When words don’t flow

On writer’s block

In the past few days, no less than three people have approached me with questions on writer’s block and how to overcome it. I was planning to talk about something entirely different today, and was saving this subject for a later time, but I think when I get the same question from so many different sources, I have to address it. It’s going to be a long one, so this will be my only post this week.

The first thing I have to say about writer’s block is that there is no such thing as writer’s block. Don’t stop reading, though; that doesn’t mean that writers don’t get stuck. There are a multitude of reasons why people suddenly feel that they can’t write, and as many solutions. Just like everything in medicine cannot be fixed with a band-aid, so-called writer’s block does not have a catch-all solution; the only thing to do, when you find that you cannot write, is to find the cause. The solution will almost always present itself at the same time.

There are three major groups of causes for writer’s block: content, form, and personal.

The content causes are perhaps the easiest to diagnose, but can sometimes be the most annoying to fix, if by no means the hardest:

Gone in another direction: Did you have a plan for your story? If yes, is it still following that plan, or has it gone in a completely new direction? If so, don’t panic. You don’t necessarily have to rewrite. Rigidly sticking to one’s plan isn’t always the way, and you absolutely CAN and SHOULD rewrite your plan when you make a major change in the structure of your story, if you are a planner.

Characters have changed unexpectedly: Characters are usually deeply affected by the events in the story, and, at first, it can happen that they react in a completely different way than we expected them to, at first. And sometimes, it can happen that they change in a direction that makes it impossible to respect what would originally have motivated them to do the things they need to do. It just doesn’t work anymore. This one is the trickiest of the content-related blocks; you might have to revise the outcome of your story. You might have to go back and change the outcome of the event (or series of events) that made the character change in such a way. You might have to replace the character.  You have to weigh the pros and cons of doing all of this, but eventually, you have to make a decision.

You’re writing a mystery, only you don’t know the solution yet: I’ve seen this happen quite often in my pantser-style students. Writing a mystery to which you don’t know the solution can be fun and entertaining, and can also maximize your chances of the reader NOT finding out who the killer is at page ten, but even if it’s thrilling for you to be writing without any knowledge of where you are going, you need to know the solution eventually. And not at the “big reveal” scene, either; you need to know long before that, at least a few chapters, so that you make sure to have all the elements necessary to make your “big reveal” plausible.

Lack of technical knowledge: You’re writing a scene about computer hacking but you don’t know how to turn one on. You’re writing a very complex fighting scene but you have a hard time using more descriptive terms than “kick” and “punch”.  You’re writing a scene in which your hero is haggling over the price of armor, but you can’t name the pieces of armor. Or the time it takes to make one. These are just a few of hundreds of situations that can arise, and some of them are exaggerations, but the fact is, some scenes deal with technical knowledge that you may or may not possess. It’s nearly impossible to write a scene efficiently when you don’t know what you’re talking about. You may have decided that you were only doing your research when you were done with your book, and then only to correct mistakes, but if you don’t know what your characters are going to say or exactly what they are going to do, you’re not going to get very far, even if you know what needs to happen. Do your research.

The end is coming way too soon: You planned to write a full-length, 80k-word novel, only you’re barely 35k in and you feel like the next logical step is your climax. That can be paralyzing, and it’s easy to see why you would shy away from the keyboard every time you have to write; you know it’s coming, but you don’t want it to come. This one has a few different solutions:

1. Accept that it’s a novella. There’s nothing wrong with that. You might have had your heart set on something longer, but sometimes it’s better to accept that your story is shorter than to stuff it with endless filler and back story, which will bog down your story. In the end, wouldn’t you have readers who thought it was over too soon because they loved your story, or who put it down half finished because they got bored with it?

2. Add sub-stories and secondary characters which enrich your main plot. You know how TV shows are structure so that in any given episode, there’s one story about what the main characters are doing, another one that follows the secondary characters, and then a third, smaller one, that adds to the main, ongoing plotline of the season-wide story? A lot of books are structured like that, too. See if you can’t add new secondary characters with their own sub-stories. But be careful; this has to enrich your main plot or further develop your main character. It can’t be random, or it’s just filler.

3. Re-examine your existing characters and see if you have explored all the tension, all the potential conflict that there is there. Same with your plot: make sure everything is in place, everything is worked out.

The causes related to form are often much harder to diagnose, but fortunately, they are much easier to fix. A good sign that your cause is related to form is that you know exactly where you are going and what needs to happen, but you can’t seem to be able to write the words down.

Narrative voice problems: You haven’t really made any conscious decisions about who your narrator is, and how he (or she) expresses himself, or what his relationship is to the actual story. Once you’ve decided all that, it’s much easier to find his voice, the particular way for him to express himself, and your words should start to flow. Have fun with your narrative voice! There will be a post about narration in the near future.

Point of view problem: Either you haven’t really decided who is your point of view character, or you have, but it’s not the right one. You need to express or explain something that goes above, or outside of his or her realm of understanding, and you don’t know how to do that.  Perhaps you need a different point of view, but you have decided to use third-person limited, or first-person. Is there any way you can express what you need to through dialogue? And if not, is there any way you can change the narration? It’s possible that you might have to go back and rewrite from the beginning, but sometimes there are ways to include a second point of view. As long as you don’t hop from point of view to point of view within the same scene, and you find a way to make it obvious to the reader when you are changing point of view, you should be fine.

Tone problem: You’re writing a light-hearted comedy, but you need to include a really tragic incident. Or you’re writing a very dark horror piece, and you need to write the part where the two main characters realize their love for one another. Simply put, you need to write a scene in a tone that has been drastically different than what you have been writing so far, and you don’t know how to make it fit with your current narrative voice, which is perfect for the main tone of your book. This is not so much a problem as it is a “handle with care” situation. You need to blend the tone of the scene you are about to write with the overall tone of your story. This is delicate, but a good way to do this is to write it in the tone it comes most naturally, even if you know that it won’t be right for your story, and to then modify it to make it a little more like the other tone. This can appear like a waste of time if you’re a die-hard planner, but the truth is, if you’re sitting in front of your computer playing Angry Birds instead of writing, you’re wasting time anyway, so you might as well do something constructive. And just like every pantser needs to plan a little to know what’s going to happen next, there’s not a single outliner that doesn’t ever need to revise! For more information on tone, read my post on description.

Forced description: You know you wanted to put a description there because that’s what your plan says, but when it comes to writing it, all you can think about is “ugh”. It happens often that we don’t respect our plans exactly; if something feels forced, or not right, it could mean that maybe it doesn’t flow well with the pace of the story. Try leaving it out. Tell yourself you’ll put it back in later, when you revise, and you may indeed find that “hey, I could use a description here”. But you might find that you don’t. Don’t try to force something that doesn’t come naturally. Sometimes it just doesn’t belong.

Last (but certainly not least) are the personal causes. These are extremely tricky, because they are as hard to solve as they are hard to diagnose. They can be your personal feelings about your story, or just certain personality traits that hinder your production. But I find there is nothing that cannot be corrected with a good dose of introspection and humility. Here are some examples of personal causes:

Fear, self-criticism, poor self-esteem, insecurity, etc.: That’s the main one. They’re all slightly different, but they all come down to the same thing: you want to write, but you’re paralyzed when it comes to actually putting down words on paper. Unfortunately, this one’s a tough one to solve. Entire books, or, more accurately, entire libraries have been written on how to deal with these issues, and it sometimes can take many years to get past it. But there are a few things which you can do to help yourself write, even if you suffer from this. A way to identify this is if you’re doing self-sabotage; extensive avoidance that translates into procrastination, even if that procrastination is doing research or learning or anything else that’s not writing.

First, tell yourself that you will never, EVER show this to anyone. Save it on a USB key instead of your hard drive. Put that key, or your notebook, in a safe, in a loose board in the attic floor, or under your fridge. Places that no one else will think of. Create an email account to email it to yourself for your eyes only. Password-protect everything; do anything that will make you feel better and reassure you that no one else can see it. When you’re done, you can decide if you want to show it or destroy it, but for now, don’t worry about it. If you need encouragement, you can make yourself a fake Facebook profile, an alias, and get encouragement from a writing community that never has to find out who you are. There are even online critique groups you can join. Anonymity can be reassuring to the anxious mind.

As for self-criticism, well, make it a challenge. Dare yourself. Write poorly… on purpose. You will almost always be surprised by what you come up with when you give yourself permission to make a mistake or two. And if you’re not making mistakes… then you’re not really trying, are you? Making mistakes is an essential part of the human experience; it’s how we learn. If we never made mistakes, we couldn’t get better. We’d be born good, and then what would good be, when compared to nothing? Give yourself permission to try. And if you’re that much of a perfectionist that it needs to be perfect, well, you really should be revising what you’ve written anyway, so go ahead, write that bad part. It’ll give you something to look forward to changing when you revise. And before you start revising… finish your novel. You need to have the whole picture before you can make changes to all its parts; that’s how you end up with a cohesive whole.

I will be doing a whole post on how to stay focused and overcome personal problems in the near future. (UPDATE: You can find these posts here and here.) The best thing I can tell you now is escape into your story. Don’t worry about the finished product, at this stage. Just have fun. Writing is something that comes from an inner need, and you should heed that before you try to write the Great American Novel.

Health issues: It should go without saying, but a healthy mind cannot thrive in an unhealthy body. You should eat well, sleep well, and exercise regularly, and if you’re not doing that, you shouldn’t be surprised if you can’t write. To use an analogy I’ve read somewhere (I’m sorry, I don’t recall where, if someone knows, please tell me so I can give credit where it is due), if you never change the oil in your car and put sugar in the engine, don’t be surprised if it stops running!! Take care of yourself.

Real life: Life isn’t kind, and as writers (or professional torturers of characters) we know this better than most. Often, it becomes impossible to write because our heads are filled with the fight we had with our significant other, our employer, or a natural disaster that destroyed part of our home, or the government suddenly recalculating our taxes and deciding we owe them thousands of dollars… anything can happen, and thinking of our problems can be invasive to the point of not allowing anything else in. It’s tough, but when you write, you need to be able to push the problems you can’t deal with right away so you can concentrate on your writing. It’s something you should learn to do anyway. If you spend all your time worrying about something that can’t be taken care of right away, all you are doing is wasting time and energy.

Market blues: You’ve just gotten a very bad review, or your 42nd rejection letter, or a really harsh critique from your group or one of your beta readers. You can feel like an incompetent. That can be paralyzing. Take a break. Do something else. Work on a different story. Read famous writers’ rejection stories on the internet. Call up a friend who really enjoys your work, and is articulate enough about it to explain why.

Mixed feelings about your story: You’ve lost enthusiasm about your project. You’ve lost sight of the point of it. You have what is called middle-of-the-book blues. A trick I give in my post about finishing your story is to reread it from the beginning; that way, you might rekindle your passion about it. Another thing you can do is to work on many projects at once; that way, when you are bored with one, you can move on to another, and cycle them like that so that you don’t get bored with any one for a long period of time.

Environment problems: Some people like to write in crowded cafes, some people can only write when they cannot hear a sound. Some people are helped by the television, and music, but most people discover that that is not the case once they turn it off. You should try writing in different environments. Try with sound, without sound, with company, without. You have to find which environment best suits you.

The hardest part about curing a writer’s block is to recognize what is really going on. There are as many types (and probably more) as there are writers in the world, and every type needs its own medicine. But it’s never anything that can’t be fixed with a little introspection.

Good luck. If your problem hasn’t been addressed in this post, please, feel free to ask about it in the comments. Describe it with as much detail and context as you can, and we will try to work it out together. If you feel embarrassed about posting about it, drop me a line here.

2 thoughts on “When words don’t flow

  1. This is a really good look at the things that keep me from writing at various times. It is good to articulate them clearly to make a diagnosis at the time I get stuck.

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