I don’t claim to know it all as far as writing, or writer’s block, and I would love, if you have other ideas than below, if you share back via the comments. However, after over a hundred scientific articles, three novels, and a decent amount of flash fiction, I have suffered from my fair share of block, so I thought I would share what has worked for me.
The summary is:
- No review
- Set goals
- Come prepared
- Leave yourself notes
- Have your space ready
- Write a different chapter
- Avoid perfectionism
- Don’t stop
- Use margins
- Try a jump start
- Bonus idea
- Bonus-Bonus idea!
Let’s look at these, one-by-one, in more detail:
I’m not sure this is technically writer’s block, but if you spend your whole time re-reading your own work, your progress will certainly be blocked. Writing time should be exactly that. It is not review time, editing time, or second thoughts time. It is writing time. By reading back through your own work, you are using two precious resources: time and creative energy. Stop wasting it on re-imagining or re-wording what you have done, save that for your editing phase. It also tricks your mind into thinking you are making progress when you are, in fact, not adding any words to your daily total. You are far more likely to contribute new words if you force yourself to stare at the blank page/flashing cursor (does that reveal my age?) than allow yourself to immerse yourself in what you have already written.
Daily writing goals. That can be “one chapter”, it can be “500 words”, or it can be “complete this subplot”. Whatever you like. If you are like me, you are lazy (busy?). In that case, it is easiest just to set a daily word count and stick with it. Don’t set it too high that you will really struggle to achieve it, but also don’t set it so low it is meaningless.
I personally like to set a daily and a separate weekly goal. That way, if I fail my 500 words per day on any given day, my mind does not just give up, it focuses on achieving my weekly goal. That then often drives higher productivity on my other days as I am trying to “catch up”. I usually set my weekly goal a little above daily x7 for low word count daily goals. So at 500 words per day I would probably set a weekly at 4000. At higher word/day goals, like 1000 words a day, I might stretch it to 7500, but don’t make the mistake of going too high or you will fail that too as catch-up will become too hard. These goals are meant to inspire and motivate, not torture.
If you do not think about your work in progress at all between writing sessions, it is little surprise when you first sit down you can think of nothing to write. In contrast, if you use the five minutes you are waiting for the bus, at the laundromat, or in line to pick up the kids to imagine your characters and the current chapter you are working on and what happens next then when you come to sit down you will already know what you have to write. Maybe not the exact words (we will come back to this – see avoid perfectionism), but as long as you have an idea of what direction you are going you are at least 50% of the way towards conquering this particular source of writer’s block.
Leave yourself notes
So on the prior point, some of my writing friends say they do not have any time to think about the work between writing sessions. Or they say they cannot just switch their creative centers on and need to “get in the zone” so this does not work for them. While I think practicing it may help anyway, and I never said laundromat ideas are always the best (but sometimes they are), there is another solution. That is, when you are in the zone, ie at the end of your current writing session, leave yourself some notes on what to do next. That way you have a pointer to get you started, which is the key to overcoming block.
Have your space ready
I have kids. I don’t, therefore, have the luxury of demanding a personal oasis of peace and solitude in order to write. If I did, I would never write anything. Right now, writing this blog, for example, I am sitting at a cafe with my two pre-teen boys, while they scream at each other about which of them is winning some dinosaur race on their tablets. The coffee grinders are whirring, the panini press hisses steam, and there is a general bubbling of background conversation mixed with an odd cocktail of classical and smooth jazz. If you can’t write like that, figure out what you need and make it happen. Set a time, put a “Do Not Disturb” note on the door, invest in yourself and buy that comfy chair, that ergonomic standing desk, or whatever you need. But set yourself up for success.
Write a different chapter
Just because you read a novel from chapter one sequentially through to the words “The End”, does not mean you have to write it that way. The same goes for any other writing form. When I’m writing a novel oftentimes even if I do not know exactly what will happen next in this particular chapter or scene, or I just can’t get my head into that character’s voice, I usually have another part of the story I do have a clear idea of what will happen. Sometimes trying to get to that more exciting section is in fact what is blocking my ability to focus on the current one. So go write that other scene. Sometimes, once you’re done with the other section, this will allow your brain to focus on the current one, or it will help highlight what setup needs to be done, or it will just remove the inertia block that is writer’s block and if this is the problem, once writing often you find your zone and you can re-center and carry on where you were meant to. Even if that doesn’t happen, at least you have made progress, and that’s important not only to your overall goal but because I find writer’s block gets worse the longer you let it fester.
So I’ve buried this one in the middle, but I do believe this is actually the very core of most writer’s block. We are so paralyzed about whether we use this wording or that, which character point-of-view (POV) this chapter should be written from, what should happen next, or in what sequence, we just can’t move forward. This, in most cases, is perfectionism. Remember the old adage:
“All good writing, is editing”
Put something down. Anything. You can correct it later. Worried about wasting time? You’re already doing that. And to be honest, all the times I have taken this approach I have been surprised about quite how much can be used in the end, even if the change I had to make was as extreme as changing the POV character. Okay, this one is so important I will say it again. Avoid perfectionism.
Related to the above, once you start, just don’t allow yourself to stop. It might all be rubbish. If so, you can cut it on edits. But the truth is, you are not a good judge of your own work in the moment. Allow yourself to put it down so editor-you can come back and read it in the context of the rest of your story later and make changes then. Sometimes I do really good work during a stream of consciousness, even though I thought it was bad at the time. But I always do my best work in editing. We all do. (And if you don’t, there’s something wrong with your editing process – likely a topic for a different blog entry!)
Other writers have sometimes said to me ‘But what if I have another idea, or something earlier suddenly needs changing?’. My answer to that is – that’s what margins are for. Or in Scrivener, which is what I use, the notes area. I have been writing merrily along and suddenly decided this character doesn’t need to exist, or that their name needs to change. I just continue writing as if those edits are already made but put a note to myself saying “kill Dennis, put all his action/convo to Malcolm” or “Sally is now called Pam”. It’s vital you keep your momentum, especially if you are someone that needs ‘the zone’. It took you so long to find the zone, don’t lose it, as switching into editing mode will make you go back to problem #1 and then leave you likely no idea how to continue when you come back. Momentum is precious.
Try and Jump start
What I mean by this is, for the first paragraph you write that day, don’t even try to write something for your current work. Just try to get the juices flowing. I like to use writing prompts or images to inspire me. I try to write two lines that are humorous or capture the image. Just the act of starting on something can sometimes unstick your brain. On Twitter, for example, @brclothwrites posts a daily image with the prompt “if this was your book cover what would be your first few sentences”. (Example below)
As his images are always good and are fantasy-images, so right in my genre, I like this one. But others do it, so if his examples don’t work for you, search for someone that does this for your genre. Or do it yourself. I find it a fun way to ungum the engines. Of course, there is danger in this – do not allow yourself to get enamored with a whole new idea, nor get mired in the twitterverse!
Write something else completely
So this slightly contradicts the above but if you really can’t write, you have to ask yourself: is it writer’s block, or is it the piece you are currently working on? Does your work have fundamental structural or plot problems? If I start to suspect that this is what is going on, I use my writing time to write something else – a short story for example, or a blog post. I then commit to sending my work to friends/beat-readers to see if they agree on the structural issues I am seeing.
Write two endings
Can’t decide if Marilyn should stab Keith or kiss him? Write both. You will save time by just writing it down and likely you will get a strong sense of which feels right to you and what you want to do with this story.
And that’s it, for today at least! My boys have stopped arguing about dinosaurs and are now arguing about who is in whose space and who needs the outlet to charge their tablet more. I am needed elsewhere. So, while I have other approaches to this universal problem, I promised a list of ten and I have given that and already bonused twice! And I have a novel to get back to editing. So, I will end the blog now, but let me know in the comments, or via Twitter, or any of the other hundred ways on this site to reach out to me – did you find this helpful? Do you have other ways to ‘unblock’. What works best for you?