Everyone wants to not discuss writer’s block, including me. For many years I couldn’t understand why anyone actually experienced it. I had always assumed it was just poor planning until I was recently up against it myself. The good news about writer’s block is that it’s very easy to work through it. The bad news is that the ways to work around it aren’t all that much fun.
Keep in mind that I have probably been writing for longer than you’ve been alive. I wrote my first real short story back in ’86 and my first novel somewhere around ’92. I’m not saying they were any good, but I wrote them, and that’s the first, most important, and most difficult step. However, this piece isn’t about writing. It’s about not writing, so let’s not write.
First, what is writer’s block? It depends on how you write and whether you are a “plotter” or a “pantser.” I’m a plotter. I make outlines for each chapter from start to finish. Each chapter has anywhere from five to fifteen or more bulleted items, and each item represents something that has to happen in that chapter. I don’t start a first draft until the outline is finished. Some people find that kind of boring, sort of like just connecting the dots as opposed to sitting in front of a black pages and creating a new world right then and there. To see more about my style, you can click here and read a previous post.
By plotting, I will rarely experience writer’s block because I will always know what comes next as long as I stick to the outline. Sure, sometimes I deviate, add, subtract, and change things up but not usually, which is why writer’s block is more likely to happen to the pantser, not the plotter.
Pantsers, or pantsing, refers to people who do things “by the seat of their pants.” The pantsers improvise and make it up as they go along. They like to wing it and just see what happens. Pansters spend more time deleting words, sentences, even entire documents because things just didn’t work out to their satisfaction. Pantsers probably have more fun while writing, but they will also spend more time smacking their faces into walls that seem immovable. They don’t know what’s coming around each corner. There’s the potential for a fun surprise, but there’s also the potential for a dead end. That “dead end” is also known as writer’s block. It’s painting yourself into a corner with nowhere to go and then spending days, maybe even weeks staring at the corner. So what can you do about it? I have three suggestions.
1. Take Care of Business
If you are a writer or trying to be a writer, you should understand that writing is a business. That means making a list of agents, writing queries, tuning them to each agent, mailing them out, keeping track of what goes out and comes back, sharpening your first ten pages, first chapter, first three chapters, reading other writers in your genre, and more. It’s a business. It’s not all about your main character learning he is adopted and searching for his birth parents. It’s not all about storming the castle or escaping the volcano.
There is work to do, that is until you get “big” enough that your agent will do that for you or your publisher trusts you enough to take your manuscript without reading it. If you need to beat writer’s block, take off the writer’s hat and try the accountant’s hat for a while. Park the right side of your brain and try using the left side for a little while. It’s like rebooting yourself. Don’t worry, doing it too much will not make you go blind.
2. Shift Gears
If you are a writer or trying to be a writer, you should always have an idea file. In my computer, it’s called “OUAT” for Once Upon a Time. It’s got a handful of very short Word documents, some only a few sentences or paragraphs, with titles such as Apple, Psychic, The Door, Warrior, Affair, J & M, and Inheritance. These are stories I haven’t yet written but am waiting to eventually work on.
If you’re having a bout of writer’s block, save what you’re currently on and open up one of these other stories for a little while. If you occasionally write essays, non-fiction, or something other than stories, dig into a few of those for a while. Again, it’s like rebooting your brain but without waiting for those Windows updates that shut down your computer when you’re in the middle of downloading another movie in which Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore do nothing funny.
3. Talk About It
If you are a writer or trying to be a writer, you should have friends who are also writers or trying to be writers. They probably know what you’re going through. Call one. Go have coffee, your treat, unless they’re published. Talk about your block. “I’m having this problem with my story. I killed off this character in chapter 10. But now I’m in chapter 27, and I realize that I shouldn’t have killed her. I should have put her in a coma. So I’m not sure if I should just keep going and see what I can make out of it or go back to chapter 10 and re-write seventeen friggin’ chapters. What would you do?” Naturally, I have no idea what this would actually feel like, and I had to really work to make up such a situation.
Most writers, if they’re any good, will want to help. They have probably been through it too and had someone help them. If not, then at least they will know who to come to you when they’re in a similar situation. Or, if you totally screw up your story, they will know who not to come to when they’re in a similar situation. Most writers also enjoy helping others because it can deliver some pretty good satisfaction knowing you’ve helped someone. Just don’t misinterpret that weird smile if they say, “You owe me one. Maybe this Friday?”
Conclusion – in which I try to use clever analogies.
Let’s compare writer’s block to a baseball player in a batting slump. Usually a manager will sit the player down for a game or two. Then the analysts will say, “You know Jim, nobody comes out of a slump while sitting on the bench.” That’s true, but you don’t break out of a slump doing the same thing over and over. A power hitter might try lining a few singles. A singles hitter might try going to the opposite field. If you don’t know much about baseball, this probably won’t make much sense.
How about this? You’re cleaning up after a big, family dinner, but in the bottom of a frying pan is something you just can’t get out. Give it a break. Fill the pan with hot water and some soap, put it aside, clean other things, and go back to the pan later after it has soaked for a while. Hmm. I suppose not everyone cooks.
Okay, try this. You’re trying to shave your back, but there’s this patch in the middle of your spine that you just can’t reach without dislocating your shoulder. Leave it alone. Shave your arms and legs, maybe shave your – nah, this isn’t working either. I’m kind of stuck on this, so I’m going to find something else to write about and finish this later.