Let’s talk writer’s block today.
To really break down writer’s block, you’d need a book’s worth of space – because what we call writer’s block is kinda like Biblical references to leprosy – it’s a catch-all term for, rather than a skin disease, the problem of not being able to write effectively.
But the tricky thing is that writer’s block has all kinds of causes and variations - none of which, I'm sorry to say, involve putting down a book and watching an episode of The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmitt. I've written out the processes that help me to work out problem spots and keep going; they're geared for fiction, and based around an understanding of three act structure, but even if you're writing non-fiction you'll find some crossover. Let's get started!
Step 1 – Admitting it is the first step
Sometimes when you’re thinking “I’m not feeling the book today” that’s actually code in your head for “I don’t like it because it’s hard,” which is also code for “I’m stuck.” You can “not feel it” for days – or weeks, or months. Once you see it for what it is – block – you can move forward.
Other times, if you're like me, you can wind up in a panic spiral. What started as "It's a problem" can turn into "I can't figure it out and I'll never have any ideas ever again." Which - no. Look at it this way - a block is your brain's way of telling you that your book is hitting a dead end. It's an alert system. So take a deep breath, trust your brain, and dig in.
Step 2 – Commit to Finding a Solution
Common wisdom thrown around among non-professional writers is to put your writing down when you’re stuck (a lot of people suggest washing dishes). Now, in some cases that’s not untrue. If you’ve been working at your computer for a long time, need to eat, need to sleep – yes, set your body and your brain chemistry up for success. Take a walk get a meal, and go to bed if it’s 2am.
However, learning to work through writers’ block is one of the most important tools to have available if you’re writing, or hoping to write, professionally. It’s one thing to make your way through a project at a leisurely pace if you don’t have a deadline, but once you’re under contract you’ve got to make the best use of your time.
And the other reason it’s good to push through is that writers’ block isn’t the result of your muse taking a nap. Instead, there are usually causes in the text that are totally fixable – so if you’ve carved out writing time, go ahead and make the most of it!
Step 3 – Use Your Hands
I’m an obnoxiously huge fan of journaling through writers’ block. When we write, we write primarily with some form of electronic device. You’re using a very specific neuropathway to perform the task of typing out your thoughts.
But when you’re stuck, I strongly recommend switching things up. By the time you’ve gotten well and stuck, it’s time to give your brain something new to do.
Now, different techniques work for different writers, but whatever you use – whether it’s an idea cloud or a timeline or straight journaling, do it with paper and a pencil. The act of handwriting uses very different areas of your brain – so think of it as bringing in the reserves. (There’s some fascinating literature on the subject of handwriting – this article is a good launch point.)
Step 4 - Identify the Cause
Having spent a LOT of time working through my own blocks and helping writer friends with theirs, I’ve narrowed the main types down to three – scene blocks, character blocks, and story blocks. They each share similarities, but also have some different approaches for fixing.
Scene Block: Stuck in a scene? Here are some questions to ask –
What is the purpose of this scene? Does the scene need to open sooner? Does it need to end?
Scene blocks are pretty easy to untangle – very easy if it’s simply a matter of getting out of the scene and starting the next one. But sometimes a scene doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, and when that happens it’s wise to stop and pull out the notepaper. Using whatever method works best – a timeline, stream-of-consciousness journaling, consider what you need to accomplish with that scene with regards to the rest of the plot.
Consider the motivations of everyone involved – what do they want? Are they going to succeed, and if not, why? Often, simply getting out of the scene and looking at it objectively will help you solve problems and move forward.
Character Block: Remember, plot and character go hand in hand. A problem character – or characters – can throw a wrench into a well-crafted plot.
Character Block – Singular. Take out your journal and ask yourself these questions questions to – What does your character want? How did her motivations come to exist? Is she acting or reacting? Do her wants and motivations work with the story, or are they fighting against the plot? Sometimes the chemistry you need from a basic plotline can be undercut if your character just isn’t having it. We'll talk more about character chemistry below.
Write out what your character wants – in the scene where you’re at, in that act, in the book as a whole. Journal out how that works with or against the plot, looking for areas that might be creating dissonance.
Character Block – Ensemble. I like to think of books as being a series of chemical reactions. You want to have all of the elements in place to create a series of reactions, with major reactions propelling the story forward at key moments (such as the inciting event, turning points between acts, etc). In a character-driven novel, the characters are the ones creating or augmenting each reaction. So if motivations aren’t fleshed out, or if characters are avoiding chemical reactions by agreeing or avoiding each other, it’s going to give you grief.
Story Block: This is kind of the big kahuna of writer’s block, and there are a couple ways that you might find yourself falling into it.
Level 1 Story Block – No Synopsis. Look, I get the allure of the free form, organic, seat-of-the-pants writing. However, when you don’t know where you’re going it’s very easy to lose your way. A sturdy, detailed synopsis provides a great road map, and often that’s enough to keep you moving forward. If you're struggling with synopses, check out this post.
Level 2 Story Block – Synopsis with Thin Spots. However, you can work with a synopsis and still discover problems down the road. Sometimes it’s because of thin spots in the planning. If you journal through and find that you don’t have a lot of plans for how – or why – your protagonist winds up to the climax at act III, that’s an important piece to fill in.
Level 3 Story Block – Research with Thin Spots. If you’re feeling especially at a loss, dig back into your source material. If you’re writing a book about the circus, for example, look for a new book or documentary that you can watch or skim. New information can help to provide inspiration for filling in the blanks.
Step 5 – Take Action
Sometimes you can journal or chart or draw or research your way around in circles and still not come up with what you need. If you’ve hit that point, it’s time to phone a friend. Get another collection of brain cells working alongside you. And if you can do it while walking, even better. Usually, I only really hit this point when a.) I’m so panicked that I’m forgetting to journal, or b.) when I’m in the synopsis stage. And even then, going back to the core questions about characters and motivations will do a lot.
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Writing a book is hard. Pulling a plot out of your head, creating people to live in a fictional world – really, it’s hard. But it’s so important, I think, to remember that just as we write active characters, it’s important to be active writers. Don’t be satisfied with allowing the story to come to you passively – you can take an active role. You can do it!
What do you think? What hands-on techniques work for you?