Wednesday, April 16, 2014

RIDING THE EMOTIONAL ROLLER COASTER #4: WRITERS BLOCK

There you are, cruising along on your manuscript when suddenly, wham! You hit a wall. Or you’re finally going to start the new project you’ve been dreaming about for months only to find yourself stalled on page 2. You’ve got writer’s block.

Only you don’t.  Not really.  How do I know this?  Simple. 

Say we were in a workshop and I asked you to write a paragraph following up this sentence: “The princess looked to the door and gasped.” Chances are you would be able to write several paragraphs. You might even come up with an entire story idea based on what you wrote.

That’s because there’s no such thing as writer’s block.

There are, however, circumstances that can block your ability to work on a particular project.  In my experience, these circumstances fall into one of four categories:
  1. 1.      Story problems
  2. 2.      Physical issues
  3. 3.      Live Events
  4. 4.      Emotional and psychological hurdles.
Story problems.  These are the most obvious – and fortunately – the easiest types of blocks to fix.  Your story stalls because you took a wrong turn plot wise or your characters aren’t fleshed out as deeply as they should be.  These are the kinds of blocks that are solved by stepping back for an hour or two to look at the story from a different angle.  Most of the time we already intuitively know the answer out of block, and simply need a push to do so. 

Physical issues.  Take it from a chronic headache sufferer, if you feel lousy, your creativity will suffer.  If you didn’t get enough sleep, or if you have a nasty head cold, the words will seize up.

I’m going to take a moment to bring up another physical issue that often gets short shrift, and that’s PMS.  Do not underestimate the draining power of hormones!  I know for a fact there are days when I simply cannot focus to save my life.  I’m distracted, I’m moody and I have difficulty finishing sentences.  Interestingly, these days occur every 14 days in my cycle.  (Frequently they come with headaches or some other physical ailment as well.)  If you are a female writer, I strongly suggest you take a good look at your own monthly patterns to see if hormones are an issue for you as well.

Life events. We are not robots. Ailing parents, sick children, family crises – all of these happenings can zap our creativity.  Granted, like everyone else in the world dealing with problems, we often have to work regardless.  But there are times when life’s hassles become so overwhelming, we simply can’t write. 

Mental and Psychological issues.  Ahh, I saved the toughest issues for last. Writers are magnets for self-doubt and insecurity. A bad review or rejection can send us into an emotional tailspin.  Even good things like a RITA final or a request for a full manuscript can freeze the words in our head. I’ve become blocked after signing a new contract. 

Internal monsters are tenacious buggers.  They dig their claws into our brains and they don’t let go.  I wish I could tell you there’s a magic bullet to defeat these demons, but the truth is, there isn’t.  Self-doubt and insecurity never go away, no matter where we are in our career.  And in a way, we don’t want them to disappear completely.  After all, as nasty as our inner critics can be, they also drive you he can sound, they also drives us to create our best work.  It’s our inner critic that isn’t satisfied with “good enough”.  Without the inner critic, we’d never grow as a writers.  The best we can do therefore, is learn to quiet them for a short time  or learn to co-exist with them in order to get the work done.

So now that we know the causes of block, how do we beat it away so words reappear on the page?

First, we determine what is causing our block in the first place.  If it’s a physical issue or a life event overwhelming you, cut yourself some slack.  Like I said, writers aren’t word producing robots, no matter how much we’d like to be.  If you’re sick, take a sick day.  If you didn’t get enough sleep, take a nap.  If you’re drowning in stress, take a mental health day.  The solution is to give yourself the same advice you might give a non-writing friend in similar circumstances.  

If your block is a story problem, ask yourself how you might rewrite the scene differently.  Or if you are being stubborn.  Are you forcing the action on the page or are you letting your characters tell their story their way? 

Be careful of over-thinking, however!  Make sure you actually have a story problem and aren’t really battling a mental demon.  Remember the other month when I said you needed to understand your writing process?  This is where self-knowledge becomes invaluable.  I know that on page 90 of every manuscript, I will decide the story isn’t working.  Because I make that decision on page 90 of every book I’ve ever written, I ignore my impulse to chuck everything and start again.  Middle-book syndrome isn’t always caused by the book, if you get my drift.

If, after ruling out story, life and body problems, you are still blocked, then the problem lies inside your head.  Now there are a zillion tricks to get the words flowing short term.  For example:

  • Find a buddy and together, do timed writing springs where you are forced to produce something. 

  • Bribe yourself.  If you produce X number of words, you can watch Game of Thrones on DVR.
  • Post motivational signs.  I used to have one that read “You’re Only Writing a Draft” to remind myself the page doesn’t have to be perfect.  Right now, I have one that says "Keep Calm and Trust the Process" to remind myself of the page 90 freak out.
  • Give yourself a mental pep talk.  Argue with your demon.  Write a list of positives about your writing to deflect the inner critic.
  • Take a day off.  Granted, you don’t want to walk away too long because that can’t lead to inertia, but a day away to gain fresh perspective can help quell the demons.
  • Reduce your goals. Instead of demanding your muse produce 1000 words, tell her to produce 500. I know some people who do something called “100 words for 100 days.”  The idea is to take the pressure off your muse so she isn’t so stressed, thus eliminating the power your demon has over her.
  • Change media. Change location. Change your play list. Trick your demons by mixing up the brain signals.

In short, do whatever you need to do to put words on paper. Surviving the roller coaster means strapping yourself into that car no matter what.  In the end, by the way, you’ll find you feel better simply because you produced.  And happiness means you’ll be that much more confident about the writing the next day, and the day after that. Until the first draft is finished.

Do you have a tip for busting through your blocked periods?  Please share below.  The more tools we can share, the better!


Barb Wallace struggles with writer’s block of all sorts on a daily basis.  If not for word sprints and ledge buddies, she’d never have finished her last manuscript.  Her latest story, LOVE IN THE SHADOWS, is out this month from Entangled Indulgence. 

"A delicious hero and an emotional read," NY Times bestseller, Jennifer Probst.  For purchase information, visit Entangled Publishing. 

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9 comments:

  1. Hi Barb -- because I'm me (cough cough) I have to argue that writer's block does exist -- for all these reasons you've mentioned and I think you get to the heart of it, though. Knowing WHY you are blocked is really the huge issue -- and sometimes it's hard to tell.

    I loved your quote "writers are not word-producing robots" because sometimes it seems that's all writing comes down to, but I also don't believe any words are good words -- I just spent a few months fighting a block during which I produced about 200 pages of words, but they are almost all trash, and most of them just spent replicating the same mistakes until I think, maybe, finally, I have gotten it fixed (story problem, and life issues for me, so a combo block...).

    And I would add that sometimes, really, you just don't want to write. For many reasons, and I think that's okay, too -- we all do have lives, etc and writing is not always the most important thing. Some folks will consider that blasphemy, but I don't. Letting go of "shoulds" and "musts" and "have tos" is huge to produce good writing (including, you should be writing every day, you should never take time off, you have to always produce, etc...I think that's how we become word producing robots... ;) -- And this is not for the folks who are *happy* doing these things, or for whom it comes naturally, but about the push that says "you're not a real writer if you don't...." Bullpuckey.

    Sam

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  2. Okay, had to LOL when I posted that previous post and the captcha asked me to prove I wasn't a robot. :)

    Sam

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  3. LOL on the robot thing. Although you know that in your argument, you proved my point. :-) You said that sometimes a person just doesn't feel like writing - True dat, woman. I have many of those days. However, it doesn't mean you can't write, just that you don't want to. That's my point. No one is literally blocked - they just have other issues that keep us from writing. And yes, you have to find the schedule that works - putting too many shoulds on yourself is another form of pressure. I should have mentioned that.

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  4. Agreed, though when I (personally) force writing, I end up with 200 pages of scrap. ;) So I think there's a difference between writing when you are engaged, and just putting down words... I think when we're blocked it means we're not engaged. In some cases, forcing some words down will help undo the block... in other cases, not so much.

    I guess that's what "word robot" meant to me -- I meant, anyone can put down words at anytime, sure... but keepable, generative words that work? That's what lies behind the block...

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  5. But at least you can revise scrap - or see the problem... If you don't write, you got nothing. And what's one person's scrap is another person's treasure. Still going to maintain there's no such thing as true literal block....It's all an underlying cause. I think we're saying the same thing, btw

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  6. From MarcieR

    I'm not pubbed - yet - but I make sure I have a daily word count goal.
    But Life Events (work problems) have caused me to not meet my count. I tell myself it's okay, but then tell myself I can't do this when I'm pubbed.

    However reading this post I am now telling myself to cut me some slack. I got some words, not the 1k, but the 300 or 600 is still OKAY.

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  7. Glad it helped MarcieR. Remember - you may not have gotten 1K, but you are still 3-600 words closer to the end. And you wrote! That's huge that you stuck to your writing in the midst of craziness.

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  8. Gosh, I so needed this post. My biggest hurtle lately has been a lack of motivation because of pesky doubt monsters. I received a rejection (a very nice one with both positives and areas needing work pointed out) in early March, and I haven't been able to write consistently since. Before that, I would get up two hours early and write; now, I am lucky to get a few words in on my lunch break if an idea has been bugging me all morning. I think incorporating some of your ideas will help get those mental blocks out of the way. Thanks again for this post

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  9. You're so welcome MzZeyZey - don't let those rejections get you down. Remember - editors are very busy people. They don't take the time to give feedback unless you've got talent.

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