re stressed, overworked, and tired, you can always rely on these two strategies.

1.  Use a timer.

Set it for the time available.  If you have fifteen minutes, shut off the internet and spend that fifteen minutes in a pure, focused burst where you work solely on the project at hand.  For super extra-credit, keep track of all the focused bursts you’ve done so far, so you can say, “I’ve spend an hour on my screenplay, 90 minutes on my spec pilot.”

Using a timer focuses the mind, allowing it to be more productive in a brief stint than it will be in an entire, wasted weekend.

2. Write support material.

Currently, I’m attempting a rewrite of a comedy spec that I’ve spent a year on, with limited success.  I need to write an outline, but given that the story is an enigmatic clusterfuck, there’s a good deal of psychological resistance when it comes to approaching it.

The best way around this resistance is to break the confusion into smaller units of thought. I may not know how to crack the story, but I can assign myself a 500 word essay on what the character’s arc is, and 750 words on where the external threat comes from.

Write these essays (you remember essays from high school, I’m sure) and file them in your trusted system as support material.  By slowing filling in the under structure of the story, it frees your mind to work on the bigger problems, and ups the chances of your subconscious mind providing the A-ha moment needed to advance the story forward.

So even if you have no idea what to write, you can do either of those two things or both at once.  There’s never an excuse not to write.  Waiting for inspiration is for amateurs.

Record your ideas as soon as you have them.

I’m writing this blog from the driver’s seat of my car

Okay,  I’m actually recording a sentence of it every time I hit a stop light.  I use an Sony ICD-PX333. The typing up comes later (or, if you’re really lazy, you can plug it into Dragon Naturally Speaking and it’ll transcribe your words for you.

I like voice recorders because they are instantaneous, recording entire monologues with the touch of a button.  With paper, you need to retrieve the pen and actually write (I can talk at 160 words per minute, I’m lucky if I can scratch 55 wpm with a pen). If you’re good at improv, you can do both sides of a conversation and have entire scenes in the time it takes to record them.

Another great part of voice recorders is that you can talk to yourself and then answer back later.  I’ve asked rhetorical questions, recorded my to-do list.  The voice recorder is a device that instantaneously transmutes all your musings into a concrete, recallable form.

If you have a smartphone, you have the ability to do this, but there’s something to be said for a dedicated device. A voice recorder is one touch, which makes it easier to use in the dark, in bed, while driving. With a smart phone you need to wait the thirty seconds it takes for the little processor to find your voice memos. You’d think that this wouldn’t matter, but motivation is funny. The more work you have to do to get to your ideas, the more resistance you’ll have to actually recording them.

It’s important to record ideas as soon as you have them. We think we won’t forget, but the truth is we do. The brain is funny, if you have your ideas recorded somewhere, your brain will give you more… if you never do anything with the ideas you have, eventually you stop having them. It’s important to record your ideas as soon as you have them, ubiquitous capture is a key step to personal organization and productivity.

Regardless of whether you get a recorder or not (seriously, do) the lesson to be drawn from this is to maximize your available time.  A lot of beginner writers will say something along the lines of “I will write from 8 to 12,” and if they miss that window they’ll discard the idea of writing that day entirely.  This leads to procrastination, and procrastination is the grave that opportunity is buried in. It’s not about having the perfect amount of time to write in, it’s about making the most of every moment you have. Get in the habit of recording your ideas. It’s good practice, and you’ll have something to develop when you finally sit down to write.

Related:

Write Whenever you can (Written in Ten Minutes)
When is the most popular day to start a  screenplay? Tomorrow.

File your screenplay ideas in a trusted system.

People ask writers where they get their ideas.  The more interesting question is where do you put your ideas, once you have them?   Every writer needs a “trusted system” to file ideas in, a system that enables you to record, collect your ideas and easily recall and deploy them in a context specific way.

That’s a mouthful.  Here are two illustrative anecdotes:

Rodney Dangerfield came to comedy late.  He worked a day job, but when he thought of a joke, he’d write it down and put itn a duffel bag.  When he finally launched his career, he had a duffel bag full of jokes ready to go.

Stephen Colbert, Amy Sedaris, and Paul Dinello were working on a book, but, in the words of Amy, ” We kept coming up with funny [stuff for STRANGERS WITH CANDY protagonist Jerri Blank] to say, so it would go into a file, and by the end of the book, Paul opened the file and there was all this Blank stuff.” That file became the STRANGERS WITH CANDY movie.

If you’re working on Project A, you’ll have ideas for Projects B-through-Z, but you don’t have room in your short-term memory for more than a handful of ideas.     So you need to file these tangential concepts somewhere, and keep that unearthed gold from getting buried again.

THE SPECIFICS OF YOUR FILING SYSTEM DON’T MATTER SO LONG AS YOU USE IT AND TRUST IT.

1) Analog Files  – For Luddites, this is the way to go.  If you have an idea, write it on a piece of paper, drop it in the relevant file (sample folders: project a, random jokes, random scenes, etc).  Most writers I’ve met are terrible at maintaining file cabinets, and file cabinets are rarely convenient to your workspace.  If you must do this, I recommend putting all your active files in a box, one that’s at arms reach from your desk.

2) Master Document (or Spreadsheet)  – It’s called “word processing for a reason.”  You can search, copy, paste, and shuffle the words around till doomsday morning, and you can make it into a “database” by hash tagging ideas (i.e. Act three idea – love interest turns on hero, turns over tape to corrupt cop <#copStory><#thirdAct><#plotTwist> (the “#” symbol makes it easy to search the document).  If you store your data this way, searching is a breeze, and you do’t have to worry about your software going out of date.

3) Database – Just as the file cabinet was king of the 70’s, and the Word document was king of the 90’s, the database in the king of the now.  The big advantage of databases is that you can store lots of types of information (pictures, files, audio clips) and you can tag one item for multiple projects.  I use Evernote, which merits a blog post on its own.

By using your system wisely, you’ll make your mind exponentially more agile and ensure that every sentence you write adds value to your projects and your life.