I was taught about free writing many years ago as a journaling technique (and it works for that too) but I’ve found it to be incredibly valuable for coming up with ideas, and for figuring out how to fix plot flaws or stalls.
First you need a pen and paper. It can maybe be done on a keyboard, if you write extremely slowly, but it isn’t nearly effective. Your handwriting doesn’t need to be neat or even particularly readable. Get a pen that flows well, and the paper should be at least 8×10–no tiny little notebooks or napkins for this. You have to feel like you have all the room in the world–a regular spiral notebook like you used in school is perfect.
Make sure you’re not going to disturbed for a while. You want to make sure you can do this for at least thirty minutes without interruption. For me, Starbucks is perfect for this (as long as you’re wearing headphones) because you can just turn off your phone. At home, people might walk in or you might feel the need to check on the Internet. But of course you can do it at home or anywhere else you prefer. Just maybe not at work, or in front of the TV.
Put the pen on the paper, and start writing everything that comes into your head. Not just ideas for your project, but all of your internal dialogue as well. As in: “Okay, I need to come up with an idea for this short story I’ve been asked to write, about pineapples. I have no ideas. This is awful. All right. What do I know about pineapples? Well, they grow in Hawaii, right? Maybe I could do a story set in Hawaii? I’ve never been to Hawaii though. I’ve seen it on TV a lot. There was the Brady Bunch episode in Hawaii. Probably not enough to set a story there. So maybe I could do a story about someone who has moved here from Hawaii, and is homesick, and becomes obsessed with pineapples as a way to deal with the homesickness? That could work. I’ve been homesick. Boarding school was horrible. Maybe they’re at boarding school? Okay, then what? Well, maybe there is some kind of crime syndicate operating in the new town and she uncovers it because of her obsession with pineapples. No, wait, maybe she gets a job working with pineapples and that’s how she stumbles upon it, because they’re using pineapples in their crimes. Why would that ever happen. All right, so maybe…”
Basically, you’re letting your entire thought process spill out onto the paper, and by doing that you’re harnessing it. If you only try to write down the good ideas, or the ideas you recognize as workable, you’ll miss the tiny little sparks that could burn into big ideas.
It sometimes takes a long time. You’ll be writing “I don’t know. That’s stupid. Why can’t I come up with anything? What time is it? Oh man, I only have an hour” for what seems like forever. But: it works. It really does. All of a sudden one tiny little piece of an idea will connect with another, and a whole, brilliant idea will come pouring out of you like a stopper has been pulled. It’s the most amazing feeling, like a miraculous release.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sat down with literally no ideas AT ALL other than “I want to write a YA novel” and stood up with characters and a fully-formed plot.
It works just as well when you can’t figure out a problem in something you’re writing. Your brain will be noodling on it, but sitting down and writing every little thing you’re thinking somehow makes all the ideas you have fall into place.
The important thing to remember is that no one–NO ONE–but you will ever read this stuff. That’s part of why I like to do it in cursive in a notebook rather than typing it–no one COULD read that. So you can write down every bad idea you have in order to make room for the good ideas, and no one will ever know.
It’s one of those things you might have to try to really believe in, but I can’t recommend it strongly enough. Just make sure you commit to really doing it, with time and a whole lot of large empty pieces of lined paper.
Oh, and when I first learned how to do this, back when it was a method for journal, the people who taught me were big on lighting a candle and playing baroque music while doing it. You can listen to Vivaldi on your ipod if you want, but should probably only do the candle thing if you’re at home. Or write in a place that has candles on the table, maybe.