Most writers deal with writer’s block at some point in their career. It can be incredibly discouraging, and it doesn’t always result from a lack of “inspiration” or discipline. Without dealing with the root causes, writer’s block can continue to be a problem.
In my experience, writer’s block is a result of either fear or confusion.
(NOTE: I drafted this post quite a while ago and then I watched this video. Watch it! It’s less than five minutes long. Apparently, we’re on the same wavelength.)
Fear of looking stupid. Fear of imperfection. Fear of emotions you don’t want to explore. Fear of being judged.
Fear isn’t entirely bad. Fear is what prevents writers from sending that ugly first draft out into the wide world with our name on it, naively confident in its brilliance. We don’t want to look stupid. We don’t want to be judged.
But fear is only useful during the editing process. Let fear of imperfection help you refine that rough, disjointed first draft into a polished final copy. Don’t let fear keep you from writing at all.
Give yourself permission to write an ugly first draft. Remind yourself that no one will see it. Keep your word to yourself… don’t show anyone that first draft! Get it all out on paper, edit, and THEN send it out to your chosen beta readers and writing buddies.
Use that fear as a tool, not as an obstacle.
Most of the time writer’s block stems from fear, but sometimes I’m just stumped. I don’t know what comes next and staring at the blank paper or screen just makes it worse. Some people also say that when that happens, just write random stuff until you get unstuck… write about ninjas invading your story, or what you had for breakfast. Write anything, as long as you write, and eventually you’ll get unstuck.
That doesn’t work for me. Instead, I suggest:
Don’t try to write when you’re stalled. Instead, get a new sheet of paper and just brainstorm. What comes next? What defines your characters? What decisions must they face? Draw arrows, write out of order, figure out what’s going on with the characters and your story. Even if you only address a few scenes, you’ll get some ideas. This is more about your thought process than the notes that result.
People always say “write what you know”… that’s good advice, but not necessarily as it’s usually applied. It doesn’t mean that if you’re a schoolteacher, you can only write stories with schoolteachers as characters, or if you’re a soldier, you can only write stories about war and military beauracracy. It means that you have to know your characters and know your story.
Try writing a detailed outline – major story arcs, then minor story arcs, finally breaking the story down by scene. Just try… you may not get to the end before you feel absolutely compelled to start writing! You might discover that the process of outlining helps you, and you’re an outliner after all.
If you’re a confirmed pantser (as opposed to an outliner), you may not want to outline the whole novel. That’s fine… not everyone benefits from detailed planning. However, if you are stuck, try spending ten minutes just thinking about the next scene. Don’t write it, just think about it (jotting a few notes is fine). What happens? Which characters are present? Is it a turning point in some way? Is important information revealed, and if so, do the characters realize it and react in interesting ways? Do you know in general where your story is going? Consider one step toward that point – just one. It could be an action-plot type event, or a bit of character development, or something else.
I’ve been confused by my stories before. Some plots can be confusing, and authors writing long, complex epics may need to take notes and refer to reference materials. But generally confusion doesn’t result from the complexity of the story… instead, it’s because I’m trying to come up with words to tell the story before I know the story I’m trying to tell.
Separate the thinking step and the writing step. Figure out what you want to write, then write it.
If you’ve done the steps above, and you’re still feeling stuck, there are some other tricks to getting words flowing. However, at least for me, they work best when I’ve already done the steps above. I’ll write a post about them in a few weeks, but in the meantime…