This week I’ve been thinking about writer’s block. It’s something I tend to do when I’m suffering from it.
Block can come in many forms. Sometimes it’s obvious that you’re stuck on a project, other times you might be writing, churning out the wordage, getting the pages out, but the story just isn’t going anywhere. In all its disguises, writer’s block is possibly the biggest obstacle most of us experience when trying to complete a writing project, whether it’s a first novel or a short story, or the latest in a long line of them. Even a full-time job, family, money and other daily pressures can’t stop a dedicated writer in full flow. Most will find a way, somehow, somewhere (oops, getting a bit West Side Story there!) to write, even if it’s 5 am before the kids wake up, or during lunch break, or on the train/bus on the way to or from work. When the book’s going well, just try and stop us!
But nothing can get you writing if you’re stuck. Give you a quiet room, or gentle music, or a summery day, or whatever you normally need to get those creative juices flowing, if you’re stuck, you’ll find an excuse. Sharpen the pencils you don’t need. Bake the cookies you shouldn’t eat. Go for a walk. Take a nap. Clean the bathroom. Paper the hallway. Fix the bike you haven’t ridden for 5 years. And that’s before you give in and open Facebook.
So what’s going on? Why can’t you write? If you can manage to write when you’re not blocked in 5 minute snatches at any time of the night or day, why not now? What’s stopping you?
From my experience, the problem usually has to do with what I’m writing, rather than me: The book’s not working. I don’t like it. I need to re-think.
I’ve managed to identify a few things that tend to be responsible.
- POV Have you chosen the right point of view for this story? This is usually something that needs deciding at the start, before you even start typing. However, once the story gets going – for instance if a minor character in a first person novel develops unexpectedly and becomes integral to the plot, then it might be wise to re-think so that we can get their POV as well as that of the MC. It can also work the other way around, too, in that a third person novel would feel more immediate if it’s written in first person. Having POV integrity is extremely important, so if changing it means you can unblock yourself and carry on, do it!
- Plot There might be one of several problems.
- Too Much Plot Usually a problem for the first time novelist, but by no means exclusive to them. Having too many ideas for your story, and trying to fit them in somewhere – anywhere – can be a major downfall. It gets to the point where the writer has so many things to juggle, maintain and try to resolve that they lose track, and lose hope that they will ever finish the book to anyone’s satisfaction. Decide on your core story, cut back on the smaller threads. Keep it manageable.
- Too Little Story A novel that starts out as a concept or idea, but which the writer has no real clue what it’s going to become can often come unstuck once the idea has been set down. When you get the feeling that your story’s going nowhere, then it’s time to ask yourself if you actually have a story. Take a few weeks off and instead of trying to write trivialities, think. Think what the story should be about. Consider stories you’ve read/watched/played as games and ask yourself what that story has that yours doesn’t. Then plot it out. Use other work as springboards for your own imagination.
- Overplotting You’ve got a story, you’ve laid out how it will go, chapter by chapter, and you’ve stuck to it. Now you’re finding it hard to write any further because it just doesn’t seem to work, or it doesn’t feel right, or you don’t like it. Some writers need to plot thoroughly before they start writing. That’s fine, but most writers will agree that resolutely sticking to the plot you set out with and not allowing yourself stray can sometimes cramp the creative juices. Rethink, and revise your plot if necessary. Allow some flexibility.
- Underplotting This one’s similar to both Too Much Plot and Too Little Story. You’ve set out with a great idea, and it’s going well, but suddenly it’s heading in a direction that leads to a very awkward crux or, worse, a dead end. This can happen when you’re using the ‘organic’ approach, allowing the story to flow and grow and letting it take you with it, rather than the other way round. Time to take a more driving seat role and start steering. It may involve going backwards, deleting some (and sometimes a lot) of what you’ve already written. But going back to where the plot meandered to a point of no return can often unstick you.
This isn’t a definitive list of blocks by any means, but they’re my personal ones. If you find yourself stuck the first place to look, rather than at a blank screen, is your story itself. So consider some of the above and try to be honest. Avoid denial, and bite the bullet. Rewrite if necessary. You’re blocked for a reason – don’t spend the next six months hitting your head on the desk. Kill the darlings that won’t play ball.
Don’t forget, thinking about your book is working on it, too. Trying to figure out what’s wrong when you’re stuck is as important as getting the word count up. And just because one element of a novel isn’t working doesn’t mean the whole thing is rubbish.