Writer’s block is a label we stick on a wide range of different writing struggles – and almost every writer will have experienced it in one form or another
Writers’ Academy tutor Dr. Guy Mankowski draws from proven techniques to help you beat writer’s block – covering everything from your writing environment to your characters.
Before we start, I should say a few words about my own credentials regarding overcoming writer’s block.
I started writing in 2010 since then have had four novels published. My first novel, The Intimates, was completed over a six-week period.
I’d only had the first two chapters written before then. I was given a small-advance by my publisher and so had to complete the novel in that time before returning to my full-time job as a psychologist. I therefore had to learn to write a lot under a fair amount of time pressure.
I was instantly confronted with all the many reasons that writers are unable to write- from my own self-criticism, to lack of time, space, money as well as an excess of distractions.
For my subsequent novels I’ve undertaken a lot of research. My second novel was set in the world of Russian ballet and I travelled to St Petersburg to research it there.
In 2015 I finished a PhD in Creative Writing, which required a lot of research into music, which is what the novel written for it was about. By then I had realised that research can also become a kind of writer’s block!
Before going any further I just want to slightly rethink this term Writer’s Block. The psychologist Paul Silva wrote a book on this subject:
“Naming something gives it object power. People can overthink themselves into deep dark corners, and writer’s block is a good example… it’s just a situation, not an underlying condition, and it’s solved, by definition, the moment you write anything.”
– Paul Silva
I think he’s right- perhaps we shouldn’t think of Writer’s Block as a virus you can catch!
Method 1: How do others do it?
I often compare my weekly writing progress with my friend, the Scottish novelist Andrew Crumey. He is frequently beaming if he’s written even a couple of hundred words. That to me would rarely feel enough, but it’s all relative. I can see why he is happy with that; I know they will be good words, even if there’s not many of them.
Whereas I can write two thousands words, feel happy, but know that in all possibility I’ll be keeping none of them.
Method 2: ‘Dream Journal’ or ‘Morning Pages’
To defeat Writer Block in the definitional sense, you could keep a dream journal, as Graham Greene did, or do “morning pages”: three pages of whatever comes to mind first thing.
You could argue that you’ve then beaten Writers Block- if you insist on looking at in in black and white terms.
But I know the issue more complex than that. In this webinar I’m going to share with you a toolbox of skills I’ve learnt from my own experience, and from the experience of others, to help you reach your target.
When starting my first novel the first thing I did was set time aside- the six weeks I mentioned. I had a small advance but I’d also saved money to give me that time.
Assign dedicated time to your writing
You have to have dedicated time to finish a writing project. I know give myself a few protected hours on Thursday and Friday evenings. I have since realised I can’t write full-time.
Set yourself a goal
The second aspect I focused on was to work out a target. I decided on getting down about 2000 words a day.
These calculations show my naivety because- as any novelist will tell you – some days you can write, and some days you simply can’t; and that’s okay. One of the many things I didn’t know at the time.
Always write a plan
I also created a plan, which was very useful. Always Have a plan. I created a Word document with about three pages summarising the whole story (much as a synopsis would).
My target was to remove a few lines of this dread ‘planning document’ every day.
Sometimes I did not feel like writing the next few lines from my planning document- so I wrote a few lines from elsewhere on this plan. I learnt to be flexible.
I know that not every writer works best with a plan, as some get bored of following the brief. Some authors I know start with characters and a situation and the thrill for them is in seeing where the plot happens to go. That sounds fun; but hasn’t worked for me in practice.
Make sure your goals are realistic
Many writers agree on the importance of setting realistic goals and monitoring the extent to which you achieve them. I soon got behind with my plan because I realised I couldn’t do 2000 decent words in one day.
This was a source of deep frustration and meant all my plans had to soon go out the window. I would get to about two pm in the afternoon, having written a few scenes that seemed to flow, and would realize that clearing my head on a long walk wasn’t going to help my write any more. I’d hit my ceiling.
Even though writing isn’t physically tiring, the engagement of the imagination to tie together all the threads of a story together to make it work is tiring. Once or twice, in fits of inspiration, I wrote 5000 words in 24 hours. But most days I was coming up short. My novel at that point wasn’t getting done.
How to avoid distractions
One problem was distractions. I hadn’t written any fiction under time pressure before, and so I while writing was constantly moving my desk to another part of my room, or twitching on my chair because my feet weren’t comfortable, or playing with the light so I could see my screen. Or else I’d find myself taking endless trips to the kitchen for coffee. I’d then get started but feel hungry.
I eventually realised that my needs, as a human being, were standing in the way of my objective of writing. So all those human needs- from sleeping, to eating, to having a comfortable chair in a quiet room that wasn’t too hot or bright, needed to be met before I could even start writing.
Consider your writing environment
In truth, this was a realisation that changed my life. I realised I needed to think about my writing environment. One I could slip comfortably into and write, if inspiration struck me. This is an acceptance that your ‘art’ is important enough to structure your life around.
So, I moved the desk to the best position, and I even got a footstall. I was generous to myself with my wall space, putting spider diagrams up regarding how characters related to each other on the wall so I could see them when I needed to, at a glance.
I kept my manuscript uncluttered with any notes, with my guide document readily accessible. The part of the guide document that needed intention was in bold, so I could get straight to it.
I know author writers who have dealt with far more distractions- such as noise, or children. Having planned dedicated writing time can help to an extent.
Examples of writing environments
Jonthan Safran Foer always has a folded blanket on my lap. Roald Dahl climbed into a sleeping bag in his shed. Dan Brown, it has emerged, occasionally dons a pair of gravity boots and hangs upside down from a special frame to help him relax and concentrate better on his writing. Victor Hugo allegedly asked his valet to hide his clothes and wrote in the nude – or at least, on cold days, wrapped in a blanket – so he could not go outside. You don’t need to go that far.
It’s about finding the environment that’s lets you write, and is ideally one that fits your unique needs. I personally think creating this environment is part of the fun of finding your artistic identity.
(writing space 1: Will Self’s writing room)
It’s not just the state of your body, but the state of your mind that is very important. You need to be able to mentally concentrate.
Having realised this I then ensured, each morning, that I had slept well (with not too much alcohol the night before) and that I had eaten before I wrote. I turned my phone off only allowed myself on social media during a break! I needed silence; a lot of authors do. The bestselling author Ruth Dugdall told me she wrote her first novel with earplugs in.
Technical writing block
So once you’ve got to grips with the act of writing how do we overcome blockages in the text itself?
I soon came up against the problem that there were many scenes I had to write that I just wasn’t that interested in. This sounds bizarre- as it was my novel! But the truth is there were a few key scenes (conversations in which characters revealed themselves, or bits where they were partying with each other) that I really did want to write. They made the writing of a novel worthwhile to me.
But all the scenes to get Character A to the place where they needed to meet Character B for the next part of the story often did not really interest me. I eventually realized that if these scenes did not interest me they were certainly not going to interest the reader.
So I eventually came to learn that if I was dreading writing a scene I either had to wait until I did want to write it and write something else now or, most likely, I had to engage my imagination and find a way to change the scene so I couldn’t wait to get it written.
I recall one scene in the novel where two characters had to discuss, in a quiet room while a party raged downstairs, a painting on a wall. Looking at this painting they had to work out that the owner of the house had stolen it, and then together they had to decide that the owner of the house could not be trusted. This was to set the story on a whole new path. Writing this scene felt like a grind. I had to make the scene interesting for me. In the end I decided that if the conversation made me laugh, it would be more engaging.
If there was a sexual chemistry between the characters, it would make the humorous tone more interesting. I finally realised that it would only take two sentences for me to meet the brief I had set for that scene. Someone pretty much just had to say: ‘This oil painting is so expensive. To have it the owner of this house must be rich, even though she’s made out she’s poor. We can’t trust her.’
I used the rest of the scene to have fun exploring the characters, and getting them to speak in the kind of tone that would bring them to say the one sentence I needed to hear from them.
It became apparent that the best way to bring a scene to life was by introducing some kind of confrontation. A seasoned author gave me some key advice on overcoming writers block, at this point. I was telling him about a scene I’d written, that I’d liked, which was atmospheric. I wanted to keep it but I couldn’t progress with it. He told me that that if there was no conflict to resolve in that scene it was probably dead space.
I realised this was true. If the character wasn’t developing themselves, or being driven, the scene was going nowhere.
Character crib sheets
A confrontation in values between two characters, a conflict regarding what they want, who they are or what they represent can work. When I couldn’t find that conflict I went digging for it.
I built up crib sheets of back-story about my characters in my notebooks. I detailed everything about them; from how they were as kids, their relationships with their parents, what they did when they were alone, to their speech tendencies.
Until I had in my arsenal aspects I could bring out that would enable them to be in conflict with another in the scene. Dead scenes therefore became active.
How can setting help?
The setting of your story can help with this. I made my setting more of a hothouse, in which people couldn’t escape one another, knowing that if they had to speak to each other then their back story would come out.
I made sure other characters wanted to stoke these dynamics for their own reasons. I leant on my plan.
Learn to trust yourself
Even after all this, the scene was also going nowhere if I really, really didn’t want to write! I learnt to trust myself and my own mood, and not remonstrate with myself if I really just didn’t want to write there and then. This was a key realisation, as I finally understood that if I didn’t want to write then if I made myself I would create writing that was not enjoyable to read.
Just as we exercise better if we enjoy it, I had to be honest with myself about where my head was at.
I found though, that having created an enjoyable working environment I now wanted to be in it. I didn’t have the money for any luxury mod-cons so I had to be creative. I learnt to enjoy the scenes that were going well and explore them to their fullest. Scenes I really didn’t want to write were that way for a reason- they would often shrink or disappear. I learnt to enjoy the technical aspect of creating connecting scenes that were enjoyable to read.
Know your limitations
When the novel was finally sent to my editor she wanted me to take it to darker places to finish it. I had to get inside the motivations of all the characters- even ones I didn’t like. I now think sense of empathy is very important for an artist. I learnt here my final big lesson, which is that a writer can never see their own work too clearly as they are standing in the way of it.
You need to know your limitations.
However hard I had worked on my book, it took a trusted adviser to tell me what was needed to make the most of the novel.
My final tip would be to look for the person that will do the same for you. This is hard, as other people may secretly not want you to write, or not want you to write that story, or have all kinds of hang-ups that are getting in the way. It’s taken me many years but I have three or four other people whose opinion I trust on my writing. I would advise you to seek them out, as they’re worth their weight in gold in helping you finisn your work.
“I’ve now written three novels, but I don’t know how to write them. Each has been the result of its own esoteric, inefficient and frustrating process, each a genuine surprise. I have yet to write the book I planned to write, yet to write in the period of time I imagined the book would take, yet to sustain one way of working through an entire book.”
– Jonthan Safran Foer
This leads me to my conclusion. The reason people see it as an achievement to write a book is because people know it requires the overcoming of so many difficulties- external and internal. Almost anyone can write 55,000 words on a Word document. Writing a novel is an achievement because it requires the solving of problems that no-one can help you with. That’s why it’ll be your achivement.
There is no blueprint. Part of the fun – and achievement – is finding your way through that.
Maybe you’ve tried some of these techniques, but there’s still a very specific element of your story that’s causing a creative block?
If so, our Writing 101 page has a range of posts and webinars on the craft of writing – covering everything from writing dialogue and setting to POV and narrative voice.