Since I spent most of last year struggling with a difficult-to-write novel, I want to talk a bit about writer’s block.
Let me say right up front that I don’t believe there is such a thing in the sense most people apply the term. I think the popular image of writer’s block—and one that’s shared, unfortunately, by a good many writers—is that the muse has abandoned the author. Even taken as a metaphor, I don’t feel this is a helpful definition. Why? Because it’s disempowering. It makes the writer the victim of a mythical entity with superhuman gifts.
It’s natural for a writer who suddenly can’t make headway to panic. Unfortunately, not only is that likely to result in even greater paralysis and stress, but it’s distracting you from the real issue.
First off, a muse, which I believe is actually the writer’s subconscious, requires work on the part of the writer to nourish1. This work primarily takes the form of sitting down every day at the keyboard, whether or not you feel inspired, and typing something. In addition, the writer needs to be reading, getting out, exchanging ideas, experiencing life, and generally feeding their muse. If you sit around waiting to be inspired, you’re likely to have a very long wait, and any inspiration that does come is likely to be short-lived.
I think the well of creativity can temporarily run dry, especially after a long spell of intense work. If you really believe writing burnout is your problem, worrying isn’t going to help. Better to simply accept that you need to recharge. Go for long walks. Go on a reading binge. Travel. Have a torrid love affair. Try bungee jumping or Go-Kart racing. Or even simply allow yourself time to get bored. Just living and experiencing life will help far more than fretting or obsessing or trying to force something to come.
In my experience, writer’s block, especially with a work-in-progress, is always a signal from the subconscious that something isn’t working, and specifically that I don’t understand some specific aspect of what I’m trying to write. I always look for this first in character and ask myself if I have all my characters squarely in focus, whether I know them all as well as I should. Since I don’t plot much in the abstract but rather let my characters create the plot under pressure from a strong setup, the problem for me is almost always one of character…because if they aren’t moving and acting, the plot stops. If I don’t fully understand their goals and motivations and internal conflict, how can I write the next scene? I want to write about real people, not puppets. Digging deeper and earnestly into character can solve a lot of story issues and unblock you.
It’s also possible that the blocked writer is simply bored with their work. This happens. In this case one answer is to write an exciting scene even if it’s out of sequence: this can often get you engaged and moving again. It that fails, try rethinking the story altogether and ask yourself if the idea will actually carry a novel, trilogy, etc. To paraphrase Elmore Leonard, leave out the boring bits2. If they bore you, they’re likely to bore your reader too.
On a related note, it’s also worth asking yourself how much you care about the story, whether your heart is really in it. Newer writers in particular may find, on honest reflection, that they’re trying to write something they think will be popular rather than telling a story they really want to tell. You need to have passion about the work for it to really come alive.
Sometimes writer’s block can be a result of the writer’s own growth process. As we start learning our craft, our appreciation and admiration of others’ talents and the realization of how much we don’t know and still have to learn can amplify our self-doubt to the point where it becomes a paralyzing wall of terror. This is something that makes or breaks writers, a demon that comes with the territory. When one finds oneself at this pass, it’s helpful to remember that every single one of the writers you read and admire also had to learn their craft and overcome these same terrors3. They say it takes a million words to learn your craft, and I believe there’s some truth in that. It’s also good to bear in mind the saying that “it takes ten years to become an overnight success.”
It’s also possible the writer may just be overwhelmed by life. Demands of work, money concerns, domestic discord, caring for aging parents, family illness, all consume time and bandwidth: by the end of the day you’re too fried to do even think, let alone write.
My advice in these cases is the same advice I give writers in every case: write daily, and first thing in the morning, before your head gets filled with junk and other people’s words, and the world begins to pull you every which way. Get up an hour or two earlier if you need to. Find the courage to say no to everything that’s not critical. Ditch TV for sure, go to bed earlier if you need to, and get your social media and online time under control. All these things can be huge time sinks.
I can hear the chorus now: “But how am I supposed to relax?” Nuts. If you want to write badly enough, you’ll push other things aside. Think how much more relaxed you’ll be when that damn novel you’re stuck on is done!
Fear of failure can be a factor, too. Writing is a hard, solitary business. You ask yourself if the possible returns—because, honestly, very few of us will ever make anything like a living off our writing—are worth the effort. Hell, you could be having fun: playing games, watching movies, partying with friends, learning some other skill. Instead, you’re stuck at your desk trying to pile up tens of thousands of words about made-up people which, in the end, nobody may give a damn about. Well, those doubts are real, and we all face them at some point, often more than once. My approach is to face them squarely, stare them down. It’s your decision, nobody else’s. You can choose to go forward or you can stop. So far, I’ve chosen to go forward4.
So how did I break through the obstacles with my own work-in-progress? Time wasn’t the issue in my case. I had that. The problem was a multifaceted one stemming in part from the odd way in which I write, in part from the conceit of the novel. The solution—and it took me months to dismantle, brick by brick, the wall I seemed to have pulled up against—lay in further character work, and pulling apart what seemed like an absolute tangle of character arcs into separate threads. I don’t plot in detail much, but because of the present-day, real-world settings and outrageous premise of the novel, I was forced to do far more intense tracking and actualization of my characters and the situations in which they found themselves than ever before. I set up spreadsheets to track character interactions, and spent more time listing each character’s foibles and peculiarities, down to star signs and unconscious conflicts.
I used Google Street View, too, a favourite tool of mine. Using this amazing tech to walk the streets your characters walk, to see their neighbours’ houses and the locations where bad things happen, can really help get the creative imagination flowing again and spur progress. You have to be in your novel, standing right by each character as you write about them, to forge ahead. When one is stuck, it’s often because—like Timothy Leary—you’re on the outside, looking in.
Even the above wasn’t enough. I had to dig deeper, more than I ever have, to really get to the core of what was the novel was about. The core plot conceit—an engineered coup and the complete collapse of the status quo in a major Western democracy—kept pushing the novel towards being a formulaic, testosterone-fueled yarn about the machinations of people in the halls of power, and the military: I didn’t want that, I wanted a visceral book about real, sympathetic, knowable people. It took that realization, and a concerted effort of will to repeatedly steer the focus back towards a group of ordinary Janes and Joes, people like you and I, faced with the meltdown of pretty much everything they know. I had to not only leave out the boring bits, I had to leave out everything that would prevent this from being my book. That meant sifting through the piled-up garbage and cookie-cutter tropes I’ve absorbed for years and disregarding all the accumulated BS from watching Hollywood and reading bestselers. To hell with Save the Cat. I’m gonna let it drown.
Finally, talk to people you trust. Your wife or husband, fellow writers, your ideal readers. Simply doing that, talking through the problems and fears, can bring fresh insights on what is really causing you to be stuck and help you move through it.
To conclude, then, I believe that writer’s block comes in many forms, and each is eminently capable of a cure. But it takes effort, intelligence, courage, and, most of all, determination to work through them. Writing is mostly about tenacity and will. The only one who can finish the work is you. And though your muse may feel like some fickle, external supernatural being, they’re not: they’re a part of you, the writer.
Writing is hard. But with courage , creativity, and sheer willpower, you can break through any block.
Have you experienced writer’s block? How did you get past it?
1 Both Stephen King and Damon Knight have written at some length about this
2 The actual quote is, “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.”
3Robert Silverberg, in “Science Fiction 101,” gives a wonderful, detailed account of his own struggle to master his craft
4I strongly disagree with all the writing coaches and bloggers who exhort and badger you to keep writing at all costs: I believe that knowing one has a choice and the freedom to stop if the cost–mental, emotional, or otherwise–becomes such that your life suffers is empowering, and I’m not going to take that away from you. You need to choose to keep writing, not do it to please me or anyone else.