“All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence you know.” – Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast.”
I think writer’s block, or page fright as I like to think of it, is probably a young man’s disease. I know I had it bad when I was in my 20s and bouts of it had the potential to drive me to distraction. Looking back on it, it seems obvious that writer’s block at that age is less about artistic torment than simply not having lived long enough to have a depth of experience worth writing about.
In order to break that block, I took Hemingway’s advice rather literally. Whenever I got blocked on something, whether it was getting started or finishing a chapter or what have you, I would type the following sentence:
“In the morning, the women went down to the water.”
That was it. Every time, same sentence. It never failed. It didn’t matter if I was in the middle of writing about a one legged man climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, I wrote that sentence and it somehow aligned my neurons or blew out my cobwebs or reiterated my internal voice or whatever it did and I would be off and running again.
The only time that sentence ever failed me was when I ran out of story before the end. I’ve never been much of an outliner and I rarely know how the story is going to end when I begin a first draft, so it isn’t rare that I get two or three hundred pages into a novel and just have to stop until I’m struck by a bolt from the blue that contains the ending. It’s a sloppy way to write and certainly not one I endorse but it seems to be the way my brain works.
The other thing that has helped me get through the blocks since I started my second assault on a writing career is that I keep multiple novels in play at all times. It sounds crazy, but it actually makes a kind of sense. Not writing regularly derailed my first attempt at a writing career so when I decided to try again, I made myself a promise that I would write every damn day. Not every day. Every damn day. And I keep to that rule better than any other in my life. Especially speed limits.
An unintended consequence of obeying this rule occurs when I run out of story before the end of a draft. The worst thing I can do is to force myself to continue. You get some really dry toast doing that, my friends. You have to drop it temporarily. But what are you going to do when the appointed hour rolls around tonight? You start another book. You write, “In the morning, the women went down to the water” and you stare at that for fifteen minutes and then you plunge into one of the other stories rattling around in the back of your head.
I have over a dozen novels that are one half to three quarters done and will stay that way forever. For one reason or another, the rest of the story never came to me on them. Does that mean writing them was a waste of time? Oh, hell no. I am the world’s most energetic self-plagiarizer. Any character, line, incident or sound effect from one of my dead novels is fair game for inclusion in a new novel. Plus, all that experience creating characters, writing dialogue, and working plot points pays benefits later on.
But the benefit of this is that when I get blocked on one story I just peruse the others until something catches my attention or I’m struck by a possibility and then I plunge back in. Does it work? For me, yeah.