Wrestling with Writer’s Block

Though it may not be self-evident, this article is a continuation of the last article’s discussion on the journey versus the destination of story writing.  Along that vein, I’ve been thinking a lot about writer’s block over the past couple months.

I suspect I may have serious disagreement from other authors because this, in part, relates to the process of writing and everyone works differently.  Each writer has their own motives, too, which drive how they interact with the craft.  For me, financial interests rank fairly low.  What is more important is telling a story that matters.  I don’t want it just to entertain, though that is still an important part of storytelling.  As I mentioned last time, if you can’t tell an engaging story, it doesn’t really matter what your other motivations are… you won’t sell books and you won’t get readers’ attention.  It is important to me that, within the entertainment of the fiction, I also move readers to thought and introspection.  Only you as a reader can answer whether I’ve succeeded in that.

What does this have to do with writer’s block?  For me, it speaks to the time allowable in story creation.  Another allusion to last time is that I’m willing to go back and rework large sections of the work to get it right.  A goal I’ve had beginning with “Tears from Iron” is to be able to write the first draft of the book in a year.  I failed with “Tears” and I failed with “Whispers.”  At the current rate, I suspect I’ll also fall short with my third book in the series as well.  While disappointing, that’s okay.  If a few extra months is what it takes to tell the right story then that’s a price I’m willing to make.

So let’s talk about writer’s block.  I believe it falls into three major types and each of them is important.  It is very likely I’m missing others and, as I mentioned, other authors likely give these different weights or disagree with my solutions.

The most basic and common form of writer’s block I’d describe as a slog.  I’ll be the first to confess that this is also my least favorite.  You’re writing a story and you get to a scene that just isn’t working.  Despite that, you know you need it but it is just a grind.  The scene has no inspiration, no heart, it doesn’t move you and the mere thought of writing makes you want to do anything else.  It may be so demoralizing that you begin to doubt your capacities as a writer.

This kind of writer’s block you just have to attack because the odds are it won’t get better until you do.  But the attack can be conducted in several ways.  My techniques include forcing myself to write the wretched scene with the full knowledge that it is garbage.  This method is probably the best if something happens in the scene that I need to more fully understand before I can move on.  A second method is to sidestep it.  This technique is best if I understand what the scene needs to do sufficiently that it doesn’t really have to be written now.  I leave myself some notes and move on.  The bottom line here is that I’ll either have some gross garbage that I hate or merely some bullet points… this is a scene that I’ll have to fix later.  By the time I come back to it, I may have some fresh ideas that will bring it more fully to life.  And sometimes, it just isn’t the best scene.  Not every moment in every story is pure gold.  That’s a simple reality.  If you have ten great scenes and then one that is a little rough, your readers will follow you through to the other side.

The second form of writer’s block occurs when the story becomes too tenuous.  You had a plan for your story and somewhere in the midst of your work your grasp of what you’ve done and where you’re going feels increasingly unstable.  This form of writer’s block is probably most common in ‘discovery writers’ like me.  When I start out on a story, I don’t have everything figured out.  I’ve got major benchmarks but there is still a lot to be worked out.  It sometimes feels like when I’m writing I’m building a bridge out over a deep chasm.  I start at the edge of the cliff and gradually nail boards one to the other to get me across.  The further I get out over the abyss, the wobblier the story gets.  Then, at some point, I hit a wall (or, to continue the bridge analogy, it vibrates so heavily that I fall off).

When this happens, it is a sign that I’ve taken this thrust of the story as far as I can with what I’ve resolved.  In the process of building this bridge, I’ve firmed up some facts and plot threads and characterization that I didn’t know when I started.  Also, I’ve probably created some inconsistencies because I discovered things on page 40 that I didn’t know on page 1.  The older parts don’t reflect the current state.  When this kind of block happens, it is generally a good idea to start again.  The good news, is that the wobbly bridge you made last time can still be used as a guide so the work is quicker.  Most of what has already been done can be retained.  It just needs to be shored up.  So, to continue the analogy, start at the edge of the cliff again but this time add more support boards to keep the path stable.

For each of my last three books, I’ve had to do this once.  Generally it occurs around the end of the first act (25-30% through the book) where I pause and start again.  But not all forms of this writer’s block are quite this serious.  You don’t always have to start over.  Maybe the whole story isn’t unstable, just a piece of it.  Unlike with the slog writer’s block where you just have to muscle through, the solution here is to give yourself some time.  Maybe you’ve written so fast that your brain can’t keep up with all the ramifications of what you’ve done so you need to take a breath to process it.  Maybe you need to spend a few hours or days or a week going over what you’ve done already to refresh in your mind where you’re going.  Think of it as reorienting your compass or shoring up the boards to your bridge over the chasm without actually starting over.  Perhaps you need to look over your characterization or your setting or the plot.  Whatever it is, spend some time working on what was too loose before.

Before I move on from this form of a block, I’ll offer a different solution which may sometimes work.  Perhaps one part of your story is unsteady, but the rest isn’t.  If that’s the case, maybe it is time to shift your attention.  To use “Tears from Iron” as an example, I wrote large sections of the high lord conspiracy thread separate from the Vistus journey.  Both parts are important and both parts interact with each other at key ‘touch points’, but for significant portions of the novel they develop on their own independent of the other.  Thus, if I got stuck with Vistus, I could set his story aside to think about and, while I was thinking, work on the high lord sequence instead.

The final form of writer’s block is the one that has most drawn my attention recently and, for that reason, I want to give it the most time.  As I’ve already written a lengthy article, I’m going to continue with this variety next time.  For a teaser, sometimes writer’s block can emerge when you’ve lost your way.  I don’t just mean the wobbly story mentioned above, I mean something is actually wrong.  If you’ve been drawn down the wrong path, your story can talk to you, telling you that you’ve messed up.  It does this by inflicting writer’s block.  If you develop the instinct to listen for this, you have unlocked the potential to keep your story true to its purpose and the ability to unfold the tale that really matters.  It is through this grappling that you can find what your story really is.  Perhaps it’s something you never even imagined when you’d started.