Writer’s block – Why it doesn’t really exist.
Writer’s block is a dreadful affliction that catches us all at times. It’s a moment in the life of an author where he sits before his monitor as it glows back at him and his mind goes blank. It then stays blank and stubbornly refuses to do anything more, or less, practical than keep his heart beating. At least, that’s how it feels for me.
But, despite the very public nature of this condition, I firmly believe that it doesn’t exist. It’s like the Easter-Bunny, Santa Claus, or a trustworthy journalist. It’s a fallacious premise used to mask an even uglier, darker truth.
Allow me to explain.
Writer’s block, for want of a better word, to some degree afflicts us all. There will always come a time when our writing brain just refuses to keep going. It’s usually the result of exhaustion or frustration, and that’s entirely to be expected.
What it feels like is staring at an empty monitor and finding the inside of your head just as empty. It’s as if all the ideas in your head have rushed into a doorway and they’re all getting stuck trying to force their way through. The net result of this is that nothing happens. Our brains run dry and we end up producing nothing more than a grating sound as we angrily grind away our own teeth.
Tiredness is a contributing factor in most cases. A sad fact of our existence is that not many of us can afford to take the time to make writing our novels our main job. That means we’re usually earning a living first and creating staggeringly inspiring works of literary genius second. Our waking lives are filled with dancing images, swirling around our minds in a dizzying array of characters, scenes and plot-lines. This isn’t good for anyone’s mental health.
Working to earn a living, on top of working to build a future, is utterly exhausting, but that’s the way it is. Sometimes enough is enough. Our brains want us to go away and do something else, ideally sleep for an entire month, waking only to shove grilled cheese into our mouths. This is a terrible affliction, but it isn’t the dreaded ‘writer’s block’ that is spoken of in legend. This is tiredness and we’ve all had to cope with it. It doesn’t matter if we’re writing a report, preparing our work for the morning, or cleaning up after our kids. We’ve all felt it and we all know there’s a point where something has to give.
The second thing that can cause a writer to hit a metaphorical wall is frustration. Even the best-planned work will deviate from the course we set for it. Sometimes that deviation is perfect for the story, but the cause of much inconvenience for the writer.
I recently worked on a book where a minor character become much more prominent than I had originally planned for him. I also realised his current position in the story needed to change. It was a minor shift in the story, but it made the finished work much better. The only problem was that it meant I had to go back through the entire work and alter every reference to him so that I could make the changes.
It’s not a pleasant feeling knowing that you have to re-edit an entire book for the benefit of a small detail, but that’s sometimes exactly what you have to do. With writing, it’s often not just one detail but many, and the growing pressure can feel like you need to step back and take time to breathe.
That’s absolutely understandable and I would recommend every author to take a moment to step away from their work under similar circumstances. Again, however, this isn’t writer’s block.
When authors talk about ‘writer’s block’, they’re talking about the well running dry. It’s a moment when they just can’t continue with the work. The ideas have stopped flowing and something feels like it really is blocking any further progress. This is the real deal. Author’s dread it, and it feels as real as catching the flu. But it isn’t real, it’s a fabrication and something far worse is lurking behind it.
Even more sadly, if you are suffering from this then there really isn’t a cure and, even worse, you might be facing some serious problems with the development of your work. But, on a lighter note, there is a preventative method to make sure you never suffer from it again.
An author creating a novel is a bit like a rat in a maze. They slither and twist with every plot turn, every cautious reveal, every development of the characters and every embedded clue to the outcome of the story. But, like the proverbial rat, we can’t see over the walls. We’re blinded by the monumental work before us and we have only our wits to navigate us forwards to the end of the tale.
So when writer’s block really happens it’s overwhelmingly because of one simple mistake we’ve made, even if we don’t like admitting the fact to ourselves.
The problem is that we haven’t planned our work properly.
When we hit the wall and our brain stops furnishing us with new details, it’s because the ideas have hit a blind alley. Your characters are no longer behaving rationally, you don’t understand their motivation, the villain isn’t interesting, the protagonist isn’t engaging, the plot isn’t working, or the setting doesn’t hold your interest.
We’re navigating a maze with our eyes closed, and we’ve wandered into a dead end. We’re trapped and there is no further way forward.
Novels take planning, serious hard planning, especially in the beginning when we’re first learning our craft. There will always be lazy writers who tell everyone to ‘just write’, but that’s an invitation to disaster. Writing takes time and effort and there’s no way around that. If you’ve failed to properly work out the novel in sufficient detail, then ‘writer’s block’ is inevitable.
Of course if you don’t know what the characters are going to do, you won’t know how to talk about them doing it. If you don’t know what the ending is, how can you drive the action towards the climax? Insufficient preparation will be your undoing.
How much preparation is enough? Well, that depends on you. As a new writer, there is no end to the amount of work you should put into your planning. As you get more proficient, you can certainly back off, at first, but you must take the development of your work very seriously. Some people need more than others and it’s about finding out what works best for you.
As my own skills have developed, I have tended towards planning less. I write fewer notes and allow more things to just happen than I used to. But, to counter that, I have a very strong idea of where the story is going before I put a single word onto a page. I develop my ideas very thoroughly, because I have learned what I need to do to make my work feel right.
So what can you do if you’re trapped in your maze and the worst has happened? Just like a rat, crawling through the twisting turns of an unforgiving puzzle, you have only one choice. You must back right up. You need to look seriously at why your story isn’t working, and you have to unravel all of the mistakes you made so you can get yourself back on track. If you’re very, very lucky then you might be able to salvage something from the work you’ve done, but more often, you might find yourself having to abandon the project entirely.
This is why so few writers ever complete their first work and it’s why the right approach is to not get stuck in the first place.
Plan your work out, get to know your characters, develop the plot, and fully understand the ending—the very first sentence should be moving towards it. Perhaps even more importantly, you absolutely must understand the themes and the messages behind your story. That message, the reason you started writing in the first place, is what you need to keep you going when you have made a terrible mistake.
Of course, we all fall into the trap sometimes. I’ve screwed up and lost control of the odd plot more times than I can count, and I can count quite high. I’ve had characters show up, in spite of them coming down with a case of being dead just a few short scenes earlier. I’ve had plot situations develop and change so radically around the middle of a work, that the first 11 chapters have to be rewritten, from scratch. We all do it, and we always will.
But remember that there is a very easy way to make sure you don’t waste time on a novel that’s never going to work. Put in the time first to develop it into a story worth telling. That’s the best cure for writer’s block, and helps guarantee you’ll never suffer from it in the first place.
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