Author Education Series #4
How to Avoid Writer’s Block
by Jason Black
Let’s face it, for a writer there’s no feeling worse than not knowing what to write. There’s nothing worse than staring at that blank page, your mind a vacuum of inspiration. That’s when the doubts begin to creep in. I can’t do this. I’m not good enough. Who was I fooling, thinking I could be a writer? Nope. There’s nothing worse at all. The good news is that writer’s block is an entirely preventable affliction, once you understand exactly what it is.
Writer’s block is nothing more than not knowing what comes next in your story.
Ok, I know, it sounds stupid and facile to put it like that, but in that facile phrasing hides a truth that is the key to avoiding writer’s block. Preparation.
If you don’t know what comes next in your story, that just means you didn’t put enough thought into your story before you started writing.
You might be stuck because you don’t know what direction to take the plot next. That suggests you don’t actually know your story well enough yet to write it. You might be stuck because you don’t know how a particular character would react in the situation you’ve put them in. That suggests you don’t know the character well enough—her hopes, her dreams, her motivations, her goals, what she loves and what she’s afraid of—to write her. You might be stuck because you’re having a hard time visualizing the location where your characters are doing their business. That would suggest you didn’t do enough research , either into real-world settings or in the form of world-building, to know what that location is like; locations strongly influence what is possible, plausible, and permitted for characters to do, so it’s important you have a clear sense of them yourself.
There are lots of reasons why you might get writer’s block, but the all boil down to the same basic mistake: lack of preparation.
Once you understand what writer’s block is, the remedy is pretty obvious. I hardly need to write the rest of this article, but I will because I want to share some preparation tips you may find helpful.
In the world of writing, there are “plotters” and “pantsers”; writers who plot out their novels ahead of time, and those who prefer to fly by the seat of their pants. There’s nothing wrong with being a pantser, if that’s what works for you, but here’s a secret: plotters never get writer’s block.
My first, best tip is just to spend time before writing your novel figuring it all out. Figure out who your protagonists and antagonists are. Figure out what they want. What’s at stake? What’s driving them? That’s your premise. Now figure out how that premise can play out in a storyline. Where will the conflict start? What interesting situation will get the ball rolling? How will the conflict develop? What challenges, obstacles, and setbacks will the characters suffer along the way? How will the conflict be resolved in a final climax? This is the time to do all your research on settings, period clothing and customs, whatever you need to make your story feel real.
Piece by piece, work it all out until you have figured out the whole story. Now take that storyline and break it down into a list of scenes. Literally, write down a list of every scene it will take to get that story done. For each one, write down a paragraph or so of notes to yourself about what’s going to happen in the scene. This will probably be easy, because by now you’ll be able to visualize the story in your head. You’ll be starting to see it, like a movie in your mind’s eye. Make some notes about what each scene needs to accomplish, critical clues that need to be delivered, et cetera. Once you’ve done this for every scene, you’re ready to write. You’ll never have writer’s block, because every day when you sit down to write, you’ve got those notes to remind you of what you wanted to do. Just grab the next scene off the list, and write what the notes say.
Plotting is not evil.
I can hear all the pantsers in the audience screaming at me now. To them, what I just described feels like a horrible violation of their process. “But, that kills the creativity!” they’re saying. “But I don’t want to be locked in to some rigid plan!” As well, the writers who are presently stuck in the middle of a manuscript, deep in the grips of writers block, are screaming at me, “but that doesn’t help me now!”
Pantsers, I hear you. People who have already started writing, I hear you. But let me address those objections.
Planning does not kill your creativity. Planning is, in fact, a very creative act. I enjoy the heck out of the planning process. It’s like a big puzzle I get to solve by making up a bunch of really fun stuff. Planning is wonderfully creative, and curiously enough, does not make the writing less creative. In fact, it makes you better.
Planning and writing involve different kinds of creativity. The writing phase is when you exercise your linguistic creativity, your poetic nature. It’s when you work on scene craft, solving smaller puzzles of how to put all the elements you’ve got in your notes together in an order that grips the reader and pulls them along through the story. Writing skills and scene craft are different kinds of creativity than story craft, and it’s just plain hard to do all three at once. Especially the story craft, which is simultaneously broad-scale and full of intricate moving parts which must mesh together perfectly. If you do the story crafting first, by planning it all out ahead, then when you’re writing you are free to focus on the smaller-scale skills of language and scene crafting.
Planning does not lock you into a rigid plan, either. If you’re in the middle of the book and a brilliant brainstorm hits you, fine. In fact, wonderful! Just change your plan. You made it, you can change it whenever you want. Plotting does not lock you into anything, which is good because such brainstorms are almost guaranteed to happen. At least for me they do. I don’t think I’ve ever had a manuscript in which, somewhere in the middle, I wasn’t struck by some great idea that never crossed my mind while I was plotting. But because I had done the plotting, I knew my plan inside and out. The whole thing was clear in my mind, which meant that I was immediately in a position to understand where and how that brainstorm fit into the overall picture. Whether it needed to replace something else, whether it could exist alongside the rest, where the optimal spot was to put it, et cetera. Plotting liberated me to use that brainstorm with full confidence that I was making my story better.
And for those who are in the grips of writer’s block now, rest assured, it is never too late to do some plotting. You can take as a base whatever you’ve written so far, stop, and plot out the rest before returning to the writing. Just because you started your cross-country trip without looking at a map doesn’t mean you can pull over at a truck stop and spend some quality time with your GPS.
Separate planning from writing.
The thing to remember is that planning—which is really just another word for story crafting—is a different skill than writing. And the worst possible time to try doing that skill is when you’re in the throes of writer’s block, staring at that blank page, not knowing what comes next and feeling like a total failure.
The blank page can be very intimidating. The pressure we feel, to fill up that page now can be overwhelming. As long as you’re in a state where you feel like you should be writing—basically, whenever you have your manuscript open in your word processor—that pressure has a way of crowding all other thoughts out of your brain, making it impossible for you to do the planning that will get you past the block.
So stop staring at that blank page. Close your manuscript. Open a different file in which to do your planning. That’s not your manuscript. Nobody but you will eversee it, so you won’t feel any pressure that it needs to be pretty, spelled correctly, well organized, et cetera. Do your planning in a different workspace than you do your writing. For me, that means in a different file. For someone else, it might mean at a different physical place, perhaps sitting on the couch instead of sitting at the computer. You’ll have to figure out what works for you, but do your planning in whatever environment is different enough that you stop feeling that pressure to fill up the blank page.
That will free your mind to overcome writer’s block: to figure out what comes next.
Jason Black is a novelist and freelance developmental editor who lives and works in the Seattle area. His latest book is a middle-grade historical adventure titled Pebblehoof, and is available in paperback, Kindle, and Nook editions. Jason maintains a blog of character development tips for writers at his website, www.PlotToPunctuation.com.
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