Six impossible things

Blocks

I love writing, most of the time. I like making things up, and then making them fit together. I love the feeling I get when I’ve come up with something I think is really clever and unexpected (whatever the judgment of the rest of the world may be after).

But every so often, I. Just. Can’t.

I can still write a grocery list. I can still write a letter. I can still write a blog post complaining bitterly about my “inability to write.” Sometimes I even know what’s going to happen next, either in general terms or in very specific ones. I simply don’t feel like sitting down and doing it.

Years ago, one of my dear friends termed this “not writer’s block, not an inability to put words on paper, just a profound disinclination to write.” Sometimes it’s even more specific – not a profound disinclination to write fiction, but a profound disinclination to work on one specific story.

This is, I think, what most people mean when they talk of “writer’s block” – this profound distaste for the act of sitting down and adding more words to this particular story, chapter, scene, page. It’s an unfortunate terminology, because “writer’s block” conjures up images of an impassable wall or a narrow pass totally cut off by a landslide. A block is something that’s in the way and all but impossible to get around; without dynamite or earth-moving machinery, there’s no way forward.

Which is why I prefer the term “stuck.” Saying I’m stuck or bogged down pulls up images of my car stuck in the mud or the snow…and I’ve been there, done that, and eventually gotten out of it more times than I can count. Being stuck is a condition that one can overcome, and since “writer’s block” is a mental obstacle rather than a physical one, the first step in getting out of it is reframing the problem in your own head.

The second and most critical step is diagnosis: why am I stuck? This can require some thought and digging, or it can be really obvious once I actually turn my attention to what’s going on. The most common reasons I’ve observed, in no particular order, are:

  1.  Insufficient development and/or failure to think things through. The writer has a great character or scene or idea and doesn’t stop to think it through before plunging ahead. This works for a couple of chapters, but then comes the moment of truth when the story has to start coming together and/or making sense, and the writer simply can’t keep going on the fly. Or the writer has blithely written himself into a corner because he didn’t think long enough about the implications of his cool technology or magic system and the ways they would affect his grand finale,
  2.  Process block. The writer is most comfortable and productive writing one way but for one reason or another is writing this piece some other way, or the piece demands to be written in some way different from the writer’s usual working method. Either way, there’s a mis-match that’s getting in the way of further production.
  3.  Wrong turn. The writer has just made, or is just about to make, a boneheaded decision about the characters or plot, something that will take the story in a completely wrong direction that will not work. On some level, the writer knows this, and is subconsciously refusing to move forward until the mistake is fixed.
  4.  No discipline. It’s a gorgeous summer day, and the writer would really rather go to the beach than write. Or it’s a sunny winter day after three inches of fresh powder fell last night and the writer wants to go skiing. So the writer does.
  5.  Insecurity. The writer has hit one of those times where every sentence looks wrong or stupid or terrible in some other fashion, possibly because they just read someone else’s brilliant book, or possibly because they attended a lecture or read a how-to book where someone said “If you want to be a writer, you absolutely have to…” and whatever it is they supposedly have to do, they don’t do.
  6.  Dread. The writer knows perfectly well what comes next, and is dreading writing it for some reason. She’s going to have to kill off a favorite character, or she’s going to have to juggle eighteen characters trying to talk at the same time, or it’s going to be one of those background-fill-in scenes she just hates writing, or require a technique she knows she’s bad at. Whatever the reason, it’s going to be unpleasant to write, and she knows it. So she puts it off.
  7.  Exhaustion. The writer has been working twenty-hour days for a month now, and their brains are fried. Or they’ve been facing a series of unrelated crises – family, health, financial, disaster, whatever – that have made them incapable of facing one more thing to be responsible for, even if it’s a bunch of imaginary people in a story.

Obviously, the correct response to being stuck varies considerably depending on what the cause is. If the writer is exhausted, taking a break, a nap, and it easy for a while is the clear winner; if the writer is hearing the call of the beach, these remedies are not so helpful. If the problem is insufficient development or a pending wrong turn, the writer needs to stop and do some serious thinking about content; if the problem is a process mis-match, thinking about the story won’t help – the writer has to think about process and why they’re so determined to write things linearly when writing out of order seems more likely to work this time (or vice versa). If one is dreading the next bit or feeling insecure, one has to pull up one’s pants and just do it, but “just do it” is no help if what’s needed is thinking about process or content.

This is why all those books and articles and blogs about “how to beat writer’s block” aren’t terribly helpful; there is no one-size-fits-all solution. First, you have to figure out why you’re stuck, and you are the only person who can do that (though sometimes talking to an objective outside observer helps, if you have a good friend who’ll actually tell you “Writer’s block? Oh, you mean because the weather’s been so nice lately? You always do that.”)

14 Comments
  1. My getting stuck can come from a variety of problems also but it does not express as a “profound disinclination to write.” If I’m not writing, I’m can’t even know if I’m stuck.

    That’s something that happens to me when something huge and emotional has hit home, like the fires around my house. I stopped cold turkey writing because there wasn’t the energy for it. But I wasn’t stuck. I put writing on hold.

    My “writer’s block” and “getting stuck” are pretty much the same thing to me: I keep writing what comes next, HATING it or knowing it doesn’t work for some reason, and then deleting it back out and tossing it in the clips file. En brief, it is definitely getting stuck and it comes from all the reasons you listed above and a few dozen more. The solution for me is usually to sit on it and mull while writing something else. Or send it to my beta who will tell me what’s wrong with it, what’s right, and kick my insecurities to the curb.

  2. “Or the writer has blithely written himself into a corner because he didn’t think long enough about the implications of his cool technology or magic system and the ways they would affect his grand finale.”

    Not familiar at all. Nope, not a bit. No idea what you mean. Certainly not happening to me right now.

  3. Oh my goodness, YES!! “Writers block” is a very misleading term, because often, I know where I want to take the story, I just don’t want to do it. For me, it’s usually boredom. As in, I have to write a “fill in the background” type of scene, or something that isn’t bang up on a lot of action, and I just don’t want to do it. It makes me bored. When I feel this way, I just keep putting it off (usually by playing Solitaire) until I can think of a way to make the background less boring.

  4. It sounds a lot like Insecurity, but the big one for me is Lack of Faith. Despite having successfully completed a number of short stories and novellas, I looked ahead on a work in progress and did not at all like where it was going and had no confidence that the story could “work itself out”. I tried brainstorming and outlining and a number of other techniques to move forward, but none of them worked.

    This loss of faith in the process happened more years ago than I want to think about.

    Consciously, I know that I still have whatever it takes to be a writer, but it feels as though I have lost it—and in this business, feeling is everything.

  5. I can still write a blog post complaining bitterly about my “inability to write.”

    Weirdly enough, one of the things that will break me out of a “block” is this very thing; if I complain in public about being stuck, my brain will often start bubbling with words within the day. I’m convinced it does this just to make me look silly. 😉

    Boredom gets me, too, though in my case I’ll get bored with the whole story, not just a scene. I used to think it was because I wrote so slowly. Then I did NaNo, and found myself in the exact same kind of funk at just about exactly the same point (~1/3 through). I had to concede that, if I’m funking out at the same point whether it’s been two years or two weeks, it’s not a question of time.

  6. Insufficient development and/or failure to think things through: This has gotten me on my blog. I think I want to write about something, but when I start, I find I do not have enough to make it hang together.

    Insecurity: Of course, it could be this instead.

    Dread: I sometimes have reader’s dread. I know the story is getting into something uncomfortable, and I do not want to read that part. Sometimes, I just hold my nose and plow through it quickly. Other times, I skip a bit and read it later.

  7. I’m a huge fan of your books they’re great! I just read the Kate and Cecelia books, which were fantastic. However, I was wondering in The Mislaid Magician you say what happens to Kate & Thomas, James & Cecy, Georgy, Lady Sylvia, Aunt Elizabeth, and Aunt Charlotte. But what happens to Oliver?

  8. Thank you very much for this post. I’ve been dealing with both the insecurity and the exhaustion for a while now and beating myself up over it.

    Helps to read through this post and also to know that someone else has been there…and made it through.

  9. @LizV I’ve heard that 1/3 of the way through is a point at which many writers become convinced that the story is awful and that quitting is the best course. Except it isn’t. It’s just the typical one-third difficult part where you switch over from the excitement of getting everything started into the grit of the middle, where you have to start making the whole shebang actually work.

  10. Too many other things I’m supposed to do, all of which I feel guilty about. Even when I make the daily writing number one, the screaming of hideously neglected alternate jobs drowns out the story.

    Gotta beat those little suckers down and drown ’em, I guess.

  11. @J.M. Ney-Grimm: Yep, the dreaded 30K blues, bane of writers everywhere. Except in my case I don’t think the book-so-far is awful; I just stop caring. Either way, though, the answer is usually to step back, figure out how to transition from setting-up to putting-into-action, and then suck it up and keep writing anyway. 😉

    I seem to have a similar if less extreme sticking point around the last third, too… right around when you have to transition into tying things up. (Apparently I hate transitions too, albeit not quite in the same sense as our hostess.)

    @Karen Myers: Oh, yeah, that one! Sometimes the solution is to take a day off from writing and Deal With All The Things, though it’s way too easy for that day to turn into a week, or a month, or….

  12. Getting 1 and 7 together, tag-teaming, is really annoying. Or possibly 7’s slightly less-obvious cousin, Overcommitment. (Beta for 2-3 friends, heavy edits for a third, an online educational thing that whines it you don’t touch it once a week (and you already paid for it), and the house is a mess.)

    *goes back to the heavy editing*

  13. @LizV I’m definitely prone to those 30K blues, as you call them. (Great phrase!) It’s really weird to be convinced that my story isn’t the shining marvel I hoped it would be when I started, and then to swing back to feeling really happy with it several weeks/months later. I love writing the last third. I have so much momentum and energy built up, it almost feels like the story writes itself. I’m flying, or swooping on a roller coaster. It’s exciting! (If only more of the other two thirds were like that!)

    @A.Beth You made me laugh with “…an online educational thing that whines it you don’t touch it once a week…” I’m just finishing up with one of those now. Sent the last homework assignment in this morning. I tend to schedule classes for when I’m between stories, because I find it almost impossible to write steadily and listen to lectures and do homework.

  14. What just got something moving that I had been blocked on, was accidentally doing ‘rolling revisions’ to some notes that were very disjointed, not even a draft yet. I was just going through taking out format conversion garbage, when suddenly a paragraph of notes would suggest a whole screen of (very rough) draft! No stress, because it was still “not really writing”.

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