Writer’s Block is Your Friend, Part 1
Or “How I stopped worrying and learned to love the block”
Writers often speak of writer’s block as if it’s this inevitable guillotine that could drop down on you at any time, spelling the end of your career.
Not only is that outlook unhelpfully bleak, it’s also just plain untrue.
Writer’s block generally comes in two varieties:
- You don’t know what to write next.
- You know what to write, but you can’t get yourself to write it.
Part one of this two-part post will focus on the first variety, which is a much easier egg to crack.
Problem 1: You don’t know what to write next
This can come at two main points: when it’s time to think up a new project or when you’re in the middle of an existing project.
“I can’t come up with a story for my next book.”
I have to admit that coming up with new story projects has never been the struggle for me. I’ve always struggled to stay focused on one long enough to finish it because I get distracted by too many ideas.
The very best solution to this specific block, one that is tried and true and all-too-often forgotten by those who need it most is simple: allow yourself to be bored.
Yes, Twitter and Facebook can be boring, but they’re also just filler devoid of the creative nutrition your mind needs. Lock your phone away. Step away from your computer. And no Netflix!
Here are my favorite activities for getting the creative juices going. Not all of them will work for you, but many will:
- Go for a walk without your headphones in
- Clean your house, and not just straightening, but get to scrubbing
- Lie on your couch and stare at the ceiling
- Grab a beverage by yourself at a coffee shop, bring a notepad, and be that creepy person just watching people
- Meet up with a friend who thinks you’re great and have a chat over delicious food
- Take a nap — we all know trying to fall asleep can be the quickest way for your mind to start vomiting subconscious thoughts
- If you have a pet, spend time doing nothing but giving it the attention it wants
- Do something crafty with your hands
These are all passive techniques, meaning you’re focusing your mind on something other than story and allowing the story to find you. If you’re feeling more impatient and want to take a more active approach, first, try the passive ones before you attempt to bull through. More often than not, the block can mean you need a break. Not because you’re creatively weak, but because that’s how brains work.
Once you’ve tried a passive approach or two, one of these methods might just be an injection of inspiration straight into your veins.
- Pick two random words (ask a friend, point to ones in a book, etc.). Think of a way that they connect. Keep that connection in mind and pick a third random word, then figure out how it connects to the previously established connection. How could you show that in a story?
- Do the above, but instead of words, use tarot cards.
- Write down a few strong beliefs you hold. Pick one and make that your central theme. Now pick a genre you love to read. How would you show your belief in that particular genre?
- Just buy a damn writing prompt book.
If you couldn’t tell, I’m not a huge fan of the active approach. Yes, once you have the seed of a story, you should start small, focusing on theme and building outward, but I don’t think I’ve ever found that seed of a story by looking for it.
For instance, I thought up not one, but TWO series over two years of administering the STAAR assessment (Texas’s standardized test for grade students). I had to administer it four different times in a single year (not including the practice tests), and when you do that, you can’t use a phone or computer, and you’re not supposed to take your eyes off the students, even to grade papers. That right there is 100% pure boredom. And it gave me both the Vulture Tower series, which I’ve tabled for later, and the Jessica Christ series.
“I’m partway through the story, and I hit a block.”
If this is the type of writer’s block you’re facing, it likely means you’re a pantser, meaning you don’t outline your story ahead of time. Instead, you dive in with a great beginning that will have readers sustaining paper-cut galore as they flip through page after page. You’re sure the rest of the story will come to you later on because the beginning appeared in a vivid, explosive flash.
Then you get to the middle and, well, damn.
There are a few ways to approach this. If you prefer to keep pantsing, fine. But you need to be clear on the ending you’re working toward. To figure that out, simply answer these three questions:
- What does your main character want?
- What does your main character need?
- How is what your main character wants keeping her from getting what she needs?
Your climax will very likely be the point where the main character realizes her initial desires are what’s keeping her from getting what she needs to actually satisfy her core values, and she should change her ways or face peril. Spend a few minutes imagining how that scene might play out, and it might just shake free the block of what to write next to move you toward that climax.
I’m of the opinion that it’s always better to plot than to pants, so if you’re open to the new approach, pantsers, jot down a few key moments on the journey from where the story is to where it needs to end. (I know this is vague, but there are plenty of other good resources for learning what points to hit in your plot for tension, character arcs, etc., and it won’t fit into a single blog post.)
If you’re a plotter, you can face the same struggle when the events in your beats have a hole you didn’t expect and you’re not sure what to put there. Or maybe you made a discovery about one of the characters as you put words to paper (these are the best!) and now one of the actions you have him doing lacks proper motivation.
Return to those three questions to realign your focus and purpose for telling the story. You’ll be able to figure out how to bridge the gap in no time.
Writer’s block is your friend.
In both of these cases, writer’s block doesn’t have it out for you. It’s that friend who sees you slamming too many shots at the bar and says, “Whoa there. Slow down. Let’s make good decisions.”
Sometimes it stops you before you start, requiring that you give yourself the beautiful gift of boredom, of slowing down in this overstimulating world, before charging into another project.
And other times, it’s the red flag that your plans (or lack thereof) are no longer the best ones to tell the story you set out to tell. No one gets upset about the guardrail along the edge of a cliff, do they? No. Because you would rather bump into it than drive straight off the cliff. Writer’s block is that guardrail, and once you can change your view on it, it can become a writer’s ally rather than an enemy.
The second variety of writer’s block, where you know what to write but can’t get yourself to do it, is much more of an emotional quagmire because the underlying issues sometimes have nothing at all to do with the story.
And because of that, it’s an even better friend to you, because the payoff for hurdling it is even greater.
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