I debated which perspective to write this from—as an editor or as a writer—and decided that I needed to stare this down as a writer…because it’s one of my biggest flaws. Like many writers, I’ve personified my muse: he has a name and character design and everything. He’s even in some of my books. What I also do (and this is that big flaw), however, is I use my muse as an excuse.
The muse being “on vacation” or “uncooperative” is really just another form of “writer’s block.” Every writer shudders at the thought: stuck on a scene or what comes next or, worse, the inability to write at all.
But I’ve started challenging myself with the notion that writer’s block is just the perceived inability to write. There are no motivational faeries that I need capture or planets that need to align in order for me to be writing. I don’t need to be in the right “mood” or time of day. I don’t have to wrestle my muse.
I once asked Ed Greenwood, “How do you write so many books?” His answer was to the point: Butt in chair and fingers on keyboard. He chuckled (he’s a super approachable guy) and we had quite the conversation after that, but it stuck with me. Just sit down and write. It’s so simple! Why didn’t I think of that?
That worked for awhile until the next time I sat staring numbly at the little blinking cursor haunting the vast white screen of my word processor.
Augh…writer’s block, I groaned. I couldn’t string words together into a sentence let alone spin the next daunting conflict in my novel.
Instead of hanging my head in shame and defeat (and picking up any number of other projects to procrastinate), I opened up a new document and just wrote whatever came to mind (Admittedly, it was a lot of verbal self-flagellation and cursing, but it worked out whatever stresses I had and let me finish the scene I was on).
Motivation Faeries Don’t Exist, But Here’s a Few Tricks to Catch Them
Whenever you find yourself stuck—whether hung up on a scene, lost for dialogue, or unsure where to even begin—here are a few ways I use to beat writer’s block into submission.
First Thing’s First. Set aside time to write. This will vary depending on your schedule but dedicating a block of time for writing—and I mean only writing—is key. I have a routine between home and work, and vice versa, to get myself in gear...and I do the same when I write, whether I can schedule 30 minutes or a whole day, the routine is the same: shut off the phone, put on one of my writing soundtracks, and get comfortable at my desk.
Unfortunately, I haven’t figured out how to magic more time in a busy day to dedicate to writing (I’ll get back to you on that one when I do figure it out).
So now, comfy at my desk, prepared for writing, and...nothing. No words are coming to mind. So now what?
Talk it out. First step, read what you have out loud; vocalizing is different than thinking in your head. And, yes, it’s perfectly acceptable to talk to yourself (or a rubber duck, more on this later).
Get a second opinion. When I’m writing, I don’t tend to want another human being to tell me their thoughts so I stick with inanimate objects or my cat; but, once the rough draft is done, having someone to talk to has always been a great boon for any remaining plot tangles (or that one stupid scene that refuses to come together). You’ll also be surprised by what someone else might say (or the questions they might ask).
Turn the Page: Perhaps not literally, but whether you type on a computer or write by hand, open up a blank page…and write whatever comes to mind! Don’t be afraid to move away from your plot. I know for linear writers this can be tough, but it doesn’t have to be about your current story. I often start by venting my frustrations with the scene I’m stuck on. I’ve had mixed results with this approach—sometimes I just go off on tangents or have moments of venting all my stresses, but those are the days when life has often tripped me up and is preoccupying my mind—better out than in! Also, whatever you do, don’t delete anything (until you’re done) just focus on one thing: writing.
Do not pause. Do not hesitate. Do not stare at the shiny thing outside your window.
Here are some ideas to get you started:
Vent about what’s tripping you up, even if that’s just “I can’t write,” “I don’t feel like writing,” or “What’s the point of writing this?” (Or mashing the keyboard repeatedly like I sometimes do…).
If it’s a character being troublesome, I start writing about them or from their perspective…admittedly, I’ve put my characters in some pretty nasty situations out of frustration.
Find a writing prompt! Ask on social media for random words or sentences and just go with it!
Write a description about a random area in your world; write from a random character’s perspective; or write a journal entry for your main character. For some examples: What’s an average day in the life of the villager’s baker? Describe the area of the forest your characters don’t explore. Write from the perspective of the city park’s fountain. (This can sometimes lead to some interesting world building!)
Worried about your writing? Write about it. No one ever has to see it, but sometimes physically writing it out can “get the lead out” so to speak. (My favourite line from one of these sessions was “Oh god I can’t write romance, what do boys even taste like?” I don’t know why my brain defaulted to taste…I might have been hungry.)
The Rubber Ducky. When all else fails, this is a tactic used by programmers (Rubber Ducky Debugging) and one I’ve used for years (and everyone seems to get a kick out of it when I mention it the first time). I have a small army of rubber ducks that I’ve picked up over the years, but you can use any little toy that can sit at your desk. When I’m stuck, I put a duck at the keyboard, set a timer, and walk away.
The timer is important! If you’ve been staring blankly for even half an hour frustrated over your writing, you need a break. Also, without the timer and if you’re like me, you’ll wander away too long (and then it’s 3 AM and you hate yourself for watching Netflix all day).
This gives me time away from whatever plot snag I’ve hit but also forces me back to the keyboard. When my timer rings, I come back and ask Sir Ducksworth how he’s fixed the issue which leads us to the next tactic…
ELI5 or “Explain it Like I’m 5.” My programmer friend actually called his rubber duck “Elis” for this phrase. When I say I ask my rubber duck what he’s been up to, I’m really just vocalizing what I’m stuck on. Whether to the aforementioned duck, your pet, your partner (or, hey, your 5-year-old if that’s an option), explain what’s happening in the most basic of terms (your plot up to this point, what should come next, what still needs to happen).
A Step Further. If you really want to challenge yourself. Write the chapter/scene you’re stuck on in 350 words (or as close as you can get without going over). That’ll pluck out the most important points for you.
Remember: You can edit later. I panic about this a lot, but, remember, writing a novel or short story is a unique medium in that it doesn’t require instant publication. Whatever you write, you will get a chance to look it over again—though I highly recommend doing so after a break and to get other eyes on your work as well so you have feedback to work with. Nothing you write is set in stone.
Don’t let it stop you. And I say “it” to refer to whatever inner demon is rearing its head and stopping you from writing. I wrestle with self-doubt; the absolute certainty that no one will even want to read the junk I write; the fear that I’m wasting my time; the dread that I’m writing every trope character and plot in existence; and any number of other shortcomings.
But, in the end, if I don’t write anything down, I’m not trying, and if I’m not trying, there’s no chance to succeed at all.
Butt in chair. Fingers on keyboard.
P.S. From the Editor
I’ve helped a lot of writers with areas that need work—scenes tagged with comments of “Something else here” or simply “More”—all the way to completely missing sections (climaxes, battle scenes, romantic subplots…whole endings and beginnings). So, don’t worry about writing perfection immediately or even for the draft you send your editor: we’re here to help!