Overcoming Writer's Block

Sat Feb 25 2017

I first knew I was interested in writing when I was a teenager. Yet I recall many times when I would sit down with the urge to write and... nothing. I'd stare at that blank page--or a few years later a blank screen--my mind equally blank. The words just would not come.

In one way or another, I suspect all of us can relate to that feeling. Such as fellow developmental editor Stephen Parolini, who tweeted this a couple of days ago:

The phrase "writer's block" is daunting. Instead, picture yourself at a railroad crossing waiting for a train to pass. It will.

Writer's block, unmasked

I get where Stephen's coming from. Writer's block does feel daunting. It can make you feel helpless.

But here's the thing: Writer's block is only daunting if you don't see it for what it is. The moment you recognize its true nature, you know how to get past it.

Writer's block is nothing more than not knowing what comes next.

Sorry if that feels anticlimactic, but that's it. Compared to the emotions writer's block evokes in us--the feelings of failure, of incompetence--its underlying simplicity indeed leaves me feeling like I expected more.

If you knew what came next, you'd write it. When you don't, you can't, and that's all there is to it.

Don't just wait for the train

Here's where I disagree slightly with Stephen. Yes, that train will pass eventually, but that doesn't mean you have to just stand there waiting for it to do so. Who knows how long the train is? Why wait when you might be able to find an overpass nearby?

Understanding the problem makes the solution obvious. Don't know what comes next? Better figure it out!

Easier said than done, right? Maybe. Depends on what particular kind of writer's block you have, and what you have to work with so far.

Not counting cats, there are two kinds of writer's block, which I'll call "Muse Abandonment" and "Writer Interruptus."

Muse Abandonment

This is the writer's block I described at the beginning of this article: lacking an overall idea for a story.

In my view, there's no point at all in trying to write if you lack even a basic premise to start from. If this is the kind of writer's block you tend to suffer, then you need to go back to the well of where story ideas come from.

That's a big subject deserving of its own article, but in short, remember that all fiction is grounded in "what if."

Every novel has, at the core of its premise, some notion of what if the world was different in some way from how it is today. The story explores what would happen if that were true.

To find your muse, you have to watch the world for story ideas. They're everywhere, just waiting for someone to see them.

Maybe you're walking through town and you see some particularly colorful character across the street and you wonder what his deal is. "What if," you ask yourself, "he's a spy?" Well, ok. What if he was? Who would he be working for? What would his mission be? Is he the hero or the villain?

Or maybe you see a story in the news about the police busting some neighborhood peeping tom. Maybe you stop to think "what if a peeping tom accidentally witnessed a murder through one of those windows?" Ponder that what-if, and your brain will start feeding you story ideas. Obviously he guy can't go to the cops without getting himself arrested. But what if he had to go to the cops because the killer, caught mid-strangle, glanced back through the glass and saw him too?

Story ideas are everywhere. Asking "what if?" is how you find them. Just look at what's around you. Think about it. Contemplate how it might be different. Not every such idea will be any good, but maybe one in every ten is worth pursuing. And maybe one in every ten of those will spark something deep within you that makes your muse fly straight back home to you.

Writer Interruptus

This is the kind of writer's block that hits you in the middle of writing something. This is when you reach the end of a sentence or a scene and suddenly realize you're stuck.

Your characters are stranded--kind of like being on that bridge--unable to move from where they are. You might even know where you eventually need them to end up, you just have no idea how to get them there in a way that'll work.

First thing to do is relax and recognize that the world isn't going to come to an end if you don't keep writing in the next five minutes. Nobody's going to come take away your Writers International membership card.

This kind of writer's block comes from insufficient plotting. Yes, you could have done a better job outlining before you started writing. But you didn't, and now you've got writer's block.

Lesson learned for next time, but no use berating yourself about it. Nobody says a novel has to be planned all once, so set the writing aside and do some more plotting. Ask yourself what kinds of challenges lie between your characters and where you eventually need them to end up. Figure out what they might do to overcome those challenges, and what problems might crop up along the way.

Or if you don't even know where they're supposed to end up, start with that first. Having come to know the characters through the parts you've written so far, think about what would make for a satisfying conclusion to the story. Then work out the path to there from where you've left them.

You're not helpless

Writer's block does feel daunting. I won't deny it. It does feel like waiting for a train--sometimes a very long train--to pass.

All I want you to take away from this article is that you don't have to just sit helplessly and wait. You can make the train pass faster if you can accept not writing for a while in order to do some observing, exploring, thinking, researching, or planning.

I suspect the hardest part is accepting that the way out of writer's block is not in fact through writing. It's through the other efforts that surround our writing.

But if you can relax about not writing for a while, you can undertake the other efforts that will make the words flow again sooner rather than later.