Updated: May 23, 2020
This episode of my novel writing guide will look at the dreaded writer’s block. How to keep going when it gets tough.
It’s amazing the number of people who say writer’s block isn’t real. To them I stick up both middle fingers and tell them to stop denying my lived experience.
However, to avoid the phrase writer’s block we could just use other ways to define an experience that catches many of us out about 20,000 words into our novel. How about deserted by the muse? Or do you prefer stuck? Okay stuck then. What can we do when we’re stuck and don’t know what to write next?
Writing is a job and like any job you will have tough days. But unlike most jobs you don’t have a closely defined role to fall back on. You can’t simply repeat what you did yesterday and get through the day. Writing may be a job, but it’s a creative one, and if we are to create new things we cannot repeat what we’ve already done; we must be inspired.
So your muse has dozed off on the job; how do you wake her or him back up?
The first question I would ask is whether you’re on a tight deadline.
If you aren’t then the best advice I can give is to allow your imagination a little breathing space. Relationships can get tricky, especially if you’re forever taking the other person for granted. Maybe your imagination needs time out – a break. Take a day off and allow your mind time to rest. But keep that notebook ready, just in case. Maybe your creativity is hungry – feed it with walks in the woods, music, films, books. Focus on another pastime you love, if only for a day. Take photos, paint, cross stitch. If you force it you might squeeze out a new sentence or two, but if there’s no looming deadline, do you want to do that?
Wake up the following day, take up your notebook and pen, or load up your writing software and write some more. That didn’t work? Shit! Maybe we need to post a missing person ad. Lost – my muse – reward offered.
Still assuming there isn’t a deadline looming, you could put aside the project you’re stuck on and write something new. Check anthology listings. Write a story to a prompt or theme. Short is better. You don’t want to abandon this novel forever. You’re simply on a break not breaking-up.
If there is a tight deadline and you cannot afford to leave the current project, or you know that if you give up on it now you’ll never return, there are other things you can try. Some are about fixing your mindset, and others are about fixing the novel. The mindset ones are quickest to try, so attempt these first.
Distract yourself - I frequently get inspired while in the shower or while running or walking. If these things work for you too, see what ideas surface while you’re getting sweaty or clean.
Move – if you usually write at your desk, take a notebook or laptop to a cafe and see if that helps. Get on a bus and scribble while the world passes your window. If you usually type, try freehand or vice versa.
What I haven’t mentioned yet, because it’s not an easy thing to hear, is that maybe there’s something wrong with your story. If you’ve exhausted all attempts to fix your mindset, it might be time to look at your novel instead.
Have you written yourself into a corner?
Remember when I mentioned how plans for novels can give you a stepladder to climb this wall? If you have one, check your plan. Where is the novel supposed to be going? It could just be the scene you’re stuck on. Move to a later scene. You can come back later and join the two up.
You don’t have a plan? You’re stuck without a ladder? Up the proverbial creek without a paddle. Okay, how about introducing a new character or plot device? An ex arrives on the scene. An old school buddy stops your main character in the street. Your hero gets a letter through the post. Your hero is hit by a speeding car and dies horribly.
If the last one sounds like the perfect solution to your problem it may be that you haven’t yet figured out whose story this is. Maybe rewrite the story from a different point of view and kill off that treacherous scum bag. It’s your story. You can do whatever you want with it. Don’t let your characters tell you otherwise.
Alternatively read what you have so far and at the end of each chapter decide whether the story is still working for you. Eventually you might read a section and know that’s where you started to stumble. That’s the origin for the story going in the wrong direction. Cut it at that point and write a whole new scene. Don’t delete the later scenes yet. There might be parts you can use from them, but don’t feel trapped into keeping them either. It might sound like a lot of work, but remember how it feels when inspiration sits on your shoulder, whispering sweet plot lines into your ear. To regain that feeling of excitement and control is surely worth the loss of a few thousand words.
Whatever you do, don’t give up. You can get past this block. You can climb the wall.
Friends, readers and fellow authors might be willing and able to give you a boost up. Ask people to read it. They might see what’s gone wrong, or their admiration might give you the strength to keep writing and inspiration will likely follow. You aren’t alone. Few writers finish a novel without doubting it at least one stage. You’ve got this!
Do you have other tips on how to get beyond writer's block and keep writing? Please share them in the comments. If you try my advice please comment with your feedback. Did it work?
I’ll look at what to do when your first draft is finished and you’ve experienced the intense joy that comes with typing those words. The End.
Carmilla Voiez is a horror and fantasy author. Her novels have been published by indie publishing companies including Vamptasy Publishing, CHBB and Stone Circle Publishing and her short stories have been included in anthologies by Clash Books, Weird Punk Books, Siren Magazine, and Dragones Mecanicos. Her award-winning Starblood series is being adapted into a series of graphic novels illustrated by Anna Prashkovich. She has studied creative writing with the Open University and proof-reading with Chapterhouse. Carmilla also offers individually tailored editing packages for self-publishing authors.
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