TThere’s no such thing as writer’s block. There, I said it.
Don’t believe me? Are you currently tortured by a blank page, screaming at your screen: “Of course I’ve got writer’s block, dammit!!!”.
Well, read on, you poor, misguided soul…
The Myth of Writing
There’s one thing that novice writers and so-called experts both have in common: the belief that writing is some sort of mystical process, that the muse can only come at the right time and cannot be forced.
You will sometimes read interviews with genius authors who spend years or even decades crafting that perfect masterpiece, chortling at the thought that anyone can force out words of any sort of quality without agonising over them, only allowing the jewel of a story to emerge when the fates allow.
I’m calling bullshit. Right now.
That is the sort of damaging thinking which leads to the likes of you and I allowing ourselves to wallow in so-called writer’s block. Because the muse has deserted us… but at least we can feel like we’re finally proper writers, right?
If you write something, you’re a writer. You’ve probably been writing and telling stories ever since you started school, or even earlier. There’s no mystical process to any of this.
Yes, writing a novel is totally different to writing a shopping list. Of course there’s structure and craft and all the other stuff you need to get good at so you can write something people will love to read.
But it’s a skill which can be learnt: like painting a picture or playing basketball or cooking a meal.
So before we start, let’s get one thing clear: there’s nothing magical about the process of writing. The stories you write, the way they make people feel: yes, that’s magical. But putting words on paper? Not magic. Sorry.
It’s a skill, a practice, a habit. That’s all. Get that in your head, and you’re over half-way there. And then you’ll write a gazillion times more books than those genius literary types who can only write when the moon is in Venus and their cat has done five laps of the living room in a clockwise fashion.
Why Are You Blocked?
It’s the start of the day and you sit down at your computer to start work. But the damn thing won’t start.
Do you assume that the muse has deserted your computer, that the screen will only light up when the gods of computing deign to bless it with their gifts?
Or do you check that it’s plugged in, try doing a hard reset, or call your friendly neighbourhood computer support?
I’m guessing you’re more likely to go for the latter than the former. If not, I love you, you quirky little thing, but computing really isn’t for you…
If you’re stuck in a writing funk, first ask yourself: why are you finding it hard to write? Is it really the words? Or the story?
Or is it there something else distracting you?
Thing is, life has an annoying way of getting in the way of things. It could be the day job, or the family, or the house. Whatever.
Be honest with yourself.
If it’s not really the writing but some other stuff getting in the way of you being able to write, I’ve got another little secret for you.
It’s brilliant if that story is so important to you that it’s driving you crazy you’re not writing every second you can. But it’s not the end of the world if you’re not. Allow yourself to have other priorities.
Think about what you need to do, what’s important. If the thing that’s stopping you writing is something important, like family or friends or work: allow yourself to make time for those things. Then think about what you can do to still fit in a bit of writing, even if it’s only half-an-hour or so a day.
If the thing that’s stopping you writing isn’t actually that important—like a TV show you really want to watch—then be harsh with yourself. Give yourself a good telling off and knuckle back down.
Then try some of this other stuff…
Take a Break
Sometimes we can try too hard at something and do it so much that it stops being fun. Our brains just start to rebel, to invent loads of reasons to do anything other than what you really should be doing.
Try taking a break. Turn off the computer, put down that writing pad and allow yourself a day or two off, doing something completely different. If you’ve been agonising over a knotty plot point, you’ll probably find that, after a bit of time out, the inspiration hits you, the heavenly light descends, and you know exactly what to write.
Our brains are funny like that. Force them too much, and they get stuck in the same old rut. But allow yourself to do something else: watch a movie, go for a walk, visit a museum… your subconscious will keep working on it and it will suddenly make that one connection you needed to get unblocked.
Doing something different doesn’t necessarily mean doing anything other than writing. You can still write: just write something different.
Take Isaac Asimov. If you haven’t heard of him: shame on you. Go away and read something of his and don’t come back ‘til you’re done.
The guy was a prolific writer, in the same way that the Atlantic Ocean is a bit wet. In the course of his career he published 40 novels, 382 short stories, over 280 non-fiction books, and edited around 150 other books. It’s been estimated by someone that to match his output you’d need to write a full-length novel every two weeks for 52 years…!
Here’s what the ‘Mov had to say about getting stuck in his writing:
“I don’t stare at blank sheets of paper. I don’t spend days and nights cudgelling a head that is empty of ideas. Instead, I simply leave the novel and go on to any of the dozen other projects that are on tap. I write an editorial, or an essay, or a short story, or work on one of my nonfiction books. By the time I’ve grown tired of these things, my mind has been able to do its proper work and fill up again. I return to my novel and find myself able to write easily once more.”
Create a Habit
Which nicely segues into this rather important part of being successful at pretty much anything. You need to make it a habit. Find a time of day, or a part of the week, when you can sit down and write. Then write.
Don’t worry about what you’re writing. Don’t agonise over whether it’s any good. Just throw some words on the paper.
Train your brain and your body to expect to be writing at that time, whenever it is. Make it regular and try as hard as you can to stick to it. In no time at all, you’ll find it harder to not write when you sit down to do your thing, and the words will just start flowing because… well, that’s what you do.
Because it’s a habit.
Set a Deadline – With Consequences
Carrots and sticks are very useful things. They work on other people, on children and animals. And you can also make it work on yourself.
Tell yourself you’re not having that cup of coffee, or that doughnut, or that TV break, until you’ve done a certain number of words, or written for a certain length of time.
If you’re feeling particularly masochistic, you could punish yourself if you don’t hit your targets. Have a look at Write Or Die – it’s a nifty little writing programme which punishes you if you don’t hit your set targets for writing speed or length. These can range from a flashing red screen, or a spider crawling across the page, all the way to (for the hard-core) your words being deleted from the screen right in front of your terrified eyes.
Or, on a more collaborative note, every November there’s a thing called NaNoWriMo: National Novel Writing Month, in which thousands of writers pledge to write a novel in one month. There’s a huge online community built around it, all egging each other on, and there’s a huge sense of achievement when you hit that target. I’ll be doing it this year: friend me on there and we’ll encourage each other to literary greatness!
Chris Fox, in his book: 5,000 Words Per Hour: Write Faster, Write Smarter is a huge advocate of these, and they really do work.
Give yourself a set amount of time: ideally 45 minutes to an hour. Make sure you’ve got no disturbances. Set a timer and then write. Don’t allow yourself to think or agonise: just focus on getting as many words down as possible.
When your time’s up, total up the number of words you wrote and make a note.
Next time you do a writing sprint, aim to beat that. And repeat.
Focus on just getting stuff down. Don’t worry about what it is or how good it is (more on this later).
Share Your Work
Writing my first book, The Infernal Aether was an agonising process, with words taking forever to make their way out my fingers and onto the screen—until I did something which scared the shit out of me.
I started posting chapters online, on Wattpad, as soon as I had written them.
At first, it was a useful little habit. Each Friday, I’d make sure I had something to put online. It was a fun challenge for myself.
Then something interesting happened. People started reading the chapters.
Early on, after posting pretty regularly, I skipped a couple of weeks. Can’t remember why: life got in the way, you know how it is.
I logged in one Sunday to find messages from people, asking me where the next chapters were.
They’d read my stuff and wanted to know what happened next. I had readers eager to get hold of the next instalments.
If that’s not something to motivate you, I don’t know what is.
They weren’t just sycophants though: they gave me some useful constructive criticism, and the story went in different ways and was so much better for it. They gave me ideas I’d never have thought on my own, including a character I now love like a sister. And, yes, I know that sounds strange; and, no, I won’t apologise for it…!
If you’re reading this now and you were one of those early Aether adopters: thank you so, so much.
Sharing your work can be terrifying, but it can be so worth it. Especially if your aim is to write for others’ enjoyment, as well as your own.
Allow it to be rubbish
Here’s the most important lesson, and I’ve left it to last so those of you who skim to the bottom of these blog posts won’t miss it (you know who you are. Yes, you: stop looking around, you know who you are…).
Most of the time, people get stuck on the first draft, because that’s where they’re looking at a really blank page. Often they put themselves under such pressure to make those first words so perfect that the stoniest heart would melt as soon as it came into contact with them.
Here’s the thing. Every book or story which is even half-decent won’t have started off that way. Even the most prolific, seasoned geniuses will start with something which doesn’t work and then bash at it, usually with the help of editors, until it ends up as the sparkling gem which you then finally hold in your clammy, eager, reader hands.
Allow your first draft to be crap. And the second draft, if it comes to that.
Focus on just getting words on the page. Often you’ll find that the process of bashing out those words, and exploring a world, or just letting your characters chat away to each other will be enough to help you realise where you should have been going.
You’re taking a mucky stone and working and polishing it until it’s a gleaming gem. But you need a mucky stone to start with. So write any old rubbish.
That’s all. I may have been a bit harsh, but you needed to hear that, and I certainly feel better for getting it off my chest.
What are you still doing here? Go off and write!
<Photo by Elijah O’Donell on Unsplash>