I HATE writer’s block. It’s a daily battle and a complete waste of time. When you’re running on inspiration, you tend to not feel the impact of the dreaded block so much but outside of that it’s always hovering just out of sight, waiting to pounce.
Writing fantasy opens up a whole new can of blocks because we have to develop everything, from what color the grass is to how advanced technology can be. That’s a lot of room for error. My realization that I have writer’s block usually goes something like this: Panic; get angry; become determined; identify the problem; develop a way through it; and continue writing. Identifying the problem and finding a way through it, or labeling as I like to call it, is what we’ll look at today.
1) The Blank Page Syndrome
This is the classic. You’ve been given an assignment, you feel you should be writing, etc. so you pull out that blank sheet of paper, sharpen all the pencils in your cup, straighten everything on your desk, dust, feed the cats, vacuum, and then dust again. Then you return to that page that’s screaming empty accusations at you. Way around it: Use that first sheet of paper to brainstorm and free write. Try facing the issue head on with something like, “Well, here I am again, with such and such to write, but I have no idea how to go about it. At first, I thought I might…” Free writing might then lead to scribbling or bubbling or outlining, which is one step forward. Once you’ve released all that stress, get a second page and really begin.
2) Too many ideas, not enough substance to any of them
This is the one I suffer from the most. We gather scraps of ideas that come to us at all times of the day, written on napkins and up our arms, but when push comes to shove, that seems to be all they are—scraps. There’s nothing story worthy amid all these ideas. Way around it: Collect all of your ideas into one place. I keep a box of notecards. Then pull 3 or 4 out at random. Here is your story. No, you may not pull another card from the box. 😉
3) Um… I don’t know what happens next!
This too, is a classic. You’re on a roll, everything is going just right, and your fingers can barely keep up with your brain, when—BAM. There it went. Your characters have gone quiet, the environment doesn’t offer up any further challenges… You’re stuck. Way around it: This is when I like to do one of three things. Weave in something from earlier in the story that was perhaps a little ambiguous; find a writing generator or a webpage with prompts just to jumpstart your brain again; or find a sounding board.
4) The outline isn’t working
I’m guilty of this one too. My novel has a 20-page outline, but all I ever do is edit the outline. It’s my excuse not to write the story. Either the outline is your nemesis or it’s structured in a way that the story no longer is. Either way, the way around it: 1) Scrap the outline! You’re not in 3rd grade anymore. You’re not going to lose points if you don’t do an outline first. And if you’re one of those people who need even a vague outline on hand, try making bullet points at the end of the story you’ve written so far, and change them to a different color. I use blue, and I try not to let the bullets run on more than a page. When I complete a part of what’s in blue, I bold it, so that I can tell how far along in the general idea I am.
This is another big one. You use anything and everything around you to avoid writing, sometimes for days. You read your email, clean, watch TV, play video games, etc., all while pushing back the fact that you’re supposed to be slaving away at the keyboard. Way around it: There have been a lot of articles written on ways to eliminate distractions around you and focus your attention, but the most effective I’ve found is simple reward and punishment. For example: 1 full day at my daytime job earns me 30 mins to an hour of TV. After that time is up, I turn off everything and focus on writing. If I write successfully for the next couple of hours, I’ve earned another TV/video game session, and so on. The way I define successfully writing isn’t too strenuous either; my attention just has to be on writing related things. After several weeks of this, my brain was conditioned to spending those designated hours writing, and the words came easier because they knew it was pointless to struggle.
6) Boring Characters
We all write the occasional bum who doesn’t have any quarks, flaws or interesting tidbits. What’s worse, that they refuse to do anything. They’re just there, taking up space. Way around it: If you encounter one of these, stop immediately and take him/her back to the drawing board. I’ve found character profile sheets help because they require you to lay out what you already know, and develop further. This is also a time when a character generator might come in handy, either for workable information or just to get your brain working again.
7) Flat world
This is pretty much the same case as with boring characters. You’ve got an idea, written out good characters, and then place them in a lackluster place that dampens the entire story. Nothing happens, there’s no geography—it’s literally a plain of existence with nothing there. Way around it: Go back to the drawing board. Character-driven stories need a world that’s structured around the plot, and if that means writing in a dragon-hatching underground cavern, then so be it.
8) Fear of the critics
The snickers…the sighs… the red bled across your pages. It’s the stuff of nightmares, whether the criticism comes from fellow writers or your editor. A lot of what we write and edit is based on how we feel others will perceive it, and that makes sense when writing for an audience. But when that fear is left unchecked bad things happen. Way around it: First, you have to separate out the writer from the editor in your own mind, and learn to let yourself write first, edit later. Secondly, you need to establish a penalty-free zone so that certain works, or certain stages of works, will not be read by others.
9) Stuck in one paragraph
Sometimes, the wording in this one sentence will make or break the rest of the story, and you realize it right away. You break the flow to focus on this handful of words, arranging and re-arranging, but you can’t seem to get them right. You know that if you leave them alone for now and continue writing that later on when you will discover the correct pattern, the rest of the story will be worthless. Way around it: My strategy for this involves extra work, but I usually make that point a pivot and write two different stories. If at the end I can distinguish them enough, they stay separated, otherwise one gets scrapped or meshed into the better. Another way to handle it is to give yourself the time you need to get it right the first time around.
10) Afraid of scrapping while editing
You’ve written a glorious story and have now reached the editing stage. Good for you! As you go along, you tweak a few things here and there, and then realize that a couple of pages no longer fit. You don’t want to scrap them, but they can’t be there anymore. Way around it: I call it The Dumpster. It’s a document specifically designed for just this occasion, where I dump the parts that no longer fit. Sometimes I go back and peruse the content, but the real purpose here is peace of mind. Those pages aren’t gone; they’re waiting for the right story to plug into.
Once you get over being blindsided by the lack of flowing words, take a deep breath, and then sort out why you suddenly stopped writing. If you can narrow down the cause of the problem and give it a name, you can take away the overwhelming mysticism of it— it’s not some beast come to devour your work. You’ve given yourself the first tool to surmounting it.