I don't believe in writer's block. Before you tell me I'm wrong because you're suffering from it right now, let me explain.
Most of what gets labelled as “writer's block” isn't what's actually stopping you from writing.
Barring physical or mental illness or injury (which I talk about more in Writing When Injured Or Not Well), if someone pointed a gun at you and insisted you write something, anything, unless you have a death wish you'd write.
Beyond that, if ordered to at gunpoint, you'd write a short story, even if you've never written one before. It might not be a good short story. It might lack conflict, or have a cardboard cut out for a main character, or have a terrible ending or no ending at all, but you'd write it.
Likewise, if you've ever had a job you didn't like (and if you haven't, kudos to you), my guess is most workdays when you were well enough (and possibly sometimes when you weren't) you got up and went to that job anyway. You worked whether you felt like it or not, whether you were inspired or not, and whether you wished you were doing anything but going to work or not. Because you couldn't call in sick with bricklayer's block or office clerk's block or middle manager's block.
If you're reading this blog, you like writing more than you liked that job. If you could do that job despite everything else, you can write.
Dealing With The Issues Behind The Label
So what is writer's block?
It's a label that can be used for a variety of issues, making them sound insurmountable when most of them are not.
Here are six issues that once you've identified you can address so you can start (or continue) writing:
Generating an idea
You want to write a novel or a short story, but you don't know what to write about. So you sit in front of a screen or page and do nothing.
The problem here is not inability to output or write.
It's lacking enough input. You likely need to feed or nourish your creative mind or spirit.
Listen to music that you love or hate, either live or in person. Visit a museum and stare at the most compelling paintings. Walk in nature if you're usually in the city or take a train from a rural area to a city and watch the landscape change along the way. Read novels of a type you don't normally read or read a non-fiction book that catches your interest. All these things stimulate your mind. While you do any of them, don't search your mind for ideas. Just immerse yourself in the experience.
Once you've done that for a while, ideas will form.
If you still need a jumpstart, use specific writing prompts. Buy a deck of Tarot cards, choose one at random, set a timer for 15 minutes, and write about the card, or any thought that card sparks, until the time ends. Sit in silence for 10 minutes (set the timer again). Listen to every sound and let your mind wander and imagine what or who caused the sound. Make up a story to go with it. When the 10 minutes ends, write down what you imagined. You can similarly use magazine pictures, travel guides, or Instagram posts to prompt your writing. Or choose the first line from a favorite book and write your own story with that start.
Too many ideas
Sometimes we have so many ideas it's hard to pick one, which again leads to staring blankly at a screen.
Make a list of your ideas. If there are several you already think would make good stories, pick one at random, set a timer for 20 or 30 minutes (yes, I love timers), and write about it. That timer frees your mind because if it turns out you don't like this idea or it doesn't work, you've “wasted,” at most, 30 minutes. If you feel pretty good about this idea when you're done, next time you write, continue with it. If not, pick another and repeat.
Another approach is to simply choose the idea that involves the most conflict.
As I talk about in Super Simple Story Structure: A Quick Guide To Plotting And Writing Your Novel, stories need conflict. If you main character gets everything she wants and has a lovely day, there's no story there. Your main character must want something, even if it's only a glass of lemonade, and need to overcome obstacles to get it.
If your ideas all lack conflict, try this:
Write down one of these four words: man, woman, boy, or girl. Write down an active verb like run, jump, hit, play, touch, throw, or swim. Again write down man, woman, boy, or girl. Add any necessary prepositions to create a sentence. You'll be left with a basic sentence such as “Woman slaps girl.” or “Boy runs into man.” These are almost guaranteed to generate conflict. Write for 30 minutes about that. (Remember, you don't have to love the story or the idea. This is all about getting words on a page.)
Where to start
If you have an idea for a story or novel and you can't get yourself to start writing, you're probably unsure where your story starts.
The good news is pretty much all first drafts are bad, so you can start anywhere and fix it later.
If it raises too much anxiety to do that, start wherever your main character first wants something and can't get it, even if it's as simple as wanting that glass of lemonade when the refrigerator is empty and the grocery store is closed.
Don't worry about whether there are other scenes that should come first, you can always add those in later.
Also don't worry if the lemonade turns out not to matter because the real story is about her dad never coming home from the war. The lemonade issue might stay to draw us into the piece or you might drop it. Again, the point is to get rolling. Later you can decide what you need and what you don't.
Overcoming your fears
If you have another career or job, my guess is you had to write something at some point for work. A business email, a note to a supervisor, a schedule of days you can or can't work. You probably didn't freeze up at the keyboard, so why does it happen when you try to write fiction?
Fiction is more personal than most jobs. You also may have a lot invested not just in being a writer but in being a good writer. You may fear writing something bad, your writing being rejected, or other people looking down their noses at how you spend your time.
Here's the thing. All of that will happen.
You'll write something bad. I've written bad stories, bad poems, bad novels, bad blog posts. You'll have your writing rejected. No matter what you achieve or don't with your writing, someone–probably a friend or family member–will sniff at what you did and tell you a story about a friend of a friend who is a “real writer” because he won a Pulitzer Prize. The good news is, none of that will kill you and none of it needs to stop you from writing. Don't tell anyone what you're doing and give yourself permission to write a very bad first draft that you will never ever show anyone. That's all you need to get started.
Lack of inspiration
For many people, this is the easiest part of writer's block to get past because you don't need to be inspired to write.
When I write first drafts, I write whether I'm inspired or not. At the end, I can't pick out the passages that flowed from my fingers easily from the ones where I felt like I was trudging through molasses. I enjoyed one more than the other, but there's no quality difference. And if there were, I'd revise to improve the quality.
Your Writing Routine
The best way to write regularly and not depend on inspiration is to create a routine.
If your schedule is predictable and your physical and mental health allows, pick a regular time in your week when there are few other things to distract you. Choose a small amount of time to start.
For instance, rather than aspiring to write an hour three times a week at 8 p.m., you might decide to write for half an hour Friday morning before you go to work. Then sit down at your desk for half an hour every single Friday even if all you write is “I don't know what to write. I don't know why I am sitting here.”
Do that for half an hour every Friday and you'll get into a habit. Eventually you'll start to write something that you want to keep.
If a routine time is impossible due to your schedule or your health, you can try setting a routine through triggers.
Each time you sit down and write, you might burn a scented candle, or drink a particular type of tea, or wear your red socks. Those things can trigger in your mind and spirit that it's time to write and can help you make the transition to writing from other parts of your day.
If you otherwise are able to do the things you want or need to do in life (such as going to work, caring for loved ones, reading, going to movies, etc.) and you never feel like writing, if it always feels like trudging through molasses (uphill), consider why you want to write.
Do you enjoy having a finished story or novel enough to go through that? Does being a writer have its own rewords despite not loving the process? If yes, keep those rewards fixed in your mind and trudge.
Finding time to write
There are times in life that might not be the best ones for writing a short story or a novel, or at least not for finishing them in a defined time period.
When I was working full-time and attending law school at night, I didn't write fiction. I wrote poems and journal entries during the odd few minutes here and there.
If you have a two-year-old at home and you're working full-time or also caring for an aging parent, this might not be the time to set a six-month or one-year goal of finishing a novel. Or…
Write In Smaller Bites
But if novels are what you love to write, you can still do that by writing what you can when you can and letting yourself be okay with finishing some unspecified time down the road. (See Writing A Novel 15 Minutes At A Time for ways to fit in small bursts of writing.)
Aside from life circumstances like the above or physical or mental health challenges, for many writers it's about finding the time, not having time.
Nobody has extra hours in the day or the week, and nobody starts out getting paid to devote hours to writing. So notice what you do with each hour of your time for a week or two. Decide what activity or activities you could skip so that you can write instead.
For instance, if you can afford it, and you currently spend two hours a week cleaning your house, pay someone else to do that while you write. If you spend half an hour a night watching the news, make a deal with a well-informed friend to tell you anything you really need to know, turn off the news, and write for that half hour.
Once you figured out what you can miss, create a schedule or goal and stick to it.
Keep in mind that if you have a cyclical worklife or a chronic physical or mental condition that affects when you are well enough to write, that schedule/goal may need to be more flexible.
You might set a goal of hours per month or word count per month (or per six months) rather than per week or per day. Or you might simply set an overall goal of finishing a novel or poem or story without a timeframe so that you can leave room for stretches of time when writing's not possible.
That's okay. Even if you don't write as much as you hoped, you'll write something.
To sum up: (1) If you're stuck, don't worry about writing something good or what will happen after you finish, just go ahead and write something bad. (2) Stories are about conflict, so start with a main character who wants something and is having trouble getting it. (3) You can always fix it later. (4) Timers are your friend.
I hope these suggestions help you get started or move forward if you've been feeling stuck. Have other questions? Feel free to add a comment or email me at [email protected].
Best wishes for a happy, productive week.
L. M. Lilly
P.S. Still feeling stuck? Write On: How To Overcome Writer's Block So You Can Write Your Novel might help. It addresses ways to get started, get past slumps in the middle of your manuscript, and get across the finish line.