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.

Getting Started on your Novel

Getting Organized

As you have undoubted already realized, writing a book is an enormous project. A grand labor of love, requiring hundreds of hours to draft and then revise many thousands of words. Standing here at the base, looking up at this towering mountain of work looming before you can be intimidating, even downright overwhelming. But fear not, with the right approach and a bit of daily effort, you can reach the peak before you know it and have a great time along the way.

mountain bottemAs completing a book entails such a significant amount of effort, it is critical that you learn to organize yourself and work efficiently so that you can continue to make constant progress throughout the span of the project. With that in mind, putting some time into planning out your approach before you start writing will save you a great deal of stress and wasted minutes down the line, enabling you to eventually meet your goal.

In this orientation section, I will first provide an overview of what I consider to be the three core aspects of the writing process (each of which will be further explored in later posts), and then suggest some helpful ways to get organized and then started on your novel.

The writing process
Writing process

The writing process consists of alternating cycles of planning, drafting, and revising.

1) Planning your story

Any noteworthy project requires careful planning to reach a successful conclusion and writing a story is no different. The good news is that you have most likely completed a major portion of the planning of your novel simply by deciding to write one.

Aspects of the planning process include:

  • Brainstorming: Writing down ideas or story elements as they come to mind without any formal organization or process.
  • World building: Fleshing out aspects of your narrative so that they are rich and crisp in your mind, such as developing characters and constructing settings.
  • Timeline and plotlines: Structuring key events and scenes by determining their order and overall position within the story. This helps you to know where things are headed as you draft your early text. It is generally helpful to outline a scene before attempting to draft it, especially longer scenes involving multiple characters and events.

2) Drafting new text

Nothing is more iconic to the writing process than committing ink to the blank page. Different parts of your novel will involve drafting:

  • Scenes composed of action-based sequences.
  • Dialogue as well as characters’ inner monologue.
  • Interpersonal relationships and character interactions.
  • Description, narration, exposition, and summary.

3) Revising existing text

Many writers will tell you not to revise your story until you have completed a full first draft. I find this advice to be generally unhelpful as going back and tinkering with your existing text can help you to:

  1. Refresh older parts your story in your mind.
  2. Add key details that lead to new ideas.
  3. Place yourself in the reader’s perspective when evaluating your story and balancing your narrative.

One key caveat is that you should not attempt to revise a piece of text while you are still in the middle working on the initial draft, as spending too much time playing with the words themselves instead of deciding what happens next can kill your inspiration and momentum.

Aspects of revision include:

  • Embellishing: Improving word choice, adding colorful details, and fleshing out scenes/dialogue.
  • Pruning: Removing unnecessary text and even entire scenes to help improve the overall flow of your story and maximize the reader’s interest.
  • Proofreading: correcting spelling errors, grammar, formatting issues, and typos from completed text.

mountain topFinishing a novel will require alternating cycles of these three processes, but deciding how much of which to do in what order is something that will develop naturally as you become more adept at the writing process. Of course there will be more drafting at the beginning of a project and more revision at the end, but all three elements will remain in play until the novel is complete. This is a good thing, as having options for what to do next on any given day can help you to maintain momentum in the midst of a long project.

Organizational tools

While you are still standing at the starting line of writing your novel, it is good time to discuss the organizational tools that will help you to stay on top of things once your pages and notes begin to pile up (see my post on finding ideas for more detail).

Tip: Create an organizational system over time that encourages you to brainstorm and allows you find things easily, including:

  • Note Binders and files: create a filing system where everything is easy to find when you need it.
  • Whiteboards: Sometimes having more physical space than is available on your desktop is incredibly helpful. See my post on using reorganizing your office space using magnetic whiteboards.[link]
  • Notepads: Get in the habit of carry a notepad with you to jot down ideas. You will find that recording stray thoughts while going about your day results in significant progress on your story over time. Keep your notepad near your bed each night as well, as good ideas can come while falling asleep or even in dreams, ideas that might vanish by the time you get out of bed to write them down.

Getting started

Once you have put your initial organizational framework into place, it’s time to get started on writing your novel. Congratulations! You are now considerably further than most people ever get in crafting your story. There is no right or wrong way to go about these early steps as you establish your daily writing routine, but it is important for you to work efficiently in order to stay motivated and make constant progress. During the initial stages of story-crafting, most of your time will be spent planning, brainstorming, and drafting onto the blank page, with small amounts of revision mixed in to add breadth and depth to existing scenes as well as to review your overall progress. You may already have some text written or characters and scenes in mind, but even if you are still deciding on core elements of your story, there are some solid techniques to help you get the ball rolling.

Tip: Never force yourself to work on any one task if you feel totally uninspired, as this will make your hobby feel like a job and tend to sap your energy and focus. Find a task that excites you and put some work into that instead, as you will naturally perform at a higher level and work longer without feeling drained afterwards.

If you are not sure what part of story you want to develop on any given day, try the following exercises:

1) Meditate/brainstorm on what parts of your story you find to be the most interesting, engaging, or exciting.

  • Identify early scenes that are important to your story and list them along with any key events or character interactions you know will be included.
  • Then jump right in and start writing a scene as soon as you have at least one in mind that inspires you. Simply put your pen to paper at an interesting place in the narrative and keep on writing down what happens next until you run out of ideas. Sometimes you will only wind up with a few new paragraphs, but often you may find that you have written many pages without even realizing that time is passing.
  • Each time that you complete a new scene or are finished drafting for the day, brainstorm for a few minutes and decide what happens next (either add to the current scene or skip ahead to the next major event). This will not only help you to develop your plot organically, but will give you more options when you begin your next drafting session.

2) Add text to as many existing scenes as you can, then go back and look at your outline.

  • Continue to work on the overall plotline for your novel a little bit every day. You can begin to divide these scenes into chapters and subchapters eventually, but until then just list these plot events in order.

3) Take a revision pass over your existing content.

  • If you don’t have any drafting or outlining that inspires you, go ahead and take a pass at revising your existing content. Even early on in your project you can often add additional paragraphs to existing scenes, as well as flesh out important events and character interactions that will help you to develop settings and characters.

Tip: Read your work out loud as you revise, as this can help you to catch errors that you would otherwise miss as well put you in the perspective of your readers, as far as pacing and mood are concerned.

As your story grows and gains depth, you will often find yourself thinking about a scene as you go about your daily life. This means that a scene can mature in your mind over time and when you sit back down to work on it later, you may find that you have additional insight and creativity on that section of text. Taking a notepad with you when convenient can assist in this process.

Establishing a daily routine

desktopAlthough you may find yourself working on your novel at various points throughout your day, most people find that establishing a core routine dramatically improves their overall consistency and productivity over the course of writing a novel.

Aspects of a solid writing routine include:

  • Setting aside a dedicated hour per day for writing.
  • Removing as many distractions as possible from your writing environment.
  • Setting a goal to write one hour every day. Anything else is bonus points.
  • Having fun so that your writing doesn’t turn into work. Focus on whatever excites you the most today.
  • Keeping track of your daily progress on a calendar/journal to boost motivation.

If you can’t think of any scenes to draft, organize, or revise, see the sections on finding ideas and beating writers block for a number of helpful exercises.


Writing a novel, one Hour at a Time

Hello, my name is Bryan Dickerson. Allow me to officially welcome you to my blog: “Writing a Novel, One Hour at a Time.”

I am excited to finally have the first full installment up and ready for your viewing pleasure. After taking a few days to catch my breath, I will begin adding additional content regularly from this point on, starting with the second installment: “The Anatomy of an Engaging Scene.” Included in these posts are a number of insights I have gleaned during my own novel writing journey, which I hope will be of use to you as well. I appreciate your interest, comments, and feedback and will use them to continue to improve this site.

Writing a novel in one hour per day

blur-blurred-book-46274After talking to my friends, family, and countless random strangers about my writing process over the last several years, I have come to realize that many people have always wanted to write a novel, but either don’t know where to begin or believe that they don’t have the time or ability to write a book given their busy lives. After all, writing hundreds of pages is a considerable feat, and that doesn’t even begin to take into account the challenges inherent in creating a world, filling it with people, coming up with a plot, writing dialogue that flows, and a whole host of other tasks that come along with the job. In fact, just thinking about all of the time, effort, and knowledge required is pretty intimidating, maybe even a little bit scary. I mean, you might put in all that work and your story doesn’t even turn out well, let alone take the form of something that you can sell to compensate you for your time.

Well, I am here to tell you from personal experience that most of you already possess the skills you will need to write a cohesive novel or shorter work, simply from being a life-long consumer of story. In fact, it is more than possible to complete a novel within a reasonable amount of time, averaging only an hour per day on the project. Of course, not every book that gets written will go on to be an international best seller or even purchased by a major publishing house, but with modern self-publishing techniques including digital distribution, anyone can write a book they can be proud of and that is easy to share with family, friends, and the rest of the online world. And who knows? You might just write the next blockbuster hit.

Now, I don’t claim that this process will be easy for everyone. Indeed there are many challenges fundamental to the writing process that you will have to overcoming while drafting and revising your novel. But I firmly believe that with the right attitude, plan, and resources, almost anyone can write a story that is meaningful to themselves and can be enjoyed by others.

I hope that some of the ideas contained in this blog will be of use to experienced writers as well, as I have attempted to gather and consolidate tips and techniques from many sources, both online and in print, as well drawn from my personal experiences.

Why am I doing this anyway?

I am a lifelong consumer and lover of fiction (especially science fiction and fantasy). A few years ago, I decided that I wanted to make my own contribution to the genre, and taught myself how to adapt the skills I learned from writing in other areas (work, school, etc.) to the field of epic fantasy, which I have been particularly drawn to ever since learning to read at an early age [more about me]. It took me about three years to plan and draft my first novel. However, my novels run about 350 thousand words each, and most books are significantly shorter than epic fiction and thus should take considerably less time to complete.

I have also written a handful of [short stories] to experiment with writing in different styles and genres, which are available for free on amazon.

Ok, so what is this blog actually about?

Initial offering: “The Writing Process”

writingThe first major section of my blog is called “the writing process” and covers the different types of writing used in fiction, as well a guide to generating characters, settings, and plot.

To do so, I break the novel writing process into three major stages: the planning process, the drafting process, and revising process. I then break each down each of these major stages into fundamental pieces that are easy to digest as concepts, complete with exercises to get you started at each point along the way. This installment is intended to get you oriented and organized by proving a unified framework that will take you all the way from early brainstorming, to a revised draft of your novel, ready to begin shopping to agents or self-publication. Each subsection contains an overview of the material contained within.

Begin your writer’s journey with my first post, Getting organized and getting started.

Coming soon: “The Anatomy of an Engaging Scene.”

The next major section of my blog to be added will show you how to craft compelling scenes at a granular level, including a variety of techniques that will help ensure that your readers care about what is happening and are able to experience your world vicariously through the eyes and hearts of your characters, ensuring that they want to keep on turning those pages. I plan to announce additional content is once that section is nearing completion but already have some ideas about writing both short stories and multi-novel series that I find pretty exciting.

Click here to join my [Mailing list] or [FB page] to receive announcements regarding new blog posts and short stories.