Overcoming Writer’s Block

(This is very loosely based on the Writing Excuses podcast Season 1, episode 16, with a lot of additional rambling and ad lib).

How to overcome writer’s block, you ask… Stop reading this and go do some writing. (I’m almost serious, but I’ve put some effort into this post…so why not take a few minutes to read it and then get writing 🙂 ).

There are two schools of thought around curing writer’s block and they are helpfully contradictory. It’s as simple as just forcing yourself to write or, you can go the other way and just don’t try to write.

Step 1: Accept Reality

You want to be a professional writer, right? So that means that you have to produce. Just the same as a farmer, a cubical monkey or a factory-line worker you don’t get paid for staying in bed. Nor would a baker make any dough without being up early (ouch, bad pun). The early bird feasts on the juicy worm; the sluggard bird gets nothing.

The reality is that you do have to produce. Just because you don’t feel like it (emotion) or you don’t feel you can do it (also emotion) doesn’t mean you can be successful not doing it. Publisher’s want authors they can rely on to regularly churn out product, not one-hit wonders. You must produce.

Step 2: What’s the Problem, doc?

Be your own doctor. No, that doesn’t mean to self-medicate; that’s not going to help anyone.

You need to diagnose the cause of this malaise which is preventing you from writing. In order to fix or work-around the issue, you need to know what it is. From my own experience I have encountered the following:

  • a plot problem which essentially “breaks” the story, or I don’t know where it is going.
  • feelings of discouragement in overall ability, or the quality of the current work.
  • exhaustion
  • preoccupation with other things

Step 3: Cure

A Plot problem. The first stage of AA, and Writer’s Block is to admit the problem. It can be painful to admit that this baby you have been gestating for months has some serious flaws. Diagnose the problems fully. Write them down, be specific and pull no punches. Thinking it through in your head is not enough; write it down.

Then brain storm possible solutions. Throw up a dozen ideas, even if you instantly discard ten. Identify the strengths and weaknesses of each solution. Normally I’ll have to throw up about fifteen options before I hit upon the right one. Most often it is the right combination of solutions which comes out the strongest.

Discouragement. Discouragement, friend of mine. Discouragement is nothing unusual to the writer. Like your own personal Flanders (aka annoying neighbour) it will come a round. Even seasoned, acclaimed writer’s continually struggle with feelings of inadequacy and foreboding failure.

When this enemy comes knocking on my door the best fortification is to go bolster the defences. I do this by reading some of my past “success” stories (published, or not), and the positive feedback which I hang onto (for moment such as this). I am a decent writer, and any setback I have is temporary and does not define me.

It also helps to remember:

  • a literary masterpiece doesn’t come out of a first draft. A gem is honed and cut, not pulled jewellery-ready from the ground.
  • writing well isn’t easy; don’t expect it to be.

Exhaustion. Who would have thought that sitting at a keyboard for hours at a time can be truly exhausting? Especially when trying to meet deadlines it doesn’t take long to completely drain the batteries of more than just your laptop.

Allow yourself a break, between ten minutes and an hour. Go get some sunshine, people watch, call a friend or drop around for a coffee. It’s about changing your setting, giving yourself a small break from the requirement to write.

I’d advise not checking email, youtube, news websites or playing computer games. You want to refresh your mind, not put it to sleep.

Pre-occupation. Humans are complex beings. Sometimes we have pesky things like relationships, occupations or responsibilities that fall outside of the realms of our latest novel.

Sometimes we have to deal with other things, and there is no way to put them off. It is better to focus on those other tasks, get them done efficiently and go back to writing than to try doing both things inefficiently.

Step 4: Prime (as required)

If you’re still not ready to write then start doing things that will prime your writing engine.

  • Read what you wrote yesterday
  • Just write – even if what you write isn’t any good, at least you are writing (which is better than not). Write yourself into a scene or character.
  • If you absolutely cannot write, are there other tasks you can do that are still productive? (It is better to be productive in research or editing than to give up and play a computer game!)

Prevention, better than a cure

Learn your rhythm. Understand when you are most productive and what things impede your effectiveness. As I wrote in Writing-Life Balance, I am most productive in the mornings, so where possible I need to set aside the morning for writing and leave other tasks until later in the day.

Understand your motivation. This is a big one. Why do you write? A good motivation will keep your literary engine running. Are you writing so that others can experience the adventures that you must write about?

Schedule pressure. Some people are hard-wired to respond better under pressure. Set yourself deadlines. And if you miss a deadline, adjust the following deadlines – don’t just say “well I missed that, so whenever is good enough.” Make yourself a goal, and plan a reward that you will only receive if you meet the goal (and/or punishment).

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