If I were going to rank writing-related questions from least to greatest, “how do I beat writer’s block?” probably falls quite high on the list, if not at number one. When I worked as a small publisher’s community manager, this question would show up at least twice a week- on forums, discussion posts, and Q&As with other published authors.
The responses were varied and usually stale in quality: the same “take a walk, listen to fresh music, write something else”- and that’s not to say that these things can’t stop Writer’s Block, because they can for some people. But it’s often occurred to me that, for a question that gets asked so much, there are very few solid answers as to how you actually stop Writer’s Block. There is nothing more frustrating when you are applying all of the fixes and they just don’t work. Que the spiral of despair as you stare down that ever-blinking cursor.
But if Writer’s Block is an ailment, we shouldn’t be searching for the cure; we should find the cause. The same logic applies if you spike a fever; cause might say you have cold, but WebMD will convince you that you’re probably dying of gangrene.
So, let’s talk about a few distinct types of Writer’s Block and what they do to the writing process.*
*(to me, personally. Full disclaimer here, because the most important thing to understand about Writer’s Block is how, just like writing habits, its causes are very unique to the author.)
Starting-Point Stage Fright:
Usually right before or at the beginning of every novel. Symptoms include procrastination, excessive research, and lots of deleted opening paragraphs.
There’s a really great quote by Gene Wolfe, which goes, “You never learn how to write a novel … you only learn to write the novel you’re on.” This was said to Neil Gaiman (yeah, that Gaiman), who finally felt he had this novel thing down after writing American Gods.
I’m now three novels into my writing career, with two more on my plate for this year. Each one of them starts with the sensation of groping around a pitch-black room with only my rough outline and a half functional flashlight. There are things in this room that I want (and probably better batteries for my flashlight), but I need to get my bearings first. It usually takes me about 15,000 words to do this, and it’s easy to mistake this sensation for a “lack of inspiration.” I encourage you to bury the concept of inspiration somewhere deep for now. Inspiration isn’t magical fully-fleshed out concepts; inspiration is what we do when we find those fresh batteries and get a clearer picture of our space. “Press forward to those 15,000,” I remind myself. It always pays off and I always manage to find those batteries eventually, even if it takes a few tries.
The Middle of Despair:
Named so for its location, as the middle of books are notorious for being mind-numbingly hard to write. Symptoms will include plotting ending scenes you have not yet written, social media browsing, and crippling self-doubt. Welcome to the void of the writing process. You got this.
Not everyone has problems writing their novel’s middle, but it’s often noted as a rough part of first drafts and rewrites. We tend to come into stories with a general idea of the plot’s cause and effect: the beginning and middle, in more novel-related terms. It’s easy to get caught up in the sogginess of a middle and fall into a great deal of mood swing-y sadness. Writing must not be for you if you can’t even get through a simple section of the book.
But journeys aren’t about the destination, yes? And as Jeff VanderMeer says, when the reader enjoys an ending, they’re really saying they enjoyed the payoff to the well-structured middle of a novel. This quote helped me re-frame what middles were; the meat and potatoes of the story. Substance that keeps your reader around for the finale, rather than a sequence of events so you can get to the ending. Whenever I find myself trapped in the middle, I have to ask myself “how does this benefit the ending?” If it doesn’t, I cut and rework (even in a first draft, which something I would normally warn against). Listening to your gut about what isn’t working, and locating the strength in your middle, is usually one of the easiest ways to avoid its slog.
Symptoms include starting new projects despite a lack of time, inelegant sobbing, and the return of that crippling self-doubt.
You might think, once you have finished your first draft, you would be free of the Writer’s Block and its troubling patterns. Revision and rewriting should be easy now that you’ve finished the book, right?
Ah, the innocence.
Some of the worst roadblocks I have encountered in writing show up in the process of fixing the first draft; the scenes to reframe, plotlines to tighten, characters to build upon. Revision is harder than hell, since so many issues can show up during revisions that you don’t expect. The point of editing books is digging deeper; you must unearth the layers beneath the top soil that is your first draft, and you will find things you don’t like, things you must throw away and rework into oblivion. There will be scenes that you adore and no longer apply to your current vision. Your story will never again be the project you started, and it will never be perfect, and you get to accept that in all its artistic ugliness.
I recently finished my editing on my first novel and am currently working on edits for the second. The act of pushing through your revision roadblocks- whatever they may be, is a matter of willpower, and moreover, about confidence. It requires trusting in your own abilities, recognizing your limits, and practicing over and over. It’s about being open to failure and critique, and learning from both for the future. These are all hard to stomach, and probably the reason most people don’t like editing. But revision separates the novice from the novelist, and humbling yourself to it is the best way forward. After all, we are often much stronger writers than we feel.
What’s your experience with Writer’s Block? Where do you get it during the writing process and how have you learned to address it?
Caitlin Jones is an author, film editor, and lover of all things Victorian and fantastic. Please check in for information on her upcoming series.