How to get past writer's blocks
There are a lot of different advice floating around the web about those nasty creatures known as writer’s blocks. If any of it works for you, great, use it. But if you’re reading this, chances are you’re still struggling sometimes. I’ve been writing for a decade, I’ve published almost thirty books, and I would like to share with you my experience with writer’s blocks. I'm not going to give you any quick-fixes, though—there are plenty of those already—instead, I'll offer you a way of understanding the blocks, hopefully making it easier to deal with them.
So, what is it?
Before we can solve it, we need to define it. And I think there is some confusion here, since it might mean different things to different writers. But we can probably all agree it’s some sort of block in the flow of writing. Or put more directly, it’s when you want to write, but can’t. And not because of outer disturbances; too many noises, too little time, too many worries, marital problems, annoying kids, etc. All those factors can be quite effective blocks, but they’re not what is usually referred to. Rather, a block is caused by something on the inside. And that’s exactly why it is so tricky: nothing seems to be wrong. So why aren’t the words coming?
To move a little closer, I think we need to distinguish two kinds of blocks. The short-term and the long-running. The short-term might be a few days, maybe even a few hours. It can be very frustrating, but is usually no more than a bump in the road. I’ve had a lot of those, and I’ve learned to work by them quite seemlessly. For me, it has a lot to do with learning to follow the rhythm of the creative flow. That might sound technical, but don’t worry, it’s really quite simple, and I’ll walk you through it.
The second sort, the long-running blocks, are usually a lot more frustrating. They can go on for weeks, maybe even months, and I think it’s fair to say there have been cases of writers never recovering from it. I’ve had a couple of them, too, but luckily not that many. I think they are unavoidable. The key for these bastards is to learn to go deeper into the story. More on that in a second.
The underlying cause
What causes these dreaded blockades in the word-flow? Again, the answers are plentiful. Some say it’s only laziness. Some say it’s a lack of discipline or structure. Some say it’s spiritual and some say it’s not even real. There might be as many opinions about writer’s blocks as there are writers. Perhaps we all experience them differently and find different ways of tackling them.
The distinction between short- and long-term blocks now comes in handy, since they actually have different causes. Let’s look at the short-term first, as they usually are more simple and more easily treatable once you’re facing them. Let’s say you have some sort of daily or near-daily routine. You’re writing on a story, and things are moving forward. Then, suddenly, one day, you turn on your computer, open up the document, place your fingers on the keyboard—but nothing is happening. At first, you’re puzzled. You make a cup of tea, sit down once more, but—still nothing. No words are coming. You’re just staring at the screen, head empty, eyes dead, fingers idle.
Just to be clear, I’m not talking about those days where you just need to kick yourself to get started, and even though it feels clumsy in the beginning, and your inner voice is faint and wobbly, you’re soon getting warmer, and suddenly you’re back in the zone. Those are not blocks, they probably aren’t even beginning or potential blocks, but merely normal fluctuations in your workflow. Don’t mind those, just push gently through them.
No, what I’m talking about is not those days where you just need to warm up your inner voice—I’m talking about those days where the voice isn’t there, no matter how much you look for is or push for the words to come out. That’s a block, not just an off-day.
What to do: The short-term blocks
My first and most effective advice is: let go. Don’t try to force it. You can’t. It’s like trying to turn the key in a car with no gas. You’ve run out of creative energy. The giveaway hint here is that these blocks always show up when you’re in the middle of a story. You’ve probably been writing yesterday and the day before and the day before that, and things are going fine, you can’t wait to get back at it, you even know exactly what will happen next in the story, and suddenly, out of nowhere, you hit the block.
Next time it happens, try and look at it, investigate your state of mind for a moment, and you’ll probably find what I found: you’re exhausted. Not physically, not even mentally, but creatively. Creativity is like gas on a car, you can run out. But the good thing is, unlike cars, creativity auto-fills whenever you let the machinery rest. Imagine leaving your empty-tanked car in the garage over night, only to find it halfway full the next morning. Wouldn’t that be great? That’s how creative energy works; it comes back when you relax.
So take the day off, and maybe the next one too. Maybe even the rest of the week. It doesn’t necessarily matter how long you rest your creative energy, as long as you’re truly resting. Think about something else completely. Get out of the house. Don’t be in a hurry to jump back in, or your mind will still be halfway engaged with the blocked story, getting eager and impatient to get back at work.
Chances are, if you’re anything like me, and you don’t want to rest, but try to push on, you’ll only make it worse, because you’re cramping down on it, tightening the knot that needs loosening. Just let properly go and see what happens. To me, that solves 95 % of the cases. A few days later, I return with fresh energy and pick up where I left off.
A few simple techniques
I really believe letting go and not cramping down is most if not all of the solution to short-term blocks, but if you don’t feel like it’s quite enough, you can try one of the following techniques, but I really want to stress the point once more: the techniques should not be used as hacks in order to trick yourself past a block. If the tank is empty, trying to find a way to get the car running anyway will not work in the long run, and it probably won’t feel good, either. I’m talking from experience here. I used to put so much pressure on myself, pushing on with an empty tank for days, weeks and months, until I felt almost like I was being abusive to myself. Don’t go down that road, learn to listen to the signs as soon as they show up.
All right, you’ve tried honestly to relax for a few days, and you feel like getting back at it, but you just can’t seem to make the jump. Here are three tricks I’ve used successfully myself.
Write the next sentence.
That’s it. You did it? Good, now write the next one. Did that too? Try the next one. If you can get ten sentences, try to go for the next ten, and so on. And once you reach one hundred, you’re done for the day. That’s it. Just tell yourself you only need to write one hundred sentences. What’s the purpose of this? To take it one step at a time. To avoid the trap of feeling overwhelmed by the task at hand. It’s very old advice—I think Bilbo Baggins said something about even the longest journey beginning with one small step—but it works. Once you’ve reached one hundred sentences, you can go on if you feel like it—and you probably will feel like it.
Put a towel over the screen or shut it off.
Then, start writing. And don’t remove the towel or turn on the screen again. If you write something wrong, too bad, just keep going. This technique is actually used more often as a way of getting a lot of words down in the first draft without being bothered by the inner critic, who can slow down or even sabotage some writers. I’ve never had that problem, but if you do, it might be easier for you to write if you can’t see the words. Anyway, the technique can also be helpful to get you started. As soon as the words are flowing nicely, you can turn on the screen again.
This one is a little more drastic, and some of you won’t like it, but I sometimes use it. If you can’t really get the story going from the point you left off, jump ahead a page or two, or maybe even a whole chapter. Write one of the next scenes to come, a scene you see clearly in your mind’s eye. You can even start in the middle of the scene if you feel like it. Then, when you’ve got the scene down (or when you feel like the words are flowing) go back to the original point and try again. My bet is, it will be easier for you to get going now.
Right, I think that covers the short-term blocks. Now let’s move on to the bigger beasts.
What to do: The long-running blocks
With the short-term blocks, you can’t really prevent them, because you can’t predict them. Unless you have a perfectly exact cycle and are able to pinpoint the day when you need to rest, you are bound to be surprised once in a while by an empty tank, because the thing is: you can’t feel them coming. But the long-running blocks are different. They might not be any easier to predict, but they often have clearer signs.
A long-running block is not just a short-term block that hasn’t been solved, as might be the obvious assumption to make. You can tell it’s a long-term block when it doesn’t help resting. Let’s say you’ve let completely go of the story for several days, you’ve come back, you feel your creative energy is back, but—still no words. You might try some techniques to get it going, but to no avail.
Now, this is a crucial point. This is where you need to be vigilant and honest with yourself. Look inside. Do you feel like writing? If no, then you probably need to rest some more. It’s not unusual for me to have weeks of not writing if I really drained my tank. So take a couple of days more. But if you do feel like writing, ask yourself: do you feel like writing on this particular story? This answer will determine your best course of action.
You do feel like writing on this story, you honestly do. Then find a way. Use a technique to make it happen. Put a little pressure on yourself if need be. If you honestly want it, it will happen. If you think you honestly want it, but in reality are driven by some other motivation, like a desire to get the story done, then you’re not being honest, and that is what is blocking the creative flow. In that case, you probably won’t be able to push yourself started, and you need instead to see the next option.
You don’t feel like writing on this story. This might be hard to admit, so kudos if you can. And it’s all right, it happens. It doesn’t mean you’re not a writer anymore. I lose interest in stories all the time. That’s why I write on several stories at a time. I have at least five active stories going at any point, and maybe five to ten non-active, waiting in line for their turn. If I get tired of a story (usually because I’ve written on it very intensely and simply need a change of scenery or pace or genre) I just jump to one of my other stories. If you’re not the kind of writer who can (or want to) work on more than one story at a time, I suggest you try it anyway. If you want to write, but you don’t want to write on the story at hand, the obvious answer to me seems to be writing on another story.
The problem might be in the story
But there is also another possibility to consider. If you feel like writing, that means your creativity energy is back. But if you don’t feel like writing on the story at hand, that might mean something is wrong with that story. And this brings us to the core of what I consider to be a real, no-nonsense block, the kind that can destroy a story and keep you from writing for way too long. Because in this case, the problem is not in you, but in the story.
If the block is in the story, then you of course need to look at the story. The bad news is, the problem can be many, many different things. Something is not working, but is it the main character, the plot, the message, or is the whole damn story just a misfire? This happens. It has happened to me. It’s a writer’s worst nightmare, and it can be extremely hard to accept. But the harsh truth is: some stories just aren’t meant to be. You might find out right after you begin, or when you’re halfway through, or even after the story is done. If this is the case, if this is what the block is telling you, that the story is a dead-end and you need to scrap it and move on, then at least you’re lucky you won’t spend any more time or energy on a dead horse.
The good news is: it might not be so sever. Something likely is wrong, but it doesn’t necessarily mean the whole thing needs to go. The problem might be a lot of things, and there are a lot of things you can do to find out. Read the story over. Get someone else to read it over. Go for a walk, mull it over. Think about where your story is going and what you want to tell. Try to figure out where it has gone off the rails, what has shifted out of balance, what is no longer in line with your vision. It’s not an easy process. It requires a great amount of introspection. But try it. If you find the problem, you will feel ecstatic.
Get a second opinion
I usually go for a walk with my dogs and think over the story, and sometimes, that's enough to figure out what is wrong. Sometimes, it takes a few days. Sometimes, I can't seem to break the knot, and I talk to my wife about it. Usually, she doesn't need to read the story, I just give her a recap, and she can pinpoint the problem for me - she's very good at that - or we find out together. If it's really sever, she might need to read the story, while I go on to another project, and when she's done, we'll turn it over once more, and now that she knows the story intimately, it's usually easy for her to find the problem.
I'm lucky to have such a talented partner, I know, but you can probably find one too. If you have anyone willing to help, a family member, someone who reads a lot, maybe someone who also writes books, ask them. Don't be shy and don't be proud. It's okay to need someone to take a look from the outside, to bounce ideas off of.
A few examples
I remember reading something Stephen King wrote about a block he encountered in The Stand, where he mulled it over for several days before realizing the plot was going in a loop, like events were repeating themselves, and he needed to drastically steer things in another direction. He found out a bomb was needed to literally shake things up, and the story got moving again.
I’ve had similar experiences myself. Sometimes, the plot needs to take another turn, maybe because things have become too unrealistic or unsustainable in some way, and I might have to back up half a chapter and take another route. One example would be my book Dead Meat: Day 2 where my main character was involved in a murder and got arrested. But after several hours in the police station, I realized I didn’t know enough about police procedural to keep the story going in that direction. Also, it drained too much pace out of the story, so I chose to back up and let the main character escape arrest.
As you might have noticed, both of these two examples stem from the fact that there was no planning of the plot. King prefers to make up the story as he goes, and so do I. If you plan out the plot beforehand, then the plot probably isn’t the problem (although it might be). You can’t really tell where it is right away, you just feel something is wrong.
I’ve had problems reaching deeper than the plot. Sometimes, I need to ask myself: is this the journey I want my character to be on? Is this the message I need the story to send? Am I still on track with my vision of things? If the answer to any of these is a no, then you probably have some work to do, so do it. This is not a unique problem for you, this is the process of writing. It’s not supposed to be well-structured, it’s very rarely an A-to-Z kind of thing, more like A to M, back to D, then forward to S, and back again to K, before finally reaching Z.
That was pretty much all I could say about writer’s blocks, at least without delving into too much detail. I really hope it was of some help to you. If not, or if you have a question about anything I mentioned, please get in touch, and I’ll try my best to answer. Thank you, and happy writing!
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