I have no doubt that thousands of writers have addressed this very topic; it’s such a universal experience for the creatively inclined that we all have our own tricks and tips for climbing out from under its thumb. While it may seem a bit hackneyed to talk about writer’s block, I fully believe that, for every piece of advice out there, there is someone for whom that advice is impractical. And so I will gleefully beat this dead horse in the hopes that someone out there finds my particular take helpful.
One manner where I differ from most opinions about writer’s block is that there is only one overarching version of it. I have personally experienced several different variations of the same creative stoppage. As such, I don’t believe that there is one general solution to the problem. Though I’m sure there are more iterations of writer’s block than I have listed here, I decided to discuss the four that I myself have experienced:
- When you know you want to write something, but you have no idea what or who you want to write about.
I call this one the “post-book depression.” Every time I have faced it, it has come on the heels of completing a previous project, usually one that I had a deep emotional connection with. After writing a novel (or short story) where I felt like I fully understood the characters and had firm control over the plot, I find it difficult to duplicate that level of excitement when starting the next project. I’m still riding the high of the last project, and even though I want to start something new, every idea I think of or page I write will be harshly compared to the previous work.
The best method for beating back the post-book blues is to take your previous work off of the pedestal you subconsciously placed it on. Stop comparing one work to the other and simply let the new project come into its own. Remember that your previous work had its own growing pains, as will any first draft. Also, allow yourself to experiment and try new styles, subject matter, points of view or approaches to storytelling. Experimentation, after all, leads to growth and versatility.
If, however, your lack of ideas stems from this being your first project, the underlying issue may be the same: you might have the notion of literature on so high a pedestal that you can’t effectively turn off your inner-editor long enough to get excited about an idea or writing that first page. The best rule of thumb whether this is your first writing project or the next writing project is the same: don’t compare your writing to anyone else’s (even your own) in a counterproductive way. Let yourself go through the process, no matter how much you think your first pages or plot concept are inferior. Either way, you win: either you end up appreciating and getting excited over your new project, or you learn what doesn’t work for you and what pitfalls you’re prone to so that you can avoid them in the future.
- When you know who your characters are but don’t know what your plot is going to be.
This is the most common form of writer’s block I find myself afflicted with. More than likely this is because I am a character-driven writer: the more I learn about my characters and how they interact with the world around them, the more this informs on the plot that I develop, and character development is always the most important thing to me in any story I read. It is common for me, then, to have a vivid character sketch (or even sketches of several main and secondary characters) with nowhere to put them and no conflict for them to face.
Because my chicken comes before my egg (as in my characters determine the plot as natural progressions of who they are), world-building and outlining a plot prior to writing (which are both essential planning tools that help to create smooth pacing—I’ll discuss both topics in future posts) can feel nigh impossible. When I first started writing, I never planned anything. I thought about who my characters were, I started writing with maybe the most general idea of what the story was going to be about, and then the actual beats and rhythm of the plot would occur to me. As I get older I know that this method of writing, while completely natural to me, isn’t practical if I want to present a work with a meticulous structure and with as few dull spots as possible.
For me, the best way to maneuver out of this trap is to do some logical brainstorming. I know who my characters are: I know their quirks, attributes, flaws, childhoods and hang-ups. So I work backwards from there using the concept of nurture over nature to find the cause and effect of what made these characters who they are.
If my protagonist is a former Soldier with trust issues who had a complicated upbringing, then what wars has he fought? Is he a Soldier in contemporary times, in the future or in the past? Does he have an accent? If so, where from? Were his parents religious? What denomination? These questions, though they seem to focus on who the character is, also help me to lay a baseline for world-building: knowing the character’s settings (in time and location) as well as his religious background (informing on the culture the character was raised in) will clarify the world where this story takes place. Let’s say I determine that this character is from pre-World War II Alabama, his parents were Baptists and he was raised on a farm. These details alone can help me to brainstorm a plot (did he join the military to escape his parents? Will the book chronicle his journey in the War, or do I want to focus on his post-War life returning home to his farm after his father has died?) as well as themes and motifs (the religious background would obviously offer a lot of valuable resources for themes and imagery).
In this way, I can use what I know about the character or characters to decide what kind of story I want to tell about them and what kind of conflicts will best challenge their virtues or play upon their vices.
- When you know what your plot/world will generally entail, but don’t know who your characters are.
From conversations throughout the years with my writer peers, I think it’s safe to say that this form of writer’s block is more common than variation #2. Most writers develop their idea—even when it’s vague enough to be stated in one sentence—and their world before they create the characters to populate this world. Several writers I have known kept folders in a filing cabinet, each one dedicated to a different idea that struck them in the middle of the night or while they were working on other projects. They even did research that supported this idea, and filed it all away in a folder, waiting for a time when this idea would ripen into something viable. I, personally, have never been this organizing or possessed such an abundance of potential story epiphanies. For these writers, it may be difficult to craft the characters to fit into these ideas: maybe they thought of the plot years ago and are therefore too distant from the initial compulsion to know how to populate this concept, or maybe their talent for character development has always been overshadowed by their talent to tell crisp, action-packed narratives.
In this instance, the solution would be the inverse of variation #2’s solution. Instead of extrapolating enough information from the characters to determine what world they inhabit, and what conflicts their personalities might conceivably manifest, you would instead extrapolate information from the setting and plot. Is your story a dystopian YA novel told in a world where reproduction is highly regulated by scientifically-algorithmed and government-approved arranged marriages? Then what kind of protagonist would be developed after living in such a world for all of his or her life? Would they be numb to the idea of love until they experienced it themselves, or would they be hopeless romantics who had to hide their feelings from society for fear of being banished? Would they be a rough around the edges, anti-social loner because the “forging connections” aspect of communication has been largely abandoned as a necessity since the government will just tell you who you are going to have children with? Would they initially agree with the way society is set up until a foil/love interest presented themselves? Who would be their antagonist? A government official? A stern parent?
Instead of using the concept of nurture over nature to create a world that makes sense for your character to live in, you are creating a character who makes sense to exist in the world you have developed.
- When you know your plot and your characters, but just can’t seem to get that first sentence or paragraph onto the page without furiously deleting it.
This is perhaps the most common shape for writer’s block to take overall: the fear of commitment. When you have the foggiest notions of the who, what, when and where, but can’t seem to get the first sentence or paragraph on the page. You stare at the cursor blinking against all that daunting white space, that overwhelming emptiness. Many would-be writers with great ideas never get to realize those ideas on the page. They are so intimidated by the white space, they never find an adequate means of filling it.
Some of this intimidation lies with the crushing significance that is placed on crafting the perfect first line. Many writers are taught that, if they don’t have their readers’ attention at least by the end of the first paragraph, they will never get it. They’re taught that the first line has to be the hook that keeps the reader from leaving. It must have punch, an element of surprise, a demonstration of superb craftsmanship to keep the reader glued to the page. And the first page should tell the reader everything they need to know about the plot, the protagonist and the setting.
No wonder so many writers are too intimidated to ever get that first line out.
There are many ways to trick yourself into writing the first line: write an entire page and delete everything but one line, and that will become your first line; write gibberish until your stream of consciousness formulates a coherent thought; start writing the novel with a place-holder for the first line or first paragraph that you can come back and fill once you have gotten more comfortable with your voice and with the narrative. Any one of these could potentially work for any given writer, but the act of filling the void still requires you to take a leap of faith. This act of incredible bravery can require you to be in the right frame of mind, or to be inspired by someone else’s work; sometimes when I’m at a loss for how to start a story, I take my mind off of it with a beloved film or television series. Or sometimes I just start writing, and at the end of the day though I have deleted 90% of what I wrote, I still have 10% of a viable beginning to my project. In other words, take the pressure off of yourself. It’s safe to say that seldom few writers nailed the perfect first line on their first try or even on their first draft. The key isn’t to write perfection from the get-go, the key is to write courageously in order to strip that awful blank page of its power. Then, to edit even more courageously.