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Writer’s Block—Real or Imaginary?

April 24, 2011 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified October 20, 2011

I’ll cut straight to the conclusion on this one. If you’ve got writer’s block, it’s real for you.

Don’t worry about what some experts say, that there’s no such thing as writer’s block. There are as many other experts who say it’s real and a true challenge for writers.

If you’re stuck, have no idea what to do with a character or the plot, that’s a dilemma. If you can’t write, can’t get past a certain place in a story, you are most assuredly blocked.

You’re a writer. You’re supposed to write. When you don’t, when you can’t, your life isn’t right. Nothing feels right, you’re cranky, you make the people around you miserable, and you quite often leave your protagonist hanging somewhere with no idea where to turn or what to do.

He can’t think without you, can’t plan without you. He can’t outwit the bad guys without you. He doesn’t even know what clothes to put on without you.

So it’s tragic when you leave him hanging. Especially if it’s in a place you’re unhappy with. If you’re not pleased, think how he must feel, hanging out in some airport lounge when that’s obviously not where the action is.

And he knows it’s not the right place, because nothing is happening.

You don’t like where he is or what he’s doing. Yet instead of going back a few pages—or a few chapters, yes, you can do that—you leave him nursing a Stoli on the rocks with rocks that melted two days ago.

He’s tired, losing interest in chasing the evil Dr. Farley who’s now a half dozen time zones ahead of him, and the delightfully beautiful Moira has gone off with a homicide detective in San Francisco since you couldn’t figure out a way to get your guy back across the country and still make a play for Dr. Farley at LaGuardia.

Maybe you need to put Slick—let’s call him Slick—back in California and send him—and the delightful Moira—after Farley another day.

Could it be that simple, the fix for writer’s block? Yep. Sometimes all it takes is a rewind to see where you’ve gone off track. Go back to where the story was working and then try something other than what you tried before. If the story was working and now it’s not, return to the last place it did work and change what follows.

But that’s 10, 35, 100 pages! Can you actually undo that much of a story? Who does that?

Every writer does. Every writer who recognizes when a story’s gone wacky.

So try it. Let that be your first option when you feel blocked, when you don’t know where to send your version of Slick, don’t know what to have him doing.

Backtrack to the point where the story worked and either just start rewriting or analyze what went wrong. Follow the method that works for you. Get back on track.

Not that simple
But when that doesn’t work, and it may not, is that your only option? What if it’s not as simple as just going back and changing direction (or getting back to the right direction)?

Maybe the story works but you’re still stuck. You know where Slick goes about 50 pages farther down the story, but you don’t know what to do now. Everything you can think of is lame or out of character or boring. Are there remedies for that?

I’m glad you asked. Yes, there are.

First, how about a diagnostic, a checkup? Determine if you’re facing writer’s block, a wall that separates you from the next step in your story, or if you’re suffering from I-just-don’t-wanna-write-itis.

Don’t-wanna-write can attack writers at any time of year, at any stage of a manuscript, at any place in their careers. It can present with a variety of symptoms—being unable to sit at a computer for any length of time, desire to be outside, general anxiety from a fear that the story will never be good enough because the writer will never be good enough.

Writers fall victim to don’t-wanna-write when they’re the only ones pushing themselves to write, to complete the next manuscript. When there’s no support for that hobby that keeps them from family events. When writing is belittled or ignored or pushed aside in favor of everything else. Anything else.

This malady strikes when you’ve been writing for years with nothing but stacks of paper to show for it. When you’re putting in the time, but not improving. When you get more rejections than Christmas cards. When your critique partner repeats herself because you keep writing the same plots or characters or themes.

If you’re not writing to deadline or for a royalty check, if no one’s holding you accountable or encouraging you, you have to do that yourself. You have to make you write. You have to use the tools that motivate you:

the joy of writing

the satisfaction of getting better

the hope of publication

the challenge

whatever moves you

A writer who can’t reward himself, who can’t work without an outside force making him stick with it, is not someone who’s going to complete that first book. And if he can’t do that, he’ll never write a second.

Writing takes discipline. Your best friend can’t do it for you. You put in the time, you produce the manuscript.

And you’ll reap the rewards.

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Now, if you are actually stuck with the writing itself, if you don’t know what to do with a character or the plot, try one, two, or all of the following:

Craft-related block breakers—

1.  Walk away. Refuse to think about the story for a day or two.

2.  Begin a new story. Get it flowing. Then go back to the first. Not recommended for those who never finish a manuscript.

3.  Begin work on another scene.

4.  Write the ending.

5.  Kill a character.

6.  Change your protagonist’s occupation.

7.  Introduce a new love interest.

8.  Write a sappy sonnet.

9.  Write a scene that will never be seen—your main character talking with his shrink, meeting the president, visiting with his hero.

10.  Write a scene from a pet’s point of view or turn your main character into an animal for a scene.

11.  Imagine your protagonist being called to heaven to meet God. Imagine God coming to earth to meet her. Imagine the devil tempting one of your characters.

12.   Write out your last complete scene or chapter longhand.

13.  Have someone put together a grab bag for you. Reach in, touch an object, describe it. Pretend it’s from the 18th century, the 25th century, from Atlantis.

14.  Write a non-fiction article.

15.  Think of an event that would make your character weep. Write the scene.

16.  Abandon the manuscript. Sometimes the story just isn’t there. Know the difference between writer’s block and bad story.

 

Life-related block breakers—

1.  Read a book, take a walk, fly a kite.

2.  Build or fix something with your hands—a puzzle, broken equipment, a bookcase.

3.  Bombard your senses—walk through a noisy mall, go to a perfume store, wander a fabric store and touch every bolt of fabric.

4.  Plan a crime. Each detail.

5.  Eavesdrop at a ball game, the coffee shop, standing in a long line.

6.  Listen to music. Play an instrument. Go see a play.

7.  Complain to a fellow writer.

8.  Try a new food.

9.  Clean out the attic, the garage, the kitchen junk drawer.

10.  Play Checkers or Crazy 8s with a kid.

11.  Take a bath, take a nap, take an aspirin.

12.  Play Sudoku.

13.  Watch a national news channel or commentator that you disagree with and write out reasoned and logical points of disagreement.

14.  Go dancing.

15.  Ask about your spouse’s day and problems, listen, and don’t mention your story or your writer’s block.

16.  Plant flowers.

17.  Go to a park or playground. Ride the swings, hang from the monkey bars, start a game of pickup ball.

18.  Walk in the rain. Kiss in the rain. Float Popsicle-stick boats down a stream.

19.  Visit a planetarium or museum.

20.  Make a cake. From scratch.

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I could go on and on. And I have. The key in each of these options is to break the cycle of coming back to the same spot in the story bringing the same mindset. Once you open your mind to other activities and thoughts, you break the pattern of the circular thoughts that were getting you nowhere.

Get out. Get away. Think differently. Think different.

When we’re caught up in that cycle, it’s hard to think differently. It’s even hard to change the thoughts themselves. We think if we try it—the same thing—one more time, we’ll have a breakthrough. But that’s not gonna work.

Doing same doesn’t help. Doing different does. That’s why it’s beneficial to have a list created by someone else, a list of different responses, such as I’ve laid out here. Left to ourselves, we turn to what is familiar, that which is natural to us. But it’s the familiar that’s causing our problem.

Do something different, something not thought up by you. Something not in your pattern of choices or behaviors. Seek options outside your limitations. Send your brain new signals and shake it up.

Let your mind know it’s okay to follow new paths.

See if opening up to the new in your physical and emotional worlds won’t open up possibilities—both the simple and the complex—for your writing world.

Don’t only do something different as a writer. Do something that’s different for you, the personal you.

Save Slick and Moira from an incomplete story. Break through writer’s block. Finish what you start.

*******

Writer’s block could be a symptom of depression. If there’s more wrong than just your ability to work through story problems, see a doctor.

You may also face writer’s block when you simply don’t have the right tools—or don’t know which tool to use—when an unfamiliar writing dilemma comes up.

This kind of block requires study, research, writing practice. Investigate methods other writers use to tackle the same problem. Learn strategies for writing yourself out of plot tangles. Seek advice. Ask questions. Think of yourself as a student with a problem to solve and look for methods—not necessarily answers—to solve that problem.

Details about this solution to writer’s block would require its own article, so perhaps more on this topic later. For now, realize that answers are available. Your task is to find them and then apply the tricks you learn to your specific problem.

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3 Responses to “Writer’s Block—Real or Imaginary?”

  1. Joan Wilding says:

    Thank you for your practical, helpful and encouraging articles directed at writers.

  2. My pleasure, Joan. I’m glad you find the articles practical and encouraging.