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How To Overcome Writer's Block

Updated on December 17, 2009

What is Writer's Block?

You wouldn't be reading this if you didn't know, but how would it strike you if I told you that your perception of the issue was all wrong?

Now, I know what you're thinking. And no, I can't read minds … I just hopped into my time machine, read your comment you posted, then jumped back to answer it. Neat trick, eh? Where was I? Oh yeah! I know what you're thinking. I came here because I couldn't think of anything more to write, and now this crazy person is telling me I fail to understand my issue. I can't write, I need words, and if I can't find them here I'm moving on to someone more intelligent.

Of course, I nodded as I read your comment and understood. Originally, I overlooked this, but with the advantage of time travel I have discovered this oversight, which has allowed me to go back to the present (now the past) and get it right.

First off, we need to capture writer's black in slow motion … analyze it to see how it occurs. You see, it all starts with a good flow of words flowing effortlessly like they will never stop, and then without warning, they do. Why? Is it really because you can't think of anymore words? Don't answer that yet – allow me to continue first.

You had words up to the point you stopped and your brain didn't shutoff (or else you could not be reading this), so you didn't run out of words. If that's how things worked, most housewives would be mute by forty (oh, I am so gonna pay for that one). What really has happened is you have become lost in your own story, and now that we have identified the true problem, we can fix it (that's the part where you jump up and down for joy).

Why do writers get lost in their words?

There are many reasons, but inevitably, they all fall back to story mechanics, which in layman's speak is the way we assemble stories in our minds.

You see, as much as we might plan out our writings before we sit before the keyboard (I don't do so myself, I just let it all fly and edit it later), we inevitably find we are unprepared to finish what we have started. Writing a story engages the mind to interpret events that aren't before your face and to relate them to someone you almost certainly will never meet.

To make matters worse, the English language makes it difficult to express and exact meanings, so we must choose our words carefully to give the reader the same picture we perceive in our mind. It's no wonder many writers go mad, trying to find the exact word for a sentence (myself, I throw in the first word I can think of, lay down an asterisk beside it, then go back later with a fresh mind to tackle the word issue).

So, knowing all this, how does writer's block actually occur? In essence, we write ourselves into a box we can't get out of. Let's look at several examples:

The closed box:

A classic example is the story of the underwater scuba diver who loses his mask and manages to find a safe haven in an underwater cave. Only problem is, he needs to get out of the cave to return to the surface and he's several thousand feet below the surface. What now? Send in the marines? Not if you want your hero to resolve the situation himself. You consider making a mask out of seaweed and starfish remains, but that won't due either. Let's face it … you're in an inescapable hole.

The exhaustion principle:

This occurs when a writer becomes consumed by their own writing and fail to take a break. You see, writers can tell when they are writing and not liking the words falling out, but unfortunately, this recognition occurs way back in the subconscious where we can't interpret it very well. The writer goes on a path at full steam, becomes exhausted of it, and can't think of another line. Seems insurmountable, but it definitely is not.

I don't wanna syndrome:

Seems like an odd name, but it's a situation every writer comes across. How does it work? Glad you asked. Let's say John hates Mary and they are in a train wreck together (while he is having her sign the divorce papers). Now, you need Mary in the story and you want John to save her, but John don't wanna – he hates her. So, how can you force John to save Mary? Unquestionably, you can't. You need to find a better way.

Soar past your obstacles
Soar past your obstacles

What's the solution?

Ah, so you saw yourself in one of those examples and you are willing to listen now. Good. Help you, I will (provided I can stop channeling Yoda and reconnect with my own self).

The solution is always the same, but it's not the one we want to hear. The part that will really frustrate you is the fact that it's so obvious, you will question why you didn't think of it on your own. Trust me, I didn't either, until I had been writing for ten years. That's how long it took me to discover the solution.

What? Out with it already? *sigh* you allow no room for dramatic pause, but I can understand your frustration. The truth of the matter is the only escape is to do like I did at the beginning of this article and go back in time to fix your mistake, Ah yes, that little shtick at the beginning had a purpose, and it wasn't to be humorous (though I kinda hope it was).

It's like this. The problem happened before you stopped writing. You then wrote past it without knowing it. All you need to do now is go back in your story to the last point (prior to where you are at) where you felt the story was going really well, then cut (and save) everything you wrote afterwards.

(For those questioning why I recommended saving the text, you'd be surprised how often some or all of it can work in your rewrite.)

With that done, pick a different choice or direction, as the last one led you down a dark tunnel with no exit point. Consider all options and pick the one that tantalized you the most, as that will be the one that will carry you forward again, and don't be surprised if you hit another dead end. By repeating this process you learn from it and make better choices.

What's that? You went back and you're still stuck? Go back a bit further. I know it's difficult to give up those words, but if you want to fix the mess you are in, you need to go back to where the problem all began and you mustn't try to lie to yourself by saying you couldn't have strayed far. In fact, I once had to go back thirty pages in one of my novels, and the thirty pages that replaced them were some of the best I ever wrote. Trust me … mulligans can do wonders for your story!

Anything else I should know?

I know it all seems so basic and simple – perhaps, too much so – but that's why the answer seems to allude authors. We all want to believe we can force it to work, when in fact we can't. Trust me when I say, authors *hate* removing words from the page and will do anything to hold onto their blessed snippets. However, sometimes you need to let go of them to move forward, as they serve you no more than an anchor would swimming at sea.

Before you dash my method to the fires, pick the one story that stopped working for you and reread it up to the point where you stopped writing. Mark the pages you really liked as you go along and when you finish, work your way backwards, stopping at each marked page and asking yourself 'what if' (I love those words) 'what if I erase everything from here on and start in another direction? Could I make it work?'

Again, you might need to go backward a few times, but you *will* regain your rhythm, and the quality of the work you perform replacing what you have lost will far exceed that which once there, as it will allow you to continue on.

Now go dig out that old story that has festered for so long and try as I ask, then report back on your progress.

And most of all … keep writing!

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