Knock ’em over

Does writer’s block exist? Yes, absolutely.

Can it be defeated? Again, absolutely.

As a Municipal Liaison for NaNoWriMo, I often act as coach for fellow writers that are struggling to keep up the minimum pace necessary to complete a 50,000 word novel in 30 days. Sometimes they’re just moving slowly, but other times they’re not moving at all. And some of them are moving backwards. Over the years I’ve gleaned lots of interesting tricks to break through writer’s block, whether it’s the morass of slow writing or the whiplash snap of a complete block, doesn’t matter: I gots tricks.


One of the best tricks I’ve ever learned was shared with me by Dave deHetre. His answer to writing, not just during NaNo, but during the entire creative process, is to promise yourself to commit to writing 500 words every day. 500 words is an arbitrary number, but it’s a good one. It’s more than just a paragraph or two, but not necessarily an entire scene or a complete chapter. 500 words can be written in 10-30 minutes by most writers, depending on how smoothly and effortlessly the words are flowing. And 500 words can often serve to break through the logjam of writer’s block, and lead to many more words to follow, and at a much greater pace.

Another trick I’ve employed to great success: go non-linear. Understand: I hate not writing in the order in which I envision my final product. Skipping around is anathema to my natural process. However, if my natural process isn’t working, then why not try something else? Many writers will tell you that writer’s block occurs when something they’ve previously written is somehow wrong. I’ve often found this to be the case as well. However, during NaNo, the backspace key is simply not an option. So, what to do when you’ve painted yourself into a corner that you can’t escape? Simple. Jot down a note that says something like, “I’m trapped. Here’s why.” Don’t bother fixing it. Just Note the problem. And then, skip to another corner and start writing again. Barriers like plot holes and failed character motivations are problems best dealt with during the editing process. They can be ignored during the creative process.

Another reason I like the idea of non-linear lends itself to a more global philosophy about avoiding writer’s block in the first place. Only write scenes that excite you. Are you stuck writing a chapter that is necessary to the plot, but feels like a tedious chore? Quick question : do you think your readers will find that particular chapter any more fun to read than you did to write it? If not, why are you bothering? Skip it! Summarize it in a short paragraph (or just skip it entirely) and move on. If your entire book ends up being nail-biting action scenes with no breathing room between chapters…how is that bad?

And speaking of bad, are you really all that worried about the quality of your writing? Because I have news for you: if you’re writing a zero draft, it’s not good. It just isn’t. It might not be awful, it might even be passable, but good is not an appropriate term for your first pass at a story. If you want to write free of writer’s block, free yourself of your inner critic, at least during the initial effort. Feel free to unleash your unforgiving critic afterwards (in fact, I highly encourage it), but keep that beast on a tight leash until you’re done putting the first set of words on the page.

The most important lesson I’ve learned during my years as ML regarding writer’s block is: don’t panic. Don’t give up, don’t restart, don’t delete or discard. Just…wait. Do something else. Watch your favorite television show. Read a good book. Get a good night’s sleep. Let whatever is blocking you resolve itself naturally. Try some of the methods listed above, but don’t force it. Chances are, whatever has slammed on the brakes in your writing process will dissipate on its own in due time. The harder you force the issue, the worse things are likely to get. Tease loose the knot with a steady hand, and you’ll be back to writing rapidly in no time.

1 Comment

  • This is why you are such a great ML. And you are really really great. Also, I wholeheartedly agree with your last paragraph – every time I am blocked, when I try to force it (like so many people have suggested this week) it just makes it worse. I like the idea of working the knot loose by working around it instead of just trying to yank it free. I’ll have to keep that in mind for the next time I get blocked. Thanks, Ted.

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