Writer’s block is one of the biggest beasts we as writers face. But the solution to this problem isn’t black and white. There are many different kinds of writer’s block and each has its own remedies. Maybe you have a solid idea and you know what you want to say, just not always how to say it (typically where I find myself). Or, maybe you simply can’t think of anything to say at all. Creativity has ripped open the cage door and flown into the sunset and now you’re stuck looking for answers. Whatever your problem, fear not my dear friends, for I am here to impart my wisdom, as slight as it may be. So let’s get started.
1) You can’t come up with an idea.
This form of writer’s block is most common when dealing with the beginning of a new story, particularly a new series. You stare and stare and stare at a blank screen, occasionally hammering out a few lines you just end up trashing anyway. Wash, rinse, repeat. Eventually the internet, as it tends to do, starts calling your name and you get lost on Facebook or Tumblr, etc. Basically you’ve stopped before you’ve even had a chance to get going.
The two things here, kid. First of all, ideas come and go. They just do. They’re like monkeys in a barrel, er a dime a dozen I guess (by the way has anyone actually seen real monkeys in a barrel?) Just keep in mind that you can jump start your muse at any given moment. So just be patient with yourself. Check yourself before you wreck yourself, yo. Sometimes your creative muse just needs a little time to regroup. The grind is called the grind for a reason, after all. Attacking a blank page day after day after day after day wears down the best of us. Sometimes you just need to step away for a bit, might only be an hour or it might be a week, who knows? But just wait and see. More often than not you’ll come back with a renewed vigor and with creative juices flowing (I promise it’s not as icky as it sounds).
Also, you have to realize that all it takes to spark a breakthrough is one good page. So If step one fails, do some writing exercises. No, really, it actually works. If you’re stuck and can’t seem to get anything going, imagine something new. Do some fanfic if you must, use the existing characters as “training wheels” for your story and see what comes of it. There’s always time to switch them back out later. Write what scares you, write what inspires you, write what pisses you off, dammit! Harness those strong emotions and use them to pump some life into your otherwise slacking muse. This is really the easiest form of writer’s block to combat – hence why it’s number 1 on the list.
2) You have a ton of ideas but can’t commit to any of them and they fizzle out.
Now this is a different animal altogether and even it has its own subspecies to battle with. Some ideas might sound like a full novel of material, but then you sit down and spend some time and find that ‘oh shit, I’m at the end of my rope and only have 57 pages…’ That happens. Really. It’s okay though. Some ideas might only be a short story or novella. There’s nothing wrong with that.
Other times you might simply get bored with your story. Could be a few paragraphs in, could be a few chapters, or even the majority of the story but it can happen at any time. Don’t forget, monkeys in a barrel and all junk. Ideas are everywhere, hidden in memories, imagination, conversations, photographs, movies, games, magazines, dreams, the grain of wood (ooo how I love stare at wooden boards until I see something in them!). Point is, your mind is a like stone just waiting for an idea that’ll clack against it and spark new life into something great. And when that idea ignites, there’s almost no better feeling I’ve found.
Keep in mind an idea may also peter out because of a lack of understanding on the topic. Sometimes the most interesting ideas are the ones that die fastest while the dumbest ones can have you so enthralled you look like Light Yagami writing in the Death Note (Don’t get the reference? Tough cookies, I’m not explaining). It’s frustrating, sure, but what can you do? Try to learn more about your topic and hash out a more complete outline. Then, if that fails, put a pin in it and try to come back later; maybe in a few months, or a few years. Or maybe never, who knows? I personally save an outline to a folder I’ll have to stare at pretty much every day when I’m on my computer and it serves as a decent reminder that I have unfinished business in que. Sometimes time is your best friend, young grasshoppa, and when you return to an idea you’ll be older and therefore wiser as you prepare for round 2.
3) You have an outline but you can’t get through one particular part of it.
As I’ve already stated, I love outlines. Pretty much have to have them to do anything. Now that’s not to say that I can’t wing it a bit without one, or that I’ll necessarily stick to it as the one and only truth. Far from it. In fact, I often divert from the outline when writing. Sure it might have sounded good at the time, but sometimes you get to that moment and find something better instead. Or, as I’ve experienced, you’d planned on your character taking door number 1 and now find that they aren’t really a door number 1 kinda person, ya know? Maybe that decision isn’t fitting of their personality or maybe the circumstances force their hand, either way perspective is everything and when writing an outline you don’t see things under the same microscope as when you’re in the moment. But every project is different – even if you normally approve of your outlines, it may take just one story to lead you astray. And, as I’ve already stated, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
If you’re really stuck, it could be because your outline has a major flaw and you aren’t willing to admit that yet. That’s natural. As writers, we willingly leave our very souls on the page and even the slightest criticism can be seen as a deeply hurtful comment; an attack on who you are as a person and not just a story you wrote. On one hand, it’s a good thing we get so attached to our characters and story, it shows an intimate knowledge that allows us to see deeper, to see more than any other person can. But, at the same time, this can prove to be our downfall. When the story is finished, it can be difficult for us to pull ourselves away from the lens of the microscope, to take a step back and evaluate things like a normal person (cause what writer is normal, right?) . At times, we can’t see the bridge between A and Z or even A and C because B, or some other letter along the way, doesn’t make any sense. That’s what I was trying to convey earlier with the door number 1 and door number 2 analogy. Sometimes it’s just not in that character’s nature to do something you’d originally planned for them to do, and forcing them would feel like a cardinal sin. Or, maybe the previously presented logic of your story makes B impossible and if that’s the case, you should already be aware of it. If all else fails, attack your outline with a chainsaw, or whatever boring writing software you may use, and redo. Sigh, no one ever goes for the chainsaw…
Another possibility is that your outline is fine but that there’s a certain part or moment you can’t get past. You see the bridge, but can’t quite work your way around the troll guarding it. Well that troll could represent a number of things: maybe its just a boring moment and needs to be rewritten or adjusted. Or, as is much more often the case with me, the words to gracefully maneuver from one narrative peak to the next simply elude you. Maybe you just have two badass, check this shit out, moments but it’s difficult to get from one to the other. In any case, a slight detour is always an option. Break away from the current plan and see where things go. You may find a better route in the process.
4) You’re stuck in the middle and have no idea where to go next.
You’re lost and can’t be found, a raft floating out in the middle of the Pacific with no signs of civilization in sight. This is quite different from number 3 on this list as you either don’t have an outline or abandoned it long ago. I recommend not completely abandoning the outline, but more so using it as a general guide. It’s pretty much your road map and if you’ve abandoned it and now find yourself in this situation that’s probably why your stranded on a raft in the middle of the Pacific!
Maybe you were on a roll the day before, hashing out all these great elements and story lines but now you’ve opened your Word doc today and have a poker face like my friend on the right here. You thought you ended in a great place and knew what had to happen next and now your muse has forsaken you. But, if you really were rocking and rolling as you believed you were and now find yourself stuck, then chances are you just need to take a break and think things over. I typically review everything I wrote the day before and have found that doing so can actually get me back into that same mindset to get things moving again. But if that doesn’t work, take a couple days off to regroup and recharge. Like I said, the muse gets worn out every so often.
If you’ve been stranded for awhile, though, you might need to force the action a bit. Run out some new problems or issues for your characters to deal with, take a gamble, live a little (even if it is somewhat vicariously through your characters). Take a risk and diverge from the beaten path of your planning.
5) You fear your story may have taken a wrong turn several chapters back and now you’re stuck.
If this is where you are, I genuinely ache for you. Not in the sexual way, of course (unless that’s what you were hoping for, in which case here ya go). But in all seriousness, this type of writer’s block is just the worst problem you can run in to. You were bold, rolled the dice and played your cards, diverting from the beaten path, and now you realize what a horrible mistaken you’ve made. Hey, I never said this list was perfect. These are just my experiences and the advice I’ve received from others. Besides, I can’t be responsible for your loose cannon ways! That’d be bonkers! But what can make things even worse for you is if you can see where the story should have gone and now have no way back. You’ve tried throwing out a life preserve but it just can’t reach.
If you’re positive this is the situation you’ve found yourself in, then continuing forward would be a wasted effort. Is there another option you ask? Can you avoid hitting rewind and going all the way back to the moment it all went wrong and starting over from there? Yes, but it will more than likely make you cringe. Sometimes if you can see where your story should be at this moment, you can just keep going from there, acting as though you never taken that fatal misstep. Sometimes you’ve just gotta fake it until you make it, right? But be warned, doing this won’t fix the damage done. All this will do is leave a gaping hole you have to go back later and fill (wow that sounded dirty!). You could always rewind a little bit, perhaps a more recent misstep created by the first and go from there, assuming it’s only 50 pages back rather than the 100 the original is. Fact is, whichever method you chose, be cautious. Having two or more separate timelines in your story can really complicate the revisionary and rewriting processes of your work and, if you can’t keep things straight, you’ll have created a whole new monster in its place.
6) You’ve grown bored of your characters.
If so, that’s really your fault, isn’t it? I mean, you did create them and all, right? Well I say neigh-neigh! Perhaps you created bold, colorful characters full of life and energy, but now that you’ve written a dozen pages or so you’ve lost your way. Hint: If you’re going into great detail about their dinner or something like feeding the dogs, you’ve probably lost track of the direction in your story.
If you can’t find real direction for your main characters then, brother, you haven’t found your main characters. You have to know what your characters want, to know what drives them, to know what challenges they have to face to get that which they seek – even if it’s nothing more than a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. You might have some characters, but if you don’t have these concepts worked out, then you don’t have only the supporting cast, not a story.
But wait, I can see the light, and so can you if you do this! Write a few dozens pages about nothing (some of you may have been already), and see what value you find in it. Get into your character’s world, their everyday life and their mind and see what they’re all about. It’s likely that when you do, you’ll see a conflict arise and what was once a secondary character now has the makings of the protagonist. Just make sure you don’t include those dozen or so pages about nothing in your story. Those are just for you!
7) You keep imagining all of the reasons people are going to say your story sucks and it paralyzes you.
This is me. As an indie author buried in rewrites and revisions, I live this every day. This form of writer’s block, otherwise known as your inner critic, leaves you exposed and raw (kinky!) and can even cripple you as a writer (I withdraw my previous enthusiasm!). If you’re here then you acn’t make any choices because you can already here the critics, whoever they are, tearing you and your work apart. But here’s the thing: they don’t exist. It’s just you, you and your doubt you’re dealing with here. Remember what I said about looking under the microscope? It only makes sense you were would every imperfection. But imperfections don’t make something any less beautiful. Nothing is perfect and holding yourself to that standard will leave you immobilized at the blank page or screen. Don’t get me wrong, the inner critic can come in handy down the road, particularly in rewrites and revisions phase (god how I hate that guy!). For now, drown out the doubt, listen to death metal or something, I don’t know. Just don’t listen for now and let your critic do his/her talking later when it can be constructive.
Most of the time the ideas you’re writing aren’t nearly as bad as your darkest fears will tell you they are. But even if they need work, that’s what the (cringe) rewriting phase is for. Stifling your inner critic earlier on doesn’t mean you should let them be even harder on you whenever you’re finally ready to listen, it just means you have to willing to listen and revisit areas of concern (no lying to yourself here).
8) You can’t think of the right words for what you’re trying to convey.
Another ‘favorite’ of mine. I’m movin’ right along, know what I’m doing and where I’m goin’, but then good god how do I word this one stupid part?! Come on, I just need one good verb here – it’s on the tip of my tongue! Next thing I know, I’ve spent the better part of a day struggling with something so inconsequential. If you’re in the drafting phase, just plug something in, kids. You’ll have plenty of time to think of something better and when you go through on one of the proofs, you may think of something then as well. It’s not always that simple, though. Sometimes hitting the right word is critical to visualizing that scene in your mind and moving forward would compromise the rest of it too. Also, what happens if you find yourself here in the middle of a rewrite?
Just remember, there’s nothing wrong with spending a day or so working with a sentence or paragraph. It might seem inefficient and at times, like a complete waste, but in reality it’s just you giving special care to your writing and the way you envision the scene. That said, if you start going on a week of this sidebar, for the love of god pick a verb, plug it in and move on.
9) You had this incredibly cool idea for a story and now that it’s taking shape it suddenly seems dumb.
Is this that inner critic whispering in your ear again? You sure? Certain? Positive? Fine, if you’re so sure then I have some bad news for ya. It’s more than possible that what you’re seeing is a real problem or flaw with your idea, whether that be conceptually or simply its execution. And you might not want to hear (or in this case read) this, but there’s nothing wrong with abandoning a novel and starting fresh. Sometimes dead, half-finished novels serve as mulch for something even better to spring from.
But don’t give up on it entirely. Maybe the idea is salvageable, a genuinely cool concept that you’ve created but aren’t ready to write yet. I have several stories like this. Sometimes I take a step back and try to write a synopsis (god I hate those) of everything I’ve already written and see from there how the pieces fit together. Other times it may be helpful to write parts of the story from another character’s perspective, offering both you and the eventual reader a new vantage point for the story.
10) You’re revising your work, and you can’t see your way through all the blocks of text you’ve written.
As I’ve said in previous posts, and surely expressed more than enough even here, revising is a monster! A true nightmare of a process that’s guaranteed to make you cry (at least if you’re like me). If your approach is the “write a draft quickly and worry about the rest in rewrites” kinda person, then may god had mercy on your soul. I can’t imagine such a tactic. Wait, yes I can. I used to do it! The first two stories I wrote, both of the Affliction series, I used this method, hoping my novice skills would be enough to hold me over until I got better and could come back and clean house. Well guess what, I got better and now believe the me of 2 years ago is a douchebag! What a jerk leaving all the tough work for me! Oh well, what can you do? No really, I’m asking. Nobody? Damn. Well there’s no way to make this process go faster or more smoothly in most cases. It might just take a while to look through your text from different angles to figure out where the problems lie, and sometimes all you need is more feedback from more people to figure out structural weaknesses.
I’ll take a wild stab in the dark here, and suggest that if you’re stuck during the revision process that your demon in this case isn’t any form of writer’s block, but rather apart of the natural process of attempting to diagnose whatever ails your novel.
Sometimes if stuck during revisions you can just rewrite large sections from scratch, turning a blind eye to the original copy and eventually ending up with a cleaner, more precise block. Same idea, new words. Great, huh? Plus, its a lot easier than sorting through the preexisting words that you keep convincing yourself you need (which you don’t!).
Did I miss any of the major forms of writer’s block? What are your methods to combat them? Leave your answers and advice in the comments below and the best will be featuerd in a tweet.