You sit down at your computer, fingers on the keyboard, eyes on the blank screen… the very, very blank screen… and it's not getting any less blank.
Suddenly, your subconscious gets intimidated, your mind freezes up and your fingers are paralyzed. You may shut your computer down and walk away from the screen that day, but when you go back, that blank screen is still going to be there. Waiting for you. Mocking you. What's a writer to do?
Every writer goes through that moment of panic, staring at their computer screen, wondering if they should be hitting the pavement, looking for an office job instead. No matter how experienced you are, there are always going to be days when you need to trick your mind into letting go and letting you write.
These are the methods I've developed to short-circuit the panic, so I can get on with writing. Check them out and see if any of them might work for you.
Since the hardest part is getting started, my favorite trick is to promise myself that I'm only going to sit down and write for five minutes. Five minutes isn't that long. I can do anything for five minutes. Even things I don't like. Even writing <grin>. Even on lousy days.
Five minutes is a short enough time that it's not going to panic my subconscious. And I give myself permission to write whatever comes to mind in that five minutes. Even if it turns out to be utter crap. I can always improve it later, in the rewrite. Inevitably, by the time I look up from the computer, an hour or two has gone by and I've gotten quite a bit of writing done.
Some writers schedule a set time to write, every day. I find it easier to set a starting time, and let the ending time be dictated by the writing or other life commitments. If I have an ending time in mind, I tend to start too close to it!
Personally, I prefer the five minute trick to word count, because when you're knee deep in writer's block, word count can be intimidating.
Another way to keep from having that panicky "what now?" moment is to write a rough outline before you start. It doesn't have to be detailed—unless that's what makes it easier for you. It doesn't even have to be the entire book. You can do a loose outline of the chapter or section you're writing.
Personally, I enjoy writing without knowing too many details about what's going to happen in advance, so I create a very rough, loose-form outline. However, if you're on a time crunch, creating a more detailed outline will help you meet your deadline. Writers of daytime dramas, who only have a week (or less) to write their scripts, are able to write so quickly because they go off of detailed outlines of their episode (aka breakdowns).
On the other hand, there's a lot to be said for trying something different. If you normally pants it, try an outline. But if you normally write outlines, try flying by the seat of your pants for a change. You may find that approaching a story from a different angle jump-starts your creativity.
Lately, I've found that too much outlining makes writing seem like work. However, pantsing it–which is something I don't normally do–brings back the joy and mystery of writing. But when I think back on it, I think all of my favorite stories and scripts have all been written without an outline.
Each method has its own merits. Mix and match at will.
Another trick I use is, before you start typing, sit down on the couch or the computer chair, close your eyes and daydream your scene. Let it play out in your head. When you open your eyes, immediately type up the scene that you saw. That's when it's going to be the most vivid.
Don't worry about minor changes or logic gaps. Just write it down the way you saw it. You can fix it later. But if you wait to long to write it, you may lose some of the immediate vibrancy of what you're seeing.
Some writers set a word count for the day. And really, if you write 1000 words a day, you'll have written the rough draft of a book in two months. Just make sure you rewrite, polish and edit before hitting that publish button!
Designate a specific place that you go to write. I always write in my office and take care of the business end of writing at home. As a result, whenever I walk into the office, I can't not write. It feels wrong. That's my writing place.
What makes it even easier to keep as a writing place, is that there's no internet connection. So I can't do anything but write, until I get home. If you don't have an office, you can designate a specific area in your house or in your garden. Or at a local café. Some place where you consistently go to write.
When I'm at home, my writing place is sitting at the end of the couch, feet up on the ottoman. Unfortunately, that's also where I do all my marketing stuff, so it's not quite as productive writing-wise as the office is.
Go do something you've never done before. Skydive, go to a witch's sabbat, fly a plane, drive to a city you've always wanted to visit, go surfing, take your kids to Disneyland, do something. Anything. You'll find that doing something new often jump-starts new story ideas or plot complications or gives rise to new characters.
SCHEDULE THE MUSE:
What you can't do is wait for the Muse to come to you. Muses are fickle and seem to delight in testing your level of commitment. If you always go to your rendezvous place, at the appointed time, and sit down and write, your Muse will eventually start meeting you there. They tend to visit more frequently when they know your schedule.
And for those who don't believe in Muses, what you're doing by creating a schedule or a writing area, is stimulating the creative side of your brain to start engaging during a specific time period or in a specific place.
Another thing to keep in mind while you're writing is that it's about the journey. Be in the moment with your story. Focus on what you're doing now, the images and feelings you want to convey, the characters you want to spend time with. Don't worry about page count or marketing strategies. Just concentrate on telling a complete story. You can always address whatever problems come up, in the rewrite.
This brings me to my last point. All writing is rewriting. So there's no point in stressing over your rough draft. You may think what you've just written is brilliant, you may think it's utter crap, you may vacillate between the two extremes on a given day. It doesn't matter. The important thing is to get it written down, in a fixed form, so you can rewrite it. You can't polish it if it doesn't exist. Write it down now and you can always fix it later!
(Originally published on Kirkus Reviews as "Overcoming Blank Screen Panic," includes additional material)