Even if you're of the "It's sheer self-indulgence" school of opinion, there's no denying that writer's block is a hot topic - except when it's a source of silent, dark and excruciating shame. The thing is, for every new writer declaring, "I'm blocked!" when what they mean is they're a bit stuck on what happens in the next scene - or (un)consciously spinning their lack of determination into a Terrible Problem for a Serious Writer - there's a professional author, with a mortgage hanging on their delivering, who can't bear to tell their friends they've had to hand an advance back because there's no hope of a finished book.
I'll come out straight away and say that, so far, touch wood, in decades of serious writing I haven't suffered from writer's block. Procrastination, yes, I've had plenty of that, and of course they're related and often have similar causes. I'm also well-acquainted with both the Anti-Writing Demon and the Must-Write Demon.
But I'm not talking about the (apparently) simple failure to get on with it. Multi-published novelist (and terrific writing teacher, by the way) Julie Cohen had never really experienced it, she said, because if she got stuck she just wrote any old rubbish until she was through it: there's a distinct subtext that, after all, any of us can write any old rubbish, can't we? Some years later, she and her publisher so disagreed about what her new novel needed to be that she returned the advance so as to get out of the contract, which is a very brave and very scary thing for a professional writer to do. A different publisher loved it, however, and a new contract was signed - then for the first time in her life she ran slap into a massive block. For months and months - a year, if I remember her correctly - she just could not write the book. It all ended happily when Together was published and was a massive success. But, as Julie says, it just goes to show that not believing in writer's block doesn't mean you won't get it.
ETA 8th July 2021: Novelist Sarah Hilary has a similar story, saying on Twitter: "I used to think it was a myth, or a thing you could explain away. I used to quote my writing mentor, who said, 'There's no such thing as writer's block, only bad ideas.' Then it walloped me, and I changed my mind completely."
ETA 8th July 2021: YA Author - and former children's book editor - Non Pratt says they also would like to be added to the list of authors who didn't believe in writer's block, until it happened to them.
ETA 6th August 2021: Novelist Julia Crouch is another writer who believed that writer's block was really just writers too frightened to get on with it - until a combination of personal and professional circumstances landed her slap bang in it herself.
Of course it can be easier to declare that you're stuck than to go on facing up to just how difficult this writing thing can be, day after day. Even mental brick walls are not pleasant to keep on banging your head against, and if it's not your writing which is putting the shillings in the teapot on the mantelpiece ready for the rent-collector then it's horribly tempting to stop.
But earning a living isn't the only thing which makes writing central to a writer's life. What we're talking about here is the writer who stares at a blank screen for four hours with tears pouring down their face, or spends eight hours a day writing eight words, and the next day re-writing them…and rewriting the same words every day for a month. We're talking about disabling terror or utter, wretched blankness, perhaps for months. As one of the writers says in the Royal Literary Fund's thread of mini-podcasts on writer's block: having writer's block can't be sheer laziness, because it's much harder work than writing is.
As far as I'm concerned, telling someone with real, serious writer's block that all it takes is willpower, and a proper (read: macho) breadwinner's need to pay the rent, is like telling someone with clinical depression that all it takes is pulling your socks up for the sake of the children.
So here are some things to think about which I hope will help you, or the writer in your life, with an attack of writer's block. They start with the practical, which for more straightforward attacks may kick-start things again, and they all come with the proviso that I'm not a psychotherapist, and please don't take these as a substitute for getting professional help.
1) If you don't know what to write next
- Try by-passing or switching off the censor: free-writing or clustering.
- Try stepping away from the text and doing some imagining-on-paper in another form: mind-maps, sketch-maps, family trees, ground-plans; micro-planning this scene so the writing is only joining the dots, a bit of light planning looking further ahead, writing a synopses (yes, honestly!)
- If you've got in a muddle with scenes and files and plans all over the place, try taming your novel.
- Consider that you might have hit the thirty-thousand doldrums
2) If you know what to write next, but not how to write it. In my experience, this is usually about one of the following:
- The events that need to happen next, in this place, with those characters present, just aren't right for the story: the chain of cause-and-effect isn't convincing and doesn't connect properly, and some part of your brain is trying to tell you that. Work backwards till you find where it started to get out of joint. You could even ask the novel my seventeen questions.
- You've picked the wrong point-of-view, or voice, or psychic distance. Try stepping aside from the text, and play with the absolute opposites for a bit. Write scenes from a bystander's PoV, or the antagonist's, or in extreme long-shot, or mad stream-of-consciousness, or a diary-entry or a newspaper report, and see what happens, and what that might tell you about the solution.
- Again, try by-passing the censor with free-writing or clustering, or go back to the exercises on that poetry course you did ages ago and play poetically with the themes and people and voices of the novel, to see what you release.
3) If you've reached a bit you don't want to write, you may not immediately realise it, merely find yourself doing run-of-the-mill procrastination. Or some of the playing I've suggested further up may have brought your fear or distaste out into the open: try some of these ways in.
But do remember that it's perfectly all right to recognise that there are some places you are simply not willing or even safely able to force your imagination to go. There's a lot of posturing on the writing forums and, indeed, the event platforms, about how essential it is that you bleed onto every the page. It certainly is true that you are likely to write best when you're writing things which are potent for you, but that doesn't mean that you must drive yourself to the brink of PTSD flashbacks to write anything worth reading.
Indeed, perhaps you're more likely to write something well when it's not so flinchingly difficult to write that in fact you keep pulling your self-inflicted punches. So don't be afraid to change your plans for the book, and research your way to potency on safer ground, if it means you're able to do full justice to every scene.
4) If your confidence in this book and its prospects has taken a dive. If a beta-reader has said they were bored or unconvinced, then remember that they may have found a problem, but it's not necessarily a problem for others - and in any case, the cause may not be what they think it is. Triage the feedback so you're only working with what is useful to you.
What if a book with a similar theme is suddenly all over social media, or a journalist has just said loudly that they're so over stories of your kind? We are horribly thin-skinned about these things. Your best private group of writing friends are a blessing here: they can see clearly enough to tell you - in a way you'll believe - that yours is actually very different, and/or that no one cares what that person thinks anyway. (If it's not that sort of group, go elsewhere.) And if the book's fairly nearly finished and revised, you could consider getting a professional appraisal.
But I would also counsel stepping away from book-trade-watching; here's why. Endlessly doom-scrolling publishing news stokes your anxiety and sticks magnets on your writerly compass, without giving you any solid data to work with. The opposite may be true, mind you: if you are prepared to do detailed research into exactly what it is that may make this book unsaleable - and how to reshape it into saleability - then do. But also remember that for each agent saying they can't sell books about X, I can guarantee that a) they have an author who writes books about X which they happily sell, and b) another agent will be saying the one kind of book they just can't get enough of are books about X.
5) If you're beginning to worry that you're not a writer. Sometimes this is circular: it's because the book's being difficult that you're losing faith in yourself. In this case the solution is to get very practical and detailed. You can't magically make yourself into a Proust, but you can sort out the mess in Chapter Four. And then the problem of Nazneen's characterisation. And so on, one foot in front of the other, through a to-do list of our old friends Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound jobs. "Measurable" as in: you will know when the job is done. "Time-bound" can be surprisingly useful, too: you will spend an afternoon doing everything you can to improve the prose in this scene, and then you will stop.
Just don't let the anti-writing demon get absolutist and perfectionist about the utter completeness of the to-do list, as a proxy for the novel-writing itself. A half-hour spent making a solid list of things you know that the book needs is enough. You can always add to it later.
And may I suggest that you keep a little file of nice things which have been said about your writing? Mine is called Cheerer-Uppers - but its real function is to shore up my sense that I have, at least a few times, got it right, so the odds are still open that I will be able to get it right again. Put down anything from the friend who said they cried or laughed (in good ways), nice comments from tutors and good grades from examiners, feedback from your writing group, comments from reviewers, and prize judges, sales and PLR figures. Don't be shy: you earned these comments, so let yourself enjoy them.
6) If someone else says you're wasting your time then ask yourself what authority they have to make that judgement. Even if they're a writing- or book-industry professional, they can only comment on what they've read, not on your capacity to change it or to learn enough from it to make the next thing not-a-waste-of-time. And if the next one isn't a waste of time then by definition this one, which led to it, wasn't either.
If they're anyone else, they can't even make that much judgement, unless they've already got to know how your writing has developed over the long term. Even then, only you can do the life-maths to decide what this project means to you, in balance against the other things that are important. And no, ironing the hems of the towels (or ironing anything, or washing the car) is not important in anyone's book. Trust me. (Also trust me that, once we're all over the home-schooling thing, a 10 year old can be taught to iron a shirt and wash a car.)
And if no one's said anything about time-wasting, but you're convince they're thinking it, then it's much more likely that your Inner Critic has been digging in the dressing-up-box.
7) If you're paralysed from the start because you'll never get it right, that's the toxic, destructive kind of perfectionism. Most of us have been educated to think that getting something wrong is a failure that will get us thrown out of the tribe. In this case, the fear is that if you don't start absolutely right, then what follows can't be right either, and the longer you go on, the more wrong it'll go, until you have, unequivocally, failed, and your only future is a solitary death being eaten by wolves.
But, as my schoolmaster grandfather used to say, if a thing's worth doing, it's worth doing badly: not carelessly or inattentively, but towards a not-successful outcome. A perfect outcome is only one of many reasons for doing something; in many ways it's the least important reason, and for any project as complex as a novel, it's very probably the least useful goal.
In any case, writing a book is not, in this sense, a journey: if you realise you're on the wrong road, you can teleport, or be in two places at once, or jump back to the beginning, or chop up the road and rearrange it. And, unlike the painters, say, every word can be changed. Sometimes the only way the right words will emerge is for you to put some down and realise they're wrong - and that's how you begin to know what right might look like. Try some of these to get you started:
- Think of one of the events you have in your head for the story, and call that the start for now. Don't worry about choosing voice or point-of-view, go with whatever's easiest and let the words be placeholders for the day when you know what the real words should be. For now, stick with the journalists' Don't get it right, get it written. Right can come later.
- Sit for a moment and imagine you've reached page 57. Imagine what's on that page, as if you've just written the previous 56. Write that.
- Give yourself an anchor phrase: something like "It started when..." and start free-writing. This isn't drafting, this is just clearing the decks. Give yourself a bit longer than a normal free-write: twenty minutes, say.
8) If you're paralysed because you have several projects and can't choose, it's usually because it's frightening to think that you might not be spending all this time on the one which will succeed. It might be worth seeking out the kind of writing coach who is as much a life-coach as a writing mentor; it's amazing what clarity a few simple questions can bring to how you feel and see things, if the questioner knows what to ask. For a do-it-yourself approach, try writing a flow-chart for each project of the stages of work it needs. Can you interleave the stages? Are you getting a sense of which has most energy in it, for you?
If the problem is more that whichever one you're working on is always difficult and disheartening, while the others are more hopeful, until you swap.... this can be a co-dependent dance of the Anti- and Must-Write Demons. But it could also be said to be a kind of writer's block: at some level, your unconscious is making sure you never see a project through to completion, because that is dangerous (this can also be what's going on if you suspect you're a course junkie). For more on rivalrous projects have a look at my post on writerly adultery.
9) Remember that no book is perfect, because no human is perfect. Even if you did bring a novel almost to one kind of perfect, there will always be other kinds of novel it simply can't be. And no written, finished version of the story in your head can be as good as the perfect, cloudy, sparkly original, because every right word you get on the page and let stay there excludes another word which would have been part of a different - maybe equally good - book. I'm not alone, among writers, in feeling a kind of grief when I come to the end of a first draft, because in a way it's no longer alive: it has become finite, as any human's story only becomes once they are dead. You have to make your peace with all the novels that this novel can no longer be - and forgive yourself for not being able to write those other ones. And right from the beginning, although you can revise and delete and edit, you will still need to make your peace with all the paragraphs which are about to go unwritten - and go with writing the one which comes most easily, now.
10) Remember that you are not your book. It just feels like it sometimes. The difficulty is that to put in your 10,000 hours, your million words, the mastery-gaining slog, you have to behave as if quite a lot of your self is writing-shaped - and at the moment, that means this book.
For the short term, it might be worth setting this project totally aside for a while, and starting something else, which has less riding on it and is more fun. Chances are you'll come back to this one refreshed, and with a calmer and more balanced view of it. And if you start wondering whether to give up on the book or go on, this post might help.
For the longer term, I'd suggest developing some other outlets for your creative energy - other writing forms, or some other craft or art - so that even if the writing's hit a rough patch something else is being satisfying. It helps me a lot that even when the writing is being utterly pants and the industry miserable, I can trust that my teaching will probably go OK. I have friends who dress-make, or sail, or garden, to keep a similar balance. What might be the equivalent for you?
11) If everything about your writing is awful and no, you are not OK in a less specific, more global sense, and nothing works at all, you're not in a state to take direct, practical action about writing. You need to take care of yourself first, until you have more energy and bandwidth.
12) Is there something really difficult going on in your non-writing life? So much of the time writing is a refuge from all the other rubbish going on round us. But sometimes the other stuff is too major, or it's a pile-up of minor things that add up to a major situation. It just takes up too much bandwidth, too much headspace, too much energy, too many hours in the day, to have enough to spare for writing. Maybe you just need to set aside the writing for a bit, and deal with that other, difficult thing, or let everything go and turn to self-care. The good thing about writing is that when you come back, it will still be there.