So much of writing is about starting. Getting those first few words down on the blank page or screen. Getting unstuck. Solving some problem — a scene that feels stagy or false, a knot in the plot that won’t come unknotted. A character enters a room then … what?
In 1974, the musician Brian Eno and painter Peter Schmidt first published Oblique Strategies, a tool for unlocking creative blocks. This was a printed deck of cards, each containing a short, cryptic, Zen-like koan meant to jostle the artist’s thinking and spark the creative process: “Use an old idea,” “Honour thy error as a hidden intention,” “Work at a different speed.” The idea was that the artist, frozen with indecision or out of ideas altogether, could draw a card at random, read the mysterious phrase, and somehow the creative machine would stir to life. (You can shuffle through all the cards here.)
I have always loved the idea of Oblique Strategies, but I never felt that Eno’s and Schmidt’s original messages fit me very well. All artists have their idiosyncrasies and weaknesses, their particular ways of getting snarled up. In order to work for me, oblique strategies have to target my individual, habitual ways of getting stuck. It’s like getting a shot: what’s in the needle depends on the infection you’ve got.
So here are my oblique strategies. I’ve never bothered to put them down on cards, but I have always kept a list of them, which I refer to all the time. My strategies are a little less “oblique” than the originals, less out-of-leftfield, because they are not particularly concerned with stimulating ideas. Generally my problem is not lack of ideas; it is an inability to get the ideas out of my head and down onto the page. I have the syrup, as Gertrude Stein said of Glenway Wescott, “but it does not pour.” I’ll leave my list here, for my own reference and maybe yours. Hopefully they will help some writer someday. If not, try the originals or try writing your own.
- Be professional and productive, not great, not even original
- Think quantity: the goal is to complete as many novels as possible
- Don’t overcomplicate the problem — look for the simple, obvious solution
- Go back to your template stories
- Always be starting
- Lower your standards
- Take a walk
- The hero must act
- Don’t fucking procrastinate
- The hero drives the plot
- Don’t be secretive — discuss the problem
- Work outside your habits
- Believe in yourself and in your project
- Get over yourself — your book just isn’t that important
- Ask for help
- Make them care by making yourself care
- The problem contains the solution
- Stay up all night
- Prepare slowly and cautiously, write fast and reckless
- Change speeds: compress a long scene, expand a short scene
- Abandon the plan
- Nothing clever or abstract, just simple physical actions: a character walks on stage, then what does she do?
- Look outward: read books, watch movies. Don’t try to out-think the problem. The answer will be found outside your own head.