Writer’s Block(s)

I don’t like the term “writer’s block.”

Some people say they don’t believe in writer’s block at all. Me, I believe in writer’s blockS. In other words, there are many different causes that can produce the effect of Not Writing — and they each have their own particularized solution. If you lump them all under one umbrella term, though, you obscure the differences, painting over them with a mystique that allows you to feel like you’re suffering from something beyond your control (which, not coincidentally, absolves you of the need to do anything about it).

It isn’t necessarily beyond your control. You just need to figure out what your problem is. Then you’ll know what, if anything, you can do about it.

My most common problem — since I don’t outline — is that I don’t actually know what should happen next. Or at least I don’t know it in enough detail to be able to put it on the page. Solution? I need to stop and think. I need to review what pieces are on the board, where they’re trying to go, how they might try to get there.

A lot of authors, at one point or another, find themselves with the problem that they’ve taken a wrong turn. The solution to that last conflict was lame, or this subplot doesn’t really fit the story. Solution? Backtrack. Rip some words out, return to the place where you went astray, try again. It hurts, but it hurts less than beating your head against the wall of that error.

Or maybe you don’t want to write because you’re bored with the story. Solution? Un-bore yourself. Pinpoint the cause of your disinterest (character? conflict?), and then send in a man with a gun — by which I mean something that will wake your reader up again. Because if you’re bored, odds are pretty damn high your reader will be, too.

Could be it’s research. You’re about to write the scene where they make their thrilling helicopter escape, and the idea excites you . . . but you don’t actually know anything about flying helicopters. Solution? Do the research, or bracket it and move on and come back later to fill in the details.

Perhaps you’re coming down with the flu. Solution? Take some medicine, down a bunch of O.J., contemplate whether the influence of drugs and vitamin C is enough to perk you up for work, or whether you’re better off passing out on the couch and coming back tomorrow, once you can breathe through your nose again.

Or it’s a longer-term problem than that: chronic medical issues, or clinical depression, or enormous stress from other parts of your life (like grief or moving across the country or day job complications), or just plain ol’ burnout. Solution? Varies from person to person. Maybe it will be better for all involved, you and your story, if you set it aside while you deal with other things. Yes, even if you have a deadline; talk to your editor. Sometimes writing can be a coping mechanism — but sometimes stress really does just drain the juice from your brain, leaving you with nothing. In these cases, beating yourself up with guilt will not help.

Or maybe your problem is that you’d rather play video games or surf the web or whatever. In that case, the solution is to plant your lazy ass in the chair and write.

All of these things can hamper your ability to put words on the page. But if you just call it writer’s block, you don’t know which problem you have, and you don’t know what to do about it. And your attempts to fix it might be counterproductive: if you’ve gone the wrong direction with the story, forcing yourself to sit down and start a new scene will only add to the word-count you’re going to rip out when you realize your mistake.

Having said all that . . . the difficulty lies in telling what your problem really is. I often can’t tell the difference between laziness and “I haven’t thought this through yet” — not until I’ve sat down in the chair and spent at least half an hour trying to make myself do work. By then I’ve usually either overcome my inertia, or figured out that I just wasted half an hour on the wrong solution. But at least I recognize that pattern now, and can try to adapt when I find myself caught in it yet again. Which is more than I could do if I was lying on the couch, one hand stapled to my forehead, saying, “la, woe is me, I suffer from Writer’s Block.”