Writer's Block

Sunday, June 28, 2020
Girl Writer with Laptop Cartoon

I’ve seen a lot of writers bemoan their battle with writer’s block over the past four months. Most recently, I read an essay by one I’ve known for years. Her pain was palpable in the words she set on paper, and I empathized with her struggle. But her piece also irked me.

This article isn’t to minimize or belittle any writer’s feelings. We all have times when we have difficulty writing, most often from emotional shocks that torpedo our motivation. I know I struggled to get my daily word count done—and failed miserably—several times over the past few months.
But I don’t believe you have to give up when life events assault you.

“Writer's block? That's just another word for ‘lazy.'”— ROBERT B. PARKER

I first heard Robert B. Parker say this at a book signing at the Borders in Braintree, Massachusetts. If I recall correctly, he attributed it to Elmore Leonard, but I can’t find anything on the internet that confirms that.

I know my hackles rose when I heard him say it in response to a question from the audience about how he deals with writer’s block. This was a follow-up question to an earlier one about his writing schedule, which was eight hours a day, every day. In the morning, he’d work four hours on one novel, take a break for lunch, then write four hours in the afternoon on a different book.

Anyway, I think most (amateur) writers in the audience reacted with something close to, “Yeah, easy for you to say.”

At that time, I was working for a boss who also had a favorite quote when one of us was having a difficult time solving a programming problem.

“Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t—you're right.” — HENRY FORD

Which is what I think Robert B. Parker was trying to tell us.

It’s all about attitude. If you believe writer’s block is a condition that you have no control over, you’ll get it. It doesn’t help that other writers encourage this belief. Every critique group I’ve belonged to has had at least one writer who never brought pages, but instead spent their time moaning about how long they’d been blocked. The other writers would cluck their tongues and shake their heads in sympathy. And so the blocked writer would be encouraged to repeat their behavior the next time.

If you want to overcome writer’s block, you have to reframe the problem. Steven Pressfield, author of The Legend of Bagger Vance, calls it “resistance.” It’s not that we can’t write; it’s that we don’t want to write and will come up with a million excuses as to why we can’t. He covered this brilliantly in The War of Art  a gem of a book that at first you might think is overpriced ($9.99 for the Kindle version), since it doesn’t have a whole lot of words inside. But trust me, they’re great words.

“There are no blocks to creativity. Only distractions." — ALAN COHEN

About six weeks ago, I found myself obsessed with the pandemic. More recently, there have been the demonstrations and riots. It would be the middle of the afternoon, and I’d spent almost the entire day watching TV news channels. When I realized this, I made a vow to stop watching the news. Okay, I amended that to stop watching the news until my writing was done, which meant I could watch news over lunch, but promptly needed to turn it off after my hour lunch break. Writing is my job now, so I don’t get to take longer than I would at a normal job.

Close your email program, stay off social media, and turn off the internet when you’re writing. There are many writers who have a separate writing computer that doesn’t have an internet connection so they won’t get distracted. I can’t afford two computers (although I’m waiting for an iPad to be delivered so I can install Scrivener and write on that), but I do have a Chrome extension called Strict Workflow installed.

Strict Workflow sits as a little red ball next to the search bar in my browser. When I click it, it blocks me from going to certain known time-waster sites like Facebook. You can add your own favorites or remove those you need while writing. You set the time for your writing session and the time you allow for a break. I do 30 minutes writing with a ten-minute break. At the end of the thirty minutes, an alarm rings, the ball turns green, and a message pops up telling me “Time for a Break.” I click on the green ball to start the timer for break time.

There are several extensions and apps that do this kind of thing, a lot for free. I recommend getting one and using it.

"If you get writer's block, just lower your standards." — WILLIAM STAFFORD, Writing the Australia Crawl

Don’t expect perfect. Give yourself permission to write a “shitty first draft” (Anne Lamott). If perfection is your problem, read this blog post by Kris Rusch: https://kriswrites.com/2012/06/27/the-business-rusch-perfection/

“You can’t think yourself out of a writing block; you have to write yourself out of a thinking block.” — JOHN ROGERS

Often, the mere act of following your writing routine at a set time every day—making a cup of coffee, putting on your favorite writing music, sitting at your computer, and opening up your writing program—will be enough to trigger the response of starting to write.

If that’s not enough, read the last scene you wrote to get back into the story, then pick up from there. If that doesn’t work, start with a location description as you visualize what it looks like or describe a character, or anything to put your head back in your story world.

Write the next sentence. Dean Wesley Smith, author of over a hundred novels and who knows how many short stories, recommends this technique when you’re stuck. He’s a pantser or discovery writer or whatever you call someone who never plots in advance.

Maybe you have no idea what the next scene should be. But anyone can write one sentence. If you still don’t know what to write, write the next sentence. Keep going, one sentence at a time. Sometimes, doing this will break loose the logjam and you’ll find your fingers flying to catch up with what your brain is thinking.

I used this technique on one NaNaWriMo novel a few years back and was shocked at how effective it was. With NaNo’s hard writing deadline (50,000 words in one month), you can’t possibly skip too many days of writing 1667 words if you want to “win.”

You might want to check out Dean Wesley Smith’s book Writing into the Dark for more advice on doing this.

If you’re still drawing a blank, try free writing. Get up from your computer, use a notebook and pen, and just start writing the first thing that comes to mind. Keep writing without pausing, no matter how stupid it is. Keep this up until you’ve written three pages.

If you don’t have any idea of what to write, write “I don’t know what to write.” Keep writing that until you’ve got your three pages done. Or something else comes to mind.

I learned this from Julia Cameron in her book The Artist’s Way. Way back when in 2001, I decided I wanted to finally fulfill my dream of writing a novel. There was only one problem: I hadn’t written any fiction since high school, mumblety-mumble years before. I had no idea where to start. Then I found out about The Artist’s Way and joined a class that was going through it together.

Two days into writing “I don’t know what to write” over and over, and I was ready to quit. But I’d signed up for the class, and it was too early to quit. I figured I’d try it for a week, and if nothing changed, I’d stop taking the class.

On day four, in the middle of page two of writing “I don’t know what to write,” a different sentence flowed out of my pen. And they kept coming for at least another page-and-a-half.

To this day, when I get really stuck, I go to my dining room table and start writing anything related to the book I’m working on. Sometimes, it’s “This stupid character is boring. I have no idea why she’s in this book, except I need her at the end to reveal a clue. etc.” Or another favorite of mine is “I have no idea what happens now.” I’m a plotster, meaning I’m somewhere between a plotter and a pantser. I usually plan out the first half of a mystery, know my characters in some depth, and with any luck, I know what the climax will be. But there’s often a big gap from the middle to the climax, which is where I need to resort to free writing.

“For emotional health, I write. Yesterday was a 5200 word day. Today will probably be closer to 2500. It's all good. Live in that world each day.” — CRAIG MARTELLE

Nowadays, most of my time on Facebook is spent in groups like 20BooksTo50K. This is a group for indie authors who want to earn a living with their writing. Craig Martelle is the head administrator and organizer.

There is no craft discussion, no self-promotion, nothing other than publishing and marketing advice—and lots of encouragement. The group celebrates everyone’s accomplishments, whether it’s the first five-figure month or finishing the first draft of the first novel written. Anyone who breaks the rules or puts up anything political is booted out, keeping it a non-stress place to be. There’s also a YouTube channel with interviews and discussions about indie publishing.

The group’s motto is “A rising tide lifts all boats.

It’s a good place, and if you think it might work for you, go ahead and join. But please read the pinned post, check out the files and units to see if your question has already been discussed, and be polite, especially if you say “Elise Stone sent me.”

“Take the steps you're capable of taking, no more, no less. Rest your soul and control that which is in your control.” — CRAIG MARTELLE

"When we stop being afraid of the creative and emotional demands that writing makes on us, learn to regard writing as a refuge and a solace and a tremendous source of joy in our lives, then writer's block will be a thing of the past.”— SANDRA PARSHALL

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