Finding Something When You’ve Got Nothing


Writers wake up in the morning with ideas bouncing around their heads.  They wish they had bath crayons so they could write down the ideas that come while they’re in the shower, and they carry a mini-recorder so they don’t wreck the car writing down ideas while driving.  There’s always a new character or a neat plot twist or a shiny magical object making itself known to the writer’s imagination.  So why, oh why, do all those great ideas flit away as soon as you sit down at your desk?

It’s one of those things that we suffer with, the sudden blankness of mind.  It can happen on page one, or somewhere in the middle.  It can even happen when you’re chugging downhill toward The End…your character turns a corner and blam!  You have no idea where she is or what has to happen next.  It’s not so much writer’s block (we’ve talked about that before, and I think most of us agree there’s really no such thing) as it is pressure.  Seeing that empty page can feel like a huge weight.  How can I possibly ever write 100,000 words?  It’s going to take forever!  Or if you’re at the end, it’s that desperate desire to reach the finish line, all the while imagining the line slowly moving away from you.  I can’t run fast enough.  Why does it keep slipping away?  It’s all pressure, and it’s all in your head.  So the trick is to get out of your own head for a while.  I have a few suggestions.

Meditate.  Think about it – when you meditate, you’re trying to not think about anything.  For a while, you’ll manage, but if you’re anything like me, once you reach a relaxed state, ideas flutter softly through your mind.  I do a lot of my best problem-solving in that space between sleep and waking, which is the place you’re trying to reach in meditation.  If you’re not familiar with meditation, you can try a guided meditation tape (check with your local library if you’d prefer not to buy one.)

Walk.  Okay, you’re worried that meditating will just put you to sleep.  If it does, you probably needed the rest, but I understand.  You want to stay awake a while longer.  In that case, go for a walk.  Around your block, in the woods behind your house, or wander through your own yard.  It doesn’t matter where you go, as long as you get outside and breathe for a little while.  BIC may be our mantra, but getting out of the chair is good, too.  Not to mention all that good Vitamin D you’ll soak up from the sunshine.

Drive.  This isn’t one of my personal choices, but many people love to drive.  If you’re one of them, those people who thrill to the open road, then take a drive.  Don’t go far, though, since you might accidentally remember errands you wanted to run and end up wasting good writing time.

Dance.  Or exercise in the way that you prefer.  I turn up the music and just let myself move, in my living room where no one is watching.  My head switches off, and I become an extension of the music, and soon, just like in meditation, the ideas wander back to where I was when they left me.  If you worry that you’re a terrible dancer, or that you can’t keep a beat, do some crunches or lift some weights.  Work up a light sweat.  And remember, no one is looking.

Read.  Open someone else’s book and immerse yourself for twenty minutes.  One of the smartest things would-be writers do for themselves is read other peoples’ work, so they know what’s been done and how the other writers did it successfully.  If you fear you’ll adopt that writer’s voice, try reading something completely out of your genre, or something in nonfiction.  Let the words take you away so that your own will come back again.

Listen to music.  This time you don’t have to dance.  Just put on the headphones and close your eyes for a song or two.  Listen to the composition of notes, the way they’re individual and blended at the same time.  How amazing is that?  Now realize that’s exactly what you’re doing with words.  And do it.

Call a writer friend.  Or a beta reader, or a loved one who’s good at helping you through these spots.  I tend to get my husband involved.  “I don’t know where they need to go now,” I’ll wail.  “They’re stuck in a barrel about to fall over a cliff, and how do I save them?”  He begins offering options for the character’s predicament.  Some of them may already have occurred to me.  Some may be impossible, and some may be perfect.  Often I don’t even end up using anything he said, but having a sounding board helps me get outside my own head long enough to make room for new thoughts to emerge.

Bake.  Baking is easy, because someone else has already written down the instructions, and all you have to do is follow them to the letter.  It’s instant gratification (well, not instant, but quicker than writing a whole book.)  Not to mention you end up with warm chocolate chip cookies at the end, and a house that smells good for hours.

So there are a few of my favorite idea-generating moves.  I’d love to hear some of the things you do to rattle that idea cage open.


22 comments to Finding Something When You’ve Got Nothing

  • Great list, Misty. I love it. The thing that invariably gets my neurons firing is automobile-related, but it’s the not the drive itself; it’s audiobooks. Listening to an audiobooks while I’m driving is something I love to do, and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve found myself suddenly realizing I have no idea what’s being said on the CD, because my mind has grabbed some small concept and started running around with it, building it, developing it. It’s fun. And if the audiobook is really good, I can always just ‘rewind’ it and pick back up where I left off.

  • Walking and taking photos. Those are the two that work best for me. When I still had a dog, I would use walking him as an excuse to get away from my desk and work things through. He’s gone now, but I still do the walking thing, though not as often as I should. When I have my camera in hand I tend to focus more on taking photos than on working out plot issues, but as you say, immersing oneself in something totally unrelated to writing can be good, too. Thanks for this list, Misty. I might need to learn to bake….

  • I love this: ” Or if you’re at the end, it’s that desperate desire to reach the finish line, all the while imagining the line slowly moving away from you. I can’t run fast enough. Why does it keep slipping away?”

    I tend to slam into every available tree on the downhill slope, managing to convince myself each time that I’ve made a huge mistake earlier on in the text, or that the new little thread emerging from the text is going to snap if I put too much of the story’s weight on it. I find that having sounding boards is useful, or walking, or stream-of-consciousness writing a la Morning Pages.

    I love walking, and I’m glad you have so many physical activities written on there, because I tend to find that activating my body activates my mind in ways that R&R doesn’t. In fact, just two weekends ago, Raven and I drove out to the track in front of the local hospital and walked for a good 30 minutes, brainstorming solutions (and problems) in the book I’m revising, and ideas for the one she’s writing.

    I completely agree that there’s no such thing as writer’s block, just blocked writers. Writer’s block becomes a catch-all for a plethora of issues writers contend with, and ends up making it much harder to identify the specific problem keeping a person from writing–fear, distraction, perfectionism, etc. are all completely different problems that fall under “writer’s block”, but don’t get looked at more closely because there’s a phrase.

    Actually, one of the other podcast girls and I did a YouTube Skit about Writer’s Block.

    Thanks for the great suggestions, Misty!

  • Beatriz

    Sit on the jetty at the beach. Listening to the waves, whether they are calm or angry is incredibly soothing and before I realize it I’ve untangled whatever is preventing me from moving forward.

    The other option for me is to sit around with two of my best friends and bounce ideas off them. Some days I’m convince I have only 1/3 of a brain and they are walking around with the rest.

  • Great list, Misty! Thanks!

    I’ve been having trouble with the driving one lately…I start thinking about my WIP and then I lose track of where I am and what I’m doing! Not very safe! But I have had some good ideas, and luckily I don’t drive on the freeway during my commute…

    Sometimes I find that stupid little video games, like Angry Birds, help clear my head. They don’t require a whole lot of brain power, only using the very front of the brain, leaving the back of the brain free to wander. At least that how I experience it! 🙂

  • Thanks for the ideas, Misty!

    I read through the posts on Magical Words. Seriously. When I draw a blank page stare or a blinking cursor daze, I read through my favorite writing websites/forums. The creative energy I find there helps to spur me onward.

    If that doesn’t help, I listen to some Rock Ballads or Country music. They draw ideas from my creative ether.

  • Unicorn

    I ride horses. Endlessly. A minimum of two hours a day, every single day. A good gallop blows all the bad ideas out of my head and there’s all the good stuff, all nice and glittery. Most of the time, the good ideas come when I’m brushing the horses afterwards. Brushing is satisfying and, with enough practice, pretty mindless, so the work-obsessed bit of brain can be happy and the creative bit of brain can whirr away as much as it likes. And hey, taking care of six horses entails quite a lot of physical work – happy body = happy book, in my opinion.
    Thanks for the post, Misty. Exercise is great for writing!

  • @Unicorn – So jealous right now. I rode horses a lot in middle school, but had to give it up in high school for financial reasons. At the end of University, I got a job at a ranch and loved it…then I moved to Japan. I would love to be able to go riding every day – would definitely beat the blues for me!

  • Dog walking used to do it for me, but our dog has gotten too old and infirm now, alas. Sleep helps when I can get it, and I’m often amazed to find that problems which had kept me up in an agony of uncertainty evaporate during my morning shower. The unconscious mind is sometimes a great fixer.

  • During the day, I tend to be a pacer. Luckily we have a long dining room and I do my pacing there. I’ve had to explain to our daughter what I’m doing and now when she sees me pacing and muttering to myself she says, “Daddy, are you thinking again?” If I’m not pacing I’m using my wife as a sounding board or taking a bath. The hot bath is kind of like meditation for me. Also, that old adage about doing your best thinking on the john…I guess it’s just a load off my mind. 😉 Yeah…I went there… 😉

  • Sarah

    @Unicorn – I’m so jealous you get to ride. I’d love to do that.

    I’ve gotten down right religious about my weekend hikes in the last few months. There’s something about getting out in nature and just walking that shakes out the mental and emotional tangles and sends me home ready to tackle whatever I’m dealing with. I used to think I hated exercise, but it turns out what I hated was boredom combined with untreated asthma and self consciousness. In other words, I hated gym class. Now that I’m an adult I can exercise in ways that please me and not be self conscious about it.

  • Indoors: playing Bejeweled Twist or Zumas Revenge, household chores, seriously, you’d be surprised the story ideas I’ve come up with while vacuuming or cleaning the bathtub …

    … Outdoors: bicycle riding or walking, depending on the weather, but whatever I’m doing I ALWAYS have a notebook and pencil (pens inevitably die on me)within arms reach.

  • Ed, I do the same thing when I’m watching a movie that hasn’t quite snagged me. Suddenly I’ll realize I haven’t watched the last half-hour, because the hero said something or picked up something or put on a piece of clothing and suddenly my mind was off on a roll of its own.

    LScribe said …managing to convince myself each time that I’ve made a huge mistake earlier on in the text, or that the new little thread emerging from the text is going to snap if I put too much of the story’s weight on it.

    Testify, my sister! I’ve been right there so many times. I don’t think it ever goes away – we just learn to ignore that annoying little voice and keep going.

    Bea, I absolutely agree about the waves. If only I didn’t live so far from them…

    Megan, years ago I worked at a bookstore about 30 miles from my house. On nights I closed, I would find myself so lost in thought I’d have missed the whole trip down the interstate. Eek!

  • Mark, you make us blush. I’m pleased MW can offer you energy.

    Uni, I am so jealous! I rode hunt seat and dressage when I was younger, and it’s one of the things I really wish I’d never had to give up.

    Sarah said, In other words, I hated gym class. Now that I’m an adult I can exercise in ways that please me and not be self conscious about it.
    I hated it, too. To this day the thought of playing volleyball sends shivers down my spine, because that’s all my gym teacher ever had us do. Yuck.

  • For me, sometimes all it takes is contemplating housekeeping and the flood gates open. Or cooking. Or re-weather-sealing the front porch.
    If thinking about chores doesn’t work, then actually doing them soon sends me scurrying back to the keyboard!

  • Razziecat

    Misty, the very word “volleyball” still makes me cringe!

    Sometimes I listen to music to tease an idea out of the back of my mind. Sometimes I play a simple online game or two to give my mind a rest. But mostly I find that silence, blessed silence, really helps. It’s so rare that the house is actually quiet, that I cherish those moments and try to make use of them as much as I can.

  • A. R. Gideon

    I’m an incurable pacer, so walking has always been the best way for me to think. In my house I can walk ina circle from the living room, to the kitchen, to the laundry room, to the dining room, and back to the living room. When I get stuck I walk that circuit obsessivly, to the annoyance of everyone else in the house lol.

  • doing dishes and cleaning and yardwork often give me ideas and sort me out. Much as I hate to do any of it. Well, gardening yes, but since we have such a short growing season, it means too much of the other two. Blech.

  • Unicorn

    LScribeHarris, Sarah, Misty – be jealous. Be very jealous. Few things are better than cantering across a high hillside with the wind whispering secrets in your horse’s mane, holding half a ton of spirit, muscle and joy between your hand and leg, that bright creature chewing playfully at the bit and her smooth gait giving the impression of moving ever upward… sigh… be very, very jealous.
    … on the other hand, you guys can be jealous again the next time I get bucked off. Being a horse whisperer’s apprentice means that the main skill you need is less mystic communication between the species (i. e., simple body language) and more hanging on really, really, really tightly. 😀

  • This is a fantastic post, Misty, and for me it couldn’t have come at a better time.

    I just spent most of this month focusing *only* on writing, as one of my goals for March Madness. And while I’ve come up with ways to battle the blank page (via Notepad and square brackets), it eventually came down to three things: reading, physical exercise and getting my husband more involved in this story to help me sort out the kinks. But even the last one wears thin, and this weekend I hit the wall. So I picked up a book, went to the gym, and went out partying with a friend. By the time the weekend was over, I felt so refreshed and able to get back to work. I feel great now!

  • Forgive me, Misty. The day got away from me. I started book 5 of the Jane Yellowrock series yesterday (two + pages!) and went for a paddle to clear my mind. And felt guilty for not BICing. Thank you for this post’s implied permission to be gone!
    Very timely post.

  • “Writer’s block (we’ve talked about that before, and I think most of us agree there’s really no such thing)”

    It irritates me to no end when people glibly throw out this line–and I have little doubt that it is spouted by those who have never experienced genuine writer’s block. Sure, a lot of things (most of which are various forms of procrastination) get tossed in under this label, but when you sit for hours at your appointed writing time and can produce nothing no matter how hard you try, and this becomes your lifestyle, what do you call it? Clinical depression and other emotional or physiological disorders that result in writer’s block are not simply “fear, distraction, perfectionism,, etc”. To say it doesn’t exist belittles the phenomenon and insults those struggling with it.

    (Yes, I’m being snarky, but that is one of my buttons. Sorry.)

    Other than that, good post. :\