On Defeating Writer’s Block

Oh, the great Writer’s Block Debate. You may have heard the phrase “Writer’s Block doesn’t exist” and wanted to flip a table. Or maybe you truly believe there’s no such thing.

I fall in the middle. I do believe writers can experience mental blocks or an inability to move forward sometimes, but I think just calling the problem “Writer’s Block” and throwing up your hands can be unproductive at best and harmful at worst. Instead, today I’ll focus on ways to analyze a few possible reasons why you’re feeling blocked and what you might be able to do to get un-blocked.

Reason 1: Burnout

Have you been hitting your writing/revising really hard for a while? Have you been putting in long hours at the office or have the kids been particularly needy since lockdown started? Does just thinking about sitting at the computer leave you feeling like a scraped knee, or near tears? Burnout is real, and if you’ve been going hard for an extended period of time, you need rest.

The Solution: Take a break. Give it a few days or a week off.

Also see if there’s a way to eliminate or alleviate other stress factors in your life as well. That one is a lot trickier, though, as some of the worst stressors just aren’t ones you can set aside. But if it’s at all possible to delegate some tasks at work, split up the household chores differently, or wrap up another project that’s dragging too long, it could lift a little weight off your back.

When I realize I’m experiencing burnout, I take a few days off my project and spend an evening (or a full weekend day if I can swing it) on a self-care day. I don’t allow myself to think about writing, and instead do other tasks that make me happy. I’ll bake cookies, play some video games, or do some coloring books. Within a few days or a week away, the creative drive usually returns.

Reason 2: Boredom

When you sit down to write the next scene in your book, are you just utterly bored by everything in your story? Do you find your attention wandering, thinking about that future scene you want to write instead? (Or worse, that other shiny new idea you haven’t outlined yet?)

This can mean you’re bored. Maybe you’re stuck in an exposition scene that’s just dragging on too long, or you might just want to skip ahead to the exciting battle or the kissing bits. While this may indicate a sagging middle in your plot structure that will need to be addressed in additional revision, for now the key is to get past this scene that bores you.

The Solution: Skip it (for now). Yes, really. Just write a sentence or two summarizing what happens and skip ahead to the next part that excites you. Later, on a day when you have the energy, you can tackle the dull scene and figure out the best way to either jazz it up or maybe redistribute that information into other scenes.

If you’re realizing it’s your whole project that bores you, another solution would be to do other things that remind you why you love this story. Make playlists or aesthetics, doodle your characters. If you realize there isn’t anything about this book that excites you right now, maybe set it aside and work on something else for a little while. You may actually be burnt out instead of bored. Or it may be worth considering overhauling or shelving the whole project, but those decisions can be made with a clearer head if there’s a bit of space between you and the story.

Reason 3: Something is wrong in your story and your subconscious is warning you.

This one is a bit tricky, but I find it’s the most common reason I get “writer’s block”. It usually means my protagonist is acting out-of-character, or the plot is stagnating, or the author’s hand is becoming a bit too visible moving the pieces around. I may not consciously be aware of this yet, but there’s something in the back of my mind that’s digging in its heels about moving forward.

The Solution: Analyze your story so far. Usually, a reverse outline is a good way to do this. I go through the book and write a sentence or two for each chapter. It’s a bit like the first step in making a synopsis. By paring things down to bare bones, this is usually when something stands out as feeling too convenient, or out-of-character, or just plain old dull.

If you have critique partners, this also can be a good point to hand them your rough draft so far and see if they ping on any major errors or possible wrong turns.

Reason 4: Stress/Depression

Sometimes, I just can’t write because I’m in a depressive state (I have bipolar disorder). Right now, in the middle of a pandemic, my stress levels are also through the roof. Some days, it takes my entire health meter just to get through the day, let alone leaving time for writing in the evening.

The Solution: Be kind to yourself. Please seek help if you can. Take breaks where you’re able, too. If it’s stress, taking a bit of time for self-care can really help.

When I’m feeling like this, I schedule writing time in small blocks so I can make a teensy bit of progress. Setting a goal of “finishing this chapter” sometimes feels too daunting, but “I’ll sit down for 30 minutes and whatever I get done in that time is progress, even if it’s three sentences” seems more doable and less stressful. Then I feel better that I accomplished something.

Reason 5: You need to refill your creative well

Creative energy needs fuel, just like you need food for physical energy. Sometimes, when I feel out of ideas or lost when writing, it means I need more input to re-ignite that spark of imagination. If I just don’t know where to go next, this is usually the culprit.

The Solution: Absorb media that inspires you. This can be movies or video games or music, but I find books work best for me. Though rereading a fave can help, new media is usually the best for lighting those creative fires. So dig into that TBR pile, or ask friends for recommendations of books that have a similar vibe or theme to yours.

These are just a few of the reasons that might fuel “writer’s block.”

But if you’re feeling stumped, it can help to sit down and puzzle out why. Take in life factors (are you under a lot of pressure in your day job right now?) and take a good, hard look at your story to figure out what may not be working.

Writer’s block sucks, but it’s not some vague behemoth that’s impossible to defeat. You got this!

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