Whatever you may have heard, writer’s block is real. No, plumbers do not experience plumber’s block, as those who like to pass this hideous condition off as some permutation of laziness often claim. The truth is, that hypothetical plumber does not write novels. Those of us who do are intimately familiar with the arid wasteland that can stretch between the pages of a first draft.
That’s the good news, by the way. By definition, writer’s block only occurs when there’s nothing on the page. Once the first draft is complete, the rest is Art. Or reason. At any rate, the terror is gone. So the goal is to get through that sometimes thorny first draft.
This guest post is by Molly Cochran. Cochran is the author of the epic adult fiction novel Mireille and more than twenty novels and nonfiction books, including the New York Times bestseller Grandmaster. Cochran has received numerous awards, including the Mystery Writers of America’s Edgar Award, the Romance Writers of America’s “Best Thriller” award, and an “Outstanding” classification by the New York Public Library. Recently she published a series of young adult novels, Legacy, Poison, and Seduction, and two novellas, Wishes and Revels. Legacy won a 2013 Westchester Fiction Award. Connect with her on Facebook, Twitter and her website mollycochran.com.
The first step is to recognize the problem. There are many causes for writer’s block, and once the cause is clear, the solution is generally pretty straightforward. Here are five common causes and their solutions:
1. If the problem is indecision . . .
Outline the scene.
Even if you already have an outline and know basically where your story’s going, you can get momentarily hung up by not knowing exactly how to handle the next scene you have to write. This is often the case in historical fiction, when a lot of factual background information has to be included without destroying the story line. Should it be presented as pure narrative? Through dialogue? As a newspaper account? Or an internal monologue?
To get through this snag, it helps to write an experimental synopsis of the scene using one of those choices. It doesn’t matter which. If you go with an internal monologue, say, write down the things your character will see and do to spur his thoughts. Insert enough action so that the scene isn’t dull. You’ll be able to see in a few lines if the choice you made is viable. If not, outline another possible scene. The point is not to find the perfect scene, but simply to get over being stuck as quickly as possible.
2. If the problem is a lack of inspiration . . .
One may think that writing slowly and carefully will result in a better book, but the opposite is true. Overworked writing is boring. Speed fosters spontaneity, which can bring on inspiration. At the very least, it puts something on the page, and something is better than nothing.
3. If the problem is perfectionism . . .
Allow yourself to write badly.
Yes, badly. Perfectionism is the most common cause of writer’s block. Terrified that what we’ve written—even if it’s only a paragraph—is not our best effort, we go back and revise every sentence until our work is a masterpiece. The only problem with this method is that, at that elephantine rate, our work is never going to be finished.
A writing mentor of mine once said that novels are not written; they’re rewritten. Leave the sparkling prose for the second, third, or twelfth draft if it doesn’t come to you on the fly. For now, just get your thoughts written down. Don’t worry if those thoughts are clichéd, repetitive, or childish. Bad writing is the key to good writing. Perfect writing is the key to a blank page.
4. If the problem is the opinion of others . . .
Don’t allow yourself to be stymied by what your friends, mother, priest, or spouse may think of what you’ve written. We have only our own experience on which to base our fiction. If your story centers around characters who are uncomfortably similar to your neighbors, so be it. If your sex scenes offend the ladies in the church quilting bee, smile sweetly and say you made everything up. But write it anyway.
5. If the problem is not knowing what type of book will sell . . .
Quit thinking about it!
Scoping the market never works. Even professional editors can’t see the Next Big Thing coming. And by the time that Next Big Thing arrives, a thousand other writers will be vying for a place on that bandwagon. Writing what you think people want you to write is pathetic at best. Better to write your novel, your way.
Speaking of not thinking . . . If there’s one overriding piece of advice I’d offer anyone in the throes of writer’s block, it’s this:
Once you know what you’re going to say, just go for it. Write fast, write badly, write fearlessly. Remember, it’s a draft, not a book. Every mistake can be fixed, every awkward sentence revised. So let yourself fly! Don’t analyze. Don’t compare. Don’t imitate. Don’t think. Run through that desert, and put it behind you.
Writer’s block? Hah!
Come Join Me (& Other Writer’s Digest Staffers)!
As the online editor of Writer’s Digest (and a published author) I speak at writing events all the time to help others get published. Here’s a list of upcoming events where either I or another Writer’s Digest staffer will offer instruction to help you achieve your writing goals. Come join me!
- Feb. 11-14, 2016: The San Francisco Writers Conference (San Francisco, CA)
- March 31 – April 2, 2016: The Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop (Dayton, OH)
- April 30, 2016: Write Now! Conference (Raleigh, NC)
- Aug. 12-14, 2016: Writer’s Digest Conference (New York, NY)
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Brian A. Klems is the editor of this blog, online editor of Writer’s Digest and author of the popular gift book Oh Boy, You’re Having a Girl: A Dad’s Survival Guide to Raising Daughters.