Overcoming Writer’s Block

Ah the dreaded writer’s block, the ageless, iconic curse of all those who seek to set pen to paper. Although it plagues some individuals a great deal more than others, it is pretty much guaranteed that you will experience at least some form of writer’s block over the course of completing a novel. This means that understanding the nature of writer’s block and possessing a plan to get past it can help you immensely in your quest to keep turning out those pages, allowing you to make steady progress even on your off days.

brickwallPart of the problem in overcoming writer’s block is that there is no single psychological process that makes up the phenomenon. In fact, a wide range of creative roadblocks and speed traps usually get lumped together when talking about writer’s block. This tends to inflate the problem so that it seems bigger than it really is, and makes finding a one size fits all solution tricky at best. By taking the experience collectively known as writer’s block and breaking it down into separate components, you can learn to build a map of your own energetic traps and slowdowns, as well as to apply focused solutions to each form of blockage you encounter.

The first major division that I am going to draw out is between:

  1. Running out of ideas (see my next post on finding ideas for help on this one),
  2. Not knowing which part of the novel to work on next, and
  3. Being unable to sit down and put in a good day’s work, even when you know what you need to do (low motivation, energy, or focus).

This article specifically deals with the third case, as finding ideas is a core part of the planning process of writing a novel (and can often be solved with writing exercises), while temporarily running out of steam can happen at any point in the writing process. As far as the second case is concerned, not knowing what to do next, see my earlier post about [getting organized and getting started] to learn how to leave yourself with lots of options when sitting down to write, so that you can easily pick out a task that excites you and continue to make significant progress each day. Finally, there is another type of writer’s block that occurs when an author is overly critical during the revision process that I will address in the exercises for that phase.

But for now, let’s return to the matter at hand. For me, being productive during any given day of writing comes down to the combined influence of three key variables:

writers block

Low physical energy is usually the easiest problem to diagnose if not to solve, as it is often the result of low sleep, little exercise, or other sources of stress that lead to tension within the body. Simply taking the time to take care of yourself with a little yoga and a good night’s rest can do wonders for a writer’s productivity.

Poor mental focus can come into play when there are problems in your life that you are dealing with, but also simply from having too many distractions present in your writing environment. Establishing a regular routine and maintaining an effective workspace can help to keep you focused and on task.

Finally, suppressed emotional motivation can keep you from getting started on a day’s writing, even if you are well-rested and otherwise free of distraction. This type of blockage often manifests most intensely near the middle of a project, once it begins to hit home just how much work still lies ahead before you will finish. Although everyone has natural variance in their motivation levels, setting manageable, daily goals can help.

Establishing a daily routine

You can reduce your susceptibility to all forms of writer’s block, simply by establishing an effective daily routine. Human beings are creatures of habit, and once you get the momentum of a daily writing routine established, it can help carry you into a productive work day even when your energy, motivation, and focus are well below their peaks. Make sure that your writing environment is clean, spacious, and free of distractions, and try to write at the same time every day for your core block. If your home is not conducive to your creative process, find somewhere else to work. Ensure that your workspace is comfortable as well, so that you can maintain your energy and focus for as long as possible.

Pair maintaining a productive environment with setting a goal for writing at least one hour every day, while leaving yourself with plenty of options for what to work on. Even when you don’t feel like working, just getting started for a few minutes on a small task can often jumpstart your muse and result in a prolific day. Remember that writing a book isn’t a job or a race and that no one is standing behind you and tracking your progress.

Learning to court inspiration throughout your day

Although I have just finished advising you to write at the same time each day as part of a core routine, most of you probably already know that part of the writing process tends to happen as you go about your daily life. You can be in the grocery store or chatting with a friend when the next big idea strikes, and productive writers learn to pounce on these tidbits and jot them down before their muse escapes. Carrying around a small notepad or digital equivalent is a great way to capture ideas on the fly and many writers find that the habit of carrying one with them results in significant progress on a story, just going about their daily life.

Part of the reason for this is that we are immersed in countless stories that are embedded into our everyday interactions, and developing an eye for spotting them is like casting a net out into a river. Every now and again, a great catch will simply float your way. Keep the pad near you bed at night as well, so that any ideas that come while falling asleep or even in dreams are easy to capture too.

Starting is almost always the hardest part of any given day of writing, for once your inner muse finds the slightest bit of inspiration, it often opens the door to a day of productive work. Thinking about writing hundreds of pages can be rather overwhelming, but writing a few pages each day isn’t so bad. Learn to focus on task ahead of you and not the months and years of work to come. That being said, don’t distract yourself once the words start flowing. Get out of your own way and just keep writing once you enter a productive space. Avoid procrastinating during your scheduled writing time whenever possible, as this will tend to stress you out and make your writer’s block worse.

Tip: Get in the habit of keeping a list of parts of your novel that need some work. In addition to writing down ideas, keep a list of potential writing tasks (starting places) with you as well, so that when you sit down for the day you have lots of options about where to begin.

Creating short assignments to conquer the blank page

Many people find that it is much easier to complete a brief writing assignment than to simply start with a blank page. Learning to creating structured tasks for yourself can help you to focus your energy and make steady progress. Remember, there is no need to write a novel in chronological order, so pick a part of the story that excites you each day. An example of creating assignments might include:

“Write a two paragraph description of a character’s daily routine.”

“Decide how I want to open and close this scene.”

“Outline the core events of this chapter, then write a few sentences describing each in greater detail.”

Exercise: Talk your way through a scene (by explaining it out loud to an imaginary audience) until you find a good place to begin writing. Simply start describing the events as if you were chatting with a friend over lunch. Every time that you come up with a good idea, write it down as a bullet point. If a concrete line of description or dialogue comes to mind, jot that down too, then see if you can write the sentence that comes before or after it.

What to do in a worst case scenario

  1. Review/list the things that still need to be accomplished until you find a task that appeals to you.
  2. If nothing catches your interest, try working on a totally new part of the book.
  3. If all else fails, simply focus on revision for today.

“Whenever life is overwhelming, ignore everything else and just focus on the next tangible step,” Bryan.

On Flow

Have you ever sat down to write, play a game, or work only to realize later that hours have passed without you even being aware of the minutes ticking by? Or been so engaged in something that everything else seemed to disappear? If so, you have likely experienced the condition known as flow, which is kind of the opposite of encountering writers’ block.

In psychology, the experience called flow, also known as being in the zone, is mental state in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the activity. In essence, flow is characterized by complete absorption in what one does and a resulting loss in one’s sense of space and time.

Without intrinsic motivation it is virtually impossible to establish flow, but when motivation is high and the task is challenging, flow can be achieved naturally. You can’t force flow or expect that it will be there as part of every writing session, but I bring it up because it is one of the ways you can accomplish significant progress on your novel without having the process feel like work. Learning to court the experience of flow can not only make your daily writing as effortless as possible, but can lead to extra productivity without feeling like you are exerting more effort.

Using these techniques and others (by developing them as core writing skillsets), even severe writer’s block can be mitigated and managed over time, allowing your novel to keep growing a little bit every day.

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