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5 Ways to Break Writer's Block


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There’s a single location where song ideas go to die. 11,000 feet of location. Situated in Memphis TN, Ashlar Hall is an unearthly monument of corroding, apparitional decadence. Just inside the gate, muted melody lines clash face-out against the southern wind. Rallying the strength to find their way home, the refrains sing a sweet ode to escape, catch speed and suddenly vanish in the humid thick of the mystic property. 

Some say the songs hover along the conservatory windows, begging to be sang again. Others claim to have picked up a note or two, merely by being in proximity of the faux stone castle. Melody with no form. Ghost songs. No body, shape or meaning. The songs remain unwritten. And for that, they can never truly be alive. 

This is the fate of the lost song. The fractured ditty with no second verse. The tune of formless mutters. The chorus that has no home. They’re called away by the tormented stone castle. And they’re never coming back
 

… Unless, of course, you finish the song. 

Writers Block: Now in Glorious 3D

Writer's block can be bleak. It’s a patternless, senseless, “all of the sudden” defeat of your most trusted instincts. It’s as though your artistic mechanism suddenly spit a screw out. And you have no idea where it goes. 

For some of us, writer's block feels like muscle failure. While to others, not being able to conjure our muse can be more like falling into the void. Regardless of your brand of “mental lockjaw,” writer's block is terrible. Terrible, awful, horrid, gruesome and absolutely horrible. 

It’s also inevitable. 

 

It’s important that songwriters, especially those with deadlines, have ready made remedies to combat the all-but-certain times when your brain decides to vacation without you. It’s in these instances that “doing what we know to do,” is precisely the problem. We’re going to have to do something different. We need exercises that pump enough life into our concepts, in order for our heart to get invested. All in the hope that the great song machine will kick back on. Because when you’re blocked, the most important thing is not WHAT you write; it’s THAT you write. 

 

Here are some unorthodox strategies designed to get you over the “blank brain” hurdle:

 

  1. Force Yourself to Write a Bad Song

To free yourself from “Writers Prison,” the most important thing is to just start writing. With this in mind, you’re going to set out on a strange journey. Your task? Force yourself to write a bad song.
 

It’s harder than you think.


As songwriters, we spend years cultivating our process. We have routines, starting points and most of us have a structured format. None of this usually includes purposefully writing terrible material. 

Until now.

How To Do It:

 

  • Give yourself five minutes to complete the song
  • Think of a song you dislike or a genre that doesn’t appeal to you.
  • Realize the chord structure, rhythm elements and arrangement of that genre.
  • Give your terrible song a three act structure.
  • Imitating the writing style of the genre you despise, create quick lyrics that support your structure.
  • Pay attention to the genres typical arrangement style.

 

Why it Works:

 

Writing a bad song rejuvenates your creative functions and forces you to ask new questions. “Speed” writing strips away your standards and allows you to fail without the fear of consequence. As a nice bonus, you’ll quickly realize that fighting your instincts is harder than you think. This will get you thinking like yourself again and may even result in some usable material.

 

You might even walk away appreciating the genre just a little more.

 

          2.   Undo your Process

Some of us write lyrics first. For others, it’s important to create the melodic structure before we create words. Others may start our writing process by making coffee.


I’m in that group. I call it, “caffeinating the house band.
 

No matter what your process looks like, having writer's block means that it’s not working. You’ve got to break from the program and reverse engineer yourself back in the zone. This might mean writing an instrumental when you would normally start with lyrics. Or writing a short story to generate lyrical ideas - when you normally begin with the music.


Here are a few ideas to “reverse your process:”

 

  • Contact a Fiverr Session musician and have them create a track, in their favorite style, to generate ideas.

To break it up, have a bassist send you a quick idea. Have a pianist send you a “riff” groove. Get your mind thinking differently and follow the ideas as they come.
 

  • If you write lyrics first - write new words to one of your finished songs. You already have the melody. If you create the arrangement first, write a new tune to finished words.

Having a set format to generate new ideas may trigger some all new concepts that can be used in fresh ways.

 

Why it works:

Writer's block is rarely a lack of ideas. Mostly, it’s a lack of inspiration. Perhaps you’ve exhausted your normal process and you’re just not generating enough energy to catch a spark. Forcing yourself to write in interesting ways will also force you to confront interesting concepts. It may even result in meaningful collaborations.

 

 

    3.  Write Your Favorite Song Backwards:

 

What if “Ain’t No Sunshine” was about experiencing happiness over the departure of a significant other?

What if “Yesterday” told the story of looking towards the future with hope?

What if your favorite song was backward?

 

Classic songs are part of our human experience. They are vocabulary terms. The melodies become part of our soundtrack experience. Your favorite song lives with you like a body part. For this reason, there’s no better material to pick apart than your favorite song. As a professional songwriter, my job has as much to do with deconstructing music as it does constructing it. Nothing refines our musical mechanics better than to unravel a songs layers.

 

Here are some ideas to “Write Your Favorite Song Backwards:”

 

  • write the lyrics - and the opposite to those lyrics - line by line:

Focus on the “mood” words being used. Reverse circumstances involving time, actions, feelings and surroundings

 

  • Ask new questions about the characters:

Now that your story is unique to the “classic,” ask questions that may differ from the narrative. What would be surprising? What would your listener not expect?

 

  • Apply this trick to chord structure:

“Piano man” is a famously descending rock waltz. What if the chords ascended instead? You’d have an entirely different song.

 

Why it works:

Popular music is a story of creativity and experimentation. But it’s also a story of imitation and theft. Sometimes the difference between innovation and imitation is the level of belief you have in the material. After all, there’s only so many chords. Rewriting your favorite song uncovers the formula that drives popular music. It sharpens your tools and may just result in creating something entirely refreshing.

 

 

      4.  Start With the End

Here’s a simple technique that’s helpful in finishing material ... finish it.

 

In fact, finish it first.

Writers block rarely prevents us from having “ideas.” Normally it’s the expansion of these ideas that has us stumped. We haven’t asked enough questions to find resolution. For this reason, we’re going to write the ending first. Knowing how the issue resolves makes your writing more investigatory. How did it end up that way? What set off the resolution? What happened previous to the song’s ending?

 

Here are some great ways to generate endings:

 

  • Think “fairy-tale.” What are the moral ideas, lessons and themes that your characters have learned?

Learning a lesson is a great resolution. It’s also a great way to find your hook. By teaching your characters a lesson, you can create scenarios where these lessons may apply.

 

  • Think of a “Big Reveal.”

Sometimes the hardest part of “bait and switch” material is ensuring that the audience doesn’t catch on too soon. By establishing the twist ending first, it’s easier to not give yourself away as you work backward.

 

  • Write down five “resolutions” you’ve personally experienced.

List a variety of circumstances that brought you to a situation’s end. Since these real life situations have steps that you’re intimately familiar with, it should be easier to trace the steps and create a song format.

 

        5.  Make two stories meet

For the last tip to break your writer's block, I’ve included a fun - if not challenging - exercise.

 

Think of two movie premises. They might be total original concepts. Likewise, the premises could be from established films. The point is not to write a summary, you’re purposefully leaving the third act alone. Just the premise. You might write something like:  

 

“A cold drifter finds new purpose in a town suppressed my menacing leaders and hard law.”

 

Now, before you go rifling through your “southern slang” terms and preparing to write a country song, try a completely different movie premise. Don’t hunt! Take the first concept that comes to mind. Maybe you’ll get:

 

A seasoned space traveler sets out on her last journey through galactic turmoil.

 

As you can see, these two premises have almost nothing in common. Nothing except for you. Your job is to bring these two stories together.

 

Why it works:

Creating a narrative premise will force you to ask narrative questions. Far too often, songwriters search for the right “word.” It’s always better to ask broader questions. What time of day is it? What type of shirts do these characters wear? What’s their favorite songs? Specifying a character’s personality traits will inform their speech, their body language and allow you to defend their positions. Tying two stories together will encourage the process of “story” and convert your typical procedure into a persona driven quest to humanize your creations.

 

Victory Lap

Writer's block is difficult. Also, math is difficult. Fortunately, our jobs mostly consist of counting to “four.” Even more favorable is that writer's block isn’t a “locking out” of your senses. It’s more-so the mind’s way of requesting new approaches. The most important thing is to “write through it.” At its worst, writing exercises are tedious tasks that force you to think differently. At their best, you may just find a great hook, amazing lyric or excellent starting point.

 

If that doesn’t work, you just might need more coffee.

No. Not “might.”

You definitely need more coffee.

 

 

Tommy Jones is a professional “target” writer, career songwriter and session musician. He sometimes speaks in third person. His music has been featured on albums, amazon films, television, official Spotify playlists, the radio and once in a Ford Taurus. No animals were harmed in the making of Tommy Jones. Void where prohibited. Ask your Doctor if Tommy Jones is right for you. 

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