In my last writing post, I talked about fighting the Don't Wannas -- a variation of writer's block when the problem is not so much not knowing what to write as it is not really wanting to write. But what if you really don't know what to write, if you eagerly sit down at the keyboard (or paper) and can't seem to make the words come?
There are a number of reasons this can happen, and some of the same techniques can work on all of them.
One thing that can happen isn't so much that you don't know what to write but that it's getting crowded out by everything else in your head, so it feels like you don't have anything to say about this project. You're poised to write the next scene, but all you can think about is your grocery list, menu planning for the week, that vacation you'd like to take next year, that other story idea that just popped into your head, etc. The story you're working on is still in there, but it's drowned out by all the noise.
A good way to deal with that is to do a brain dump and get rid of the extraneous stuff. Take a moment and write down your grocery list, your menu plans, vacation ideas, the other story ideas. Don't get too carried away and start researching your vacation or getting out cookbooks to plan menus. Just write down everything that comes to mind. You can do this by focusing on the specific thing that's distracting you or by doing freewriting, where you write for a certain amount of time or a certain amount of pages, just writing whatever pops into your head, whether or not it makes sense. When you do that, you may find that you're thinking more clearly and are more able to focus. By the end of your freewriting session, you may have come back around to writing about your work in progress and what you want to happen next because you'll have cleared everything else out of your mind.
If you're just stuck, whether it's having no idea what happens next or being torn between possibilities, it can help to go back and re-read what you've already written. Start by going back a chapter or so, but if you're really stuck, it's often because something has gone wrong further back in the book and your subconscious can't move forward from where you are because it's all wrong, so you may need to go back to the beginning. I'm a big advocate of writing straight through instead of getting bogged down in making things perfect, but there are times when the only way to salvage a story is to go back and fix things. There's no point in pushing forward down the wrong path. Even if you don't have to make major changes, going back to the beginning helps you put the book into perspective because then you can experience it like a reader does, in much bigger chunks. It can take days, weeks, or even months to write what a reader goes through in hours. Re-reading can give you ideas for moving forward and can revive your enthusiasm for the project.
Another block-busting trick is to make a list of things that could happen next. Make yourself fill a whole sheet of paper. Some of the ideas are going to be silly, but as you keep going, you're forcing yourself to think more deeply and you may come up with some possibilities. This is another good use of freewriting, just forcing yourself to keep writing about your story until you've filled a certain number of pages or used up a certain amount of time.
If you're torn between possibilities, try outlining or sketching out both ways it could go and then listing where it could go from there. I sometimes find that it helps to open a new file or to use pen and paper when I'm uncertain about where I'm going. It feels like less of a commitment to the actual book. I'm just playing around with possibilities, not writing something in the book, and that limits the fear and restraint that comes with writer's block. If I like it, I can add it to the book.
If you know something that will happen down the line but are struggling with how to get from where you are to where you're going, write that future scene and see if you can reverse engineer. I know of writers who are entirely nonlinear, who just write the scenes as they come to them and then put them in order and create transitions later. You can try that if writing linear scenes isn't working for you.
One thing that helps me prevent both the Don't Wannas and writer's block is to end my writing sessions on a cliffhanger rather than neatly at the end of the scene, and then make some notes about what happens next. That makes me more eager to start writing the next day, and I already know how to start my writing session. It's usually easier to start the day by finishing a scene than by trying to start one, and I find that once I'm writing, it keeps flowing. Starting is the hard part.