Writing Past Writer’s Block

Writer’s block. What is it? Is it real, or is it simply the mind’s indefinable refusal to move forward. Or maybe it’s just an excuse.

Whatever it is, for some of us, it can be paralysing. In fact, even the hint that you’re suffering from writer’s block can be enough to stifle your creative muse and drive you away from your keyboard in total soul destroying frustration.

Real or not, there are some things that we can do to help stimulate our desire to create.

Firstly, you need to try and identify exactly why you’ve ground to a halt. Are you suffering from competition paralysis, a lack of character understanding, a lack of plot, or even a lack of love for your story? Let’s look at these one at a time:

  1. Competition Paralysis – you’ve sent out your baby into the big wide, and sometimes cruel, world of competition judges. You’re nervous, you’re excited, and somewhere deep inside of you, you begin to dream that this one might be the one. This one might see you reach the finals. This one might see an editor request to see more of your work or, even better, offer to buy it. Eventually, after what seems an interminable wait, which you’ve filled with working hard out on either completing your manuscript or working on a new one, the finalists are announced. Your name isn’t on the list. What’s this? They’ve obviously made a dreadful mistake. Of course your name should be up there. But it’s not. So what happens next? How do you break through the disappointment of not achieving your goal? If this is when writer’s block strikes you, you are not alone. Suddenly the doubt demons rear their ugly heads and poke tearing great holes in your delicate writer’s psyche. You begin to doubt yourself. You begin to doubt your ability.

    But look at what you have achieved. You wrote and completed an entry that fit specific guidelines and better yet, you entered a competition! Okay, so you didn’t win this time, but along the way you will have received valuable feedback from the judges from which, once you’ve finished licking your metaphorical wounds, you will study at length and learn from. Reading the judges score sheets can be a double-edged sword. You certainly don’t always have to agree with what each judge says, but it can only take one really bad one to destroy your confidence. You have to learn to look for the good points in your writing that the judges pick up. You need to allow yourself to be buoyed along by the positive comments. And above all, you need to get your hands back on a keyboard and get writing.

    Another version of competition paralysis is where you’ve done extremely well in a competition. You’ve won! You’ve beaten your peers and produced a manuscript that the judges loved and that the overall editor placed first. But she didn’t want to buy it. So what gives? Is your manuscript the best of a bad bunch? It’s unlikely that that is the case. Whatever the outcome, you’ve achieved the pinnacle of competition entrants… you’ve reached the top. But for some reason you begin to wonder… can I do this again? Can I ever write well enough to grab an editor’s attention so that she’s willing to work with me or, wants to buy my book?

    All this conjecture can be crucifying. If you let yourself get caught up in the ‘what ifs’ and the ‘maybes’ you’re setting yourself up to fail. You cannot allow yourself to worry about the things over which you have no control. What you can control is how you manage your disappointments and your successes. How you use what you’ve learned and how you refuse to accept failure. Knock backs happen. And they don’t stop once you’ve been published either. But if you let competition paralysis get its tenacious grip on your muse and let it stop you for long enough you’re letting it win. You’re refusing to acknowledge your own need to write. You’re creating a climate in which you will never be happy.

    So, get your hands back on your keyboard and write.

  2. You’ve written yourself into a dead end – You’ve been writing flat out for days now. You’re on such a high that you’re madly creating what you know in your heart of hearts is your best work ever. Then, you slam to a halt. The days stretch out and turn into weeks and suddenly you have such a distance between your enthusiasm for the manuscript and your desire to write it. Why?

    Sometimes a lack of character knowledge will bring this event about. Sometimes a lack of plot. Maybe you’re a pantzer, or maybe you’ve over planned yourself into a position where you can’t write yourself out. Maybe you’ve just fallen out of love with the story.

    Ask yourself why. Has the creativity stopped because you’ve tried to make your characters do something that isn’t right for them, or put them in a ‘blah’ situation? By doing so, have you lost pace and momentum in your story? Has the activity on the pages become mundane, average, even boring? A good way to get past this is to go back a few scenes to find out why. Perhaps you’ve been attacking the scene all wrong. It might not be working the way it should have because you might have weakened one of my characters by countermanding what they themselves would naturally do given that situation. You have to let your character take control of the scene, maybe even let them behave totally outside the parameters of expectation.

    If you’ve ground to a halt because you don’t know what happens next, then it’s about time you found out. Write a synopsis. Work out your plot turns. Ask yourself constantly, why would my character behave like this? What is the worst thing that could happen to them next? Why? Why? Why? If you don’t like to write down a synopsis, you might benefit from a brainstorming session with another writer friend or other person who won’t think you’re totally nuts for obsessing about your character’s lives.

    Ultimately, in romance writing, we always know it’s going to end happily, so the end isn’t in question. But what comes in between can be a lot more difficult.

    One very important thing I’ve learned about writing over the thirteen plus years that I’ve been submitting is that I can’t write anyone else’s way but mine. Try not to let yourself get trapped into trying out so many different people’s ways of working in a desperate and unsuccessful attempt to achieve success the way they’d achieved success. Believe me, if you can work the way someone else does, all kudos to you, but you have to find what works for you and stick to it.

  3. Fear of the Blank Screen – does this ever happen to you? Do you sit at your computer and think that it’s all too much. How am I ever going to fill this page with words? Let me give you a little trick that was shared with me last year. Minimise your screen. There now, that’s not so scary is it? It’s much easier to fill up three or four lines at a time and by doing so you can also break the habit of constantly going back and editing your work when you should be allowing yourself to move forward. By doing this you allow yourself to focus on the writing and not on what you’ve written before or what you haven’t written yet.

    Another couple of good ideas to overcome the blank screen is to use a different medium to write. If you have an Alpha Smart, Laptop, Tablet or other similar portable keyboard device, or if you prefer pen and paper, go and plonk yourself in a different part of the house or go for a drive to the beach or a park and work somewhere else. Sometimes, I believe, we subconsciously allow all the flotsam and jetsam of our daily lives to intrude on our writing. This is one of the reasons I close my door and shut myself in my office when I work, even when I’m alone in the house – that way nothing disturbs me. I give myself permission to focus solely on what I’m writing. Remember though, if you have to pick up kids from school etc., it pays to set the kitchen timer.

    Which brings me to the next thing…

  4. Limit your writing time. There’s nothing more soul destroying than getting to the end of a day and knowing you’ve wasted it and let all that writing time slip past you. Try letting yourself have only thirty minutes in which to work on your manuscript. It’s not a lot of time but if you have to, I bet you can work very efficiently in the time allocated. If you know that something else is pressing on you to get done and this is why you have become blocked, strike yourself a deal. You’ll attend to the other matter in thirty minutes time. Set the kitchen timer or an alarm of some sort and put your hands on your keyboard or pick up your pen and write. If thirty minutes seems like it’s too long, try fifteen or ten. You’re allowed to work for that given time and you’re not allowed to go over time.

Sometimes though, you just need to cut yourself some slack. Give yourself permission not to work on your manuscript, but don’t let go of the muse completely (they’re darned difficult to pin down later). Try some timed free writing. Barbara Samuel led an excellent workshop a couple of years ago at an RWNZ annual conference, which I found really stimulating.

Timed Writing Exercises – get a pen and paper and set a timer for the times indicated. Don’t write over time. Just let your mind wander and your hand streak across that page! Try these:

  • The house I lived in as a child – 3 minutes
  • I am 18… – 5 minutes
  • The scent I remember most from my childhood is… – 3 minutes

Or cut out tons of pictures from magazines and newspapers… pieces of fabric or ribbon, bits and bobs of buttons and belts and buckles. Pick one up and write about it, either from your point of view, or from the point of view of one of your characters. Keep all these pieces in a box and take it out the next time you don’t know what happens next in your manuscript and see if you can’t unlock that story that’s waiting inside of you to be written.

Above all, be prepared to write through a lot of rubbish. It’s okay. You can fix it. But if you let yourself stop, and stop completely, you’re not letting yourself be true to the writer within you. And that’s the greatest shame of all.

So what are you waiting for? Get writing!