1) Fill the tanks with ideas from other creative sources. The most important part of this is making sure you watch or read something new. Read a book, watch a movie, listen to some new music, etc. It's all going to add up in the back of your brain into something new.
2) Fill the tanks with ideas from real life. Tolkien created LotR from religion, Nordic, Finnish, and Greek influences. Find a topic you really like and go deep. If you find it interesting then you can make it an interesting part of your next story. I've personally been looking into 1600s Italy lately, but any particular time, place, or culture can work! Not sure what to look into? Try reading random articles on Wikipedia until one sets the sparks flying.
3) Fill the tanks with ideas from nature. All books have a setting, so the more in depth and detailed it is the more interesting it would be. Battling with nature's wrath can be just as interesting as a main character and their rival having a duel. This could be as simple as going out for a walk or watching a documentary on Youtube.
4) Read inspiration from other authors. No one understands the trials and tribulations of writing like other writers. Feeling like you aren't alone might be the exact thing you need to spark an idea or sit your butt into a chair to write. My favorites include Neil Gaiman, Rob Sawyer, and Brandon Sanderson.
5) Talk to your character, where are they living? What are they worried about? Maybe you don't know, but that guy who has been talking in your head all night does. Or the alien. Or the sentient space ship. Sit down and set a timer for five minutes and answer those questions. Perhaps the answer itself is an interesting idea.
“Fight the blankness” is what Colum McCann advises writers in his book Letters to a Young Writer. He means the blank page, the blank mind, but his underlying point is to remind writers that they have to write. The book has plenty of advice, much of it tongue in cheek, for anyone looking for inspiration from one who has sweat it all the way to the National Book Award ceremony.
I’ve read books called On Writing (by Stephen King) and On Writing Well (by William Zinsser), How to Write a Damn Good Novel (James Frey), and Bird by Bird (by Anne Lamont). Save the Cat (by Blake Snyder), itself a best seller, is written specifically for screen plays, and there are plenty of books, essays, and blogs about organizing and plotting a writing project. Each has contributed something unique to my understanding of the craft.
Given how much writing there is out there on writing, why is it so hard to write?
Writing isn’t just a skill or a talent. It’s a practice and an art. It takes showing up, and showing up, and showing up to make the words sing, the pages dance, and the reader delight. Show up, yes, and also be present. Be in the moment with your story, your characters, their triumphs and their worries. Build their conflicts so that they dwarf those real life moments that we can’t make up. In spite of poverty, depression, frustration, and social rejection (for, as James Frey says, “Being an unpublished novelist has about as much social acceptability as being a shopping bag lady.” Frey How to Write a Damn Good Novel p. 162), you must show up and focus.
In her seminal work Steering the Craft, Ursula K. Le Guin (daughter of the wonderful anthropologist Al Kroeber), advises writers to ‘deserve their gift’. “To make something well is to give yourself to it, to seek wholeness, to follow spirit.” It takes talent and energy and spirit, not talent or energy or spirit.
We mold our work like diatomaceous earth, conscious-fully following some rules and breaking others. Every writer's end goal is similar, but it is the journey itself that is the point of the travail, and improves our crafting.
Writers must constantly “fight the blankness”. We must show up and shadow-box with the barren landscape of the page, the screen, our mind, even the desolation of our own vacant soul, when no thought worth sharing bobs to the surface. And from deep within our scarred ego we must find vigor that we did not know we possessed; we must show up and show up and show up.
I am a member of one writing group and one critique group.
Apparently, this is a little weird, but at my writing group we write. The goal is to get together, encourage each other, work through writing problems together, and write together. We accomplish this by sprinting; we do 20 minutes of writing, and then 20 minutes of talking, in a cycle the whole time we are together.
My critique group is particularly active during on months and particularly ignored during off months. All of the members participate in NaNoWriMo and the associated Camps. Three of the four members also participate in JuNoWriMo. An unofficial offshoot of NaNoWriMo that happens in June. During the month NaNo or Camp is happening we take a break while the members write like crazy. Once the month is over we start back up with our agreed upon submission of ~5k words per week from each member.
As someone who is working towards a full-time professional writing career both of these groups are important. The writing group was a great group to start with, getting to know others in the area who enjoy writing as much as I do and GET the same problems that I talk about. My significant other listens when I talk about my latest writer's block or character motivation problem, but he doesn't write, and can only understand so much. The emotional support of the writers group is amazing, and useful, and real.
The critique group is great for turn around and developing a critical eye. Having a weekly deadline to edit 5k words has been one of the best things I have ever done to improve my writing turn around. Reviewing three pieces of ~5k each week has done wonders for realizing what I can do to improve my own writing. Then there's the actual feedback I receive on my pieces which have been amazing at bringing the pieces up another three levels.
One of the best things I can recommend for a growing writer is finding and participating in both a writing and critique group. They can help bring any writer to the next level.