Overcoming Bumps, Blocks and Barricades

photo © Moyan Brenn, 2011

by Lynda Nash

Mellissa fancied a trip to Rome. Off she set with her suitcase full of sun dresses, her itinerary, and enough anticipation to sustain her the whole journey. She was excited – she’d done her planning, bought her Euro and fuelled her car, so what could go wrong? I recently heard that she’s hit a road block, torn up her map, and wishes she’d stayed at home and watched the travel channel instead.

But all roads lead to Rome, they say, so instead of giving up at the first hurdle Mellissa should try a different route.

Mellissa is one of my creative writing students, and I’m not really talking about expeditions to Rome.

The journey to the end of a story can be littered with plot holes, hold-ups, plans that need constant revision and, worst of all, a complete blockade. Enthusiasm will only get you so far. All writers need backup plans; all writers need strategies. Below are a few I’ve picked up on my travels from Beginning to End.


1. When you’re stuck play ‘What if…’ Ask questions, i.e.: What will happen if all the characters contract small pox? What will happen to character A if character B falls in love with character C? What if they all fall off a cliff? Write these questions in a notebook. The act of writing questions down seems to prompt the subconscious into finding answers.

2. Interview your characters. Ask them how they feel being in your story, what they think you’ve got right, what they think you got not quite right, and what they would like to happen next.

3. Write a short piece about something that happened to a character either before or after the events in the story. The past may have contributed to how they are now. Or write about something random that has happened to them. This is not intended to be part of the finished product, but you never know where it might lead.

4. Get out of your own way – let your character do the writing. This method of ‘seeing through someone else’s eyes’ (found in ‘Don’t be Afraid to get it Wrong‘) works for describing people and there’s no reason it shouldn’t work for narrative too. When you let someone other than yourself do the work you’ll be less inclined to criticise the prose or the process.

5. As self-help author Susan Jeffers said: feel the fear and do it anyway. Writing is scary – you can’t always see where you’re going or what may be lurking around the corner. Hiding under the bedclothes won’t save you, the monster will still be waiting when you reappear. Stand up and be valiant, you may find the problem isn’t as bad as you’d imagined.

6. Let yourself off the hook. One sure way to frighten off The Muse is to sit there beating yourself with a big stick because you can’t think of precisely the right words to put in precisely the right order. Do not underestimate the shitty first draft (thank you Anne Lamott and Bird by Bird) – give yourself permission to make mistakes. Rome wasn’t built in a day and nor was great literature written.

7. Write out of sync. Begin in the middle of a scene or start at the end. You are the boss, you can write the story in any order you fancy. Who cares if your story resembles a patchwork quilt, you can assemble it cohesively when it’s finished.

8. Ernest Hemingway had a good policy. He learnt ‘never to empty the well of [his] writing, but always to stop when there was still something there in the deep part of the well, and let it refill at night from the springs that fed it’. Too many writers – myself included – write until we’re dry, spend all night worrying that we can’t think of what else to write and the following day face the work-in-progress with trepidation. Far better to stop mid-sentence, make a few notes and spend the night looking forward to tomorrow’s writing session.

9. Have you really hit a block or is the internet more interesting? The world wide web is not a cure for lack of inspiration – it is a breeder of procrastination. If you find yourself straying to the web at the first sign of a bump in the writerly road then there are programmes out there that will help. I use a freeware called Cold Turkey, which blocks access to the sites you chose, for however long you chose. Freeing yourself from the internet can be a tremendous boost to your productivity.

10. If all else fails… get a pen and a large piece of paper, draw a spidergram and play ‘What if…’ on a grander scale. How many scenarios you can get from one story idea or plot point? Follow each line of thought to its logical conclusion. Some lines will produce clear story threads, others may not. Work on the most interesting one and discard the rest. You may find your problem will go from having no idea what to write to having too many ideas. But that’s not a bad thing.


Remember that writing should be enjoyable:

Writing is fun!

Write this on a piece of card, in large letters, and stick it above your desk. If you don’t have a desk, stick a Post-it note on your laptop screen. Read it every time you look up. It should be your mantra. I dislike Parmesan cheese. I wouldn’t eat it if you paid me. If writing becomes your Parmesan cheese then don’t do it. Walk away and take up the violin or pasta making. The plight of the self-tortured writer sweating over words in an attic, living on air and dreams of large advances is so passare…

The only way out of a writing block is through. Crash through that proverbial barrier, keep your eyes on your map and your focus on your destination. You’ll get there, I promise – cross-eyed, exhausted and in need of a large glass of Campari, but at least you’ll be able to bask in the satisfaction that you have arrived.


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