What is Writers’ Block?
Each writer defines writers’ block in their own way. To us, writers’ block doesn’t exist. We don’t actually believe in it. We believe in getting stuck. Often, to call getting stuck writers’ block is to give it a great deal of power over your creative process. It becomes an event. It becomes an insurmountable force standing in the way of you reaching your creative goals.
If Writer’s Block Doesn’t Exist, Why Can’t I Find the Words?
When you’re staring at the blank screen, but the words just won’t come, there could be one or more factors putting the brakes on your creative output. Most of these factors can be broken down into just six categories:
- Something is awry in your story
- Environmental factors are either not conducive to or actively stopping your writing
- You don’t have enough time to devote (or perceive that you don’t)
- Your stress level is too high
- Anxiety is overwhelming you
- Your block is actually depression
We’ll talk about each of these categories—how you can spot each one and ways to help you get unstuck if this is your challenge.
Its Broken—Something is Awry in Your Story
One of the primary reasons why authors get stuck is because something in their story isn’t working like they intended. There are three primary ways something can go awry:
- You have fallen into a rabbit hole (and found dirt instead of Wonderland)
- Your story doesn’t have enough conflict to drive it
- A character (or characters) lack agency
Falling into a Rabbit Hole
Let’s talk for a minute about the pantsing vs. outlining debate.
There are two broad types of writers—those who start with an outline of the action to follow as they write and those who start with only a loose sense of where the story is headed. (This second group are called pantsers in reference to the idiom: flying by the seat of their pants.)
Outliners believe that carefully structuring the action before writing keeps them focused and on track. Many will prewrite important sections, much like a movie director creates a storyboard. Detail level in outlines can vary from those who know the general topic of a chapter to those who create a play-by-play of each scene. This method can be very effective, but critics feel that it can stymie creativity, locking in the action and leaving little room for exploration.
Pantsers believe that allowing a story to grow organically allows them to evolve ideas as they write. They may begin a story with an idea for who the characters are and what the cornerstone pieces of the action will be, but they allow the action in each chapter to lead them to what happens next. This method can lead to unexpected places—rabbit holes. Some rabbit holes lead to Wonderland—places that you never dreamed the story could go. These rabbit holes can enrich your story tremendously. On the other hand, some rabbit holes lead to a dirty hole in the ground from which your plot cannot dig out. These rabbit holes are the type we are talking about. (It is important to note that outliners are not immune from rabbit holes. They are simply more likely to have ironed out impossible plots before they began writing.)
If your words have stopped flowing, make sure that you haven’t fallen into a rabbit hole you can’t escape from. If you think you may have, you’ll need to figure out what about the plot has made it untenable. Follow the hole you went down backwards to find the last plot point that funneled you here. Examine that plot point. Was there another option available to your characters than the one they took? Try starting at that decision, but going in another direction. Giving your characters a do-over may be just what you need to get the words flowing again.
Not Enough Conflict
Another place where a story can run off the rails is where there isn’t enough conflict to propel the action forward. If you’ve found that you have pages and pages of characters doing inconsequential things or of characters doing much more talking about how past plot points made them feel, rather than participating in new plot points, your problem may be that there isn’t enough conflict in your story.
Look at each character and determine what they want. What is it that motivates them? What role do they play in this story? What characters or elements exist that stop your character from achieving their goals? You generate conflict in a story by putting characters in direct contact with characters or elements who want opposite things. Simply put—determine what your characters want, then throw increasingly difficult obstacles in their path.
This might be a good time to mention the concept of an overpowered character. Especially in speculative fiction, many characters have abilities that the rest of the world do not possess. It is tempting to keep adding power to your characters in order to make them able to overcome any obstacle. This can lead to problems because as a character gains power, unless the obstacles keep pace, soon the character has no risk in the story. Instead of conflict driving the plot forward, the story has become a scrapbook of your amazing character breezing through life. If you find yourself feeling like there is no energy to your plot, check to make sure that your character still has to struggle to succeed.
The last place your story could be holding you back is if one or more of your characters lack the agency needed to affect the world around them. If you find that your writing is bogged down and you just can’t think of any way to move forward (and you’ve made sure that you haven’t fallen into the wrong rabbit hole) then check your characters to make sure that they have the means and influence to carry a story. Are they able to make decisions on their own? Are they merely reactive to the actions of others or are they proactive in their own story? Do your characters make decision that further the plot, or are they plot piñatas who are simply being battered about by the events around them?
If you find that your characters are far more reactive than proactive, you’ll need to take a hard look at the character and what function they serve in the story. If a character’s job is essentially set decoration and their only purpose is to react to the actions of other characters, that character—no matter how cute, tragic, attractive, or loved—is holding you back. Story thrives on conflict. If your character can’t contribute in a way that drives the action forward, then they are a prop. Stories can have prop characters as long as they are very minor. If you have a prop character sucking the energy from a large portion of your story, getting stuck is inevitable.
Locking the Door—Environmental Factors
Sometimes, what stops the flow of words has nothing to do with the story itself, but has triggers elsewhere in your life. Some of the most common factors that can derail you are components in your writing environment. These come in two broad groups: physical and social factors.
Physical Causes for Derailment
Some environmental triggers that can stop the flow of words are things that distract us that can be altered. Environmental factors like uncomfortable room temperature, distracting noises, constant phone calls, a disorganized space, and spending excess time on the internet can all lead to frustration which can build into an inability to concentrate and create.
These kinds of factors can be mitigated fairly easily. The use of fans or heaters to make your writing area comfortable, using music to help stimulate your creativity and drown out distracting noises, keeping your writing area organized in a way that makes sense to you, ignoring non-essential phone calls until you are finished writing, and setting boundaries for when you are working and when you can surf online can all do wonders for lowering your frustration and getting you back on track.
Social Causes for Derailment
Some environmental triggers are not as easy to fix. The biggest is not having a social structure that is supportive of your writing or your need for a distraction-free time to pursue it.
When you live with others, it can sometimes be difficult for them to understand that writing is much more strenuous than it may appear. It requires a great deal of concentration. It may look like we’re “just typing” and that we should be able to stop abruptly then pick up where we left off easily. Nothing could be further from the truth. Most writers have some version of the writing trance. It is a lot like the zone that long-distance runners talk about. It is a place where the world around us falls away and we are completely present in our story with our characters. It doesn’t operate like a light switch. Like runners, most of us need a period to warm up and cool down around our emotional workouts. When people and animals in our environment continually interrupt this trance, it takes us far longer to get back into our trance than they may realize. This can lead to frustration and sometimes can derail us to the point where we completely lose our connection to the scene.
If you think that social environmental factors are affecting your writing, try talking to the adults in your life and asking for their help. Non-writers often have no idea how their “just a quick sec” interruptions affect us. Good communication may help you get the distraction-free environment you need. If the social factors are small children or pets, be proactive. Make sure that you have anticipated and tended to the needs of those who depend on you before you begin. In a hectic house, with constant demands from children and pets, changing the time of day you write might also help. Saving your writing time until everyone is in bed may give you the uninterrupted time you need to get words on the page.
Too Many Irons in the Fire—When You Don’t Have Enough Time to Write (Or Think That You Don’t)
Sometimes, our lives are simply too busy to write. A new baby, a new job, and exams are all reasons why you really might not have enough time to get words on the page. But often, we fall into a pattern of believing that because we are active, but don’t have time to write. Chances are, you have more time than you think you do.
The average fantasy novel is around 100,000 words—probably more than you have time to do in a weekend—but it is not as many as it may seem. With an active schedule you may not have time to write 5000 words a day, but could you write 500 words a day? The average word length for the English language is 4.5 characters. If we round that down to 4 characters and a one character for a space, 500 words a day is 2500 characters, or the equivalent of 17.8 140-character tweets. That is easily in reach for even the busiest of us.
500 words a day might not sound like much, but if you find that small amount of time every day, in 200 days—less than 7 months—your 100,000-word novel would have a draft.
Saying that you don’t have time to write can be a lot like saying you don’t have time to exercise. There is a point at which it is a matter of setting priorities and deciding that your story is important enough to squeeze in your daily writing workout.
My life is too complicated—When You Are Too Stressed to Write
We have all had those years, when the pressures of the real world—family obligations, trouble at work, money matters, illness, social upheaval, interpersonal strife—builds to such a head that it takes over every part of your life. These periods can make getting words onto the page a particular challenge. The brain power you need to bring to bear on your story is being used to process other priorities.
This type of stuck is one of the only times that it might be time to take a vacation from the story. You need to be gentle with yourself and do what you can to alleviate the pressure. If you’re not ready to call a vacation just yet, try some of the many techniques for lowering stress. Go for a walk, get a massage, take a hot bubble bath, play with a dog, meditate/pray. Find some time each day to do one small thing that is only for you.
Anxiety – When You’ve Talked Yourself into Being Stuck
Sometimes we can’t get the words out because our fears about ourselves and our writing have taken over. Writing is not an easy thing to do. It requires an enormous amount of vulnerability as we lay ourselves metaphorically bare for the reader. We pour our whole selves into the page and then hand it to strangers and hope that is speaks to them. And fear that it won’t.
That fear—that tiny seed of doubt that you will never be good enough, that your writing will be rejected, that you will face ridicule, that you will never taste success—can fester inside you until you are locked up with it.
We all have tapes in our heads that play when we have doubt or when we are trying something new. Some of those tapes can be disruptive and lead us into a spiral of negative self-talk. We’re terrible. Our writing is bad. We have no original ideas.
Part of being an artist, of creating for others, is learning to insulate yourself from negativity. We love it when readers tell us that we have made a connection, but you have to know that your writing is good enough even without constant accolades. Bad reviews will come. You have to learn to tune them out, and more importantly to never keep a copy of the tape to play in your head as you work on the next story.
If anxiety has taken over and paralyzed your writing, you need to take control back. Remember why you began writing in the first place—because you love stories and want to share them with others.
Seek out the support of other writers. A writing group can be a wonderful way to realize that the tapes you are playing are wrong. Finding a supportive group to cheer your successes and help you when doubt rears its head can make a world of difference.
Make sure that your goals and deadlines are realistic. Demanding from your writing that you hit the bestseller list in two weeks is going to set you up for disappointment and doubt, but so is expecting that you will write 5000 words a day and finish a novel every 20 days. Set small, attainable goals and hold yourself accountable for your progress.
Depression—When It Is Not About Writing at All
Sometimes your inability to write doesn’t have to do with any of these things. Some of the hallmark symptoms of depression, especially the inability to concentrate and the lack of interest in activities you once found pleasurable, can be mistaken by authors as writers’ block. Depression is a serious illness that affects millions of people from all walks of life. With depression, it can feel as though your life is slipping away. That it is robbing you of everything you once thought was important. That you will never regain what you’ve lost.
If you are suffering from depression, please don’t suffer alone. There are resources available to help. You are valuable to the world. You make a difference in the lives of others, especially as an author. Depression will lie to you and tell you that no one will care. That you are a burden. That your contributions are not important. None of those things are true. You, and the stories inside you, are a gift to the world.
If you are struggling with depression, please ask for help. Here are some resources that might be of use to you:
The Suicide Prevention Lifeline also has a telephone number that is staffed by people who understand and can help. Their number is: 1-800-273-8255.
You are not alone.