There's a lot of writing advice that tends to float around, and I'm firmly of the opinion that even the best advice doesn't work for everyone. I generally am willing to try just about anything that might improve my work, so I thought I'd do a roundup of things I've tried and how they work for me, which may help others figure out what might work for them.
1) Morning pages
Back in the late 90s, a book called The Artist's Way was all the rage in writing circles. It was all about unlocking creativity. I tried it and stalled, mostly because I found it to be kind of victimy -- it's about finding and blaming all the people who've kept you from being creative. I figured out that I'm the only one I can really blame, and I didn't think that writing nasty letters to myself was going to help matters. One element of the program that really caught traction even among people who didn't bother with the rest of the program was something called "morning pages." The idea was that you could clear your mind by handwriting three pages of whatever came to mind, first thing in the morning. It was kind of like a diary, but with no structure or topic, just whatever popped up.
I've tried this a few times, and I never got very far. I'm not a morning person, so the first thoughts in my head are along the lines of, "uhhhhhhhh," and who needs three pages of that? I've tried a few modifications, like doing the pages after breakfast or before I sat down to work for the day.
While it still didn't stick, there are elements from it that I have used. When it comes to brainstorming, having a set amount of space you have to fill so that you have to keep going even after you think you've found what you want is a good idea. The best ideas come after you push past your first impulses. I've used the three pages thing in brainstorming characters, forcing myself to fill at least three pages with information about a character, even if some of the stuff I add to fill space might get silly. There's a similar technique of making a list of 20 things, and you have to keep going to 20 even if you think you've found your answer.
A brain dump can also be handy on a distracted day. If you're trying to work and your thoughts are straying, get out a piece of paper and write down what's on your mind. This is great for that shiny new idea that pops up when you're in the middle of a first draft -- you get the idea out of your head, and it's generally obvious then that you don't have enough to start writing then and there, so you may as well finish the current project. It's also good for other distractions -- to-do lists, hypothetical vacation plans or anything else that starts spinning around in your head to the point you can't find your story anymore.
So, while I don't make a habit of morning pages, freewriting can be a useful technique for either brainstorming or clearing your mind. I use it on an as-needed basis.
2) Collaging, mind-mapping, etc.
Another trend that swept through writing circles a while ago was the idea of organizing your thoughts visually by making collages of images related to a story or doing some form of mind-mapping. The success of this will depend on what your thinking/learning style is. It seems like it's a good way for non-plotters to do some pre-writing planning. It's also good for visual people or possibly to force non-visual thinkers to get more specific about visuals. I have to admit that it's never worked for me. I occasionally find images that resonate with me, and I do have some mental casting, sometimes (but not always). I'm more likely to do a soundtrack -- a kind of music collage that helps me get into the emotions of a book. It's worth trying to see if it lends anything to your process, but don't feel like you have to spend the time if it's not doing anything for you because it can be very time-consuming.
3) The Hero's Journey
This swept through the writing world like wildfire in the late 90s, probably because of Christopher Vogler's book The Writer's Journey (and I believe he spoke at a widely attended conference, which helped spread it). He took the hero's journey from the work of Joseph Campbell and distilled it for modern fiction writers. The structure has come under a lot of fire as being formulaic, and you can sometimes tell when a writer was perhaps too consciously using it without maybe understanding it, but I have to say that I owe my current writing career to this concept. I really didn't understand plot until I heard someone speak on this and then bought the book. I've since read the Campbell book, which involves a lot of Jungian theories, and then I've gone on to read and study a lot of Jung, and it just clicks for me. I'm a lot less slavish to it than I was in the beginning, but it makes for a great jumping-off point in creating a plot, as well as a way of checking a plot that isn't working. But I think to really make it work without coming across as formulaic, you have to delve into it. If you just have the list of stages of the journey and go from there without getting into the elements behind those stages, it's probably not going to work as well.
This may be more prevalent in the romance writing world, where a lot of Romance Writers of America chapters sponsor contests as fundraisers and the national organization sponsors a manuscript contest, but I've seen contests hailed as a fast track to publication. I have seen people get a boost from a contest that got a manuscript in front of an editor or agent, but I suspect the editor or agent would have been interested in that manuscript, regardless. Sometimes publisher-sponsored contests with publication as a prize offer far worse contract terms than you'd get from submitting, so it's important to read the fine print. I've also seen writers get so caught up in the contest whirl that they never manage to get anything published. They polish their synopsis and first three chapters in a way that's going to appeal to contest judges, win a lot of awards, but never sell a book. I've been part of conversations among agents who say that they seldom get anything they want from a contest because the things that tend to win the preliminary round are often bland -- they make it past the first level of judges because they tick off certain boxes on a form, while the really interesting stuff probably violates some unwritten "rule" that means at least one judge will hate it, so the editors and agents judging the final round never see the stuff they'd find interesting.
However, some contests can be good for giving feedback or giving a boost when you need it. I sold fairly quickly, so I was rendered ineligible for most writing contests before I got going, but I did win a couple of manuscript contests that gave me an emotional boost. They had nothing to do with me selling a book or moving up in the publishing world -- in fact, I never sold those books -- but when I was just starting, the mere fact that someone thought my work was good gave me the encouragement to keep trying. So, even if the contest isn't going to get your work on the desk of a top editor, it may be worth it to give it a shot, as long as you keep your expectations reasonable.
If you're looking for a contest, here's a plug for one from an organization I'm involved with. The science fiction convention FenCon sponsors a short-story contest every year. You'll find the rules here: http://www.fencon.org/story.html. There's also a contest for young writers in grades 3-12. Here's the info: http://www.fencon.org/youngauthor.html. This isn't going to be your ticket to fame and fortune, but you might get some pleasant validation.