It’s almost a cliche at this point. The writer staring a blinking cursor in a blank Word document or at an untouched sheet of paper, unable to go on. And while many claim to have writer’s block, it’s sort of like claiming you’re haunted by the ghost of an 18th-century apple scrumper. There’s nothing to prove you aren’t possessed by a barefoot French urchin boy in a neighboring fruit orchard, but nothing to prove you are either. In other words – it’s all in your head.
Writers can write. They’re capable of putting words down on paper. I mean, most elementary school kids can do that much, right? But what happens when the right words don’t come?
I’m about 200 pages into my first book and for the first time, I’m hitting a wall. Just as I approach the last fifty pages of my draft, trying to conjure up words is like trying to get a good bagel in the Midwest. I can get a mediocre bagel. I can choke down a dough-shaped ring of inferiority and pretend to like it, but will it serve me? And will it get me to where I need to go?
Simon Pegg’s character hitting a wall in the comedy, Run Fatboy Run.
So how do I get over this hurdle and save myself from throwing my laptop out a third-story window?
1. Go for a walk.
Going for a walk is a tried-and-true approach. Every time I find myself banging my head against my desk, changing my environment is a huge help. Getting some fresh air, observing nature or other people going about their days (who aren’t sadist writers like myself) and allowing my mind to drift often helps to get my writing back on track. Plus, it has the added bonus of being heart healthy.
Don’t bang your head on a desk. Put on some sneakers!
2. Read something.
Picking up a book can help you see what’s missing in your own. Is your dialogue not snappy enough? Are your descriptions dragging? Is there not enough tension in the scene? Even if reading a book can’t answer those questions, it can inspire you to strive for better prose. Just don’t compare yourself. The point isn’t to see how crap you are next to published authors – you’re seeing their final, polished product after all – the point is to see that writing a book is possible. But be wary of procrastinating. The point isn’t to abandon all efforts, but to get a kick of inspiration.
Even reading a writing self-help book can be useful. Just don’t get bogged down by rules.
3. Free-write or Fun write.
Free-writing can help you remember what your fingers felt like on those keys. Most piano composers practice Mozart or Chopin before they sit down to put their own arrangements together. Free-writing is the same. It’s practice. You can write about your day, jot down a funny anecdote or even copy a passage from a book. The point is to get your fingers lean and limber. And have fun! Write some fan-fiction or a wish-fulfillment fantasy about you and a certain celebrity. Write something embarrassing or something so filthy and deviant you melt at the thought of anyone reading it. Write a blog post or a book review. Anything to take your mind off of that looming project and remind you why you’re a writer in the first place.
No one ever has to read this. Just put words on the page!
4. Dance around to some music.
Get silly. Blast some music and dance around the house in your skivvies, belting out the lyrics. Moving your body and engaging your mind can get you feeling energized and ready to take on that project. In general, it’s good to listen to upbeat songs, but you can also use music to get inside the head of a character. For my antagonist, my Feeling Sinister mix on Spotify always gets me in the right frame of mind.
Dance like no one’s watching.
5. Pick up a coffee.
Ah, coffee…every writer’s best friend. (Unless you’re British or an alcoholic). Getting a jolt of caffeine can stimulate your brain and give you the energy you need to go on. But don’t just reach for the coffeepot. Leave your house for a few minutes. Smile and tip your barista. Being in a coffee-shop environment with other people can help you get out of your head for a much-needed break.
Coffee-drinking has proven to be a preventative for dementia and Alzheimer’s.
6. Phone a friend.
You don’t have to talk about what you’re working on. You don’t even have to mention the word writing. Talking with a friend or family member over the phone or going out with a friend for a short time can help boost your confidence. When you’re feeling your lowest, family and friends can be that mirror to show you just how great you are. Talk to someone who believes in you and get back to work! You can do it!
When your ego is getting pelted, give yourself a break.
7. Work in another medium.
Drawing or painting can stimulate your creative brain, allow you to quiet the perfectionist mind and freely express yourself. Getting messy with paint is the perfect panacea. Finger-painting, splatter-painting or doing acrylic free pours can be oddly freeing and engage your inner child. Plus, there’s not the same pressure in mediums that aren’t your main talent – as likely no one will see the results of your art experiments – and are even less likely to give them a one-star rating on Goodreads.
Get weird with your bad self.
8. Re-read what you’ve written.
Sometimes, when you get stuck, it’s because of a problem in your plotting. A character’s arc has gone off the rails. You’ve forgotten to foreshadow something that happens later in the book. You haven’t done enough work world-building. Going back to identify your problem and fixing it can open up your writing and allow you to finish. Possibly, you’ve been more Pantser than Plotter up to now and you need to go back and do a rudimentary outline. Or maybe you’ve outlined religiously, but forgotten something crucial. Sometimes, a writing block is like a clogged toilet – a sign that something has gone wrong and you need to fix it – before you add to the problem.
Go back with and figure out what’s broken so you can fix it.
Most importantly, when dealing with writer’s block, don’t get too down on yourself. Negativity, self-doubt and a perfection-or-bust attitude will kill your creative juices and your self-esteem. Keep a sense of humor about your writing and yourself and be willing to do many strange things to exorcise that ghost that’s haunting you.
What are some things you do when you get stuck? Which of these have you tried and had work (or not work) for you?