Jeeze, louise there, Dear Reader. You sure go for the big guns, don’t you!
So, okay, here’s the thing. Confession time…. ready for it?
I don’t believe in Writer’s Block.
I know, okay? I know. I’ve heard it all. But see, the thing for me is that I think Writer’s Block isn’t a real disease that affects creators. Like “Hysteria” of old, I think it’s made-up boogie-man name for a bunch of symptoms that people have decided to bundle together simply because they all have to do with the same thing. Only this time, it’s being creative as a writer, instead of being female.
When someone is unable to write – whether that is because they can’t think of ideas or because they just can’t force themselves to sit and put pen to paper or fingers to keys – it’s not because some mythical muse in a flowy toga has turned off the taps to divine inspiration in their brain. That’s not how this works.
So, ways to get over a Writer’s Block, dearest reader? My best advice is to call it what it is:
Some sort of issue or concern that is keeping you, as a writer, from being able to write that particular story at that particular point of time.
Name the monster under the bed, and take away its power.
Sure, that’s easy for you to say, J.M., you may think. But don’t you think that if I knew what it was I would do something about it already?
Possibly. Probably. But sometimes writers get so stuck in their own heads (and we are an imaginative lot, so I bet we can think of lots of great doomsday scenarios for ourselves) that we sometimes forget to take a deep breath and analyze why it is that we’re not able to write.
So do that, right now. Step away, close your eyes, lift your face to the sun and expand your chest to the sky, and just breathe deeply.
Back? Feeling relaxed and oxygenated? Great.
Now close your eyes and ask yourself, “Why Can’t I Write?” You have three answers to choose from.
What is the root of this problem? Where does it sit in you? In your chest, around your heart? In your head, between your ears? In your shoulders, and back, and hips, like an ache?
If it’s Mental, consider that you may be:
- The story isn’t working, and you subconsciously know this.
- Characters aren’t communicating with you, you don’t know who they are or what they want.
- The Plot is too convoluted or too simple; you’re confused or bored.
- You’re lost the thread of what you were doing.
- You’re being too picky and perfectionist about the book. Are you using the excuse of wanting it to be ‘perfect’ to go over the same sections over and over again and not add anything new?
- You’re overwriting it because you’re afraid of letting it go. Are you building the plot out (like a deck) instead of up (like a ladder)?
- You don’t trust your audience is clever enough to understand what you’re putting down. Are you bogging the plot down with exposition, backstory, detail?
- The narrative isn’t working in this medium. You’re having a hard time jamming all the story into a short, or coming up with enough stuff to fill a novel. The story is too visual and dialogue heavy, it really would make a better script or comic.
- Stopping the flow of writing to research too often.
- Writing in the wrong order. There’s no rule saying you have to start at the beginning and finish at the end.
- There are outside pressures getting in the way, like stress at work, or no specifically carved-out time for your writing?
If it’s Physical, consider that you may be:
- Sick, and it’s fogging up your brain.
- Sore or injured, and it’s making it hard for you to sit and write.
- Have chronic pain or acute conditions from bad ergonomics or lighting.
- Missed your meds, are dehydrated, haven’t eaten, haven’t slept.
- Writing in the wrong space – is it too loud? Too quiet? Too bright? Too dim? Smells funny? Too overstimulating? Too sleep-inducing? Not inspirational enough?
- You don’t have your own space to write in, and that’s keeping you from dedicated time as well.
- Writing in the wrong medium. Pen-and-paper is poetic, but too slow to keep up with your brain. Maybe keyboards are frustrating. Maybe you should be looking into dictation. Maybe you need to consider different writing software, like Scrivenr, or Celtx, or something more aligned to how you like to tell stories.
If it’s Emotional, consider if you:
- Have lost the passion for this particular story. (Perhaps just for now, perhaps forever)
- Don’t love this story as much as you thought you did and your “meh” feeling is making it hard to commit.
- Have another project you’d rather pursue.
- Hate, or don’t connect with your protagonist / POV character
- Imposing “fake” limits on yourself, which is caging in your story. Such as: “All YA must be written in the first person and I hate writing in the first person.” Not actually a Real Rule (™)
- Burned out or exhausted, either by your writing schedule, or Real Life, or the pressure you’ve put on yourself
Of course, it’s not always as simple as just one of the above. It could be multiples and mixes, or something I haven’t listed here. But the point is that you figure what the real roadblock is.
Now, what to do about it?
If it’s a small “Block”, then changing something up or shaking up your routine might be what’s necessary. You could:
- Take a break – go do something physical if you’ve been stationary for a while, like walking the dog or going to the gym. Go relax in a bubble bath or a hot shower and let your mind wander. Get a massage or have dinner with friends.
- Have a conversation with your characters – do some acting or improv character-finding exercises while you do the dishes. Come right out and ask your characters why they’re not cooperating, or why they’re acting out of character, or why they’re resisting. Think through the answers you get back from them.
- Address your physical or medial concerns – figure out a more ergonomic solution to your writing location, or get a stand up/treadmill desk. Go see a doctor, or your therapist, or your local massage clinic. Take your meds, have some water, take a nap, stretch, do yoga.
- Try some fun writing exercises or challenges to discover different parts of your worlds, character, or stories that won’t necessarily end up in the book. Trust me, it’s not wasted work if it freshens your approach.
- Write the ending right now. Write out of order. If you usually write out of order, then write in order. Shake up how you get it on the page.
If it’s a bigger problem, then build yourself a solution to it:
- Take some time out to replot the novel – write it all out on a whiteboard, use the “Castle” method and string it all up so you can see the whole book at once, gets some note cards and highlighters and start color coding. If you take a step back and look at the structure, you may find the issue that’s keeping you from being able to move forward.
- Suck it up and send the book off to a trusted beta reader if you’re having trouble letting go of it. You’ll get as many cracks at it as you want after. There’s not a set limit of how many times you can edit. But get it out the door at least once, first.
- Join NaNoWriMo, or a similar contest to push yourself into turning off your editing brain and just write the whole darn book.
- Hire a researcher, or stop writing until you’ve put together a massive pile of resources for yourself and organized them in a handy way which means that when you have to look something up it won’t interrupt the flow of your writing time.
- Say goodbye to something that isn’t working. Stick it in your morgue to Frankenstein into something else another time, or put it on a shelf to come back to in a few years. There’s no shame in realizing that the story isn’t working, or working right now.
- Carve out some writing time and space, get yourself into a routine. It doesn’t have to be an elaborate office, it can just be those forty minutes of your commute every day, in a notebook. Or a corner of the living room when the kids are napping. Or vocally dictating it as you drive around on errands.
- Consider whether you can change the POV character or swap out protagonists. Rewrite.
- Go on a vacation
- Go on a research trip
- Ask for an extension or revise your self-imposed timeline.
- If you’re having trouble finishing, impose a deadline on yourself. Tell friends and family so they’ll keep you accountable.
- Go write in public. Or stop writing in public.
There are a hundred thousand different reasons why you’re unable to write. By giving it a mythical source and a made-up reason, you’re ignoring all the little ways that you’re actually telling yourself that something is wrong. When you figure that out, you can address that.
Treat the disease, not the symptoms.
And for goodness sake, stop believing in the wrong sorts of fairy tales so you can start writing some of your own.
Got a question about the craft or business of writing? Ask it here.