In the second of a two-part series, Geoff Hart provides some practical solutions to overcoming writer’s block, a condition that affects most fiction and non-fiction writers at some point in their careers.
Practicalities and Overcoming Writer’s Block
Practicalities are obstacles you can solve by choosing an appropriate strategy and then gritting your teeth and doing the necessary work. Because they aren’t psychological barriers, they’re much easier to get past because all you need to do is force yourself to follow the appropriate steps, possibly with help from friends and colleagues. You don’t always need your muse to be able to write: some aspects of writing, such as developing a timeline or plot outline, are fairly mechanical. Since you’re the only one who will see them, they don’t have to be perfect. You’ll fix the problems later when you revise the story.
Learning technique from others
When the blockage comes because your talents aren’t yet mature, and you haven’t learned how to solve the range of typical problems in your genre of writing, look for help from others who have gone before. It’s unlikely you’re the only one to have ever encountered a particular problem, so do some reading in writer magazines and online forums to find out how other writers have dealt with it. Many writers maintain excellent web sites with advice on certain common writing problems, including James Patrick Kelly and Robert Sawyer. Collect a few possible solutions, and then try each until you find one that solves the problem. If you’ve got time and energy, try all the other solutions too so you can discover different ways to solve a particular problem. One may work where others fail in a future situation.
Finding good ideas is perhaps the most common problem writers face. If you don’t live near Schenectady (Harlan Ellison’s infamous reply to a question about where his ideas came from), there’s no shortage of ways to find ideas. My first strategy starts with reminding myself that life’s too short to waste it reading crap. Anything good enough to hold my interest to the end is something that fascinates me, and understanding the source of that fascination provides an inspiration. For example, I’ve been working somewhat erratically on a science fiction novel based on Commodore Perry’s invasion of Japan in the 1850s. It’s a wonderfully rich basis for crafting a first-contact-with-alien-species story.
The key is to develop a rich intellectual and emotional life by exposing yourself constantly to new ideas, in areas you’re not already intimately familiar with and areas that inspire some degree of passion. The more you learn about people and the world you live in, the more things you’ll find that interest you. The more things that interest you, the more likely it is that one of them will inspire you to write. If you lack the energy or drive to go seeking these ideas, make them come to you instead. Some writers subscribe to a quotations or “joke of the day” service; others use writing-prompt software such as “WriteSparks”. Still others subscribe to blogs or news services that focus on an area of interest. The trick is to expose yourself to the kinds of things that wake you up and make you take notice. Each is a potential source of something to write about, or of details that can enhance your writing about something else.
One of the most frequently cited tips for preventing or overcoming writer’s block is to never go anywhere without a notebook or a few scraps of paper so you can jot down ideas as they occur to you. Nowadays, the notepad may have become a smartphone or iPad. I still keep a pad and paper beside the bed so that when inspiration strikes, as it often does while I’m falling asleep, I can capture it for future consideration. A companion pad lives in my backpack. Use that notebook or your smartphone to create and expand a well-stocked “ideas” file: include fragments, outlines, characters, dialogue, and the names of books, articles, and Web sites that caught your interest, and when you run out of inspiration, return to that file and see if anything in it helps your imagination catch fire. Consider using software such as IdeaFisher to organize your thoughts and help you brainstorm ways to unite all this information into something coherent.
When you do have a great idea, but it hasn’t gelled enough for you to write about it yet, spend some time researching the subject. Unless you’re already an expert, you need to learn enough about it that, to the casual eye, you appear to be an expert. Scientists (I’m a recovering scientist) often complain that most science fiction writers don’t know much about the science they’re nominally writing about, but that’s only one example; historians complain that writers don’t understand history, horse experts complain that most writers know nothing about horses, and cooks complain that most writers know nothing about cooking.
That’s okay, at least to some extent: no writer can become an expert about everything. But if you’re serious about your craft, you should at least make an effort to learn your subject well enough to write credibly about it, even if you might not fool an expert. Nowadays, Internet discussion groups exist for just about any topic you can imagine (and many you can’t imagine). Find relevant groups and join them to learn how their members speak, the things that fascinate and frustrate them, and the kinds of arcane knowledge that only members of that group possess. Don’t join the conversation until you know how that particular community functions and how to ask a question in a way that meets with community approval. Learn enough to ask intelligent questions, and you’ll find a great many people willing to provide knowledgeable answers, and their enthusiasm is often contagious.
Keep your fingers moving
One useful tactic is to never let a particular stumbling block stop you from carrying on. You never need to get all the details down in near-final form during your first pass through a story. It’s always acceptable to insert a note such as “find out what horses eat” or “insert the joke’s punch line here”, and carry on with the story after the horse has been fed or all the characters have stopped laughing at your joke. There will be plenty of time to fill in the gaps, whether by research or by letting your subconscious dwell on a problem overnight, when you come back to revise the story. If not, talk it out with friends. Several times, a friend has pointed out the obvious solution that I couldn’t see because I was too close to the problem.
Resolve to write though impasses even if you know the results will be crap: the goal is to make some progress, capture the essence of what you’re trying to achieve, then refine it later. Because you’re going to have to revise later anyway, don’t paralyze yourself by trying to revise as you write. Definitely don’t stop to fix typos, and don’t overthink what you’re writing. Your internal critic is your biggest enemy. The worst thing about revision as you write is that while you’re busy tripping over your feet, you’re losing sight of the big picture.
The important exception to this rule is when you’re on the brink of something really good—numinous, even—and you desperately need to capture its essence before it fades. In that case, it’s worthwhile grappling with the idea until you can wrestle it to the ground. This kind of intense focus really requires freedom from interruptions, so even if you can’t normally unplug the phone or Internet, do it now.
There are a variety of exercises you can try that may help get you past specific stumbling blocks. Most are purely mechanical exercises, but some require creativity. On the former end of the spectrum, try retyping some writing that inspires or inspired you, including your own work. Feeling the words flow from your eyes, through your brain, and into your fingers can get your mind back in gear. Particularly for your own writing, this is a great way to get your brain thinking the same way your character was thinking when you wrote that original text. In a more creative version of this strategy, take a chapter or scene you particularly liked and recreate it from a radically different point of view (POV). If you’ve written the scene from the perspective of the monster who’s killing its victim, rewrite it from scratch from the POV of the victim. If you’ve written about an epic meal, write about it from the perspective of the chef who created it or the waiter who cleaned up afterwards. Try to recapture the original excitement that led you to that scene by seeing it through someone else’s eyes. Even if you just jot down point-form notes, thinking about the resulting differences from your first thought can reveal key details you omitted from the original version.
It’s commonly said you can’t write believably about characters if you don’t know how they think. Many writers describe this as the characters suddenly coming alive and developing their own opinions about what should happen to them and how it should happen. To learn those opinions, try interviewing your characters. Ask them who they are and how they found themselves in their current situation. Ask them how they felt before, during, and after an event. Pretend that you’re a journalist, whether you’re working for the snootiest “just the facts” newspaper or for the seediest tabloid. Pay attention to how the character responds to gain insights into how they’re feeling about their situation, including you and other onlookers.
When it actually comes time to write about the events in question, remember to write “in the moment”. Your characters don’t know what is going to happen next, even if you do, so they must react to their current situation, not to the long-term needs of your plot. The mismatch between what they expect to happen and what actually happens will have consequences for their emotional and intellectual responses to their situation. Don’t neglect those consequences, particularly if you would respond differently. The whole point about this trick is that even if you don’t know what to write about in a given scene, the characters may know and may be willing to tell you.
Use the same approach to learn what key aspects of their context a character will experience in a given scene—sight, sound, smell, touch, taste, emotion, or logic. Determine which of these senses will motivate the scene and the character’s response, and which ones are irrelevant. Focus on the motivators, but don’t neglect the less important factors, since each of us experiences many things simultaneously, even if we don’t focus on any one thing. Sometimes what seems irrelevant may acquire relevance later. Once you’ve figured out the key details, pick the ones that interest you most and use them to get past your block.
Keep your eyes open for opportunities to try both new and old things. New markets, such as anthologies, literary magazines, and Web sites, are constantly emerging, and sometimes one will inspire you to try something new. Sometimes the opposite is true: you’ve written something long ago in an older style that doesn’t much resemble your current style or that focuses on different concerns, but it still has some resonance that brings you back to it. Remember that old story you wanted to write about the aging vampire who needs dentures to eat? The new anthology on geriatric protagonists might be the place to send it. Remember the old-style western you wrote, centered around a love story? That new magazine of classic western romances is just the right market. Think of those old stories as a kind of comfort food for your writer’s soul: you can go back to your roots and remember some of those early inspirations. You may find that you can write something in an old style when your new style is simply too challenging.
However, if you aspire to grow as a writer rather than simply getting better at the same old same old, you also want to avoid sinking into old ruts. Try rewriting one of your stories in an entirely different style or genre: if the plot points of the original story require all the trappings (and literary conventions) of science fiction, and the story must be plausible based on our current knowledge of science, ask yourself whether and how the human heart of the story changes if you remove those constraints and adopt the different set of constraints imposed by fantasy (e.g., the possibility of magic), a western (science fiction without the modern science), or something else entirely.
Periodically breaking out of your box keeps your writing muscles flexible. If you tend to write in one voice (first person versus third person), one style (formal vs. folksy), or one genre (e.g., spy fiction vs. romance), it pays to occasionally try a different style or genre to stretch your literary muscles. That’s particularly true nowadays, since mashups of all kinds that combine elements from very different genres are becoming wildly popular as authors chafe against the artificial boundaries imposed by the marketing needs of publishers and bookstores. It may be difficult to find a particular mashup that hasn’t already been tried, but if you can, this is also an opportunity to blaze new ground and make a name for yourself, while simultaneously offering a possible motherlode of new stories that haven’t yet been mined out by other writers.
If something inspires you, write about it. Don’t be afraid to set it aside when you’re done and move on, then come back to it later—or never. No writing is wasted if you enjoyed the process and learned something from overcoming the particular challenges of that story. There’s a huge difference between writing and marketing: write for joy of it, then worry about how to sell it once you’re satisfied with the writing.
Literary and esthetic
Some of us just want to tell a good story. Others have some “deep” message they want to share in the hope of changing the world. Still others want to craft a literary jewel that shows off all the pomo techniques they’ve learned while earning a BA in literature, even if the result isn’t much in the way of story and doesn’t have much of a message. Each goal comes with a different set of literary and esthetic criteria. If you make an effort to understand what you’re trying to accomplish before you set out, you’re more likely to reach that goal.
Working within a genre’s criteria
Once you understand a genre’s criteria, brainstorm about them with friends who share (or at least understand) those criteria. They’ll help you see the holes in what you’re hoping to achieve and ways to work around any obstacles that stop you from that achievement. But also brainstorm with people who don’t share or possibly don’t even respect those criteria. Their radically different perspectives may give you a fresh approach or (as you try to justify your goal) confirm you in your desire to use the chosen criteria and approach.
Joining a writer’s group is an excellent way to obtain these contrasting opinions. The best writer’s groups include people with different backgrounds and goals who will challenge you to clarify and defend your ideas. But they will also talk you past impasses and dead-ends once they understand what you’re trying to achieve. In particular, authors in their genre may have long since solved a problem that authors in your genre are still grappling with, so you can adapt that solution to your own needs. The adrenaline of defending yourself and the excitement of sharing someone else’s interest in your work can provide unparalleled motivation to get writing. However, writer’s groups can also be powerfully demotivating if members don’t understand that the group’s primary goal must be to help you achieve your goal, not to impose someone else’s arbitrary set of criteria. If someone doesn’t get that the goal of critiquing is to help you write better (not to prove how nasty they can be as a critic), remind them of why they’re part of the group.
As an alternative to the traditional writer’s group, why not form a “reader’s group”? That is, find a few people who love reading and enjoy thinking about what they’ve read, but who have no aspirations to be writers. Such people are invaluable for several reasons, most importantly because they’re often better representatives of your audience than other writers, and because they aren’t constrained by the kinds of assumptions most writers learn and internalize. (In a terminology familiar to most technical writers, these people are often called “beta readers”.) As a result, their reactions to your writing may be more valuable than the critiques of your fellow writers. Talking to real readers can help you understand what excites them about good writing, and that excitement may be sufficiently contagious to get you writing again.
Speaking of arbitrary criteria, you’re not obliged to accept all of the criteria of a particular genre. A good example is science fiction writer Geoff Ryman’s “mundane manifesto”: as an esthetic choice, he’s offered the challenge of writing only stories that use the science we already know rather than (so far as we know) impossible technologies such as faster-than light spaceships See the Wikipedia article “Mundane science fiction” for details. Asking the difficult question of why a particular criterion is assumed by a genre and what might happen if you relax that constraint can lead to really interesting new insights into a genre that’s beginning to show its age.
Understand your story
Some writers find they must understand the overall shape of their story before they begin to write it, and only begin to write once they understand how everything fits together in an interesting and exciting way. Others prefer to learn these things as they write, led by their growing understanding of a character and how that character thinks and acts. I’ve found myself taking both approaches at different times: sometimes the story springs into my head fully designed, with all the key details in place, but other times I only find out what the story’s about by writing it—or rewriting it half a dozen times.
If you’re the kind of author who knows exactly what is going to happen and how, you may be tempted to force your characters into procrustean paths, and give your characters no choice but to obey you. If you’re the kind of author who’s driven mainly by a desire to understand your characters, you’ll be more reluctant to place those constraints on your characters, preferring to let them gradually come into focus and lead you somewhere interesting, even if that destination’s not where you originally intended to go. The latter approach is more organic, but the former approach can be more realistic. In the real world, we often have no choice about what we must do or the obstacles in our way, and must instead find ways to do what’s necessary while maintaining our courage and sanity. The two approaches create very different responses in a character. If a character is your hapless puppet, they’ll experience a sense of powerlessness and lack of agency that shapes their every action to some degree. But characters who have a sense of agency because they feel they can control their world won’t passively accept your plot choices, and their struggle against those choices can provide exciting discoveries about where to take a character and how to tell their story.
Regain the excitement
The practical and literary/esthetic problems are easy to solve, because they’re primarily mechanical, requiring a little effort or insightful help from your writer friends. The psychological problems are far less tractable, but in many cases, the solutions come down to the simple challenge of regaining the excitement that drove you to write in the first place. That desire can get you past a great many problems.
Geoff is the author of close to 400 non-fiction articles, some of which have been gathered in his book of essays on scientific communication, not to mention three novels and more than 20 short stories.