Struggling to write a scene

Part two of two

This is how you do it: you sit down at the keyboard and you put one word after another until it’s done. It’s that easy, and that hard.

Neil Gaiman

Welcome back! Now that the weekend is over, and the first suggestion of having a tipple to relax and write isn’t always advantageous for a Monday morning, let’s look at another idea in detail…

Tip number two: power through!

Power through? I thought the point of this was to help when I can’t just power through? Isn’t this nonsense advice?

Well, fear not young Padawan, the point of this particular pointer is really to help you when you can power through and a break isn’t actually required. It’s my number one tip really, but I put alcohol first as fun break from the hard-talk about writer’s block, so really the order is ineffable and not really numbered for which is the most important. For this advice to work however, it’s vital to know yourself well enough to realise when you need a break from working (because even if you love writing, putting something together from nothing is still a labour of love) and when you simply can’t be bothered with the toil today.

It happens! In the past it’s happened to me for literal months on end, and guess what? Because I couldn’t be bothered writing; felt like I deserved a break since I had somehow done enough despite not finishing anything, then nothing was written and in turn I achieved nothing. No sudden talent improvements. No increased word count. No novel or poetry anthology sprung up from the ground in awe of my nothing-written-ness. Nothing happened and I stagnated when I could have been practising. But breaks are healthy. Taking a break for months on end, for the most part, are not. Compare writing to work or exercise: if you stopped either for six months, you’d know about it one way or another. If you start treating writing the same way, then you’ll see results in your talent and eye for what you like in your writing improving. Reading widely helps this also and if you are taking a break from your project for a few days or weeks, then reading is the best way to mitigate any losses and keep learning during your break. It makes you aware of what you like and dislike stylistically, amongst other things. If you want to know more about the benefits of reading and some close reading examples, let me know in the comments and I’ll do a post on it!

So back to the original point: how to power through when you’re struggling to write what you need to?

The answer is to simply not write about the thing you need to write about. Stuck in the middle of a scene? Jump to another. Sick to death of writing your fantasy novel? Write a snippet of something modern day. Dialogue dying a dreadful death desperately decoding how normal people speak? Describe everything around you.

It sounds counterintuitive, but sometimes the best thing you can do is keep writing and often you will find something in there sparks your creativity for the original problem and you will go back to it organically. Worst case scenario, you’ve practised rather than stopping writing and have a drabble of potentially useful descriptions, dialogue, stanzas or scenes you might be able to use at a later date – even if you only use snippets.

As much fun and aesthetically pleasing as typewriters are, as note making tools they’re not ideal compared to modern technology or pen and paper. Don’t believe me? Try typing on one late at night and wait for your roommates or neighbours to thank you in the morning…
Image: TheFearlessReader.

So other than powering through or playing out the tortured intellectual aesthetic typing while hunched over in a dim room with a chipped whiskey glass loosely in one hand, what tips do you have for anyone struggling to write a scene?

First off, having the determination to ask yourself that is the first step. Most people will have a great idea, then when you ask them what they’ve written there’s no words to a page anywhere. I’m not talking about War and Peace or Lord of the Rings here, just a few scribbles on scrap paper, using the notes app on your phone or a Word doc where you dump your ideas are all good ways to give yourself solid progress to start from.

Why is writing down your favourite ideas important? If it’s that good, won’t I just remember it?

To be fair, there are plenty of people who remember reams of characters and locations for their setting and can recall these things even years later without writing much, if anything, down. On the flip side, you have those of us who struggle to remember what we had for dinner yesterday – even when we were the one who cooked it… Now apply that logic of being unable to recall the details of something that not only happened yesterday, but also keeps you alive, to the chances of you being able to remember that exact phrase you nailed for dialogue in the shower. Unfortunately, the chances are that without writing that down, you will forget it; even if you’re one of the people blessed with better than average memory and able to remember yesterday’s dinner.

So let’s say you have a fantastic idea, and being a fantastic idea you’ll probably have it in a place where it’s difficult to write stuff down – at work, in the shower or when you’re all set for the night in bed – and you think “I’ll write it down later/in the morning. I’m sure I won’t forget this since it’s so great”.

Spoilers: the chances are that you will forget it.

The best thing to do when you get an idea is to write it down. It’s simple, yet effective. In bed? Put a notepad and pen on your bedside table or under your pillow. In the shower? Shout for Siri or Cortana to write it for you. In work? Provided you’re not wrist-deep in someone’s chest cavity, handling toxic chemicals or driving, you can probably just take a sneaky moment to scribble on some scrap paper, note in your phone or open a new Word doc to jot down your thoughts.

How does jotting down random thoughts and ideas help me write a scene, you’re asking? Keep enough of these random scribbles, preferably gathered together in one or two places (half digitally and half physically) and you’ve got a bona fide treasure trove of ideas and inspiration to open up and flick through when you’re stuck. Sure that weird phrase you heard someone say in a coffee shop four years ago might not help you describe an alien planet or a romantic scene in your fanfiction, but the other hundred notes might have a seed of an idea to use. If you have the resource there, it can only be more helpful than not having anything at all.

To conclude with, below are a few bullet points for what to do when you’re struggling to write a scene. Let me know in the comments which you find helpful, or if there more that you would add!

A handy list of things that usually help when struggling to write a scene:

  • Relax – in whatever way(s) do it best for you
  • Power through – edit out the worst bits later
  • Write something different for a while
  • Write the outcome and work backwards – sometimes you recreate the scene in a much more interesting way than originally planned
  • People have five senses – try using a different sense for descriptions
  • Add a problem
  • Change the perspective
  • Write smut
  • Do some research on the scene – psychology, the era, technology, myths, read a similar author’s work
  • Try writing prompts – there are loads free on the ‘net or make your own that are more personal and relevant to your story

I hope this two-part post helps at least a few people in motivating you through any creative or motivational struggles. It can be hard work writing, but the satisfaction of finishing something that you alone have made is one hell of a reward, so keep with it!

You’ve got this.

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