What to Write When You Don’t Know What to Write

This week, I’m taking a break from The Psych Writer to discuss writing.

Writing is my bread and butter. I have some posts I’ve written about writer’s block, and facing the terror of the blank page. In fact, I’ve written about the blank page twice, at least. But writer’s block still seems to be one of the biggest complaints I’ve seen among young writers or writers who are just starting out.

Recently, I got this in the form of a question. “What am I supposed to write when I don’t know what to write?”

Since I am trained as a therapist, I tend to want to pick apart problems and either reframe them or otherwise deconstruct them in order to help.

So when you don’t know what to write, it could be for a variety of reasons.

  • You may be afraid of failing and not completing a project.
  • You may be afraid of succeeding and not knowing what to do next.
  • You may think your writing will never be good enough, so part of you feels it’s not even worth starting.

There are obviously many more reasons for keeping that page blank, but for this post, let’s just focus on these three. If you have one or two you’d like me to address, please shoot me a message on Facebook if you’d like, and I’ll address them in future posts.

  1. You’re afraid of failing and not completing a project.
    It happens. I have a few manuscripts I’ve abandoned about 3/4 of the way through because the idea wasn’t panning out, I couldn’t write the characters in a way that satisfied me, or a variety of other reasons. It happens to everyone. Think of your favorite writer, living or dead, and I could almost guarantee you they have abandoned and unfinished work.

    The best way to get around this is the “fuck it” philosophy. Say to yourself that you’re going to start a project and if it doesn’t pan out, fuck it. Start over, change direction, whatever. You can also just keep going even if you know it sucks, because the first draft of everything sucks. So go until you’re finished. Write until there’s no story left. You can revise it later.

  2. You may be afraid of succeeding and not knowing what to do next.
    This is one I’ve heard a few times now, so it’s not terribly uncommon. In this case, you’re fortune-telling. Can you really see the future and know you’ll be devoid of further ideas? Well, so what? One book that’s finished beats the hell out of one half-finished story that never got off the ground. Preventing yourself from succeeding because of what might be next cheats you out of the satisfaction of a finished project.
  3. You may think your writing will never be good enough, so part of you feels it’s not even worth starting.
    There’s one thing I’ve learned, and I’ve said it above–the first draft of everything is a steaming pile of crap. Some of it has potential, but every first draft needs to be reworked. You will learn to kill your darling manuscript with a hatchet at first, then come back with fine, surgical editing tools to improve it. Tell the part of you that tells you it’s not worth starting to shut up,  because that part of you cannot know what it feels like to finish a project. You have to get to the end to know what that’s like.

When you sit down to the keyboard, or sit with a pen and paper, block out the future. Block out expectations. Block out everything but you and that page, and tell it your passions, your fears, your world.

Get writing.

I am Anne Hogue-Boucher, and I write books. You can read them here.


Facing the Blank Page

For some novice writers (and, on occasion, seasoned writers), that blank page is the ultimate enemy. The white screen stares you in the face, and you’re lost for something to put on it.

Sure, it’s easy for me to say “just put your fingers on the keys and start writing.” It’s easy for me because that’s what I do. But I didn’t get to this point all at once. No, I was trained to do it–and you can train yourself to do it, too.

See, for me, I’m a writer for a living. If I don’t write, I don’t eat. That’s not a great plan for effective weight loss, by the way. I don’t recommend it.

In order to keep my stellar figure, that means I have to put words on the page so I can get paid for them. So the blank page has to be eliminated.

Now, for creative writers, especially those starting out, may need a little nudge to get training. One tool that can provide the nudge is using writing prompts. Once you’re trained, you might discover that you even like using them now and then.

These prompts may vary. They can be vague, such as “rain pattering,” or specific, such as “your character discovers an ancient coin on the beach.” No matter what, though, it can be enough to get your brain juiced (yum?).

One of the more valuable tools I found is here at 365 Creative Writing Prompts – ThinkWritten. You can train yourself for a year with these prompts. Agree to a daily word count (start with 500 if you’re a new writer and build your muscles by adding 25 words to that count each day till you’re somewhere between 1500-3000), and use each of these prompts to tell yourself a story. Who knows? Some of these might turn into short stories, and others, a novel.

As always, the advice is: just write. This is one tool that will help you defeat the blank page.

Happy writing.

I write, and I edit like a fiend. You can follow me on Twitter for semi-frequent weirdness, or on Facebook for kicks (not literal kicks).

Still Have a Blank Page?

Emily Harstone advises this Writing Prompt: The 3 Minute Warm Up to help boost your writing muscles. You’ll need a timer and a blank page or screen, and the ability to type or a writing utensil. That’s it.

This is one I’ve tried personally, just for fun, and I find it useful. It gave me exactly what I needed to start a new short story for Camp NaNoWriMo. By the way, that’s going really well for me this month. Hopefully it’ll start a whole new series of short stories!

Give this one a try if you need to get the blank page to go away. Who knows? You might wind up creating a whole new world for yourself and your readers, in just three minutes.

Keep writing. Don’t give up.

This short post was brought to you by Anne Hogue-Boucher, writer and editor, and Leader of Primates Against Pants. You can follow me on Twitter and Facebook.

Let It Simmer: On Writing a Story

I’ve heard, on occasion, that some writers like to keep a notebook full of ideas. But some of those same writers have never actually finished a story, novel, or novella. I think I understand why that is, actually.

Once you have it written down, you’re done with it. You’re satisfied. You move onto something else and forget about what was in your notebook.

You still haven’t finished a story.

If that sounds like you, BURN THAT NOTEBOOK. Or delete it if you keep it electronically. Don’t burn your computer. That’s just messy, and dangerous … and possibly arson if you’re at the public library*.

Now, that’s not to say I don’t keep notes or even make outlines. I do. But I keep the notes vague and outlines just generally highlight where I want to go with a story. They don’t tell the tale. So I sit there with these half-finished notes, totally dissatisfied with them, and from there, out comes a story. Because I need it to be finished.

I do have a notebook where I keep scraps of images from nightmares, dreams, and bizarre detritus that whizzes into my head from time to time. I treat this notebook like a stew pot, and let the ideas just sit there, sometimes for months, all while I’m working on other recipes, such as Exit 1042.

Then, after some time passes, I have a look inside, and skim the top for all the unnecessary fat, leaving behind a rich, juicy stew of stories behind.

The difference between this stew pot and what others have is that my stew isn’t finished. I have to take out the tender bits and put them into the main stew pot. I’m the chef, after all, and if I don’t select just the right cuts, the whole stew will taste bland and underdone.

No one wants that.

Letting the ideas simmer will help you decide what’s best for the main stew, and what’s best turned into compost in the bin.

So cooking analogy aside (because that was making me hungry), if you do keep a notebook and are generally unsuccessful in completing a project, give these tips a try:

  • Write general, vague notes or outlines. This isn’t writing the story, it’s a sketch of what you want it to be.
  • Be dissatisfied. Consider your notebook incomplete, and the only thing that will satisfy your urge to write is to tell a story from start to finish, not just the notes.
  • Let it sit for a while. Come back to your notes at a later date. The idea may not seem as brilliant or cohesive as it had when you first wrote it. Toss out what doesn’t work, and keep what does. Add what works to your story.

Now, go back to your stove and stew on it for a while.

*I am not a lawyer and that was supposed to be humorous.

© 2016 Anne Hogue-Boucher. Not for reproduction without express permission from the author.

National Novel Writing Month

I’ve been busy with NaNoWriMo this November, and I hope other writers will join me.

Something I’ve said (repeatedly) is that your first draft is allowed to be shit. It’s supposed to be. Crap writing. Take shortcuts. Use your adverbs. Whatever. Just get it out on paper. Because when you revise, you’ll see your shortcuts and you’ll fix them. Anything your character knew? They’ll show it instead. Those adverbs? You’ll turn them into description later.  The point is to stop scrapping your first drafts and finish your work.

But don’t just take my word for it. Listen to Stephanie Perkins.

Sometimes the things that matter the most to us are the hardest things to actually do. Sometimes they matter so much that we never do them, because our fear of failure is stronger than our fear of not even trying.

Before NaNoWriMo, I’d never finished a draft of a novel. I’d worked for seven years on an idea, and I only had seventy pages to show for it. My fear was growing. I was beginning to believe that I didn’t have the discipline necessary to become an author, and it was devastating.

I used to pooh-pooh NaNoWriMo: “How could anyone write good novel in a month?”

But I was missing the point. It isn’t about writing a good novel. It’s about writing a novel. It’s about finishing what you’ve started—a lesson I certainly still needed to learn. I signed up out of desperation. If I couldn’t write something with a beginning, middle, and end before December, I’d stop trying. I let go of my fear of writing a bad novel and used that pent-up energy to fuel the act of writing itself.

Here’s what I want you to know: The kindest thing you can do for yourself right now is to let go of this fear. Don’t worry about writing something bad. Just write.

Just write. Eventually, you’ll have a novel. You’ll have great ideas. Those ideas can be worked into visions. You can do this.

Via National Novel Writing Month.

The Abject Fear of Writing? 8 Quotes That Will Change How You See Writer’s Block

via The Abject Fear of Writing? 8 Quotes That Will Change How You See Writer’s Block.

I’m not usually one for those “motivational” posts, but I have to say, this set of graphics from Authors Publish is fantastic.

This is for people who say they “don’t have a muse.” I call bullshit. Just admit that you’re too tired, too lazy, too sick, or whatever the real excuse is. Because that’s all it is: an excuse.

If you’re blocked, think about why you’re really blocked. You could be afraid of failure, or you could be afraid of success. Kick your “muse” out the window, sit down, and write something. Write even when you don’t feel like it (or at least admit you don’t feel like it and stop blaming some outer force).

This Saturday, I will have to put my 17-year-old cat to sleep. I am extremely sad about this, even though I know and accept that it has to happen (without going into detail, it is clear to me that it’s time). I hate having to do it.

I could let that be my excuse, couldn’t I? I could say, “oh, my muse won’t let me write.” Fuck that noise. I am sad, I am grieving the loss about to come, and I am doing my best to give this sweet cat a huge party and send off every day, because she deserves it for 17 years of faithful companionship.

But I still get up, sit at my laptop, and work on my writing. I may take a few days off to grieve, but I will climb back into the saddle and ride again.

Even though I will likely take a break, I sure as hell won’t blame a “lack of muse.”

If I can do it, then so can you. I’m not anything special. I’m not Wonder Woman (it’s funnier when Bernard Black says that on Black Books).

Enjoy these quotes, and hopefully it’ll help you kick your muse to the curb and write.

Don’t Overthink It

I recently read: Don’t Overthink It, Less Is More When It Comes to Creativity – Scientific American, and I heartily agree with their findings. It’s nice to have some hard, scientific proof to back up what I’ve been saying.

When you sit down to write, just write. Overthinking it makes it arduous and contributes to writer’s block. You can always fix your writing later. The point is, just get it done!

Stop wondering what the end result will be with your writing, and enjoy the journey in getting there. You never know what gems you’ll find when you just let go and let it happen. Sometimes the results can be astounding.

Get to it.

Where Do You Get Your Ideas?

I know a lot of writers and authors get that question a lot. Usually, there’s just no satisfactory answer for people who don’t write. They seem to be mystified by the writing process, and for the writer just starting out, the process is frustrating. They’re waiting for inspiration, a muse, an idea that will be colossal and add to the Zeitgeist.

Found a place for your "muse."

Found a place for your “muse.” Image courtesy of Flikr.

Yeah, good luck with that. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again (because people don’t learn, damn it): if you wait for a muse, you will never produce anything. It’s really that simple.

Now, I’m not telling you that there won’t be days where you’re too tired, too sick, too whatever to write. It happens. You come home from a long day of work and you’re exhausted because not a single thing went right that day. That being said, don’t let that become a habit. If you do, you’ll fall into the muse trap, and then that bitch has you by your short hairs. You think I jest? I would never!

So even on the days when you’re drained, write 1000 words. Write 500. No? Okay, start with 100 and then see how you feel. If you’re still too tired after writing just 100 words, then you can cry off for the day. But get back on it tomorrow. Tomorrow, you’ll need to write a minimum of 200 words.

This, my dear readers, is where you’ll get your ideas. You may have one already. Great! Then sit down and write it. There are a couple of methods you can use to get it done.

  • By the seat of your pants. This is the method most often recommended by the wonderful human beings at The Office of Letters & Light, hosts of National Novel Writing Month. You set a daily word count (say, 1667-2000 per day), and write to meet those targets. Take your rough idea (and if you don’t have one, generate one with a writing prompt) and just write it. Worry about continuity later. You can fix your world in edits.
  • Sketching an outline. If you need more structure, make an outline of your novel. What do you want to have happen throughout? You still need to make that daily word count, but this way, you can fit it into a skeleton so that you don’t go rambling off in a totally different direction.

Either method works, and I know, I know, I’ve said all this before, but you JUST KEEP ASKING ME the title question, don’t you? So I’m going over this one more time. It’s really simple: if you write it, ideas will come.

They will. I promise. I know because I don’t wait for a muse. I told her to hit the road a long time ago, and when she tried to interfere, I punched her square in the nose, wrapped her unconscious body in tarp, threw in some rocks, and sank her deep into the sewer system of Nowhere. And I’m glad I did, because her abuse was controlling my life. I know she’s still alive, though, because apparently she bothers a host of other people, too. I encourage all of you who are tortured by a muse to get rid of him or her. Write even when she doesn’t want you to write. Eventually, she’ll get the hint and go away.

No more waiting on a “muse” who’s a complete bitch and won’t tell you what to write. You are in control. You tell the characters what to say, who to kill, how to hide the bodies, and who catches them. You craft a place where painted rocks are currency and the waiter never gets your character’s order right. You make a space where fallen soldiers return from the dead for a final revenge on their Brigadier General. You, and only you.

This is your world. You are the master of it.

Show us what you’ve got.

This post was written without a muse. Really, I had no idea what I was going to write until I wrote it. You can follow me on Twitter @Spellvira, or Like me on Facebook.

Write Away

The week before last (couldn’t post last week due to other writing projects taking precedence) I went on a bit about needing a muse, or rather, not needing a muse.

That’s what this whole blog is about, after all.

In my personal life, I’ve been stressed out to my limits. I won’t get into why, but things have been looking pretty bad for my immediate family, and we’ve had some ups and downs. But I can’t let that interfere with my ability to write. No matter what, I have to get up, pick up my laptop, and work. Whether it’s for my personal projects or a client project, it has to be done and it has to be done well.

The way it used to be was, I didn’t think I could just sit down and write. I thought I had to be inspired by something special. I had to have one of those ‘aha’ moments and write a manuscript or an article in a flurry of abandon to produce a masterpiece that would be lauded long after I died.

Yeah. That worked out about as well as putting your hand through a mangler.

My writing stank. It was putrid. Forced, false, and stilted, full of cliches and overusing words. Blah. (There are a couple of reasons for this, actually, but I’ll go into that some other time.)

It wasn’t until I was in my mid-twenties when I realized that the lessons I’d gotten during a Shingon Esoteric Buddhist retreat that I could apply it to my writing.

During that retreat, one of the things we did was calligraphy — meditative calligraphy. Our Sensei taught us to write in Japanese kanji, and we were practicing one character throughout the week. Well, if you know me, you know I can’t draw to save my life. I can do a mean stick figure, but that’s about it. So, the elegance of the kanji calligraphy was way out of my league. But, an assignment is an assignment, so I sat there on my mat, ink brush in one hand, paper on the floor, tongue sticking out to one side as I attempted to imitate the strokes of the brush as our Sensei had done so effortlessly.

It looked like a little kid’s drawing…well, actually worse. It was bad.

Sensei looked over my shoulder. “Practice more,” he told me. I shook my head, discouraged.

“I just don’t have the talent,” I told him. He smiled at me.

“This looks like my first drawing when I was a child,” he said. “You can practice, and you can become good.”

So, all week long, I practiced. I brought my materials home, and I kept practicing. Page after crappy page. But I was encouraged and determined to show improvement. 

At the end of the week, we were sitting for meditative calligraphy again, for the same character.

Once again, Sensei came over and looked at my work.

“Much better,” he commented. “You’ve practiced.”

I nodded. It wasn’t perfect by any means, but it was a slight improvement over the chicken scratch I’d produced before. “Hope I get even better.”

“Practice ten-thousand times and you will be a master.”

That stayed with me. If you practice anything ten-thousand times, then, yes, you can achieve mastery over something.

So it is with writing. Practice, practice, and practice some more, and eventually you will master the craft. You don’t need to wait for inspiration, because inspiration will come to you when you practice. The more you open your mind to the possibilities of your stories, the more you’ll gain insight to your own words.

On the days you don’t feel like writing, promise yourself you’ll write just 500 words (that’s one page, come on already) about anything. I mean anything. Here are some prompts to get you started:

  • A man walks into a bar and realizes he has a drinking problem.
  • A dog decides to take up ice skating.
  • A small group of people face having to eat one of their own to survive.
  • Gorillas figure out how to shoot people.
  • One beauty contest goes horribly wrong.

Pick one of these and do just 500 words about it. See if it turns into something, and go from there. That’s exactly what I do when I don’t feel like writing.

Now, I’m off to write a short story about a road trip. Let’s see where this road takes me. Write away.

This post is dedicated to Howard Mittelmark and Sandra Newman, authors of How Not to Write a Novel. Once they’ve inspired you, follow them on Twitter. But don’t leave me hanging! You can follow me on Twitter (@Spellvira), where you can read absurdities on an infrequent basis. You can also learn more and read excerpts of my work on my tumblr page.

Writing for Food – Writing for Fun

I once told a good friend of mine that I write to put food on the table.

That was true, but it’s not exactly the whole story.

There’s a difference between being a Freelance Writer, and being an Author. I wear both hats. Allow me to explain the functions of each one.

The Freelance Writer Hat
This is the practical baseball cap that I put on and wear when I’m writing for other people. It is the custom-tailored hat that is probably worn on a couple of edges, but it still looks okay. It serves its function.

There are deadlines, demanding clients, SEO (Search Engine Optimization) keywords and phrases, revisions, more revisions, ratings, tailor-made posts that don’t sound like anyone else, client’s clients and their sub-clients, and on and on ad nauseam. It’s the type of writing where if you don’t write, you don’t get to eat.

The Author Hat
I like this fit better, of course. This is my sexy, wide-brimmed hat that shields my eyes from the searing pain of the sun and lends an air of je ne sais quoi to my appearance. It’s the hat I wear when I write for pleasure. If it sells on the shelves, great! If it doesn’t, well, damn, but it won’t stop me from writing and enjoying myself.

There are some deadlines when working with a publisher, edits and revisions, more revisions, helping to market your work, and moving on to your next story. It’s the type of writing where you write, sometimes get paid for it, and hopefully just have a great time doing it.

Both hats are valuable, and they’ve taught me a great deal about the writing process. Not only are you creating art with words, you’re crafting them, too. You’re building a structure that will hopefully stand for a good long while. You might not build the Sphinx or The Great Wall of China, but hopefully you’ve built something that will house a few generations of readers.

I have also said that it is not necessary to have a muse in order to write. I still stand by it, that it’s 100% true if you’re dedicated to your craft. That doesn’t mean you’re not inspired or uninspired on some days, but I’ll write more about that later. I’ve been accused of having a Puritan streak for it (thanks, Frank!), but that’s not true, either. The Puritanical work ethic can play into it for some, but I prefer to think of it as a dedication to producing art. I am not a machine nor a beast of burden. I am my own muse.

I used to think that I needed a muse in order to produce a story. As such, I wound up not writing very often, just waiting for the “right idea” to come along. Then, I got into Freelance Writing to help pay my bills. There was no room for waiting with this. There were articles to write and deadlines to meet, but each article had to be original and unique, and not look like the generic crap that a bot can crank out in minutes. If you want to stand out in the world of freelance writing, you MUST produce work that has a twist to it. Infused with humor, excitement, and quality. Considering my consistent rating is five of five stars, I think I’ve got that part under control.

Doing it day in and day out gave me the idea that I could do the same thing with creative writing, if only I would sit down and write…anything. Start with a dream I had last night and see where it went. Take a character from one of my games and tailor them to become original. Use my imagination. BECOME MY OWN MUSE.

That isn’t to say there aren’t ideas, dreams, and other people who inspire me. There are plenty of people I admire and things people say that wend their way into my head and sometimes wind up in my manuscripts. But there isn’t an intangible thing out there that controls me and what I write. I draw inspiration from elsewhere, but I am the creator. If I had to depend on something or someone else, I’d never get any project finished. But I’ll write more about that next week. This week it’s all about author hats.

No matter which hat you choose, one or the other, or both, try to approach them in the same way, especially if you’re feeling uninspired, ill, or otherwise ‘just not in the mood.’ Put yourself in the mood. Think it’s impossible? I’m writing this very moment with a migraine. I created this piece and I’m pretty pleased with it. If I can do it under these circumstances, then you can, too.

Follow me on Twitter (@Spellvira) where you can read absurdities on an infrequent basis. You can also learn more and read excerpts of my work on my tumblr page.