still water and stones

The thing about writer’s block…

… is that it’s a load of bovine excrement. I’m totally with Terry Pratchett when he said that “There’s no such thing as writer’s block. That was invented by people in California who couldn’t write.”

Now, I’m not sure I agree whole-heartedly with the second point. However, I do see how the oft-times self-indulgent culture of Hollywood ‘creatives’ may well have lent weight to the term (though let’s face it: the only reason Hollywood creatives are worse than creatives from anywhere else is that they’re permanently gathered en masse and so can legitimise their worst flaws as ‘part of the creative process, don’t you know?’). My background may be psychology, but that doesn’t stop me from thinking that there is such a thing (especially in America, and I say this as an American) as too much therapy.

To my mind, writer’s block is a widely accepted excuse for not writing. For giving up and giving in. For indulging in too much chocolate/alcohol and, most of all, one of the ultimate writing sins: laziness.

Writer RJ Ellory once asked me if I’d ever had writer’s block. I was stumped over how to reply. While I hadn’t, I was worried that he (and our audience, since this was at a conference I was organising) might see such a response as arrogant. Thankfully, he didn’t give me time to reply and, instead, provided his own answer by paraphrasing Pratchett. But it goes to show how much a part of the popular mystique of writing the concept is.

But if it is just bupkis, why is it so common: so accepted? Why have so many people written about getting over writer’s block?

I think it’s part of a modern trend of manufacturing and sharing excuses: if we all agree on the same excuses, we can reify them to the point where we can all sit contentedly back and fail to do what we should – what we could – if only we weren’t so busy giving ourselves and each other permission not to.

That’s all writer’s block is.

However, I freely admit that I have been stumped on writing projects more times than I can count. I quite regularly can’t move forwards with a story in my head, let alone on the page. But this isn’t writers’ block. The problem isn’t some mystical, magical, airy-fairy difficulty with a recalcitrant muse (though I did study writing for a while with a person who truly believed that angels sang his poems to him in his sleep: I’d have bought ear-plugs if I’d had to listen to such drivel all night). If I’m stumped with a writing project and just can’t make progress, the problem is that I’m missing something about the story.

Perhaps the characters aren’t developed enough in my head for me to understand what they would or wouldn’t do in certain circumstances. Maybe it’s that I don’t know where the story is going, or there’s some huge hole in the plot. But the answer isn’t to say ‘Woe! Oh woe is me! How evilly I am afflicted! Let me sit and whinge (and whinge some more) about my tale of woe! Come, my friends. Come and comfort me with the knowledge that I must sit in idleness to recover from this terrible affliction that fate has cast upon me. Oh woe, most desperate woe! I had better eat too much junk food and watch rubbish on TV if I am ever to recover.’

Well, you can try that but it’s a recipe for getting fat, flabby, bored and, above all, boring to everyone around you. If you want to whinge, get a cat. The cat will look at you with disdain and communicate that you’re pitiful even for a human, hopefully shaming you into getting off the couch and out of your dressing gown.

Give yourself one day if you must, especially if you choose to really go for it and enjoy your woe to the max. (Actually, one day of pretending you have writer’s block can be a fantastic guilty pleasure, but remember not to over-indulge.)

Instead, remember that the answer to being stuck on a writing project usually takes one of two forms:

  • Give that particular project a break and come back to it with fresh eyes and fresh energy.
  • Work harder.

If I decide a break is needed, I’ll usually take a week and spend it seeing friends, travelling a bit (even if it’s just locally) or catching up on errands. I tend to find it particularly helpful to do something physical to give my mind a break. But after a maximum of two weeks, even if I’m not ready to go back to the problem project, I start writing again. There’s always something else you can work on. Plus it’s best to work on something very different from the thing that’s causing you trouble.

But never give up and let yourself believe you have writer’s block. Remember that you’re just stuck on one project. So get on with another, for goodness sake. Then, at least, you can feel good about the fact that you’re accomplishing something, even if it’s not what you feel is your number one writing priority.

As for working harder, well that can take lots of forms.

Maybe you need to ask yourself some tough questions. Am I being too self-indulgent with this book? Does X really belong in the script or is it only there because I love it and what I’ve written about it so far? Have I just gotten too attached to all the things I found out while researching the book?

Maybe you need to backtrack. This is harder than it sounds. Once you’ve got it into your head that X happens, or character Y looks like this/talks like this/has Z in their back-story it can be a real wrench to change your mind and accept that it just isn’t doing your story as a whole any favours. Think it through, see why the change is necessary, then take a break. Come back to the story when you’ve had some space and it’s gone a little fuzzy around the edges. That’ll make it easier to re-envision the story with the change(s) in place. Otherwise you risk feeling ill at ease with the project, as if you’ve spoilt the book. ‘Is it really the same story if I change X?’ is a question I’ve asked myself many times. But that’s not an important question for a professional writer: it’s a completely personal, emotional one. The important writing question is ‘What makes for the best story?’

Sometimes backtracking means ditching material. Never delete anything, is my advice. Cut and paste the phrases, sentences or even whole chapters that have to go into a fresh ‘Cuts’ document and hit save. Then go back to your draft, take the material out and hit save on the new, reduced document. Now you haven’t ‘lost’ all the effort you put into writing the material that had to go: you’ve just taken it from a place it was causing trouble to use another time.

I rarely go back into my cuts files once I’ve created them, but that’s not really their purpose. They’re all about making the process of cutting – of ditching effort – easier. And why not? Writing is hard enough.

But the key thing in ‘working harder’ is research, research, research and perhaps a little research for variety. Read about every aspect of your story you can think of. Somewhere along the line, you’ll find something that will be useful, either directly or because it sparks an idea that leads you forwards.

Sometimes research involves scratching away at a troublesome plot point day by day, even for just 5 minutes at a time. If you don’t find gold after a few months of scratching and are effectively trying to dig your way to Australia via China, then maybe the problem is that you’re digging in the wrong place. Hunt about: spend your time thinking about why you decided you needed to start digging in that spot in the first place. Unpick the assumptions that led you to decide that you needed to fix that particular problem. Maybe the problem is that you’ve taken your story in the wrong direction. Maybe being stuck is a sign that you’ve gone down the wrong path.

But whatever you do, don’t go about thinking, let alone saying, that you have writer’s block. Only pseudo-writers who are too busy indulging in the idea that their creative drive needs to be carefully nurtured have the time to sit about not writing. Real writers get on with it.

One comment

  1. Good stuff. It took me several years to work out that my ‘writer’s block’ was in actuality tiredness. A week off and a renewed work ethic did the trick every time.

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