Jan

24

2011

writers’ block

Filed under: writing

Rose asked me on Facebook if I’d do a post about writers’ block.

I’ve never actually had proper writers’ block, so I don’t know whether I’m a good person to talk about it. Or that is, I rarely get writers’ block for more than a few days, and as I know it won’t last long, I’m not usually consumed by fear, worry and paranoia about it. (Not to say I’m not fearful, worried and paranoid…but not a whole lot more than I am the rest of the time on a daily basis.) So this post is from my own perspective, and it’s just about what makes me not able to write for a little bit. For me, it usually comes down to one of three reasons.

1) I don’t know where I’m going with the book I’m writing, or I don’t know how to start a new one.

This has happened with every book I’ve written, sometimes several times per book. I’ll be writing away and writing away, thinking it’s all fine, and then suddenly—SCREECH. The whole thing shudders to a halt, and I realise I’ve been going in the wrong direction for ages without realising it. Or I’ll write and write, and then cut and cut, and realise that I’m trying to do the wrong thing. Or everything will be going fine, and then I’ll stop, because there’s a big brick wall of not-knowing in front of me. I don’t know my characters, or my plot, or my purpose.

This isn’t a block, though; it’s an obstacle, and I’ve learned it’s a vital part of my process. It’s time to stop and think. I’ll ring one of my long-suffering critique partners to brainstorm. Or I’ll start getting out index cards and Post-Its and start plotting different ways that the story might go. Or I’ll do my sure-fire trick of listing everything I can think of. Or I’ll get out the character books, or the craft books, and read about how it’s meant to be done.

This usually gets me fired up and enthusiastic, once I’ve discovered the solution. And then I start writing again.

2) The Fear.

The Fear comes in many guises. Here are some of them:
Fear of Failure: “If I finish this book, it’s bound not to be as good as I want it to be; nobody will want it and I’ll fail.”
Fear of Success: “If I finish this book and somebody does want it, I’ll be put on the spot and open to even more criticism.”
Fear of What’s Inside Me: “This book has some themes that are really close to home and painful, and I don’t think I want to explore them right now.”
Fear of What’s Out There: “I’m going to offend or hurt my mother/my spouse/my kids/most of the universe with ths book and everyone will hate me.”
Fear of Hard Work: “This book looks like an insurmountable mountain and I’d really just as soon watch Judge Judy.”
Fear of Facing Up to Your Own Inadequacy: “Who am I joking? I can’t do this. I suck and there’s no point.”

With The Fear, I’ve found you basically have to face it and understand it, and then do your best to put it aside. The practise of writing a crappy first discovery draft really helps me. I tell myself my first draft is just for me; nobody ever has to see its crap-ness, and therefore I have nothing to be afraid of.

It can also help to write something completely unrelated to The Big Thing That Really Matters To You. A diary. Letters. A short story. A poem. An outraged Letter to the Editor.

Sometimes, though, you’re not ready to face The Fear, and that might be at the following time:

3) There are just more important things to be doing in my life than writing right now.

(And by this, I don’t mean Judge Judy or the ironing. I mean important things, things that are more important than your job, because writing is your job, or at least one of them, right?)

Sometimes, in a crisis, writing helps. It can offer escape, something you can control. Sometimes, writing doesn’t help at all and it’s just another thing to beat yourself up about. Sometimes, you need not to write. You need to take time out to deal with your real life. Or maybe you just need some time to rest and feel what you feel, instead of what your characters feel.

When that happens, I’ve found it’s best just to listen to the block. Let yourself live, rather than write.

Anyway, these are the reasons I’ve been blocked, but as I say, I don’t have a lot of experience, because my technique is usually to carry on typing any old kind of rubbish, in the full knowledge that I will delete it later.

What have you found that blocks you? How do you get out of it?

(Thank you, Rose!)


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  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Sarah Callejo, Julie Cohen. Julie Cohen said: Blogging my thoughts about writers' block: http://bit.ly/eK6xs0 #fb […]

    Reply

  2. I haven’t experience ‘writer’s block’ as such since uni…and looking back i think it may have been more a combo of fear and innate laziness…

    Now i thin it’s THE FEAR (all of them and sometimes all together)that hits me over the head the most…

    as for things that help..Anna’s egg timer-20 minute writing time works every single time… I think it’s the limited time combined that I am expecting it to be sh*t.

    Thanks for this post today. I needed it because THE FEAR is sitting beside me at the moment.
    lx

    Reply

    • Yes, the egg timer method works really well, Liz. I’ve used that myself, not just with The Fear or a block, but just when I’m feeling a bit lazy and tired, too. Thanks for reminding me.

      You can overcome The Fear. You’re an excellent writer! And you have great stories to tell. If you do the work, you will win.

      Reply

  3. For me, it’s usually the fact that I haven’t thought about my characters enough, or I haven’t thought through the plot properly. My screeches-to-a-halt are louder than a Bugatti Veyron Supersport doing an emergency stop! But chocolate helps, as does taking a shower, though I recommend you don’t do both at the same time! The shower gives me thinking time and I always think of something when I don’t have a handy notebook to hand.

    The best thing about writer’s block, that all writer’s should know is that it GOES AWAY.

    (At some point)

    Reply

  4. Nicolette..how could I have forgotten about chocolate…that inself constitues a sin in my book :-)

    Thanks for the vote of confidence, Julie.

    lx

    Reply

  5. LOL @ Liz! How can anyone forget chocolate? Now you go out and buy some right now!

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  6. It’s most definitely Fear: all your reasons rolled into one.

    Reply

  7. Excellent post, Julie. I would say my writer’s block is all three but the first one is the one that stops me the most. Since I don’t plot out a book I run into blank walls on a regular basis during the first draft. Most of them I’m able to get around in a few hours or if it gets really bad then I’ll take a day off and recharge my batteries.

    Reply

  8. I run into all three of these sometimes. If the problem is not knowing where I’m going, then I just have to give myself time to think about it. Sometimes this means putting the book aside and working on something else, and something THIS means never coming back to it (which is why I don’t sell on proposal: I have to have written a chink of the thing before I pitch it to anyone!).

    I’ve suffered from The Fear since the day I started writing, in all its ugly guises. Might I add another type of fear to it? Fear of editors and reviewers. Publish one thing and you might love it but not everyone else is. I worry what people will say about the book, second-guess myself, try to write to please them, and then it all goes to hell. If I’m not writing to please myself, then I know it won’t impress anyone else.

    As for the third thing, it’s all too easy to persuade myself that drinking wine and watching Top Gear are more important than writing. This is, of course, nonsense, and it’s only really important things that should get in the way. Like watching Doctor Who.

    Reply

  9. Wow, and you can tell I can haz mad writing skillz by that last post, can’t you? Hadn’t even opened the wine at that point.

    I’d like to mention at this point that I wrote the above post in Ukranian then used an auto-translator on it. Yeah…that’s why it’s so badly done.

    Or it’s a copy-editing test. You choose.

    I am SO procrastinating over edits…

    Reply

  10. Fantastic post Julie! Feel the fear and do it anyway :)

    Reply

  11. Fantastic post! I suffer more from what I call ‘writer’s bleugh’ than a full on block, but it seems to consist of a lot of the elements of #1 and #2.

    I just attempt to plod on, even if the writing seems like garbage, and when I come to edit it, it often isn’t quite as horrible as I thought it was. Fairly horrible, but not totally irredeemable. :)

    Reply

  12. Hi Julie,

    Definitely the Fear for me. I don’t come to a grinding halt, just go very, very slowly for a while. I guess I write my way out of it. And there’s always Write or Die (sorry, haven’t got the link) to inspire.

    Great post.

    Reply

  13. Think my main fear is the Fear of Hard Work. Amazing how many things I can find to fill the gap when I can’t bear opening my latest word document (including trawling my favourite blogs and finding great posts about Writers’ Block!)… But I’ve discovered with my latest book that my extreme avoidance mechanism often stems from panic about a fast approaching deadline, and the fact that I don’t know where the heck I’m going with the story (and everything I’m writing is total crap)… And the only way to remedy that is by writing so I can actually figure out where my characters are going and eventually get round to repairing the crapness.

    Classic Catch-22 really.

    Reply

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