Posted by: J. Thomas Ross | July 5, 2011

Detouring Writer’s Block

Writer’s block is an affliction I would rather not think about. The term itself resounds with such a foreboding of doom —  like something that should be mentioned in hushed tones — that I fear acknowledging and discussing the condition might bring it on or prolong it. In addition, many other writers have previously expressed their opinions and remedies for the problem. So what more is there to say? Lots. Just as each individual writer has his or her own unique writing style and process, each writer may experience a different form or degree of writer’s block and need to craft his or her own special method of dealing with it. What works for one writer may not work for another. However, it’s my hope that my suggestions for detouring writer’s block may provide another writer with ideas for finding his or her own solution.

Writer’s block has many manifestations and degrees. The most severe form — which can affect renowned, published writers as well as aspiring writers — occurs when a writer can’t write anything. This usually results from some crucial occurrence in the author’s life, something beyond his or her control. Time may be the best remedy for this type of writer’s block. Since ideas are always bubbling in my mind, I never imagined that this type of writer’s block would happen to me, but it did. After my father died, I could write nothing for three months. I knew I would return to writing at some point; I had to allow myself time to grieve first. Time provided the cure.

Most writer’s block isn’t that severe. It’s a short-lived condition, a temporary roadblock, that can be addressed and worked around.

Several years ago my son and I accompanied the church Youth Group on an Appalachian Service Project mission trip. On our way back to the school where we were staying we traveled a narrow, winding road along a mountainside. Our van and others came to a stop because a tree had fallen across the road. Some of us and those in other vehicles got out to assess the situation. The tree was only eight inches in diameter, and we decided we should go ahead and move it off the road. It was far heavier than it looked, and we couldn’t lift it. So we shoved at the root end, pivoted the tree, and rolled it off the road. We all went on our way with a feeling of accomplishment we had not had before.

Most cases of writer’s block are like that temporary road obstruction. They require analysis and coming up with a course of action. The solution might call for a head-on attack, or it might involve taking a detour before getting back to the route of choice.

The remedy you choose should depend on the cause of your inability to move forward in your writing. Your first step is to determine why you are having trouble writing.

Here are the things that have temporarily stymied my writing and how I dealt with each:

1.  I can’t decide what comes next

This doesn’t happen at the beginning but at some point further along in the story. I suspect this happens more often to pantsers than to outliners: you get to a point in the story where you just can’t figure out what comes next.

I am not an outliner. After I discover an intriguing idea or character, I do a lot of thinking and mental planning. Before I write, I know the main characters, the beginning, the ending, and a few key events between. I rely on the characters to create the intervening events, and they mostly cooperate. When they don’t, I have several strategies:

  • I lie down on the bed or sofa, close my eyes, visualize the characters, and let them talk. I almost always visual a scene, although it’s not always the next scene. Even if it’s a later scene in the book, I get up and write it. I also utilize time driving and waiting in lines to visualize upcoming scenes or work out plot or character problems.
  • I skip ahead to the next scene and write that. Once I needed a chapter as transition before a big action sequence but could not figure out what should happen in it. After agonizing over it for days, I decided to skip it and write the three chapters that followed. When I had finished them, I knew what events needed to take place in the intervening chapter.
  • I step away. Sometimes I need some breathing room. Take a break from the story by writing something else. Take a walk. Take a walk. Go to a park. Play. Then, when you go back to the story, you can look at it with a fresh perspective.

2. I need to know my characters better

Starting a book — writing about those great new characters — is exciting. That excitement carries me along for a while, but sooner or later, the enthusiasm ebbs and my writing pace may grind to a halt. One reason this happens is that I have not taken time to thoroughly get to know my characters. I can’t continue their story because I don’t truly know enough about them. This happens to me at some point in each story because I’m so eager to write that I don’t want to take the time to do a character description before I start.

Frankly, I have to force myself to write character descriptions, and I mean thorough character descriptions. The first time I did this, I read a number of books about writing and characters and compiled character charts and lists from three or four sources into a five-page characterization template. Filling this in for each main character is onerous and takes far more time than I like, but when it’s completed, I have three-dimensional characters and I really know them well. I know what they would say and do and how they would react — and I can continue their story.

3. I need to do research

At times, my progress comes to a halt because I do not have enough background knowledge about a situation, setting, or profession to write the next scene. I have to do research or, in fantasy or science fiction, create a detailed setting before I can continue.

Most of the action in my current YA novel takes place aboard a space freighter. While I had a pretty good mental image of the freighter, but I had no clue about its crew. How many would be needed? What would their jobs be? What kind of ranks would they hold? I couldn’t continue the story until I knew these things. Although there would obviously be differences, I figured a space ship engaging in commerce would have a crew similar to the crew of a sea-going merchant ship, so I researched merchant shipping. With that information in hand, I created the ship’s crew, and the story fell into place.

These are the methods I’ve used to keep on writing. What have you found to be an effective way of dealing with your own writer’s block?

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Responses

  1. I have to admit that I don’t often suffer from writer’s block (toddler block, yes). However, when I do I will often simply jump over what is troubling me and pick up somewhere farther along. Like you, I don’t outline, but I have a pretty good idea of the high points. If I am having trouble getting from E to F, then I may jump to the next scene I know MUST happen and go.

    The problem part usually works itself out in my subconcious, and sometimes I get the answer from the part I started writing that came later. And sometimes I need to revise the part I wrote because the problem part worked itself out in an unexpected way, but that’s part of my process, and I love it!

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    • Thanks, Kerry. I think all moms who write suffer from the “kid block” at times!

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  2. Interesting blog. Very good stuff here, guys.

    For my own two cents, I’ve always felt that writers block comes about in one of two ways: either the writer is trying too hard to make a first draft read like a final draft (and nobody can swing that). Or, the writer hasn’t properly outlined the book and therefore is presented with no clear picture of which step to take next.

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  3. Anybody with even a passing interest in the subject should check out Jerry Mundis, who’s been breaking Writers Block for clients for years, written books about it, etc. His Twitter handle is @MundisMoney, as he’s also a specialist in personal finance (solvency, underearning, etc) but follow him anyway. He’ll steer you to his writer-block site, answer questions, whatever. Good guy close friend of mine for years. In fact I sell his block-breaking book at my site http://tinyurl.com/5upzmrz but follow him, that’s the main thing.

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    • Thanks for the information, Lawrence. I’ll definitely follow him, and I hope everyone who reads this post will as well.

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  4. It could also be a subconscious realization that the writer isn’t comfortable with the quality of the work and doesn’t know how or where to proceed next. Stephen King’s closed door / open door metaphor (in which you tell yourself that, if you don’t think it’s good, it’ll never see the light of day) can be a great way of unlocking the words.

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  5. Larry Block suggested I drop by here and read this blog and I’m glad he did. I’m in favor of any technique any writer uses that helps him or her past block, and these have clearly helped you.

    I’ve been breaking writer’s block for more nearly 25 years in a one-time consultation for people ranging from full-time professional writers, including one who’s had ten books in a row on the New York Times bestseller list, and another who is a Pulitzer prize winner, to part-time writers, graduate students, and aspirant writers.

    I identify six major forms of block (these also apply to other creative artists as well as writers, such as composers, photographers, and painters — but not to actors — and, actually, can apply to great numbers of people for great numbers of projects or undertakings).

    They are:

    1. Paralysis
    2. Avoidance behavior
    3. Last-minute crisis writing
    4. Inability to finish
    5. Inability to select from among projects h
    6. Block specific (able to work on other material)

    I can’t summarize a five-hour session filled with concept and technique here, but here, without going into detail about them or discussing the many subtle ways they can play out, are what I call “The Three Big Killers” in block:

    1. Perfectionism — which is a form of all-or-nothing thinking, triumph or catastrophe, with nothing possible in between.

    2. Fear — which is a product of the first and second Big Killers, but which can be identified as a separate entity. All fear in writer’s block, regardless of where it starts, can be boiled down to the simple statement: “That I can’t do it.” And what is the “it” that I can’t do? The simple act of putting words on paper. Period. Nothing more. Nothing less. The simple act of putting words on paper. No more magical an act than painting a board or throwing a board. (Find an equivalent analog for whatever task or project *you* have in mind or are facing.

    3. The Baggage Train — these are all the things we wish to *accomplish* with our writing, such as I want to be rich, I want to be admired, I want to make them laugh and cry, I want to save the whales, I want to bring peace to the middle-east, etc., but which are not the *act* of writing itself. The problem arises because, while it looks like I’m trying to write, and I *think* I’m trying to write, I’m not: I’m trying to get rich, save the whales, get my ex-wife and all my ex-lovers to say ‘Boy, I really should have stayed with him. Look how sensitive and insightful he is,’ etc. The key is to disconnect the baggage train from the locomotive, which is writing, which is the simple act of putting words on paper, so that thing get out of the station.

    Any single one of these Killers operating in you with sufficient strength, and you’ll be blocked; any two present at the same time, and you don’t have a chance.

    I hope that is of some help. I wish you and your readers abiding freedom this problem.

    (Incidentally, I am not invulnerable to block myself. In fact, I have a *huge* potential case of it. The difference is, I know what to do about it. Actually, I break writer’s block several times a day for myself. If I didn’t, I would be paralyzed.)

    A bit more information on what I do for myself and others to keep both them and me free from this problem–permanently–can be found at my website http://bit.ly/npwoXq.

    Be well,
    Jerry
    http://bit.ly/npwoXq

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  6. Thank you so much for sharing this information, Jerry. I definitely recommend that anyone having a problem with writer’s block check out your website. I know I will!

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