Writers Block

By: Mike March 14, 2009

The monitor shows "Chapter 6" neatly centered a few inches under a properly formatted header. The cursor blinks. Soft music comes from the tinny speakers of a laptop, while the author sits frozen, staring at nothing in particular . . . The clock ticks slowly in the background, and the calendar shows a due date circled weeks ago.

This is classic description of the dreaded "writer's block", the bane and fear of authors. This week, as she races to complete another long-overdue manuscript, a couple of Patty's readers have written to ask about her take on writers block. There's something either ironic or portentous in the timing, I'm not sure which.

Patty's never had writer's block. At least, nothing like the helpless, horrifying version so often portrayed in books and movies. She has had times when writing is slow, or difficult, or frustrating. Naturally, every author is different, so her experience may not reflect that of other authors exactly. I worked as a computer nerd for years, several of those as a code monkey. In comparing notes, we found that, although what we write is very different, we've shared a number of common experiences, frustrations and solutions, so hopefully other authors will find our experiences useful.

First, while neither of us has experienced the classic "blockage", we've both experienced being frustrated. Writing is no longer fun. There's something wrong, and the solution is elusive. With no quick fix, the mind shies away from the task. Five minutes of looking at the screen, and you're pulling up your favorite website, or looking at the clock. Time drags, and you begin to resent the screen, the cursor, and whatever twist of fate has you shackled to a desk. Sound familiar?

A brilliant artist and author, Mark Ferrari, once mentioned that he'd had some trouble when his art became his profession. We're taught that work is serious stuff, but creativity comes from the part of the brain that focuses on play. His revelation was that he needed to concentrate on playing to be creative, once he started working on a project, things went downhill. This is an absolute gem of wisdom. If you're working on a book, you're engaging the wrong part of the brain, you need to play in your book.

Like most pearls of wisdom, this turns out to be more easily said than done. Sure, forget about the mortgage, the dirty dishes, the kids and the missed deadline. Just have fun. What, your 401 just tanked? No worries. Your neighbor's dog ate your flowers -- don't let it disturb your inner zen. It's not easy. Most authors develop habits that help them find the "happy place" where their creativity lies. Music, candles, reading a good book, whatever holds the world at bay. However, major problems in life, or a misbehaving story can throw a wrench in the works.

The most common problem is that something in the story has gone wrong. This can take many forms: poor character motivation, awkward conversation, etc. The problem isn't always obvious, but it becomes irksome to play with the characters, so the author pushes them around aimlessly like a toddler playing with the peas on his plate. The muse calls in sick, and suddenly it's just work.

We're taught as children that we need to work even if it's not fun. The problem is, trying to push through the situation above often just makes it worse. Push those peas around too much and there'll be nothing left but mush. You can do the same thing to your story. Instead, back up a chapter or so, and start playing with the characters. What does each one want? What do they know? What resources do they have? Remember what makes each character fun. If you can't remember what a character feels like, write a monologue from their point of view. Play. At some point you're likely to find a character saying, "I didn't want to crawl into this dark cave, and I wouldn't have done it. The reason you're stuck is that I'm somewhere I never should have been." If you go back, and re-write that decision, the story may fix itself.

If you're still fighting a scene, just skip it, and write the next one. Write a different story. Go for a walk, and describe the scenery as your favorite character would. We once had a wily author tell us that when he got frustrated, he simply had a shadowy figure assassinate the problem character. Suddenly, there were hundreds of interesting story threads to chase down, more than enough to finish the novel, and that character would never trouble the author again!

Patty usually writes new material four to five hours a day. On a good day she might write ten pages. That's all the creativity she has. She can push for more than that, but she usually ends up with dreck that needs to be re-written. She usually writes new material in the morning, then edits in the afternoon. Editing uses the analytical, critical parts of the brain. It's every bit as important as the creative phase, but it's easier to do when you're worried, distracted, or tired. By realizing that there's really two sides to writing, you can tailor your workday to take advantage of tasks suited to your mental state.

Writer's block, at least as we've seen it, isn't some terrible affliction to be avoided, it's usually an early-warning system that your book has taken a wrong turn. Your brain is trying to tell you that writing further is going to be a waste of time until you find and fix the problem. If you're stuck,remember to play your way out of the jam, working usually just makes it worse!

Happy writing!