Saturday, March 19, 2016

More on writer’s block

The sinking feeling staring at a blank page, and seeing it as a depressing reflection of my own mind.

Having too many thoughts flying through my mind, but they are elusive - the moment I reach to solidify one in words, it slips through my hands and I’m left grasping for the next, and the next...

Having a scene that I want to express, but unable to get past an obstacle - a word, a name, a description - and I’m writing, deleting, rewriting over and over unable to move on until I get it just right...

Finding endless excuses to avoid facing the manuscript and the prospect of writing.

Are any of these feelings familiar?

Writer’s block comes in many guises, none of them pleasant, all of them frustrating. All of them mean we are spinning our wheels not writing when we should be writing.

And there’s loads of advice and techniques out there for how to get around it. I talked last week about one of them - just keep writing - and why I don’t find it satisfactory on its own.

In order to employ “just keep writing” successfully, you need to be clear to yourself about exactly what you mean in this instance by “just keep writing” (because it can mean an awful lot of things) and understand what it is you expect to gain. More generally, people are rarely clear what’s going on when they experience writer’s block, so they try techniques in a haphazard way hoping that something will work. It’s like trying to cook a meal by pulling random implements off the shelf in the hope that one of them might prove useful.

I’ve come to the conclusion that these symptoms that we call writer’s block are simply signs of something deeper. My subconscious mind is usually (not always, but usually) telling me that I haven’t gained the necessary clarity about what I want to write. My response to this kind of block nowadays is to try to be more systematic, more scientific, in looking for the underlying issue. Rather than throw random solutions at the problem, I try to understand the problem first, and then choose a suitable tool from my toolkit to address it.

Conversely, I’ve noticed that when the words flow the easiest, I have a clear picture of the scene in my mind, of the characters involved, their goals, and their surroundings. That doesn’t mean I have everything in the story mapped out, though the larger plot can also be a stumbling block at times, that’s just the way I write. I can leap ahead and totally pants scenes that I envisage, and work out how to weave them into the big picture later.

On those occasions when I’ve been successful at meeting writing goals right through a first draft, my process includes just enough planning, plotting, and scene-setting to keep ahead of the writing curve. I try to sniff out the potential blockages and deal with them before they become a problem, or recognize when I’m hitting a sticky patch and ask myself what’s getting in my way.

Yes, sometimes I’ve also taken the advice to work on something else, to take time out. But nowadays I don’t look on that as a direct technique - as in “write something else and as a direct result you’ll miraculously find it easier to write this story”. I see it as an acknowledgment that although I have unfinished business with this story, the answer isn’t going to be forced. In other words, working on something else gives me time out so I can come back to the story with fresh eyes, but the underlying problem will still be there waiting to be solved.

What does writer’s block feel like to you, and what’s worked for you to overcome it?


  1. Other than just having no ideas at all, I've never really had writer's block. I plan and map out my stories in detail before I begin, which means I don't get stuck once I start writing.

  2. When I can't seem to write anything...I don't, but I don't worry about it. Words are like hunger; they return eventually.

  3. Alex, I think you are very fortunate. From my experience, it seems that planning is the key. Unfortunately, not everyone (myself included) is able to take the meticulous planning path that you do.

    Stephen, it's good that you can take that view on things. I hope I can suggest a few tricks to help things not reach that stage :)

  4. When I hit a block, it's usually because I'm either not in the right frame of mind to write (too many non writing related things going on in my head) or I need to do something else until I get the scene or next line in my head. I don't need a major plan, I prefer to pants my way through most everything, but giving the subconscious mind time to wander and ponder what comes next before sitting down to write works wonders for my productivity.

  5. Jean, too many non-writing things is probably a topic in its own right, but getting the scene/line in my head is exactly what I mean by clarity. Taking time to ponder what comes next is absolutely one of the techniques I use. Will be posting more examples along those lines in coming weeks...

  6. I tend not to get writer's block anymore unless I've burned out.

    It used to be that I could just not find the next words I wanted to write, but that's one of the reasons why I work on multiple projects. If I get stuck on one, I move onto the next one to give my subconscious a chance to figure things out.

    Sometimes, though, any writing I do feels like sipping yogurt through a straw. In those cases I know it's time for me to take a two week writing hiatus.

  7. Misha, where writing goes I find it hard to think about multiple projects. When I write, I'm focused all-out on the one story, and if I leave it, it will be for a substantial period of time so for me that's a last resort. Funny how differently we all work.


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