Break the Block

fast writer

Sometimes the best thing a writer can do to overcome writer's block is to engage in some writing exercises that aim to punch through the deadlock and get the juices flowing again. Most writing exercises are pretty simple, straightforward routines that can either get you moving again on your current project, or generate ideas for new ones. Whether you have reached a creative impasse in your present work, or you need to brainstorm ideas for fresh projects, writing exercises can help.

Generate a Word or Title List

Ray Bradbury famously used a list of one word prompts to brainstorm his story ideas for years. His list was comprised of simple words like 'baby,' 'beach,' and 'skeleton,' but these words all had an emotional significance to Bradbury. Sometimes all it takes to launch an idea for a story or article is to take two or three unrelated words and juxtapose them to see what emotions or concepts this triggers. Whether you compile your own list of 'loaded' words, or use simple techniques like opening a dictionary at random and pointing at the page to generate your words, simply juggling a few meaningful words around can spark the creative juices.

And sometimes a great story or article comes from the title alone. I always write down phrases that come to mind that might work as titles, even if I have no idea how they could be used. A technique utilised by Dean Wesley Smith is the 'half-title' trick. He keeps a list of half-titles that he has seen published in books and magazines and, when at a loss for inspiration, takes two unrelated half-titles and sticks them together. The result is sometimes a non-starter -- but more often than not it triggers some sort of idea or premise that can be used, even if the hybrid title itself is then discarded.

Free Writing

The most basic exercise in the writer's tool kit is the practice of free writing -- literally writing anything at all that comes to mind. The principal is very simple: instead of staring at a blank page and sinking further and further into inactivity, just start the process of writing and see where it takes you. The simple act of typing itself -- even if it is near gibberish -- starts the brain working in the direction you need it to go. If you start bringing in words and concepts from your current project, or from your list of 'loaded' words or titles, your fingers might just figure out what your conscious mind could not.

Free writing relies on shutting off the overly critical, overly perfectionist part of the mind that often causes writer's block -- which is really itself just a veiled form of procrastination. When doing this exercise -- which can be as elaborate as writing for a set period of time or on a particular topic, or as informal as just banging away in the empty spaces of your current manuscript -- the writer must give themselves permission to write garbage. You have to let go, to honestly not care about the results, and this is easy enough to do because no one need ever see the finished copy of your free writing project. Once the juices are flowing, you can get working again on your real goal -- and even delete the gibberish you just used to prime your engines.

Write Fast

Related to free writing is the concept of fast writing. Again, the aim is to bypass the hypercritical part of your mind and just write. By letting go and focusing on laying down words, you may increase the amount of mistakes you make at first, and maybe even write yourself into a corner a few times. But the gains made from writing quickly nearly always outweigh the few technical flaws that creep into the work, and material that is written quickly is often more engaging and distinctive than prose that has been wrung out of the writer one slow step at a time.

Write the Impossible

Another exercise that can get the mind working in unexpected ways is to write something completely untrue. This is a trick more useful to fiction than non-fiction, whereby the writer takes a character or situation and writes about them in a way totally at odds with established truth. It is most especially useful when dealing with character -- try putting your hardboiled detective protagonist in a pink bunny costume, or issuing your romantic heroine a machine gun. Sometimes the result is something unexpected but, more often than not, you will find your characters rebelling against your insanity and bringing things back to the way they should be. Spending a few minutes playing with what you should not be writing is often enough to get you back on track and writing what you should.

Imitate Other Authors

Imitation can either be used as another way to write the impossible -- ie. writing your children's story about talking Teddy Bears in the style of Mickey Spillane -- or simply as a guideline for a free writing exercise or piece of flash fiction. This works especially well if you are currently reading or are immersed in the work of an author with a particularly strong voice -- indeed if it is a voice much different than the project you are working on, you may find yourself having to do a brief brain purge on occasion in order to keep the style from creeping into your own work!

Try Flash Fiction

If your aim with a writing exercise is to try something new to you -- a different technique, style, or voice -- then you cannot truly know if you've been successful until you get some kid of feedback. Flash fiction offers an excellent venue for experimentation, and there are many markets out there that specialize in just these kinds of stories. By writing for publication, and by crafting something that is a complete story and not just an amorphous chunk of writing or insignificant vignette, you get the most out of the exercise. While many flash fiction stories may start as free writing exercises, the medium itself is a demanding one, and the one thing all the best flash writers have is that they make every word count.

There are many more writing exercises that can be useful to the writer, including contests that utilize prompts or even whole first lines that must be included in the story. But it is the things these exercises all have in common that form the basic principals that allow anyone to overcome writer's block. The writer must get past their own critical mind, give themselves permission to fail, and focus on simply getting something done. After a while these exercises become second nature, and really turn out to be more about the writer's attitude and approach to the craft of writing than anything else.