“It doesn’t exist.”
“It’s in your head.”
“What you need to do, is just start typing.”
The internet has a lot of opinions on writer’s block, from dismissing its existence entirely to ineffectively proscribing blind clacks at a keyboard as its remedy. For someone in the thick of the brain fog and creative stall that is writer’s block, I don’t think either of these mentalities — that what we’re going through isn’t real, or that all we need to do is just write something down — is really going to help, because I don’t think writer’s block is simply a matter of mental fog or stubborn procrastination.
I think it comes from something far worse — and far easier to fix.
First off, what kind of writer’s block am I talking about? I don’t mean the beginning writer staring at a blank computer screen unable to think of anything to write about. That’s not really a writer’s block, that’s just a writer’s beginning. Writer’s block, to me, is when you’re entrenched in the middle of a manuscript, you were writing with great speed and excitement and quality, and then suddenly — you’re not.
You can’t explain it, but you’re knee-deep in mud and either unable or unwilling to pull your feet out. You avoid writing, you edit the same few paragraphs over and over, you look at the scenes you’ve yet to write and have no idea how to put them down in words. Your brain is mentally stalled, and you’re terrified, because you have no idea what you did wrong. To me, that’s writer’s block as I’ve experienced it, and, luckily, I’ve picked up a couple ways on how to break through it.
Every instance of writer’s block I’ve ever suffered through as stemmed from legitimate sources of concern, as far as novel-writing goes. Either:
- I’ve gotten overwhelmed with what I’m doing
- I didn’t plan well enough ahead, or
- I’m not acknowledging that I’ve done something wrong
These realizations — that you’ve bitten off more than you can chew, that you’ve written yourself into a fog you can’t see out of, or that something has gone amiss in your writing and you didn’t accomplish what you set out to do — can stall a writer for weeks, or even months. Because these things feed on our insecurities: they poke you in the ribs and whisper you weren’t ready anyway; you’re not good enough; you should give up. Ignore that little voice. Everyone gets overwhelmed, everyone could’ve planned better, and everyone makes mistakes.
So let’s look at each of these problems and how to fix them.
Block Number 1: You’ve Gotten Overwhelmed
You know the feeling. You have so much to do, you don’t even know where to start. This scene seems too big for you; the plot is getting too complicated; days and weeks are passing and you really thought you’d be further along than you are.
Take a deep breath. And step back.
If the scene is too big, whittle it down. If the plot is too complicated, simplify it. If you’re not as far along as you wanted to be, forgive yourself and set a new goal. Honestly, it’s as easy as that.
Whenever I’ve been overwhelmed by my own story, lost and getting confused, I’ve found a great deal of help in stepping back and taking a few days off, and then printing out the novel I have so far (or putting on my e-reader) and reading it from beginning to current end. It helps me remember threads I forgot, realize what parts of the story are important and what parts … aren’t so much. When you’re overwhelmed, you need perspective. So stand back far enough to see the book as a whole and remind yourself what you’re trying to do.
When you do sit back down to write, remember a couple things:
You’re writing a scene, not a novel.
Don’t sit down at the computer with the mentality of oh god, oh god, I’m writing a 300 page book. Sit down with the mentality of: I’m writing three pages in which this character and this character meet, or I’m writing one scene where this question is answered. I’m writing one paragraph where we travel from this place to this one. Break your work down in manageable chunks for each individual writing session.
Manage Your Time
Again, if you’re getting overwhelmed with everything you’ve yet to do for your novel, break it down! Make a list of all the scenes you have left to write, or plot points to cover, or chapters, or whatever you’re working with. Set yourself a daily goal, be it 1,000 words a day or the completion of one scene from your list, and stick to it. As I said before, sitting down with I have six more chapters to write, oh no, I can’t do it is terrifying! But sitting down with a single scene or manageable word goal will get you organized and productive.
And don’t forget to give yourself rewards! When you’re writing a book, it’s easy to feel like you’re supposed to be writing 24/7, and that if you’re not, you must be wasting time. If you meet your daily word goal or finish a scene to your satisfaction, give yourself some kind of treat — a hour of video games, or a trip to the movies, a slice of cake, or at least a moment where you acknowledge that no, you’re not a complete failure. It’s good for the soul!
Set Goals — But Be Realistic!
If you are making daily or monthly word goals, don’t overdue it! Don’t say “I’ll write 5,000 words a day” or “I’ll be done with this novel by the end of the month” if you physically and mentally are not capable of it. Be disciplined, sure, but be reasonable. Set deadlines you know you can manage, and allow yourself break days where you can either play catch up or not write at all.
Bottom line: If you’ve overwhelmed by all you have left to do, take a step back and break down what you want to accomplish in small, manageable chunks. Then, do it.
Block Number 2: You Didn’t Plan Well Enough Ahead
If you’re toeing around plot holes or head-butting a brick wall or staring into a darkened abyss with only a flickering lantern to guide you, chances are your writer’s block is stemming from a lack of planning ahead. A lot of people swear by “pantsing” novels, where they write by the seat of their pants, plowing ahead with no road map, but if you’re finding yourself blocked and unable to put down a word, it’s probably because you need a better map than a wrinkled old notebook page with an arrow pointing to “Write Stuff!”
Sometimes when I’m stuck, it’s because my outline has huge gaps in it, where it literally says “and then somehow they get here…” That can … make you really angry at yourself, because really, how is that helpful, but it’s not so difficult a problem to fix.
You have to step back and spend a couple days planning your story out. This can be as general as making a basic timeline of your character’s journey to listing everything that happens in your novel from start to finish. This is tricky to give specifics on, since fixes are so dependent on an individual person’s story. But I would say, if you’re stuck, figure out where you’re going. Know your ending. Have some idea of how many chapters you want and what’s going to happen in each one. If you’ve got a big gap between story events, try to find connections that could link them together.
This all sounds confusing, but the bottom line is this: It’s not laziness that’s keeping you from writing, it’s poor planning, and that’s extremely easy to fix — you just sit down and plan ahead!
Block Number 3: You’re Not Acknowledging That Something’s Gone Wrong
This is the one I’m guilty of the most. My BIGGEST, most obtrusive roadblock. I’ll awkwardly stumble through one chapter only to find myself unable to write the next, because so much in it depends on the chapter I just wrote, which I know I wrote poorly. Or, I’ll find that I can’t make a character come to a decision, and I won’t acknowledge that it’s because I set the problem up in a really weak, dissatisfactory way.
A lot of this comes from our expectations of our own writing — a scene that we want to be emotionally devastating might, in its execution, prove disappointingly melodramatic, and that realization that we didn’t achieve what we were trying to do can be frustrating! But the advice to write through the first draft without editing or ever looking back at what you’ve written doesn’t work all of the time — you’re experiencing your story as you’re writing it, and you know when you’ve hit a dull note. In the pursuit of forward momentum, you might try to ignore it … but it’ll keep niggling at you and sour your opinion of your writing.
So the best thing to do is figure out what went wrong. “I don’t know” isn’t an acceptable answer — because deep down, you do know. Maybe you’re trying to write the death scene of a character that you know you didn’t flesh out well enough, and it’s getting hard to write something meaningful for a character the audience hasn’t been given a reason to want alive. Or you’re trying to write a dramatic twist, but it keeps ringing false because you know the character would never actually do this. Or the last chapter you wrote just didn’t do what you wanted it to, and you can’t get it off your mind.
Be honest with yourself. Grab a piece of paper and write by hand the answers to the following questions. Be as detailed and honest as possible.
What am I worried about?
(Example: This character isn’t fleshed out enough, that scene wasn’t scary, I’m worried the reader won’t care about this romantic relationship because there wasn’t enough build up.)
What can I do to fix it?
(Example: Have the character speak more in scenes, show their actions, provide backstory; research writing horror scenes and adding suspense to writing; have the characters interact more early on, show how they relate to each other, research writing romance.)
You can get more specific if you like:
Why isn’t this chapter/scene working?
(“Too long” or “boring” doesn’t cut it here. Instead, really examine what you’ve written. Examples: the chase scene goes on for too long; I lose interest during the monologue; everything happens too quickly and easily; the dialogue sounds stiff.)
What can I do to fix it?
(Condense the chase scene to a single page; chisel down the monologue to only what needs to be said for the plot to make sense; slow down the pace and add obstacles; act out my dialogue and fix it to sound more natural.)
It’s hard to give suggestions for this because everyone’s story is different. But every time I’ve had a problem of this nature, it’s because I know I wrote a scene lazily, or I know a character is two-dimensional when I really need them to pop off the page, or a bit of dialogue wandered somewhere I can’t let it go. You have to know your story well enough to identify what’s gone wrong. That involves rereading your work, knowing your characters, and knowing exactly what you’re trying to do with your story.
That’s a process you have to teach yourself, but the main takeaway here is: be honest. You don’t have to be brutal, but do be honest. If you can’t write the scene you’re writing, look at what you’ve written. Is there something niggling at the back of your head you’re mentally shoving aside? Confront it, fix it, and move on.
I’m sure there are other reasons that writers face blockages, and there are better ways than I’ve suggested to fix them, but my main point is this: it can be really frustrating and worrying to not know where to go with your writing. Don’t let people dismiss writer’s block as “all in your head” — in the words of Dumbledore, Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?
Do you guys have any thoughts on writer’s block? Do you believe it legitimately exists, or that it’s an excuse writers use to not work? Leave a comment below!
An earlier version of this post was originally shared on my old blog, Christina Writes.