The Immutable Laws of Writing, #3: Writer’s block means you don’t know what to write about next.
Author, blogger, and former literary agent Nathan Bransford says it more bluntly: “Writer’s block does not exist.”*
Mr. Bransford and I both agree that there is a feeling that some call “writer’s block.” We also both agree that it’s not a condition that befalls you, like a virus. His conclusion: you feel it because writing ceased being fun. I think that’s a valid thought. My conclusion goes a step beyond that: just because the words sometimes flow freely and with great joy, does not mean that’s what being a writer is all about. If you’re blocked, you’re waiting for something to happen, and that’s a fool’s mission.
Immutable Law #1 says the words aren’t going to write themselves. You have to write them. Which means that you, yourself, personally, have to place those black smudges we call letters on that white space we call a page.
Sometimes, your fingers hover over the keys and nothing happens. How easy it is, when that happens, to get up and say, “I’m blocked.” How easy it is to blame the universe and the muses.
The truth of the matter is, you’re blocked because you don’t know where you are going.
And this is bad. Because Immutable Law #2 says that objects in motion tend to stay in motion, and objects at rest tend to stay at rest…which means you can’t have writer’s block, or any kind of block, stopping your work cold in its tracks.
To have this conversation, I have to say a few words about the “pantser” vs. “outliner” debate. In truth, it’s not an either/or, but more of a continuum. At one end, seat-of-the-pants writers like to let their writing flow organically, every day a mystery. At the other end, the extreme outliners have all their scenes identified before they write a one. All along the continuum between those extremes are people who have some idea of where they are going, if not a complete picture. Which means that at any moment, “some” can become “none.”
The less you know about what you plan to write, the more chance there is you’ll feel stuck. Said another way, the surest way to get the feeling of writer’s block is to not know what you’re writing about now.
So, what to do about this? Is becoming an extreme outliner the only route to conquering the block? Thankfully, no. Here are three practical tips.
First, decide what scene you’re writing now. If you know that, you can write it. If you still can’t start, answer the basic questions that any scene requires: who’s in it, what has to happen, how does it end. Then, start writing.
If you simply don’t know what scene to write, then it’s time for the dangerous question: have you outlined your work? If not, this is the problem right here. But fear not: it’s easier than you think. An outline doesn’t need to be the Magna Carta. An outline can be as simple as knowing the general path your story is going to take. If you’re writing a novel, consider this basic and very common structure:
- The Setup (establishing the stakes)
- Plot Point 1 (the story is propelled forward)
- Midpoint (something important happens)
- Plot Point 2 (a twist that sends the story toward its conclusion)
- Resolution (how it all works out)
Or, consider the basic frame for almost all stories:
- Wants something badly
- But there are obstacles
- Which are overcome, or not
- And someone is changed, or not
The level of detail you need beyond this is up to you, but it needs to be enough so that you know what to write next. Once you have sketched down to the level of detail that gives you enough to go on, you’ll be ready to write.
I’ve been using the language of fiction here, but this works for non-fiction, too. What’s the arc of the narrative? What things are you going to talk about, and in what order?
Second, write anything, even if it’s not what comes next. What rule is there that you have to write in order?
There is no such rule. Besides, there’s a good chance the order of things will change. So, apply jumper cables to your work: pick any scene you want to write, and write that one.
Third, lower your standards. Just get the words down. They don’t have to be good; and, in fact, you shouldn’t expect them to be. You already know, if you have ever written at all, that you’re going to be rewriting. Or, as Nathan Bransford puts it, remember that “your first draft probably sucks.”*
Why do so many writers seem to think they should be able to spin gold on the first try? Accept that the writing is not going to be publishable as it first emerges. Accept that you will have to rewrite it, possibly toss it. That’s the process; you may as well get used to it.
For now, just get the words down. Give yourself permission to write badly. “I’m going to write badly today!” It’s liberating, really. And that’s the end of this thing called writer’s block. For good.
* Bransford, N. (2013). How to write a novel [Kindle edition], pages 168 and 188.