For me the very idea of writer’s block is a myth.
I don’t mean that artists (not just writers) cannot find themselves struggling with motivation or with non-project related problems.
What I believe is false, is the idea that the BLOCK is some great, unseen, unknowable force that simply comes crashing down like a wall to stop us. We don’t forget how to use words or sentences, no force binds us to a chair in a shack deep in a jungle, no thing physically stops us from writing.
That’s equally unrealistic as the idea of a mystical muse that feeds the artist ideas.
Instead I believe in the agency of the writer. And when we’re blocked, there’s probably one of two things happening from a craft viewpoint or a third thing happening from a motivational viewpoint.
1. We’re blocked if we’re not sure/have fooled ourselves, usually via excitement, into thinking an ‘idea’ is the same thing as a ‘story’.
2. We’re blocked if we’re working in the wrong mode, or even in the wrong percentage of a mode, ie: we are ‘plotters’ at heart trying to ‘pants’ a story or vice versa.
3. We’ve been working on this damn novel/short/poem/script for way too long and we’re sick to death of it, we’re sick of writing, we’re burnt out. There’s no motivation left, there’s no joy in the task anymore. Forget it, get the thing out of my sight!
Any of these three things might be at play at any given time when a writer feels blocked. But it is possible to break through each of them, we’ve all done it before and we’ll do it again, it’s all part of the job.
Below is how I generally beat those problems:
1. Story vs Idea
I ask myself, do I have an idea or a story on my hands? That’s the most important question for fiction, I feel, when it comes to sitting down and finishing a project. Ask yourself that question in the beginning and if you can answer ‘story’ you ought to have a great chance of finishing.
Here’s why I think that’s so.
An idea is exciting and highly motivating and for me, it’s the best part of writing, but the sad fact is an idea is not a story. One is a spark, one is a complete piece of work. A story has conflict, movement and structure, a story has narrative. An idea does not.
So, to try and illustrate my claim I’ll make up an idea and the summary of a story:
A man uncovers a golden elephant statue in his backyard.
A man uncovers a golden elephant statue in his backyard, quickly becoming obsessed with it. His wife, however, loathes elephants and cannot bear to look at it, let alone have it in their house. She casts it into a river and the man is struck with despair, leaping after it and diving for the statue every day and every night, until his wife finally leaves him.
Hopefully, despite the silliness of my idea, the difference is clear. The idea is a starting point, and the story develops it. The story introduces conflict with the wife and the man’s obsession. Further, it shows change and includes a resolution. When we’re blocked, I believe it’s because we’re so excited about an idea that we leap into it, without realising that there is in fact no story yet.
Related to this problem is
2. Plotting vs Pantsing (and the ratio)
Plotting is the process of outlining and planning a story from beginning to end. The amount of detail which goes into this will vary, but the key point is knowing just about everything before you sit down to write.
Pantsing is the opposite, whereby you write a story without preplanning, simply discovering and creating as you write. This can be quite enjoyable for the writer, but often results in more rewriting in subsequent drafts, while outlining usually makes for quicker work but can be less interesting during the act of writing.
It might seem that one is a safer or better approach than the other, but I don’t believe so.
Both can work wonderfully for different people so it’s best to try each operating mode and see what happens. Neither approach is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ instead it’s whether the mode is ‘suited’ or ‘not suited’ to you.
I, like many writers I suspect, am more hybrid, in that I work in both modes. Here’s where the idea of a ratio is important to me, because I outline a book with dot points, noting vital ‘hit points’ and add to this character sketches and arcs, but then I ‘pants’ or ‘discover’ within the framework I set. (And within this method I can still adjust my outline if I discover a new plot point or character during the writing etc.)
Therefore I’m probably 40% planning and 60% pantsing on most projects, yet even that can change, depending on what the story demands. I find that’s the best way for me to work, because it ensures I stay motivated during the writing and I’m never blocked.
But working in a mode that someone else tells you is the ‘only way to write’ is dangerous and will probably lead hitting a wall at one point. And the way to get around this problem is simple – experiment. Learn how you as a writer actually work best, then refine the process.
Finally I’d like to share an idea in regards to
3. Burn Out
This one is a lot tougher to combat. Especially when you’re close to a story or if you have a deadline and sometimes you’d rather vomit than work on a project for a single second longer.
But the best advice I’ve ever been given is to step away from whatever you’re writing for as long as you can – and to work on something else while you’re having time away.
If you’ve burn out on a particular novel you’re writing, switch to different novel or a short story for a while and see what happens to your motivation when you come back to the original novel. Or, if it’s writing in general that you’ve had enough of, go play guitar for a while, break out the paints or find some friends and shoot a short film. Try another art form altogether.
This really motivates me not only because I’m having fun again, but because I get critical distance from the first story and at the same time, my mind continues to tick away on that story, only I’m not conscious of the fact.
And then, when I sit down again with that first project, I’m ready again!
Finally, maybe the burn out is so deep that you’ve lost motivation for creating. To get around this, it’s recharge time. Get inspired by consuming great art, a favourite book or film, a trip to a gallery or beautiful location – anything but creating.
When you’re finished, hopefully you’ll be ready to hit the keys once more!
It's still hard to take in.
I feel lucky. Ten or so years and half a dozen novels later, I've finally produced something I really hope people will enjoy. So while the release date is some time away, I'm still excited - I've a book due for release!
In the meantime I wanted to blather on a bit about the way I work in that early stage. It's basically an explosion of words, that first draft. It's fun too. (And then, in subsequent drafts, the hard work begins.)
But from start to finish, using a general dot point outline for the story and another for the characters, I can produce a first draft in around three months if I'm motivated. If I'm not, I take a bit longer. For City of Masks, I think it was closer to four - but it felt fast. Wild even. Mistakes, notes, sub plots that went no-where, stupid dialogue - rough writing, it was all in there.
But that was fine. A first draft isn't meant to even get a glimpse of 'perfect.' That's being way too hard on yourself. Instead my first draft was burned onto the page (well, screen) in a flurry of words and when I sat back at the end, I gave a sigh of relief and felt a little sad.
The fun part, the writing with abandon, of chasing my characters through, around and beyond the outline, was over.
Now the real work would begin.
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Ashley Capes is an Australian writer of fiction, poetry and very occasional non-fiction.
Imperial Towers (Never Book 5) - draft 1
Moss Dragon - draft 1
Reed Lavender (working title) - draft 1
Unnamed Spec Fic - draft 1
Whisper of Leaves (sequel) - Outline