Written by Charlie Jan Anders
Writer’s Block. It sounds like a fearsome condition, a creative blockage. The end of invention. But what is it, really?
Part of why Writer’s Block sounds so dreadful and insurmountable is the fact that nobody ever takes it apart. People lump several different types of creative problems into one broad category. In fact, there’s no such thing as “Writer’s Block,” and treating a broad range of creative slowdowns as a single ailment just creates something monolithic and huge. Each type of creative slowdown has a different cause — and thus, a different solution.
Instead of feeling overwhelmed by the terrifying mystique of Writer’s Block, it’s better to take it apart and understand it — and then conquer it. Here are 10 types of Writer’s Block and how to overcome each type.
1. You can’t come up with an idea.
This is the kind where you literally have a blank page and you keep typing and erasing, or just staring at the screen until Angry Birds calls to you. You literally can’t even get started because you have no clue what to write about, or what story you want to tell. You’re stopped before you even start.
There are two pieces of good news for anyone in this situation: 1) Ideas are dime a dozen, and it’s not that hard to get the idea pump primed. Execution is harder — of which more in a minute. 2) This is the kind of creative stoppage where all of the typical “do a writing exercise”-type stuff actually works. Do a ton of exercises, in fact. Try imagining what it would be like if a major incident in your life had turned out way differently. Try writing some fanfic, just to use existing characters as “training wheels.” Try writing a scene where someone dies and someone else falls in love, even if it doesn’t turn into a story. Think of something or someone that pisses you off, and write a totally mean satire or character assassination. (You’ll revise it later, so don’t worry about writing something libelous at this stage.) Etc. etc. This is the easiest problem to solve.
2. You have a ton of ideas but can’t commit to any of them, and they all peter out.
Now this is slightly harder. Even this problem can take a few different forms — there’s the ideas that you lose interest in after a few paragraphs, and then there’s the idea that you thought was a novel, but it’s actually a short story. (More about that here.) The thing is, ideas are dime a dozen — but ideas that get your creative juices flowing are a lot rarer. Oftentimes, the coolest or most interesting ideas are the ones that peter out fastest, and the dumbest ideas are the ones that just get your motor revving like crazy. It’s annoying, but can you do?
My own experience is that usually, you end up having to throw all those ideas out. If they’re not getting any traction, they’re not getting any traction. Save them in a file, come back to them a year or ten later, and maybe you’ll suddenly know how to tackle them. You’ll have more experience and a different mindset then. It’s possible someone with more stubbornness could make one of those idea work right away, but probably not — the reason you can’t get anywhere with any of them is because they’re just not letting you tell the story you really want to tell, down in the murky subconscious.
The good news? Usually when I’m faced with the “too many ideas, none of them works” problem, I’m a few days away from coming up with the idea that does work, like gangbusters. Your mind is working in overdrive, and it’s close to hitting the jackpot.
3. You have an outline but you can’t get through this one part of it.
Some writers work really well with an outline, some don’t. For some writers, the point of having an outline is to have a road to drive off, a straight line to deviate from as far as possible. Plus, every project is different — even if you’re an outline fan usually, there’s always the possibility that you need to grope in the dark for this one particular story.
Actually, there are two different reasons you could be getting stuck:
1) Your outline has a major flaw and you just won’t admit it. You can’t get from A to C, because B makes no sense. The characters won’t do the things that B requires them to do, without breaking character. Or the logic of the story just won’t work with B. If this is the case, you already know it, and it’s just a matter of attacking your outline with a hacksaw.
2) Your outline is basically fine, but there’s a part that you can’t get past. Because it’s boring, or because you just can’t quite see how to get from one narrative peak to the next. You have two cool moments, and you can’t figure out how to get from one cool bit to the other. (More on that here.)
In either case, there’s nothing wrong with taking a slight detour, or going off on a tangent, and seeing what happens. Maybe you’ll find a cooler transition between those two moments, maybe you’ll figure out where your story really needs to go next. And most likely, there’s something that needs to happen with your characters at this point in the story, and you haven’t hit on it yet.
4. You’re stuck in the middle and have no idea what happens next.
Sort of the opposite of problem #3. Either you don’t have an outline, or you ditched it a while back. Actually, here’s what seems to happen a lot – you were on a roll the day before, and you wrote a whole lot of promising developments and clever bits of business. And then you open your Word document today, and… you have no idea where this is going. You thought you left things in a great place to pick up the ball and keep running, and now you can’t even see the next step.
If it’s true that you were on a roll, and now you’re stuck, then chances are you just need to pause and rethink, and maybe go back over what you already wrote. You may just need a couple days to recharge. Or you may need to rethink what you already wrote.
If you’ve been stuck in the middle for a while, though, then you probably need to do something to get the story moving again. Introduce a new complication, throw the dice, or twist the knife. Mark Twain spent months stuck in the middle of Huckleberry Finn before he came up with the notion of having Huck and Jim take the wrong turn on the river and get lost. If you’re stuck for a while, it may be time to drop a safe on someone.
5. You have a terrible feeling your story took a wrong turn a hundred pages back, and you only just hit a dead end.
This is the worst. You made a decision that felt bold and clever – you threw the dice and dropped a safe on someone – and now you’re realizing that you made a horrible mistake and you’ve gone off course. Worse, you can see where your story should be right about now, if you hadn’t made that dreadful error.
If you’re absolutely sure that you’ve gone the wrong way, then there’s no point in going forward any further. Is there any alternative to rewinding all the way to the original mistake and starting from there? Yes, but it might suck. Sometimes, if you can see clearly what your story ought to be like at this juncture, you can just keep going from here, as if you had gone the right way in the first place. Thus leaving yourself a giant hole that you’ll have to go back and plug later. You can also rewind partially, going back 50 pages instead of 100 and then pretending you made the right choice originally.
In either case, though, beware – you’re going to end up with two alternate timelines in your story, and it’s up to you to keep straight what happened in the timeline you’re sticking with, as opposed to the one you’re discarding.
6. You’re bored with all these characters, they won’t do anything.
You created these bold, vibrant characters, and now you’ve written dozens of pages… about them brushing their teeth and feeding their cats.
Let’s start with the obvious: characters who don’t do anything aren’t interesting characters. Either what you’ve got here are just your supporting cast, and you haven’t created your main character yet, or you haven’t found the thing that your characters really want, or the conflict that will spur them into action. You have some characters, but not a story, not yet.
Sometimes you have to find the knife before you can twist the knife.
The good news is, sometimes writing a few dozen pages of nothing much happening can be super valuable – you’re getting into the world, and you’re working out for yourself what these characters are about. It’s entirely possible that once you’ve done that, a conflict will present itself, or one minor character will suddenly start looking like your protagonist. Just be prepared to toss out all these pages after that happens. (As you probably will with almost everything in a first draft, anyway.)
7. You keep imagining all the reasons people are going to say your story sucks, and it paralyzes you.
Otherwise known as the Inner Critic – you can’t make any choices, because you keep imagining how someone at GoodReads will tear you apart for it later. Actually, the person at GoodReads doesn’t exist, and it’s just your own internal critic talking here. You’ll need that inner voice of scorn for later, when you’re revising – but while you’re working on a first draft, you have to drown it out, possibly with loud Finnish death metal.
Chances are the ideas you’re putting down aren’t nearly as bad as your darkest fears tell you they might be. But in any case, you can always fix it in rewrites. (Although this does mean that you’ll have to be twice as harsh when it comes to revising the thing – that’s the bargain you make when you write a quick first draft with an eye to revising later.)
8. You can’t think of the right words for what you’re trying to convey in this one paragraph.
I’ve had this one – I know what I’m doing, and where I’m going next, and the story is humming along. But I can’t move forward until I find just the right verb in this one sentence, and I spend a whole day’s writing time staring at the screen and trying to figure it out. This seems like a silly waste of time – just use the wrong verb for now, fix it in rewrites! – except that sometimes hitting on the right word is partly a matter of visualizing the scene in your head. Plus, what if this happens during rewrites?
There’s nothing wrong with spending a day or two fussing over one sentence. It may seem like a waste of time, it may feel like you’re stuck – but actually, you’re just paying close attention to your writing and to the way you’re depicting the scene. If this goes on for a week, though, just pick a verb and move on.
9. You had this incredibly cool story in your head, and now you’re turning it into words on a screen and it’s suddenly dumb.
Is this your inner critic talking? Are you sure? Are you really sure?
Okay then. It’s possible you’re actually seeing a real problem with your idea, and with the execution. And, you know, there’s nothing wrong with abandoning a novel and starting afresh. Sometimes these dead half-finished novels serve as great fertilizer for the awesome novel you’re going to end up writing.
But don’t give up too fast. It’s possible that part of your idea is salvageable, or that the idea is genuinely cool and you’ve gotten yourself stuck into a weak execution of it. Sometimes it’s helpful to step back and write a synopsis of the stuff you’ve already written, so you can see how it fits together and whether there are some buried parts that should be turning points in the story. Sometimes it’s helpful to try writing bits of your story from a different character’s point of view, to see how they look from another vantagepoint.
10. You’re revising your work, and you can’t see your way past all those blocks of text you already wrote.
Revising is a nightmare – and if you’ve adhered to the “write a first draft quickly and then fix it in rewrites” school of thought, you’ve agreed to a Faustian bargain. There’s no way to make this process go faster or more smoothly, a lot of the time. Sometimes it takes a while of looking at your text from different angles to figure out where the problems are, and sometimes you need more feedback from more people to figure out where the real structural weaknesses are.
I’m going to go out on a limb and say that if you’re getting stuck during revisions, that’s not any type of Writer’s Block (as nebulous a concept as Writer’s Block is), but rather just the natural process of trying to diagnose what ails your novel.
Although one thing that works for me when I’m getting stuck with revisions is just to rewrite large sections from scratch, without looking back at your original draft. Same story, new words. Sometimes, it’s a lot quicker than trying to wrangle the words you already put down.