By Annabeth Leong
I want to get very specific with this prompt. When I am staring at a blank page, or at a blinking cursor, the question on my mind is quite literally, “What should I write next?”
That can feel so paralyzing, so I want to share some of my tricks for dealing with that.
The Sensual Solution
What does the viewpoint character see? Hear? Taste? Smell? Feel? I used to regularly do a combination writing exercise/meditation in which I took a walk and focused on describing what I was experiencing through each of my five senses. Then when I returned, I would take out a notebook, set a timer, and write out those impressions with the most accurate descriptions I could.
I later found that the practice calms me, and whenever I’m distressed or anxious, it can help me to take this sort of sensory inventory.
If I’m in the middle of a story, facing a blinking cursor, it never hurts me to consider and write down details of the character’s physical surroundings. Once I get going with description, that can sometimes get my writing moving more generally. I can go back later and cut the description, or move it to a more sensible place, or leave it in if it’s appropriate where it is.
If I’m starting a new story, it’s a good idea to set the scene anyway.
The Time Travel Solution
Maybe I don’t know what the character is going to do next, but I might know what they’re going to do at some time in the future. There’s no law that says I have to write each sentence consecutively, in the exact order the reader will encounter them.
When I worked as a reporter, I often felt a lot of fear when I sat down to write a story. I particularly froze up trying to come up with a lede (the “punchy” intro that’s supposed to grab a reader’s attention—I have punchy in quotes because I have never heard that word outside the context of journalism and it’s always seemed odd to me).
What I eventually discovered was that I tended to be much less nervous about writing paragraphs toward the end of the story, when I summarized the conclusions reached by what I had written about and quoted final commentary from my sources. I learned to start there, and then write toward the lede. So, most of my articles were written conclusion first, followed by quotes from secondary sources, followed by the technical description that made up the bulk of the body, followed by the lede. If, while I was writing the stuff that would come later, I thought of anything that might work as a lede, I tossed a quick note about that possibility up toward the top of my file.
That’s a description of a process of nonfiction writing, but similar principles can apply when writing fiction. I really don’t like for my endings to feel rushed. If I’m under deadline, I often write what I expect to be the last passage earlier in the process, and then work on the middle until time runs out.
And when I’m stuck and uncertain of what comes next, sometimes I jump to a later point in the story. Am I dying to get to the sex scene? Maybe I should just write it now and then work up to it.
An added benefit of this approach in fiction is that it can give me a clue about where my writing might be flagging. Is it possible to cut some of the material that bogged me down? Start the story later?
Alternatively, sometimes when I’m writing a scene that’s supposed to take place later in the story’s timeline, a character will say or do something that makes it clear what needs to have happened at the point where I got stuck.
What’s important is to write something next, rather than giving up and closing the file, or surfing away into the deep waters of the internet.
The Contemplative Solution
What is the viewpoint character thinking right now? A story might be a drag to read if it’s written with too much internal monologue, but writing about what’s going on inside the main character’s head can get the cursor moving and suggest what action might be taken next. Some internal monologue might be good to leave in, and sometimes, depending on the situation, writing about what the character is thinking can lead to an idea of what the character might say to whoever is in the scene with them.
Sometimes, I’ll freewrite on a notebook or in a separate file. Sometimes I’ll type in my main file with the idea that I can cut the passage of internal monologue if it becomes repetitive or superfluous.
The Slow Solution
Really, all any writer is doing at any given moment is trying to type a sentence. That can get lost, though, amid various word count goals or larger viewpoints. Sometimes, it helps me to slow way down and remember the sentence right in front of me.
Lana Fox taught me an exercise where you set a timer and just spend five minutes on one sentence. It’s a lovely feeling to take slow breaths and really sink into this one small picture you’re painting with words.
Sometimes, I do one round of that and it unlocks me. Sometimes I’ll write whole passages that way. What’s funny is, even if you’re spending five minutes on each sentence, they add up. And you still end up writing a lot more than if you let yourself give up or get distracted.
The Superlative Solution
I once wrote a trilogy of short stories by asking myself at each turn, “What would be the stupidest possible thing for the character to do next?” I’m not sure how successful those stories were, but the question was interesting and it got me moving. I would suggest trying out various questions and looking for the ones that grab your attention.
What would be the kindest possible thing for the character to do next? The bravest? The meanest? The most surprising? The most obvious?
What this technique does is get me out of worrying and back into telling a story, which I think is about being interested in getting to know these people you’re writing about and, yes, wondering what they’re going to do next.
I hope some of these tricks are helpful to someone. I’ve used them all at one time or another, but if there’s anything I know about writing, it’s that you have to stay on your toes all the time. I am always having to come up with new tricks to keep things moving, but that’s part of what I like about this thing we do.