How To Break Through Writer’s Block
What qualifies me, a not-yet-published novelist and (frequently negligent) blogger, to give you advice on how to break through writer’s block? I’m no newbie to creativity. I earned a BFA in Film Production and won the Chapman University Visual Storytelling Award. I’ve written over a hundred songs, recorded two dozen of them, released four albums and a live concert DVD, toured the US twice (with my rock band) and completed three novel manuscripts—so I’ve got some battle experience fighting writer’s block.
As I type this, I’m halfway through the second draft of my third novel, and the pressure is on to deliver a chapter each week—so the subject is real and immediate for me. Over the last few weeks, several writer friends have asked me, “How do you deal with writer’s block?” I was surprised to discover that I actually do have several discernable techniques to break through the block—so, in the interest of helping other writers, I’ll share them here.
Don’t be a “Writochondriac.”
First, let’s figure out whether you actually have writer’s block. Are you tired? I don’t know about you—but after 8 hours at my day gig, I’ve got roughly two hours of good writing time in me—after that, I lose focus and my productivity spirals downward. That’s not writer’s block; it’s good, old-fashioned fatigue. Are you burned out? If you find yourself frustrated, hostile or upset several sessions in a row, it might be time to take a day off from writing and let your brain rest.
Process Block vs. Story Block
Once you’ve eliminated fatigue and burnout, it may be time to look at a more serious explanation for your angst: real writer’s block. In my experience there are two different types: process block and story block (or content block, for those of you who paint or sculpt or write non-narrative material.)
Process block occurs when the tool you’re using to shape your story stops working. Let’s say you’re planting an avocado tree in your back yard. You dig for an hour—and then your shovel hits concrete. As a writer, your instinct is to chip away at that proverbial concrete with your proverbial shovel until your arms fall off. You’re not afraid of that concrete—you’re a writer, damn it! You can break a measly block of concrete! Only you can’t. Not with a shovel. It’s time to rent a jackhammer.
There is no shame in changing tools—any craftsman will tell you that. So, what’s the literary version of a jackhammer? That differs from writer to writer. Some get away from the keyboard and make diagrams one a whiteboard. Some wallpaper their living room with fluorescent post-it notes. I rely on two jackhammers to get me through bouts of writer’s block: index cards and Evernote.
When I experience process block, it’s usually because I’m stuck in the linear quality of fiction writing—the idea that I have to fill the first blank page before I can move on to the next. My brain isn’t linear! It wants to fill in the blanks out of order, and when I try to force it in line, it rebels by shutting down completely. When that happens, I usually waste a few hours trying to muscle my way through it—and then I break out the index cards. I write a single idea on each card. It might be a plot point, might be a character quirk, might be anything. For example: “John breaks up with Susan.” “Susan has a weird mole on her left cheek.” “How will I get them on the spaceship?” Once these random ideas are out on paper, I can categorize them, put them in sequence, or toss them, and it helps me figure out where to go next. I like using index cards because they get me away from the keyboard and into physical space. I get to touch paper and ink.
But, if you’re writing in a café or on a plane and you don’t have room to spread out, have no fear—there’s Evernote. When I’m writing, I have it open constantly. I create one virtual notebook for each story, and within each notebook I make separate sub-notes like “Character List” and “Ideas for books 2&3” and “Notes on Ch. 8 revision.” When ideas blossom pell-mell during a writing session, I record them in Evernote. Then, when I’m stuck, all my random ideas are organized and easy to find. Evernote’s free mobile app even allows you to record voice memos on the fly, a featured I use daily to dictate ideas during my morning commute.
Story Block is perhaps the more frightening of the two types of writer’s block, because when it happens, it feels like there IS no more story. You’ve created a world, you’ve populated it with fascinating characters—and then suddenly, everything comes screeching to a halt. Your characters stop acting and start standing around, looking up at you as if to say, “Well, what’s next, boss?”
I have two stand-by techniques to combat story bock. The first I call WWID (What Would I Do?) Here’s how it works: Imagine yourself in the main character’s shoes. What choice would make next? (Make something up.) Great. Now—what’s the extreme version of that choice? What’s the opposite of that choice? For example: You’re walking down 23rd street and notice smoke and fire coming out of a third-story window. You look around, but no one else seems to have noticed. What would you do? Grab your cell phone and call 9-1-1. What’s the extreme version? Burst into the building, run up the stairs and rescue the sleeping children. What’s the opposite? Giggle quietly under your breath and keep walking, leaving the fire to consume the building. The solution that works for your story is probably somewhere in between.
When WWID fails me, I resort to IE: Inspiration by Elimination. (Not Internet Explorer—perish the thought!) I like it because it’s simple. Like stoopid simple: when I can’t figure out what happens next, I make a list of what wouldn’t happen. Let’s use Star Wars as our case study. Luke returns from his lunch date with Obi-Wan to find his Aunt and Uncle reduced to charred lawn ornaments. What would Luke not do? He probably wouldn’t give up and throw himself on the flames. He wouldn’t ditch Obi-Wan and join the Empire. He wouldn’t steal a ship and go off on his own… you get it. The idea here is to get your fingers moving on the keyboard without the pressure of having to write the right thing. It’s fun, imagining your character making a wild, crazy, stupid decision—and who knows, your plot might take a crazy turn as a result.
Determining which kind of block you’re experiencing—Process or Story—can be tricky, and there’s no definitive test. I like to employ the House, M.D. method (sans Vicodin): I just keep trying treatments, and whichever one works defines the disease.
You Can’t Edit A Blank Page
Facing a blank page can be an uncomfortable, confronting experience—but writer’s block doesn’t need to be paralyzing. In fact, I have often found it to be the harbinger of a coming breakthrough. Hopefully, the techniques I’ve described help you on your journey. If you’ve got your own, drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org. My shed can always use more tools.
In the meantime—don’t stop writing. As Chuck Wendig recently wrote, “You can edit a bad page, but you can’t edit a blank one.”