Writer’s Block

,

Here it is, the frequent topic that plows its way through every writer’s life. Writer’s block has to be every writer’s worst nightmare, and I’ve read many different views on writer’s block from ways to get through it to complete denial that it exists. In this post, I’ll tell you a bit about my experience with writer’s blockΒ and offer a few ideas of getting through it that have worked for me in the past.

I once thought one kind of writer’s block existed, the kind where you can’t come up with a story idea. When I first left my job to pursue writing full time, I discovered that there were about five million other types of writer’s block. Seriously, I spent an entire month singling out the fine nuances between each type to take up the time that I wasn’t writing. Mainly, the root was the same. Fear. I had an idea, but I had this deep fear that I was going to screw it up. Sometimes I’d find myself in a panic when I thought too far into the future wondering if anyone would accept the storyΒ and if anyone would read it. I’ve had scenes that have hung me up and kept me from progressing with my story. I’ve even found myself weighed down by the enormity of the story I’ve decided to write. A lot of these same issues plague me when it’s time to edit a story, and it keeps me from making progress.

Over the years, I’ve read and heard authors in books, blogs, and workshops deny the existence of writer’s block. I understand the message. That writer’s block is a stall tactic, it keeps us from writing. It’s an excuse. This method has never proven to be useful to me though. Denying its existence doesn’t make the problem go away. Here’s how I view it. I love horror movies, the scariest part about any good horror story is the anticipation of what the monster or supernatural entity looks like. Despite my love for horror movies, most of the ones I watch fail to scare or impress me. They fall flat. The reasonΒ is that my anticipation of what is coming is far greater than what’s actually produced in the movie. When I finally get a good look at the creature, poltergeist, or whatever is supposed to be terrifying, I’m disappointed. It’s nothing even close to the monstrosity I had chasing shadows in my mind. Identifying a problem, and the cause of it is frequently the first step in conquering it or figuring out how to work through or around the problem. The anticipation of a problem is much worse than the work to get through it.

I’m still trying to figure out how to work through writer’s block, different episodes seem to have different solutions for me, and sometimes it’s a matter of waiting it out and working on something else, which is one of the tips I have below.

So here are a few ideas that have helped me, please feel free to share what methods you use in the comments below. I think writer’s block requires an arsenal of techniques to get through it, and I’d love to hear what works for you. Maybe you use some of these ideas already, or maybe you’ll see one you haven’t tried yet.

Tips for breaking free of writer’s block:

Outline: I’m not the type of writer who typically outlines, I hope to make it there one day if for no other reason than to make the writing process easier on myself, but honestly one of my favorite parts about writing is not knowing what’s coming next. But, having said that, if I’m stuck and I can force myself to imagine where the story is going I can outline a couple of plot points that can get me headed back in the right direction. If you like the idea of outlining, I would recommend outlining your story first to prevent getting stuck while you’re writing it. Consider it a preventative measure.

Move to a different project: This is the tactic I use most often. If I’m stuck with editing, or in a story, I move onto something else. I’m always working on something writing related, moving things forward, but it gives my subconscious time to work through the problem while I am working on another task and at least feel like I’m accomplishing something. If every project is giving me a problem, I pick up a book on the writing craft. If I can’t get work done, I figure I can at least be learning about the craft. And a lot of times, I’ll get inspired and come up with an idea while I’m reading.

Shower: Taking a shower is a great way to work through a problem and come up with new ideas, and there’s a reason for that. The water falling on the head causes the brain synapses to fire faster, which is when we make connections that escape us at other times.

Excercise: There have been many times when I’ve been exercising and I’ve had to stop to write down a flash fiction story or poem that comes to mind. And there are even a number of times when I found myself thinking about a problem I had with a story, and the answer popped into my head.

Try writing prompts: A prompt gives you some place to start. Some people get an idea by being confined by the prompt. It gives them structure and a way to focus an idea. Others use a prompt to spark an idea that is very loosely related to the original prompt. I think both ways are fantastic, and it really depends on what your brain needs at that time to help it get unstuck.

Jump the scene you’re stuck on and come back to it later: If it’s a scene or chapter that’s caused your creativity to falter, skip it. Move on to the next scene or chapter. Maybe you have a scene you’ve been thinking about, but it doesn’t come in for several chapters. Start there. You can always come back later, and that burst of releasing creative energy into a scene that you can visualize might be just what you need to work through the part that tripped you up earlier.

Watching other artists: I always feel inspired and excited about my writing when watching someone else pursuing something they are passionate about. Poetry Slams always fill me with renewed creative energy, going to an art exhibit, listening to live music, etc. For me, there’s something contagious about watching people perform or showcase their talent. Engaging in conversation with people about writing never fails to inspire me. Sometimes when I talk to people about what I’m working on, that’s enough to reignite that fire inside and help me get back to work on a project that’s had me stuck.

Hopefully, some of these will help you the next time you’re feeling stuck. I’m currently feeling stalled on a couple of projects, so it felt like a good time to remind myself of the ways I normally get through these phases while passing these ideas to other writers. I’ve already put a couple of the items above to use, and I hope that before too long the projects that really have me stuck will resolve themselves and I’ll start making progress on them again.

 

If you’re stuck with your writing, tell me what has you stuck. If you’re not stuck, tell me about the project(s) you’re currently working on.

25 Comments


  1. // Reply

    A most excellent post, Mandy. Years ago I stumbled upon Julia Cmaeron’s book, “The Artist’s Way.” For me it was a gold mine! I recommend it and going through the workbook step by step, too, because she has so many good ideas. Not all of her books are as good as this one. I am not just a writer, but a fine artist as well. Strangely, I’ve never had writer’s block, but I often have artist’s block and can’t think of something to paint. Julia said in her book that you have to fill the well, that you can’t keep on taking. She said all creative types need to go out and do and see things. Sounds like the poetry slams work for you Mandy. Other things that might work are, going to a museum, or anywhere new. Our senses need stimulating is what it amounts to. For writer’s going somewhere there are people and listening to their conversations and even writing them down might help. New sights and sounds are helpful regardless of your creative pursuit. And most important, getting out of your own head and to stop judging yourself. Judging doesn’t help and sometimes we need to make a mess and get through it before we make progress. I’m so glad you wrote this post Mandy, and I look forward to what your other creative reader might suggest. I’m sure someone else has a jewel of an idea that will speak volumes.


    1. // Reply

      Thank you for the encouragement, suggestions, and book recommendation, Christy! A lot of great ideas in your comment. πŸ™‚
      I’ve not yet experienced the type of writer’s block where I can’t come up with an idea about what to write. I try to write new ideas in a journal though, so I don’t forget them and if there comes a time when I can’t think of anything to write, I’ll have a bunch to choose from. The other types though, I’ve had more than my fill. I’m blocked from my editing, because it seems like such a huge task. The more I edit, the more it seems I have yet to do. I need to just take it five pages at a time, and not look at the whole project though, or I’ll never get through it.
      Thanks for the advice!


  2. // Reply

    I use the “skip-around” method extensively during first drafts. If I’m struggle to visualize one scene, or if I haven’t done enough research to feel comfortable writing a different scene, I’ll work on an entirely different scene so I can keep progressing. Then it allows my subconscious to quietly “work” on what I’m stuck on in the background – and it always has a way of getting me un-stuck in the end. This explains why I have a bunch of middle chapters completed for my new WIP, but not the opening chapter… though I *think* I know what I want to do with it now!

    I also second exercise, especially walking. This happens even when I’m not stuck, though. I could be on a walk, and I’ll get an idea for a new poem, or something to add to a character profile, or the next point or paragraph to make in a blog article. There’s just something head-clearing and soul-rejuvenating about being outdoors, anyways. It must be the fresh air and sunshine, among other things.

    Hope you find a way to move past your stumbling blocks soon, Mandie!


    1. // Reply

      Thanks, Sara. It’s neat to hear that you use some of the same techniques. Luckily, I have so many projects going on that it’s easy to slide into another one. I’m being plagued by the editing for my novel. I hear it calling me, but I’m not rushing back because it is not going smoothly. Then I recently started a short story, and I’m in the middle of a huge wave of doubt on whether I can pull it off. It’s a sci-fi/horror story, and there are a lot of technical and procedural issues that I think are too big to try to cram into a short story, and yet I don’t think the story will work without them.
      But at least I wrote this post, and now I feel like I’ve accomplished something. I’m hoping that will give me a push into the next task, and maybe I’ll find myself editing today.


  3. // Reply

    Sara, I like your comments about the letting the subconscious quietly work out a problem. It is so true that “nature” helps with that. Mandy, it sounds like the editing is less creative for you and more step by step work, so these other techniques you use for creative energy are not as helpful. I think breaking down the editing into five page chunks is a great idea. Also, count your achievements, such as this post. Give yourself credit and try not to judge yourself. Do ask yourself the question; if you are not just editing, but are you at the same time, rethinking parts of your book. If so, then your brain is trying to do two things at once. Know in your heart you will get it all down and enjoy the process however it unfolds.


    1. // Reply

      I think you nailed it when you said that editing is not a creative process for me, but step-by-step work. The frustrating thing is that editing usually speaks to the organized side of my brain that likes to pull out and rely on the grammar rules, but some of the editing isn’t defined by rules. Maybe when the logical and technical side of my brain takes over, it doesn’t leave room for the creative side to process the book. You’ve just given me something to ponder.


  4. // Reply

    Block is not a problem that occurs for me very often, but I have experienced it. Both starting another project and skipping ahead to another scene have been effect tactics for me. In fact, many times I’ll get a new idea and start a new story and fail to go back to the one I was originally working on. I have a good number of unfinished pieces. When I try to go back and work on the uncompleted stories, I find that I have a hard time get motivated. It’s like that piece is dead to me. The body is willing but the muse is not.


    1. // Reply

      I recall a few occasions where I’ve returned to a story that I jotted down in my notebook, remembering how excited I was about the idea and yet I can’t recall where I thought the story was going to go. The interesting part is that I’ve come up with new ideas based on the notes, but I don’t think it’s what I originally had in mind.
      I have this need to complete things, so if I start a story, it might take me a while, but I will get back around to it, and it will get finished. And even though I have many projects going on at once, I try to set boundaries, so I don’t get completely derailed from one project. I won’t start a new novel while writing the first draft of another novel for instance. I might write short stories on the side, but only one large project of a certain type at a time.
      Thanks for giving us a peek into your writing process, Russell. I find it interesting to hear how other writers tackle writing.


      1. // Reply

        I mainly write short stories as I have a short attention span. The title story for One Idiot Short of a Village is just over 30,000 words, which is huge for me. I did write 2 or 3 short stories while working on that project. It was the one story I never got tired of. It should be out in print this fall.


        1. // Reply

          That’s so exciting to hear, Russell!! πŸŽ‰ I love hearing when authors have books coming out. It gives me something to look forward to. I think it will be an altogether different type of accomplishment than having shorter pieces of work published in literary magazines.


          1. //

            No one will ever accuse me of being literary, Mandie. πŸ™‚


  5. // Reply

    I don’t usually outline when I write. I just go with the flow and try to keep it sounding cohesive. πŸ˜†

    With my Ambrose and Elsie story, however, I have a semi-outline for things that must happen in the final showdown with Mark Caten and in the epilogue. (I don’t actually call it an outline. I call it a Cheat Sheet to make my non-outliner self happy.)

    That Cheat Sheet came about from me trying to figure out the ultimate purpose for two new characters who came aboard and refused to leave. I was worried that they were pointless Nikki and Paolo (from tv show Lost) characters that my readers would be all “Oh. My. Gosh. Make them diiiie! I don’t care about them. I want to know what’s happening with the main characters.”

    I can’t even remember what I was doing (I have a feeling I was probably at work or in church), when I realized that there is a rhyme and a reason for their existence. They helped solve a gaping plot point towards the end. Made me so happy I just had to write it all down.

    I have it all saved on my blog to make it easier to get into. But every time I add something to it, I worry I’ll hit Publish instead of Save. I’d be like “AHHHH! NOTHING TO SEE HERE! NOTHING!” Quick copy paste into Word and delete post. “NOTHING WHATSOEVER!” πŸ˜†


    1. // Reply

      Haha I enjoyed that. πŸ™‚ I was reading a book this morning by Orson Scott Card called Characters & Viewpoints, and he mentions the roles of different characters including placeholder characters, minor characters, and major characters. And I remember reading that if a minor character makes a bigger presence in your story than you planned, then you need to figure out what their function is and either expand them into a bigger role, or cut the stuff that draws too much attention to them for the role you need them to play.


      1. // Reply

        Thank you! I’m glad you liked it. πŸ™‚

        That is very good advice about minor characters. Even if you don’t follow an outline, it’s a good idea to have some idea about how this or that minor character serves the plot.

        On a side note, I’m so glad I kept those two characters in my story. Not only do they help fill that plot point void later on, but the one character helps free Ambrose up to go do his own plot business. I worried in the beginning that he sounded/acted too much like an Ambrose clone, but he’s grown into his own skin by now.

        And I really like writing the other character.

        And I’m being terribly vague. Sorry. πŸ™

        I’m looking forward to what you think about them. πŸ˜‰


        1. // Reply

          No worries about being vague. I do the same thing when I’m talking about my novel. Plus, I’ll find out when I get to that part in your story anyway. I just have to get busy reading. πŸ˜‰


  6. // Reply

    As for actual writer’s block…

    Reading a writing magazine always gets me all pumped up to do some writing. Not sure how or why that works. It just does. πŸ™‚

    Then sometimes stuff like this happens:

    A couple of months ago, I was mentally stuck on one of my off-line stories. Something had to climb onto this bridge and pull a “You Shall Not Pass!” on my characters. I just had no idea what that something was.

    I put that story on hold and focused on my Ambrose and Elsie story. Then, my sister and I went to Buffalo Wild Wings. We placed the order, picked it up, and found that they forgot one of the things we ordered. I went back inside and the people rushed about to fix the order.

    So I was just standing there, staring at their logo (black buffalo with wings) and pondering weird stuff.

    Really weird stuff about how a flying buffalo could realistically exist in the wild. Like…would it have hollow bones like birds? How big would its wings need to be to carry such a big, blocky body. What would it eat? Where would it nest? Would it nest? How would that work? Would it still have hooves? How would that work?

    See? Weird stuff.

    And I realized that flying buffalo was my missing “something”. It made me so happy. I was just grinning to myself like a crazy person.

    The people behind the counter apologized for making me wait. I was like “Not a problem.” πŸ™‚


    1. // Reply

      This is a great example of the brain working through a problem. I have some of the best ideas when I see something, and my brain starts making these huge leaps that lead to a great idea. I’m so happy you shared these stories, Amy. There is something to be said about stepping into a different place to figure out a problem.


  7. // Reply

    This was an excellent post to read, Mandie. I haven’t had writer’s block in a long time, though. The last time I had it, I just burrowed my nose in a couple of books and watch some movies. I also tend to get distracted easily, so when a new idea comes I tend to feel less inspired to go back to what I was writing prior.


    1. // Reply

      I’m so happy to hear you haven’t had to deal with writer’s block in quite a while and that when it shows up, you have a proven method to get through it.
      I have different methods to get through it because it never fails to show up. It’s the one thing I can count on. The way I deal with it, besides the list above where I try to figure a way around it, is I keep showing up. I work on something else, or I make myself sit there and work anyway, or if necessary, I give myself a break. Then I show up for the work the next day. It’s an odd thing for me to feel so passionate about something, and to be so fearful of it at the same time.


  8. // Reply

    This was a great article about writer’s block. When I can’t come up with ideas, I often go listen to music, take a walk, or I’ll work on another story idea. I liked how you said you need to keep moving, even if you can’t come up with new ideas. As writers, we always need to keep moving and perfecting our craft.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us!


    1. // Reply

      Thanks, Aka! πŸ™‚ I really like your idea about listening to music. I listen to music a lot when I write, I even get ideas from listening to music sometimes. Since it’s already such a part of my writing life, I’ll have to remember to try it the next time I’m stuck.
      And I really love your gravatar. Beautiful image.


  9. // Reply

    Good post. I’ve also read plenty of writers saying that writer’s block doesn’t exist, but I tend to think that’s a bit like someone saying that heart attacks don’t exist, just because they’ve never had one.

    For me personally, writers block usually comes down to an inability to focus on one thing. I don’t run out of story ideas – it’s the opposite really – I have too many ideas and I can’t focus on one idea long enough to write the story.

    But when I’m really blocked, the quickest remedy for me is to have a good cry about something. Most of the time I’m pretty unemotional and it takes a lot to make me cry, but if I can find a movie or piece of music to get those tears flowing, it seems to get the creative juices flowing too!


    1. // Reply

      Haha Scarlett, I think you might be right about that heart attack analogy. I think there is something to be said about practicing, and continuing to show up to write that will help relieve and resolve some instances of writer’s block, but there are plenty of other obstacles that can block your progress too (at least for me).
      That’s interesting about the emotional release boosting your creativity when you’re stuck. It makes sense, and I’m impressed that you’ve noticed that about yourself.

Leave a Reply