Of constant discussion in circles of writing is the accursed Writer’s Block.
Among these conversations are statements like, “Writer’s block doesn’t exist! It’s your own limitations!” and accusations of laziness, lack of skill, and other ugly words.
In fact, when I was in college studying creative writing, my English professor stated time and again that Writer's Block wasn't real. He insisted that lazy students used "writer's block" as an excuse to dodge assignments, or to perform poorly. Because of this constant input, for years, even after passing his class, I felt as though any creative struggles I encountered were a result of poor effort, laziness, and my own shortcomings. I'd like to put these ill feelings to rest for anyone else who may be going through them.
Does writer’s block exist? Yes. However, it isn’t quite what it’s made out to be. In fact, I’d argue that the term “condition” is only fitting in that it describes a state of being, not a technical affliction. Writer’s block doesn’t just happen, though. It has a source, a reason, and more often than not this reason boils down to one of just a few, root causes. I’m going to explore those today, along with their potential remedies.
A lot of articles I’ve read over the past couple of weeks suggest cure-all suggestions, such as reading your favorite book, taking a break, forcing the words out, or any number of “one-size-fits-all” solutions. These may work as a temporary patch when you’re simply not feeling motivated, but, if you don’t get to the root of the problem and remedy it, you’re still going to have the problem when you run out of steam.
1. A sufficient plan has not been made.
The most common cause of writer’s block is the lack of a sufficient plan. Most writers will hit this somewhere in the middle of their story, between the riveting beginning and the exciting crescendo near the end. Many writers call this the “mushy middle,” and for good reason. Look at your plot; what’s missing? Are you at a point in your outline where you have little to no plan? Next month I’m going to publish a series of blogs about structuring your novel, and among them will be advice about how to outline and plan so that you don’t hit any muck.
A huge problem for self-identified “pantsers,” (those who write without any outline, or with a very minimal outline) is hitting these mushy parts and getting bogged down, running out of energy, and simply being unable to think of what to write next. Don’t get me wrong, it’s fun to sit and write with abandon! However, if you write without direction, you’ll soon find yourself lost and unable to get back on track. I’m not saying you have to have a strict outline that details every event that occurs in every chapter, but surely consider minimal planning as a reason you may be unable to move forward.
Take some time and make a plan. If you’ve been stuck for a while and grow frustrated, do take a short break before sitting down for this part. Make a cup of tea or coffee. Have a snack or a meal. Take a short walk. Don’t give up, though! Clear your head and think about why you might be stuck. When you come back, work on your outline. Don’t just go straight back into writing, even if you feel you have the creative energy for it! That energy will be so much more useful if you apply it to your planning stage. That way, when you get bogged down in the future, you’ll have a roadmap to check.
2. Inspiration has abandoned you.
This is a trickier roadblock to overcome. Your words have become boring. Your sentences are one-dimensional. The dialogue is dry. Characters feel bland. Sentences grow monotonous.
Every writer has had a day where, no matter how much effort they put into their writing, the prose just feels lifeless and dull. I’ve certainly had more than my fair share! This is true for fictional writers, bloggers, podcasters…anyone who puts words together to form stories or share information. There can be several causes for lack of inspiration.
Perhaps you’ve forgotten where your love of writing came from. Maybe you’re bored with the project you are working on. Depending on the specific root of the problem, you may need to try more than one remedy.
If it’s a forgotten or lost love, take a break from writing and read a book! Even re-read a favorite book. I have a list of authors who can pull me out of a creative funk, and I visit them whenever I’m feeling lost for words. Most recent for me (and I probably don’t even need to say it by now) is Steven Brust. Many writers refer to more well-known authors, like Neil Gaiman, Ayn Rand, and Gillian Flynn. Go back to what inspires you!
In the case that you’ve lost love for your story, it’s important to delve deep and find out why. Are you trying to pander to an audience, rather than write what you love? I’ve talked about it before on this blog, but it bears repeating that you should write for yourself. Tell the story you want to tell! If pandering is your issue, take a step back and remove the parts of your story you don’t love. Make them into something you find fulfilling and interesting!
You may be in love with your manuscript, just tired of it. In that case, take a break and work on a different project. Fill out a writing prompt, or write a short story in a style you’ve never tried before.
3. You’re experiencing self-doubt.
Maybe the words on your page just don’t seem very dazzling or uplifting. Perhaps they aren’t packing the punch you want. You think to yourself, I’m such a fraud, I don’t know why I even try. I’ll never be the next Stephen King or Charlotte Bronte.
First and foremost, take comfort in the fact that you are not alone in this sentiment at all. I see gaggles of authors, on Twitter, on Facebook, and even in private conversation, who doubt they have anything new or unique to offer to the world and feel they should just quit. What’s the point, anyway?
Self-doubt is a difficult thing to conquer. It is a parasite, and it will creep into your confidence and eat at it until there is little to nothing left. The more you encourage it, the worse it gets! This can become especially frustrating if you post any writing to social media, such as blogs or poetry, and get little to no feedback (or, worse, negative feedback).
The most important thing is to remember who you are writing for: you. If you seek to make a career from writing, then yes, you may have to study and improve, but likely your worries are unfounded.
If you are worried that you won’t turn out like or be compared to your favorite authors, you must accept that you likely won’t. You should also accept, however, that this is not a bad thing! Just because you aren’t going to have crowds of people saying, “Oh yeah, they’re the next Stieg Larsson!” doesn’t mean that you should stop writing. You should evaluate your goals, figure out what you wish to achieve by writing and publishing your book, and set realistic expectations.
And then keep writing.
This is a bit of a side note, but hopefully it will speak some encouragement for those of you experiencing self-doubt right now. I had a conversation not too long ago, on twitter, about great writers. Something can be very well-written and not carry much weight. There are, of course, technical rules you can learn and follow. On the subject of great writers, however, the term is highly subjective. A book that is “great” to me might be “meh” to you, and vice versa! You and I are different people, and we will likely not enjoy all of the same things. A book that’s had 20 sales on Amazon can flop with the masses but be life-changing to one person. Good writing is determined by the author; great writing is determined by the audience.
4. Word count goals are burning you out.
Author and fantastic twitter personality Delilah S. Dawson has recently engaged in conversation about high word count goals. By her estimation, a 10k-a-day word count goal is just not realistic. In fact, she goes on to outline that, yes, there are days when you will breeze through 10k words with no issue, but this is not a sustainable writing model.
By this measure, it makes perfect sense that you could be burning yourself out with unreasonably high goals. If you feel exhausted and sick of writing, it could be that your goals are too lofty for each day.
Of course, it does you no good to throw goals to the wayside. If we only wrote when we felt like it, we would never complete projects (at least, not in any kind of reasonable time frame). However, if you experience frequent and obstinate writer’s block, it may be time to dial back your word count goals. A reasonable starting point would be 500 words a day; this is a small, sustainable goal that is easy to meet in a short period of time. Especially if you are writing on the weekends or after a day job, you should remember that writing is a marathon, not a sprint. Don’t wear yourself out trying to do huge chunks at a time!
Keep that 500-a-day goal for a week. Tack on another 500 to give yourself 1k a day. Many authors use this as a standard – and hey, if you type 1k a day for two months, you’ve got a novel! That’s nothing to sneeze at. If you’re able to complete that goal with ease, add another 500 for another week, and so on, until you’re at a comfortable level and find yourself able to keep up with goals while making good headway and not getting sick of writing.
5. There’s just no time to write.
This is where most after-work authors get hung up. When do you write? Working a regular 9-5 makes it hard to squeeze in any time for socializing and family time, much less writing, which is a remarkably and historically solitary pursuit. If you already work a desk job, this can be doubly frustrating.
You don’t find time; you make time. As with any new endeavor, you must create for yourself specific time frames to work on it. Whether this is an hour a week or an hour a day, you must designate a time for writing and stick to it, no matter what comes up. Your family and friends may not like this! To people who don’t aspire to be authors, writing seems like a hobby, something that should be done in your spare time. If you ever want to finish that book, though, you have to set aside time and let your loved ones know that this is important to you. You have a dream, a vision, and you need your time to work on it.
6. There are too many distractions in your work space.
Phone ringing. People talking. TV or radio blaring, dogs barking, babies crying… Perhaps you write in a coffee shop, the park, or even the living room of your own home! No matter what you do, you just can’t tune out the distractions and focus on your work.
The obvious solution is to move to a place where there are no distractions. However, I must acknowledge that this is not always a possibility for a myriad of reasons. If you can, turn off the TV. Don’t listen to music with lyrics – turn on an instrumental and put in some earbuds (I listen to Mark Snow on Pandora while I’m working). I love being in the room with my Significant Other while I work, but there are days when I just have to admit that I’m too susceptible to distraction and move to another room.
If you aren’t the “instrumental music” type, put on some ambient noise! I like the “Relaxio” app for Android, but even YouTube has hours of audio footage of rain falling, ocean waves rolling, even ambling and low chatter of restaurants and crowded plazas. Put on something that won’t distract you, crank up the volume (to a level that is safe for your hearing, of course) and zero on in on your work.
Other Tips & Tricks
Some solutions that may be applied to all of the above scenarios are quite simple. Rearrange your writing space, or take your laptop or notebook (whatever your preferred writing medium) to a new location and write there! When I’m in a slump, sometimes I’ll sit outside (weather permitting) or just move to a new room in the house. Maybe you need to clear your desk, or declutter the room you work in.
Engage in a mindless task while thinking about what you wrote! Look over your outline, and then step into the shower, or wash the dishes. Fold the laundry. Do a paint-by-numbers, or a crochet project. Go on a drive – and keep the radio off! I’ve had some of my best moments of contemplation driving in silence (but don’t forget to practice safe driving).
Imagine your book as a film, and try to think of it as though you were a viewer. What do you expect to happen next? Break the norm, and write something crazy! Even deviate and write some wild fanfic of your own work, but don’t spend too long dawdling or you’ll never get done.
Get some exercise! Not only does exercise improve health, energy, productivity, and mood, but more and more studies are showing that exercise may increase creativity. So, if you’ve been looking for an excuse to hit the gym, writer’s block may be a great reason!
Bounce ideas off a trusted friend or critique partner. Quite frequently, when I’m stuck, it’s because I’ve been inside my own head for too long and can’t see the issue from the outside. Often, just talking about it helps me work through the problem (even with little to no feedback from the third party!)
Stop looking at how far you have to go and start looking at how far you’ve come. Set small goals so that, rather than thinking about how far you have until you hit that 90k mark, you can think about how far you have until you’re ¼ of the way through!
Whatever you do, don’t…
Compare yourself to other authors.
Re-read what you’ve already written over and again.
Take more than a day or two off your project.
Dwell on the writer’s block.
Before I sign off today, I’d like to remind everyone that the Overhaul My Novel Beta Program will be accepting applications for new beta readers starting tomorrow! We’ll be taking applications through Friday and will announce the new betas on Monday! If you’re planning to apply, there are a few items you’ll need to submit by Saturday, so keep an eye on your email!
There will be no blog post on Sunday, March 10th, or on the 17th. The next post will be on Sunday, March 24th, and it will be about prologues!
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A huge THANK YOU to the first round of beta readers! Without you, the Beta Program wouldn't be possible!