I once read an article that claimed there was no such thing as writer’s block. I wish I could remember where I read this article so I could provide a link, but I don’t remember, and Google has thus far been of no help in the matter. Anyway, it was the author’s contention that writer’s block was just an excuse for laziness. I don’t entirely agree with that assertion, so this article will be my take not just on what writer’s block is, but also how to break free of its chains.
Nature of the beast
I’m not dumb enough to say that writer’s block is completely unrelated to laziness. We’ve all been there, sitting in front of the computer, staring at the screen writing nothing and thinking of all those other things we have to do… and then shutting down the computer and going to do them. That’s not so much writer’s block as it is writer’s decision. You’re deciding to do something other than write.
And really, there’s nothing wrong with that — just don’t use the old crutch and call it writer’s block.
Generally speaking, most people are busy. We have lives, we have laundry, we have to mow the lawn or shovel the driveway, we have to make ourselves dinner. Some of us have dogs to look after and therefore dog poop to clean up in the yard. Some have kids, which can also mean cleaning up poop, but also means a whole lot of additional responsibilities.
As a side note, has anyone else noticed that the word “busy” has almost completely replaced the word “fine” in modern conversation? It’s rare these days that when you ask someone how they are, they say “I’m fine.” Usually, the response is “Busy!,” and if you’re not busy, you’re doing something wrong. Anyway, I digress…
So, in many cases, what we keep calling writer’s block is really just prioritization. We have other things we can’t get out of our mind — whether fun things or obligations — and so we have trouble focusing on the story we’re trying to tell. there’s really no trick to this, you just have to tell yourself that writing is, at that moment, your priority and then write something. Write anything. Write the most horrible sentence you’ve ever written. Just get something down on the page. For me, once I’ve actually started writing, no matter how awful it may be, it helps me break that barrier and get into the writing mindset again.
As far as I’m concerned, the single biggest cause of true writer’s block, or truly not being able to write, is a major issue with plot. If you’re stuck and you just don’t know how to proceed, odds are that somewhere along the line, your plot development has put you into a corner.
Plot issues happen. Finding a plot issue that trips you up doesn’t make you a bad writer, it just makes you a writer. After all, if you weren’t writing, you wouldn’t have found the problem, right? One way you can minimize plot issues it to outline your story. I’m not talking about a James Cameron-style outline, where the outline is nearly as long as the finished product, but knowing your key events and how they connect with the overarching story will be a huge help. Having even a skeletal outline will enable you to sit down to write knowing in what direction you need to head, rather than sitting down and spending your first half hour trying to decide what to do.
Sometimes you just don’t have the inspiration to write. There may even be times you really want to write, but nothing will come. This does happen and it happens to most of us at some point. It could be the general stress of life sucking away your creativity or it could be some other factor affecting you.
The key is finding ways to get it back. Or, in the immortal words of Arnold Schwarzenegger…
If it bleeds, we can kill it
That’s right, I’m drawing a parallel between writer’s block and the alien hunter in Predator. They’re both giant beasts who skulk around unseen, savagely attacking when you least suspect it. And they both want to keep your skull as a trophy.
As usual, Arnold gets right to the heart of the matter. He doesn’t mince words, that guy. And you know what? He’s right. Writer’s block can be killed. I’m not egotistical enough to say these are sure-fire ways to drop a heavy log on your writer’s block and I’m certainly not saying that your writer’s block will play a creepy recording of Sonny Landham’s laugh while detonating a miniature nuke. However, they’re all worth a shot.
Some things that have helped me overcome writer’s block in the past:
- Go for a drive in the country. A while ago for my “day job” I had to do a lot of travelling by car. I wasn’t doing major distances by most standards, but there were times when I’d be driving for four or five hours through pretty empty areas to get where I needed to go. As stiff as these drives made my back, they were fantastic in terms of helping me think through plot issues. Generally, after one of these trips, I could get home and just start writing again (or sometimes start writing at my hotel room that night) because I had time away from everything to just think things through. I’m not recommending a five hour drive, but if you have a nice quiet area you can drive around for an hour, give it a shot.
- Listen to some soundtracks. And I mean really listen. Don’t put it on in the background while you do laundry or make dinner — turn out the lights, sit down and just listen to the music. Just to clarify, I mean a real soundtrack, an orchestral soundtrack, not one of those “soundtracks” that are just a random collection of flavour-of-the-month pop and hip-hop sings. Alan Silvestri, Ramin Djawadi, Patrick Doyle, Jerry Goldsmith, Hans Zimmer… I could go on, but I won’t. If you want some specific recommendations, just let me know and I’d be happy to suggest a few of my favourites. The point of this is that a really good orchestral soundtrack can get your emotions up, which in turn can get your inspiration back on track. This can be particularly helpful if you’re writing a scifi, adventure or action story — listening to the right soundtrack, you’ll start picturing scenes in your story playing out with the music.
- Write something else. Sometimes writer’s block is tied to a specific project or to a specific part of a specific project. The best thing you can do in this case is write something else, so even though you’re blocked on the one, you’re still writing, you’re still producing something. That in itself can help alleviate writer’s block. You could work on an entirely different project or, what I find myself doing most often, you could write a different scene in the same project. Odds are even if you feel blocked on your current project that you have at least one scene further into the story that you have thought about endlessly and know exactly how you want to unfold. So write it. For every project I work on — even a role-playing game I’m involved with — I have a Word document called “Snippets for Later.” Every time I get stuck somewhere, I go to that document and I write something I can use later, maybe a handful of sentences, maybe six pages, but it’s still progress. Often times, just that simple act — making progress that I know cuts down my workload later on — gives me enough of a boost to power through the writer’s block on the other element of the project.
- Watch a movie or play a video game or read a book. Any of the above or all of the above. Find some form of media in the same genre as your story and watch/read/play it. Movies are generally the best option for me, because video games tend to make me angry and books a pretty heavy time investment unless they’re graphic novels. Pick two movies in your genre and enjoy them, let the great scenes inspire you and make mental note of the bad scenes and look for that thing that’s made them bad. Then obviously try not to do that thing yourself. An interesting way to do this and something I’ve been doing more frequently thanks to the loveliness that is Netflix, is to select one movie I know and love and one movie I’ve never seen — or even better, that I’d never heard of. In fact, for the second movie, try to make it a foreign movie or at the very least not from Hollywood. We’re so saturated with typical Hollywood storylines and the Hollywood approach to storytelling that watching a movie from another culture can give you a fantastic new angle from which to look at your story and its development.
And there you have it — my take on writer’s block and how to come out of it like Arnold as opposed to Richard Chaves.
My next blog entry will likely be shorter due to holiday schedules with the family. The topic, by request, will be editing — when and how to do it so you don’t bog yourself down.
As always, drop me a line with any questions.