Every once and a while, when a writer sits down to write, nothing comes out. Like"”nothing. All right, the writer will tell themselves, I'm a grown-up, I can make this happen. So the writer swallows down the fear starting to build in their throat and slaps words onto the page with a fearlessness that dares the writing to just try and suck. And if it doesn't suck? Congratulations! You wrote your way out of writer's block! That is both awesome and awe-inspiring.
But if it does suck? Like, badly? Don't hyperventilate just yet; writer's block isn't permanent (usually, anyway). It's a totally normal phenomenon many professional writers experience at least once per novel (and twice during outlines). And even though almost everyone has at least a tiny part of them that is afraid the writing will never, ever come back"”it always does, in the end. Even if it takes its own sweet time.
Of course, that's just dandy when you need to be brilliant on a deadline. Dandy and completely impractical. So, for those of you on deadlines and at your wit's end, here is a three-step solution attempt, geared at helping you find the source of your discontent and getting you back into writing mode pronto.
Step 1: Did You Leave Your Critical Side On?
Here are some signs that you may have left your critical side on:
- You have a hard time reading books you normally enjoy. You're either restless or it just doesn't grab you the way it normally does.
- Every word you write feels mechanical and forced, and when you read them? You have to restrain your fingers from instinctively deleting them.
- You're not so sure your idea is a good one anymore. In fact, you can't believe anyone ever said they liked your idea.
- The writing you did earlier you either hate and can't believe you ever thought it was good, or love, and are worried sick you're going to mess it up.
- You just can't seem to visualize the scene you're about to write. Your brain keeps missing the idea and catching on the words.
Our critical side has one word in its vocabulary, and that word is "no." It can say "no" loudly, or softly, emphatically or reluctantly, but always "no." And this makes it almost impossible to write, because we cannot tell if we are doing anything right at all"”anything on which we can expand. That's the super big secret behind editing: sure, editors tell you what you're doing wrong. We all remember that part because of the tears and chocolate. But they also tell you what you're doing right"”what they want more of. And that's the most important part. Without knowing what you're doing right, how can you be expected do more of it? How can you possibly avoid cutting the good stuff by default, for standing too close to the bad?
That's why our critical sides are so poisonous to our creative sides. And that's why it's key to recognize when you're in the wrong headspace. You cannot win when your controller is set to "lose." So once you recognize that you're in a critical way? That's how you know you need to get some distance.
Step 2: Get Some Distance & Hit Your Reset
This can feel like a tremendous, stupendous, amazingly horrific waste of time if you're on a deadline. I mean, seriously, the whole reason you're panicking about writer's block to begin with is because you don't have time to pamper yourself with "breaks" and "food" and this epic waste of time you call "sleep"! But regardless as to whether you're anxious, overly critical, or too close, you need to hit your reset, or you're not going to get anything done.
Here are some suggestions for things to try, if you don't currently have a working reset button:
- Put on lipstick! Or generally just make yourself look awesome. I know, it sounds ridiculous, doesn't it? But for a lot of people I know, it works like a charm. Besides, who wouldn't want to look foxy while writing?
- Read. Yeah, reading is kind of my solution for everything, isn't it? But seriously, most of us love reading because it's relaxing and engrossing. Try letting it relax and engross you, and see what happens.
- Do yoga. Or go for a jog, hit a heavy bag, or hang upside down like Dan Brown. It is, I say with absolutely no proof, nearly impossible to think about writer's block when you're sucking down air like it's going out of style. Or, you know, doing the meditation thing.
- Do something mindfully. Like, make a cup of tea and sip it slowly while sitting in a garden, concentrating on the smells, tastes, and sights. Our critical side is often focused on everything but the present, so try bringing it back to what you're doing right now.
- Journal. Write it out. Sometimes, the reason we can't write is because our mind is busy obsessing on something else. So try just writing to figure out whatever it is that your mind is focusing on. Maybe once you say whatever it is your brain seems to want you to say, it will let you focus on your story.
Step 3: Return with a Broad View
When it's time to return to your writing, try to relax and take a broad, project-wide point of view. Sometimes, when you just can't write, it's just your writerly instincts telling you you're writing in the wrong direction. Like, maybe the scene you've stalled on would be better from a different perspective, or with different pacing. Or maybe it needs to start in a different place. Sometimes it even means you've dropped some emotional or plot threads, and they're needling you in the back of your mind, keeping you from concentrating on the task at hand.
Whatever it is, sometimes, not being able to write is a blessing. So, the first thing I'd do is reexamine that scene that's giving you so much trouble. Figure out whether it's the right scene or not. Play with different kinds of scenes you could put in its spot, and see if any of them are a step closer toward a better fit. Listen metaphorically to your characters, and see if you're not addressing some need of theirs. A book is like a puzzle, and when one piece isn't fitting right, sometimes it's better to figure out if it's the right piece, first, before getting out the heavy machinery to jam it in.
Pro Tip: If that still isn't working, try talking it out with someone. Just the process of describing your book, answering their questions, and talking through the problem can help re-fire your passion and shake things loose. You'd be surprised what you discover about your own story when trying to explain it to someone else!
It Sucks But It Ends
The bottom line? It sucks. It sucks, but it ends. It will even end on its own, naturally, if you do nothing about it. If you can, absolutely and totally figure out what's causing it and solve it at the root. That way, you can get back to writing sooner, and spend less time feeling like gremlins stole your brain. But try not to panic if it takes a little time.