Originally this was written for Savvy Authors in 2013, and then Leslie brought it back November 16th because she was struggling with NaNo. Reading through it, I saw a few places where I could expand on ideas better, so here is the revised edition of Breaking Through Writer’s Block!
I don’t believe in Muses.
I’ll never blame a magic fairy’s disappearance for why I can’t get my writing done each day. But I do believe in writer’s block.
Sometimes it’s very obvious why you can’t write: there’s a cat in your lap, a kid sitting on the keyboard trying to color on your face, or the power’s gone out. In these cases, you feed the cat, distract the kid, and grab pen and paper to plot out your next scene. These are easy to see problems with equally easy fixes. Other forms of Writer’s Block aren’t as easy to identify or cure. Writer’s Block comes in three basic forms: Physical, Emotional, and Logical.
Physical Writer’s Block
This doesn’t mean the keyboard is missing, it means there is something physically wrong with the author or the environment. Fatigue, hunger, and illness all make it hard to write.
Signs you have physical writer’s block:
- Staring at the screen yawning
- Thinking of food but not the next scene
- Coughing, vomiting, doped up on medicine
- Distracted by things around you
When you hit a stumbling point where you can’t work, do a quick self-diagnostic and try to remember when you last ate a healthy meal. A real, all-five-food-groups meal that provides the brain with energy.
If it’s been more than four hours it’s probably time to hit save and grab some food. If you’re yawning and rubbing your eyes take a nap or go to sleep. Tired writing is bad writing.
Shivering, sweating, or distracted? Adjust the temperature or location.
Loop on cough meds? Call it a night and go watch a movie while you eat an orange for the delicious vitamin C!
Physical writer’s block is something you can walk away from. Get up, move, address your physical needs, and the words will come back. Your brain is not a machine, it can’t work at 100% for 24 hours straight. Giving your body a break is the quickest way to fix this form of writer’s block. Food and good nap will solve 90% of your problems, trust me, it’s been scientifically tested by millions of authors.
Self-care is not selfish. Beating your body up, or neglecting it, isn’t good for you in the long term. Or for your career. Authors joke about living off coffee and alcohol, but at the end of the day it is a joke. Your brain is a delicate organ that needs certain things to do its job correctly. Stay hydrated. Get the sleep you need. Take regular breaks to stretch, walk, and get some sunlight. Give your hands a nice massage after a long day of typing. And make sure wherever you write is comfortable and supports a healthy posture.
You have a bright future in front of you; you should be doing everything you can to make sure the body you’re traveling in is as healthy as it can be. (That sounded less creepy t
Logical Writer’s Block
When everything is right with the author and the environment sometimes the story creates the stumbling block.
Signs you have logical writer’s block:
- The scene is wrong but you can’t say how
- You can’t picture where the scene is going
- You reread the scene and it’s boring you
- You are ready to set the manuscript on fire
- Your crit partner asked a question about a plot point and you burst into tears
Don’t fret, plotter or punster this happens to the best of us. Everyone will one day write themselves into a corner and not know what to do. Save your work, close the manuscript, and take a deep breath. Now is the time to do a triage.
Start with the most basic question: Why do you love this book and need to write it? If you don’t love it, put the book in the retired book folder on your computer and move on. There is no time for you to spend months writing and editing a book you don’t love.
What scenes are you excited to write in this book and why? Even if you’re pantsing this thing and making it up as you go along there are scenes you know you’re looking forward to writing. Analyze why you love those scenes. Susan Dennard calls these Magic Cookie Scenes. Every chapter should be built around a scene that you really, really want to write. The more fun it is for you to imagine, the more likely you are to write the scene. If you’re not feeling it… cut the scene and find another way to write that information.
Is the outline holding you back? This is a common problem for new authors and die hard plotters. Outlines are great but sometimes books outgrow them. Outlines can remove the element of surprise and prevent plot twists. If the book has outgrown the outline, trash the outline. Make a new one. Or don’t. Some books are better off written as spontaneous acts of creation.
Do you not have an outline at all? Grab the pen and paper. Write down the worst things that could happen to the character (make a list of about 20 – go wild!) and then decide what absolutely must happen so you can get the ending you want. Plot as least as far as your next plot twist. If you don’t like outlines try a plot box, an Excel sheet, or post-it notes on the wall. Do whatever you need to do to visualize the story.
Are your villains doing their work? Poorly written villains are a death sentence for a manuscript. Take a good hard look at your villains. Are they the heroes of their own story? Do they have good motivations? Do they have a cunning and intelligent plan? Are they doing their work or do you have a cardboard cut out and a hero punching at shadows.
Do you have all four plot twists? Plot twists should come at irregular intervals throughout the book. In a 90,000 word manuscript the plot twists would come at 10k, 35k, 60k, and 88k. That last twist at the end is the satisfying closure and the lead to the next book in the series. If everything is going according to the hero’s plan than you need to shake things up a bit. Let the hero lose a battle. Kill the beloved family pet. Burn the safe place to the ground.
If you get through all of this and are still having problems you need to consider that you may have a dead book on your hands. It’s a sad truth that 90% of what all authors write will never hit the shelves. One in ten started manuscripts becomes a finished book. One in ten finished books becomes a published work. Don’t fall into the trap of letting a dead novel keep you from moving forward with your writing. And, remember, even if you trunk this book for a year or ten you can always come back to it at a later date.
Emotional Writer’s Block
The number one cause of writer’s block is fear.
Signs you have emotional writer’s block:
- You’ve muttered the phrase, “I suck at writing.” at least twice today.
- You’ve just read an amazing book and know you will never compare.
- Someone is pressuring you to quit writing and get a real job.
- You are pressuring you to quit writing and get a real job.
- You’re worried the book won’t be good enough.
- You’re not sure you can handle the pressure of deadlines.
- You’re not sure what you’ll do after this book is done.
- You have a habit of not finishing projects you’ve started.
- You are a perfectionist or recovering perfectionist.
- You’ve recently received a rejection or hyper-critical critique of your work and you’re questioning everything you’ve ever done.
- Your worrying about low sales.
- Your obsessing over market trends.
- You’re comparing your published work to the bestsellers and convinced your new book won’t make the cut.
- You’ve started browsing online job forums looking for an opening as a scorpion petter.
Fear of the unknown is the leading cause of writer’s block. You get so tangled in the What Ifs and Maybes that you can’t focus on the story.
Perfectionism insists the book will never be perfect. And, I’ll be honest, no book ever is. No author alive looks at their published novel and doesn’t see something they want to change. I know, I’ve asked around, we’re all like that.
Concerns that you’ll fail, that you’ll never be as popular as That Big Name Author, or never make a living off writing make you question if you should spend so much time with fictional people. We’ve all been there. Most authors visit this place at least once a book, even the Big Name Authors who you think sip champagne as bestsellers magically appear on their hard drive. Doubt is part of art.
All forms of creation involve a stage where the creator questions themselves, their art, their intentions, their future. The trick is to not let this moment of self-reflection keep you from creating something beautiful.
Look at the facts: rough drafts are ugly buggers and they always will be, no one makes a living off of writing until they have at least 5 books on the shelf (and even then it’s a stretch), no one else is going to write the book you are thinking of, you can’t be anyone else, no one else can be you, and if you love this book you should keep writing.
Sure, there are reasons to quit. There’s a time and a season for everything in life and sometimes you had to admit this isn’t a writing season for you. Most authors having taken a year or ten off for everything from dabbling in other careers to going to college to just not wanting to write. If that’s where you’re at, embrace it!
But if writing is what you love – if sitting down to write each day makes you a better, happier, healthier person – than toss your doubts in the trash can and keep writing. The world wants to read your story.