“How do you deal with writer’s block?”
At some point every writer/author ends up on both the giving and receiving end of this question. It’s one of the ubiquitous challenges that we all face at some point. You’re trucking along, hammering out a good solid word count every day, and suddenly it just stops. You sit for minutes….then hours….then days staring at the screen and at your notes, but the words just won’t come. You know where you want the story to go, how you want it to develop, but the words just aren’t there anymore. The more frustrated you become, the more difficult it is to see any way around this massive, immovable, intolerable, dreaded Writer’s Block.
While this is a frustrating, at times infuriating, condition for any writer to be in, there are a few solutions that I’ve found are quite effective and relatively simple to overcome what seems at first glance to be an insurmountable obstacle. The best piece of advice I’ve ever heard or read on the topic of conquering writer’s block came from Stephen King’s awesome memoir/textbook On Writing. This book is probably the single best resource I’ve found yet for the writer/author interested in writing solid, marketable fiction novels. It’s not going to give you the finesse to become the next Hemmingway or Thoreau, but in my opinion you can’t really teach greatness, just fundamentals. If someone is going to become a great writer it is the result of natural talent, drive, ambition, and, at some level, the serendipitous benefits of chance and circumstance. Good writing, however, is within the grasp of most aspirant authors, and one of the tests of any writer’s commitment to becoming an author is getting past the inevitable block that will eventually cross their intellectual path.
So here are some steps that have really helped me get past a block when I’m faced with one… Hope they help you as well:
- Take a break
Okay, you sit down to write, and nothing comes out. Panic sets in, your pulse starts to race, and before you know it, you’ve psyched yourself completely out of the writing mood. You’ve two options at this point….you either try to stubbornly smash your way through a brick wall, or you just get up and walk away. In my experience, taking the second option is usually the best one. Put down the pen, put away the keyboard or laptop, and just take a break for the day. Go watch a movie, take a walk, read a book (always helpful), play a video game, or do a workout. In short, do whatever you do to decompress and relieve the stress that’s building up inside. Don’t focus on work, don’t even think about it. Just set your work-in-progress on the shelf for the day, relax, and enjoy. Sometimes the early stages of a real stubborn writer’s block are nothing more than our brain’s way of telling us it’s time to take a day off and recharge.
- Write something else
So you took a break, rested your brain, relieved your stress, you’re back at the writing desk and you’re still staring at a blank wall. Now it’s serious. This isn’t just a temporary burnout or exhaustion, it’s a full on writer’s block. No need to fear, though. Sometimes the problem that sparks a block is that you’ve been thinking about and planning the next big step in your work-in-progress so much that you have completely forgotten the fact that you have three or four plot points to cover before you get there. Now you’re looking at the gap between where you are and where you want to get to and there isn’t any kind of framework to carry you across to the other side. Too often in this case we focus on the problem, either consciously or subconsciously, and that keeps us from seeing any solutions to it. It helps in these situations to sit down and write on something else.One thing Stephen King advises in his book On Writing is to set a word count for yourself and strive to hit that word count no matter what and no matter what you’re writing on or about. I would advise starting small (500-1,000) and working your way up from there until you find your peak efficiency. Look at the task of writing the way you would a long-distance run. You can’t start out running a full marathon if you’ve never trained before; odds are you’ll blow a blood vessel like the original marathoner did. Similarly, you can’t start out with a personal goal of writing ten thousand words a day if you’ve never used a structured writing curriculum. You’ll get burned out, disappointed, frustrated, and you’re right back where you started.
If you set a reasonable goal, and you’re hitting it with regularity, then when you’re confronted with a really stubborn case of writer’s block, just drop that project for the day and write your daily word count on something (anything) else. Start a blog page so you have a go-to place for your random writings, memoir snippets, and other writer’s block induced ramblings. This also gives your audience a chance to get a look at who you are beyond the books they’ve read. I am a fan of science fiction and fantasy, so I frequent the forum pages of some of the role-playing games (RPG’s) out there in the video game world and I’ll work on story lines based in whatever virtual world the site is dedicated to. This is helpful on two fronts because it exercises my fiction writer muscles and you often get feedback from the regulars on the site that can help you sharpen points of your craft like setting description, plot, or character development. You can enter writing contests so you have a deadline driving you, or just sit down and write stream of conscience.
What you’re writing on isn’t as important as the fact that you’re writing and exercising the part of your brain that puts words together into sentences. If you do this long enough, eventually something will spark, and you’ll be back on track….hopefully. If nothing else, you get practice exercising the writing muscles in your brain, and that’s really never a bad thing. The more time you spend putting sentences together to express your thoughts the better you’ll become at doing so, and that is something every writer can use.
If you’re worried that starting another project, even a small one, will compound the problem of the original writer’s block, then there’s always the option of outlining. It may help you to look farther down the story line and outline a future plot point. By focusing on details that are distant from your immediate writer’s block, it may be that looking far enough ahead will allow you to begin to form those thoughts in a general way rather than specifically what sentences to write. It could be a first chip off the writer’s block, and a first step toward overcoming it.I will say that I’ve only had moderate success with this method in the past. There are times that the block is just too big to get around by projecting ahead in the narrative arch. Still, if you’ve tried taking some time off, and you’ve at least thought about if not actually written about something else entirely, this may help. I would caution you not to spend too much time on it if it’s too difficult or seems to make the frustration worse at first. If your gut reaction is, “This isn’t working,” then odds are it just isn’t going to work for you. Trying to force the issue may make the block worse.
- If all else fails….edit….
I don’t know about the rest of you guys, but for me, editing is one of the least enjoyable aspects of being a writer/author. I have dreamt of being an author since I was in third grade and read Treasure Island for the first time. I love the creative process of imagining people and filling their lives with details, struggles, successes, adventures, loves, loss, and everything else that people cope with on a daily basis. Every aspect of the writing part of being an author is just fascinating and fun to me to the point that it doesn’t even feel like work. I can sit down and crank out two or three thousand words and get up refreshed, energized, and ready for more. Give me a five hundred word document to edit, and my eyes glaze over.But, if you’re faced with a seemingly insurmountable writer’s block that you just can’t seem to get past any other way, you can always go back to the beginning of your work and start proofing and editing what you’ve already written. This is a productive way to review the story and the characters you have on the page so far while still accomplishing something that needs to get done. Love it or hate it, we all have to do edits, proofs, and re-writes at some point in order to put out the best possible product for consumption. And while you’re looking over and proofreading the parts of your work-in-progress that have already been put on the page, your brain will be quietly working in the background trying to unravel the knot that sparked the writer’s block in the first place.
I’ve found that after trying everything else I can think of to throw at a stubborn writer’s block, an hour or two of really intense, purposeful editing will usually do the trick. Not only is my brain forced to focus on the story and the characters, but there’s also a real incentive to push myself to find some escape from an activity that, in case you couldn’t tell, I don’t really enjoy in the first place.
Those are a few of the tricks that I’ve used in the past to get over, around, under, or through stubborn cases of writer’s block. If you’re serious about being a writer/author, then at some point this frustrating condition will confront you, and it likely has already. In order to persist in the craft, we have to find ways that work individually to conquer the seemingly unconquerable. These strategies have worked very well for me, and I think they’ll help any author or writer who’s just having a hard time getting the words to start flowing from brain to page. If you guys reading this have any other tips or techniques, please don’t hesitate to post a comment or connect with me on Twitter to let me know. I’m always looking for new tricks to try when faced with this frustrating problem.
And remember even though trying to get past a bad writer’s block can, at times, feel like you’re climbing the tallest mountain in the world, once you reach the top the view is really something.