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.

Join a Bookclub – In Vivo or Online

Ruth O’Niel, via » Why Every Writer Should Belong to a Book Club, makes a great point. Your best feedback as a writer comes from readers, and you can learn a lot from how they feel about certain books. It’s a valuable resource that can help you grow as a writer.

If you can’t find a book club locally, don’t like the genres your local groups are reading, or are too introverted to be a joiner (yes, that happens, and it’s okay), join one online. Start with Goodreads. There are loads of groups there that will fit your niche and favored genres. It’s another great way to get feedback on books from voracious readers and will help you grow as a writer.

25 Things You Should Know About Writing Horror

When I’m not writing horror or weird fiction and not reading horror or weird fiction, I like to talk about it and write about it. While I was perusing some blogs about my favorite pastime, I came across this post from Chuck Wendig. Though it was written all the way back in 2011, all of four years ago, I found it to be a great guide for writers who want to write in this genre but aren’t sure where to start.

So, happy reading. That’s all from me this week. I’ll bother you again soon. Perhaps with a piece to keep you entertained.

Myths About Writers: Confirmation Bias

I read a wonderful article from Emily Harstone outlining  14 Myths About Writers, and a thought occurred to me: they all seem to stem from confirmation bias.

So, allow me to confirm that these myths really are myths through personal and professional experience. Since there are fourteen on her list, I’ll just tackle my five favorites/least favorites.

  1. As for the muse, frequent readers know how much I hate that myth, to the point where I find “muse” to be adversarial. Since I write, and I write daily, I know the muse is a bullshit excuse. Face it: if you blame a fairy tale for being too tired, too lazy, too whatever to write, then you’re going to starve if you want to live off a writing career.
  2. Next up, Harstone tackles the idea that poets kill themselves. Yeah, how many poets do you know? I know quite a few. They aren’t even remotely suicidal. For every poet a person can list who killed themselves, I believe I can list five who didn’t.
  3. Number three on Harstone’s list is that the day job is the enemy. While she maintains this isn’t true, I agree, to a point. You as a writer are your own worst enemy. It is possible to work so hard that you really are too tired when you get home to start writing. In that case, I’d suggest taking just fifteen minutes a day to write and see how it goes. Then devote a couple of hours to writing during your days off. Most of the time you’ll find that fifteen minutes is easy, and can write up to two or three hours before bedtime.
  4. All writers are alcoholics, and I’ll add drug users to this one. That is the biggest load of bullshit. Yes, there are some writers who abuse/use alcohol and drugs, but they aren’t any more or less creative than the ones who don’t. Such a sweeping generalization is something I find insulting to creative writers.
  5. Harstone includes the myth that “anyone can be a writer.” Nope. I think she says it best when she says, “It takes effort and sacrifice to be a writer. However many non-writers, people who have composed the occasional poem or short story, or not even that, don’t understand the effort that it requires to go from someone who is able to write to someone who is a writer.”

Enjoy reading her other nine myths. And yes, if you disagree, that’s fine, but keep in mind you may be suffering from a bad case of confirmation bias.

Anne Hogue-Boucher is not an alcoholic but somehow manages to write anyway, although some may argue her tweets and Facebook statuses make her seem a bit wonky. You can read her most recent short story, Exit 1042, at Amazon.

Left In The Cold II: Some Musings

Some time ago, I put up a short story here called Left In The Cold, which was about a creature in the antarctic. Well, Jane Living, the main character, is still taking up quite a bit of space in my head.

Her story isn’t finished, and while I’m fairly satisfied with that short story, I believe it should be incorporated into a larger work.

She and Livvy are part of my universe and I don’t want to let go of them so easily. It seems to me that they still have stories to tell, so I’m now working on a novel about them. This is all while Silver Hollow is in its final edit stage and Perceptions is just starting on its final edits. Mercy Hospital is in its ‘settling’ phase: that’s the part where I leave it alone for some time so I can put some distance between it and look at it with detached, fresh perspective.

As a writer, I have to keep going. So eventually, you will see Left In The Cold for sale at the Amazon store, but it will be part of a much larger work, and the version here will look quite a bit different than what you’d read in the novel.

Jane Living is a strong voice in my head, and she can’t wait to get out. I just hope it doesn’t kill her in the process. It might. One never knows what will happen once the process starts. Not even me sometimes.

Author Bio: Anne Hogue-Boucher is an American writer currently living in Atlanta. She is almost certain she’s been placed in a real-life weird fiction tale where people consider her to be potentially extraterrestrial. She neither confirms nor denies these suspicions in order to continue enjoying a quiet life away from Area 51. Follow her on @Spellvira or on Facebook at The Macabre Author. Also, eat your peas.

The Daily Word Counts of 39 Famous Authors – Writers Write

A while back, I was reading this article from Writers Write, and it really hit home with me as a writer. Every day, I have a minimum word count of 2,000 words. I usually wind up writing around 2,500 to 3,000, and a lot of those words are worthless and will be scrapped and/or edited later, but what’s more important is that they’re being written.

Writing is both an art and a craft. I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again: if you sit around waiting for inspiration, then that’s all you’ll do. Novels aren’t written by muses. They’re written by people who are willing to sit their asses down and crank out a certain number of words per day.

So set your minimum. It could be just 500 words a day, or 350. But set a minimum. If you’re serious about writing and wanting to be an author, don’t wait.

This post will come in around just over 250 words, and it won’t count towards my goal for the day. So no cheating. Sit your ass in that chair and start writing.

Remember, even if you write something that’s just going to be scrapped later, it’s writing. Writers write. Use your words and create something that’s all yours.

Now get to it. Go write.

Anne Hogue-Boucher is the author of Exit 1042 and the upcoming Silver Hollow. You can follow her on Twitter and like her on Facebook. If you don’t, monsters will erupt from the void in your closet at night and do terrible things to you. But no pressure.

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.

Take Diana’s advice – Get Writing – No Matter How You Do It

There is no one “right way to write.” The important thing is that you write. So get to it!

via National Novel Writing Month. Here’s Diana’s pep talk:

The greatest thing about writing is that it’s just you and the page. The most horrifying thing about writing is that it’s just you and the page. Contemplation of that dichotomy is enough to stop most people dead in their tracks.

Success in writing—and by that, I mean getting the contents of your head out onto the page in a form that other people can relate to—is largely a matter of playing mind games with yourself. In order to get anywhere, you need to figure out how your own mind works—and believe me, people are not all wired up the same way.1

Casual observation (i.e., talking to other writers for thirty years or so) suggests that about half of us are linear thinkers. These people really profit from outlines and wall-charts and index cards filled out neatly in blue pen with each character’s shoe size and sexual history (footnoted if these are directly correlated). The rest of us couldn’t write that way if you paid us to.

Anyone educated in the art of composition in the Western Hemisphere at any time in the last hundred years was firmly taught that there is One Correct Way to write, and it involves strictly linear planning, thought, and execution. You Must Have a Topic Sentence. You Must Have a Topic Paragraph. YOU MUST HAVE AN OUTLINE. And so forth and so tediously on…

Got news for you: You don’t have to do it that way. Anything that gets words on the page is the Right Thing to Do.

Do you write in disconnected bits, where you can see things happening? I do.

Do you write in ten or fifteen minute chunks, when that’s all the time you have? I sure do. (I mean, it’s nice to have unlimited time, but nobody ever does. Nobody ever finds time, either—you make it, or you haven’t got any.)

Blap down a rough draft in a blazing roar of creation? No, I never do that—I fiddle and creep and go back and forth and back and forth; I don’t have rough drafts; I have finished scenes. They just aren’t connected to anything…

But no matter how you write, it’s always you and the page. And the page isn’t in a position to tell you anything you do is wrong. Therefore…anything you do must necessarily be the Right Way to Write. Go for it!

1. This is why you can read an article purporting to tell you How to Write, and discover that you just can’t write that way. That’s because the writer is not really telling you how to write; he or she is just explaining how they write. Maybe they have the same kind of brain you do—but maybe they don’t.

Diana Gabaldon is the author of the Outlander series. Its latest installment, Written In My Heart’s Own Blood, was released in 2014.