Guest Post: 7 ways to overcome writer’s block – Part 2 by Polly James

5 Jul

Today I’m delighted to welcome Polly James to One More Page with the second part of her guest post on ways to overcome writer’s block. You can find the first part of this post on lovely Ananda’s blog: This Chick Reads. Polly James was born in Wales, but now lives in East Anglia, which she finds unnervingly flat, and chock-full of writers. She works as an editor, but has had a variety of different jobs, ranging from teaching dance, and designing clothes, to being an advisor for the CAB and a caseworker for two different Members of Parliament. She has found something to laugh about in all of them. Polly is married, with two children, and a large extended family, none of whom find her half as funny as she thinks she is. Would Like to Meet is Polly’s second novel and is out now from Avon. Welcome Polly!

polly jamesThe trouble with having no ideas is that you need ideas to beget ideas, if that’s not the most confusing sentence ever written. I’ve spent many hours staring hopelessly at a screen myself, but now I doubt that writer’s block really exists. (I know that’s another supremely confusing statement, especially when I’m supposed to be suggesting ways to deal with it, but bear with me.)

What I’m trying to say is that I’ve proved to myself time and time again that, if you have to write, then you can always find something to write about, even if that something seems completely bonkers at first glance.

The secret is to learn how to generate ideas while preventing yourself becoming overwhelmed by writer’s block, which may sound illogical when I’ve just questioned if it even exists – but that doesn’t matter, if you believe it does.  While you remain convinced it’s affecting you, it’ll stop you writing even if it is just a figment of your imagination, so here are my tips for dealing with it, and for sparking ideas when you can’t think of any.

4, Eavesdrop like mad, and write down anything interesting you overhear.

One of my Creative Writing tutors at university was the novelist Elspeth Barker, who’s the owner of quite possibly the sexiest voice in the UK, along with a wicked sense of humour.

She always carries a notebook everywhere she goes, in which she notes down snippets of conversations she overhears. (She even used to pause in the middle of teaching a class sometimes, to give her time to write down something amusing a student had just said.)

One of Elspeth’s favourite writing exercises was to give each student three of these overheard sentences from her seemingly-vast collection. She selected the sentences quite at random and they were all totally unrelated to each other, too. (She gave no indication of their context, either.)

Each student then had to write a story which included all the three sentences that they’d been given, which led to a really diverse range of narratives, along with some brilliant comic scenes. To give you an example, I was given this absolute gem as one of my three lines: “It’s hard to find the centre of gravity on a basset hound”.

I still use a similar technique to Elspeth’s whenever I run out of ideas, though I’ve had to adjust it a bit to allow for the fact that I’m partially deaf, which makes overhearing conversations a bit of a challenge to say the least. (I do have hearing aids, but they amplify background noise as much as speech, so listening to conversations you aren’t meant to hear is tricky in noisy public places.)

My solution to the annoying deafness thing is to use out-of-context lines that I’ve read on social media instead, but you could easily try a combination of both. This exercise can be a lot of fun, and it also forces you to be experimental in terms what you write about. Just pick three lines at random and off you go.

5. Play Lucky Dip.

The best writing exercises are like solving a puzzle, so I find them really useful for switching my focus away from panicking about writer’s block and onto what I should be doing – writing something. Here’s another exercise that Elspeth Barker sometimes sets in class, which really gets you thinking and can produce results just as diverse as her ‘three lines’ one.

First you have to create your Lucky Dip, which requires 60-90 blank strips of paper and three separate containers. Divide the paper strips into three piles and then write a series of different jobs or occupations onto each strip in pile one. Chuck those into the first container and label it “Occupations”.

Once you’ve done that, write a series of different locations onto each strip of paper in the second pile. Dump those into the second container and label that “Locations”. (The most memorable location I was given while doing the this exercise with Elspeth was “at the edge of a cliff”.)

Finally, write a different but brief description of a character on each of the remaining strips of paper, such as “man, one leg, early fifties”. Then put those strips into the last container and label that “Characters”. (I’ve always been good at stating the bleeding obvious.)

Then comes the fun part. Pick one strip out of each container, without looking at them first. Once you’ve finished, you have your main character, his or her occupation, and a location. Your task now is to write a short story or scene featuring all three, but if that’s not challenging enough, you can always complicate things further by setting further conditions, such as adding another set of strips that specify a particular colour that you must work into the story in some way.

6. Feed the right side of your brain.

Not the ‘right’ side as in the one that hopefully makes correct decisions, but the actualright side of your brain, the one responsible for creative thinking.

I have a theory that your creative brain is a bit like a savings account, though actually that’s a useless analogy as my savings account has been standing empty for so long that the bank itself no longer exists. I’ll start again.

Your creative brain needs creative stuff put into it before there’s anything available to withdraw, so it’s more like a bank account without an overdraft facility, when you’ve got the worst credit rating in the universe.

You might think reading would be enough to fill up this creative bank account, but although I love to read and am never without a book by the side of my bed, reading other people’s work isn’t always enough to inspire me to write myself. In fact, it can sometimes make me feel more inadequate and thus more blocked, so that’s when I turn to other forms of creative activity instead.

Painting and drawing are obviously great, and even those adult colouring books can help, but you don’t have to be an artist to engage in creative activity to top up your ideas bank. Look at paintings and other artworks online, but spread your net far wider, too. Watch great movies, listen to music, and don’t forget about the more ‘mundane’ or underrated creative activities, as well.

I’m the world’s worst cook but I still find that cooking engages my creative brain, and my latest enthusiasm is gardening, which calms me down and shuts up that infuriating inner voice that goes on and on about J. D. Salinger and how I’ll never be able to write again.

While my brain is engaged in these other forms of creation, something seems to happen to flick a switch and when I return to my desk to try to write, all of a sudden the ideas start coming thick and fast. I really recommend trying this yourself.

7. Use images to spark ideas.

While we’re on the subject of art, I know lots of writers who use paintings and other forms of art to spark ideas, and who swear by this technique to aid their own creative processes.

Buy a set of those art postcards (or choose a painting a day from one of the world’s great art galleries by visiting their websites), then write a story based on it. It worked for Tracy Chevalier, after all. Apparently, the idea for Girl With A Pearl Earring was sparked by a print she had on a wall in her house.

Thank you Polly!

Find out more about Polly and her writing at:

would like to meetCould the worst thing that’s ever happened to Hannah Pinkman also turn out to be one of the best?

She and her husband Dan have reached the end of the line. Bored with the same gripes, the same old arguments – in fact, bored with everything–they split up after a trivial row turns into something much more serious.

Now Hannah has to make a new life for herself, but that’s not easy. She’s been so busy being a wife and mum that she’s let all her other interests slip away, along with her friends. And when Hannah is persuaded to join a dating site, her ‘best match’ is the very last person she expects it to be . . .

A clever, funny and poignant novel about life after a long relationship, the importance of friendship, and rediscovering your identity.

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