Immutable Laws of Writing #3: Writer’s Block Does Not Exist
Writer’s block does not exist.
That might seem harsh, especially if you’ve experienced writer’s block. Let me clarify: I acknowledge that we can feel blocked, and that many writers call this feeling “writer’s block.” Immutable Law of Writing #3 contends that there is no ailment, no virus, no universal diagnosable condition called writer’s block. “Writer’s block” is a bogeyman. When we’re blocked, it’s something specific masquerading as a force we can’t control.
So, what does block us? And what can we do about it?
1. You’re blocked because the writing feels hard.
Can’t sugarcoat this: writing is hard, or can be. Just because the words sometimes (or even usually) flow freely doesn’t mean you should expect that all the time. It’s a craft, not magic. If you’re blocked, ask: is it just that the writing is hard, and I’m avoiding it because it’s hard?
One solution: give yourself a small quota—say, 250 words—and write until you get there. Remind yourself, say it out loud: writing is hard some days. If you don’t write on those days, you soon won’t be a writer at all.
Another solution: write something else. Write something you want to write. If there’s something nagging at you, a story that won’t stay out of your head, work on that. Come back later to the work that got you stuck, when you’re refreshed.
2. You’re blocked because you don’t know what’s next.
The question here is: Why don’t I know what’s next?
It could be that you’re a pantser—a seat-of-the-pants writer, as dubbed by Larry Brooks—who lets the story emerge organically. One solution is to try some pre-planning. You don’t need to become a full-out outliner, but do spend some time imagining the story forward. At the very least, if writing a novel especially, identify the primary substructure. Most use this one:
- The Setup (establishing the stakes)
- The Inciting Incident (sets the story in motion)
- Plot Point 1 (the story direction changes)
- Midpoint (something important happens)
- Plot Point 2 (a twist that sends the story toward its conclusion)
- Resolution (how it all works out)
Once you have a general destination, you’ll get moving again. They don’t have to be good words. As a devoted pantser, you already know that most your words are going to get edited or edited out.
3. You’re blocked because you are out of ideas.
Just as I don’t believe in writer’s block, I don’t believe that writers ever run out of ideas.
Generally the opposite is true: we have so many story ideas that the trouble is deciding which one to work on. If that’s the case, try this: make a list of your current story ideas. For each, write a descriptive paragraph explaining what it’s about. (Alternately, do this out loud.) The one you wrote or spoke the most about is likely the one you have the most energy for. Follow the energy.
But let’s say it is possible to be out of ideas. Then what?
In a story-in-progress, add a new and unexpected character, or introduce some kind of trouble, and see how your characters respond.
If starting a new story and not knowing where to begin, start with the universal story frame:
- Wants something badly
- But there are obstacles
- Which are overcome, or not
- And someone is changed, or not
Identify a someone, something they want, and why they can’t have it. Try making lists on paper or using a mind map. Select one and start telling their story.
If you are writing a short story, use this basic setup: create two damaged people and bang them together. That is, name and describe them, then put them in a situation where something has changed (often phrased as: what’s different about today?).
4. You’re blocked because you’re not inspired.
Your muse, for reasons unexplained—the muse never explains—has vanished. Let you down. Gone on vacation. Or worse: is visiting the rival writer down the street! Oh, disloyal muse!
Seriously: you’ll wait a long time waiting for inspiration to arrive. Go and seek it out. Walk in the woods. Go to a movie. Read your favorite book, or a new one. Take a writing class. All of these can help. But the best solution is to put your behind in your writing chair. If you sit down to write every day between 9 and 11 a.m, say, you’ll find that that’s when the muse tends to appear.
5. You’re blocked but you don’t know why. It’s any and all of these or something else.
The one final fool-proof method is to lower your standards.
Immutable Law #1 says the words aren’t going to write themselves. You have to write them. It doesn’t matter if they’re any good. We have to edit later anyway. So give yourself permission to write badly. You can even choose it: “I’m going to write badly today!” Write terrible words that you will be ashamed of later. It’s liberating, really.
And once you start writing, Immutable Law #2 kicks in: objects in motion tend to stay in motion.
In the end, blockages happen to all of us. Sometimes, your fingers hover over the keys and nothing happens. How easy it is, when that happens, to get up and say, “I have writer’s block.” How easy it is to blame the universe and the muses. Next time, see if you can identify why you’re blocked, and then you’ll know what to do.
And you can stop believing in writer’s block. For good.