Writer’s block: the cure is worse than the disease

I think writer’s block needs a type I and a type II distinction. Type I is not having written for months or years, no desire to write, and yet still feeling the niggling obligation that one ought to be writing. Type I only has two cures: finding your love of writing again or regulating “writing” to yet another hobby you liked to do before. We all keep relics of our past hobbies for longer than we should, but writing isn’t like camping. The gear doesn’t need to be stored, and you don’t have to move it every time you change houses.

But this is about Type II writer’s block. The kind that you get while you’re actively writing. Force yourself to write through it, to me, the “pinch your nose and bend over” method of stopping a nose bleed. It not only doesn’t work, but it also makes the issue worse. It’s a causal relationship that the successful writers are the ones who keep to a schedule. The reason they’re able to keep to a schedule is because they have something to say. They had something to say yesterday; they’re saying something today, and they will have something to say tomorrow, even if they’re not quite sure what that will be. The muscle memory of planning what you want to happen in your story in the immediate short term and the longer term plans that are much more subject to change, but it’s a direction that the short term scenes that they’re working on are heading to.

Crediting successful writers for having the discipline to sit down and write something they have no problem doing is like rewarding people who remember to eat when they are hungry. The worst thing you can do to the story is to ignore the fact that you don’t know what happens next to it and just use blunt force to pile words on top of the last time you felt passionate about this story. Once a bit of writing is in a first draft, for a lot of writers still fighting to think of something to say, it’s set in stone. Forget the fact that anything that comes from that poisoned branch of a story that you brute forced onto the vine is more than likely going to create branch after branch of you going in a direction that is forced into place, taking you further and further from the original vine that you were trying to cultivate.

Writing is the only hobby in the world where the solution for not wanting to do it is forcing yourself to do more of it. And that has to stop. Sufferers of type II writing block, where they are writing, they just can’t write in the moment rapidly turn into type I, the kind that hasn’t written in years because the cure is worse than the disease. “Just devote hours of your life to do something you don’t want to do” can classically condition a block into an aversion if every time a person sits down in front of a word processor, the negative emotions of not being able to write, not having written for X years, fear of failure and fear of success swirling around the person’s head. “Just write” assumes there is something to be written. The person who will write until they have something to say does not need to be told to do what they are already doing.

Shark Punching was the first non-nanowrimo novel I’d ever written in…thirty one years that I did not finish what I started. I got to a point and realized how close I was to the ending without ever really starting the story even 40k in, and when a shiny new idea popped up, I jumped ship. In that time between the December 2014 draft and the November 2015 draft, I finished two other books, rewrote a third book entirely start to finish, and polished on of those books ready for submission and a handful of shorter work. When I went to redo the draft, I started over at the beginning, knowing the problem wasn’t where I had started but back in chapter 1 with my main character’s motivation. Within two months I had gotten to the place I had reached in the first draft, but by the time I arrived, all the issues I had in not being able to continue the first draft dissolved. The new bits that I wrote that would have immediately tacked on to draft one are the best bits of the story.

Blunt force writing where how much or how often you write trumps what you write would have either ground the story to a halt at another, even worse snarl or, worse, it would have finished the manuscript that would have taken the story it could have been and killed its roots. Yes, it would have been a completed draft and yes, I could have fixed it on the rewrite, but very few people at the hobby level has figured out that “good books aren’t written, they’re rewritten” actually applies to them, they’ll have to take the time to figure out why a scene isn’t working eventually, why not just make that part of the initial process?

Human nature finds time to do the things we want to do and all the excuses in the world for not doing the things we don’t. If someone is the kind of writer who pushes through no matter what and then goes back and edits judiciously all the bits that don’t work, great. Keep doing that thing. If something works for you, keep doing it, obviously. If it doesn’t though, and the next time you know what you want to happen but it just won’t spread itself over the page, stop. Rather brute forcing more words between the last time you wanted to write and where you are when you eventually give up trying to force it, think about *why* you don’t want to write the scene. A horse can be more than a thousand pounds heavier than you. If it does not wish to move forward, you will not be able to pull it the way you want it to. Physics are just not on your side. But, for some odd reason, when you push a horse’s head to the side and get them to walk in that direction, they are usually more than willing to follow. But sometimes even with the trickery, they won’t go where you want.

Some horses are just stubborn bastards (I’m looking at you, Jewel). Some horses, though, are smarter than you are. Nicimos was a massive seventeen-hand part pinto, part appaloosa, part Soviet tank of a mare. She would do absolutely anything anyone wanted *if it was safe to do so*. If it wasn’t, no force on earth would make her move. She wouldn’t go over a creek that had the banks eroded out from under it or cross a field we found out the hard way was a muskeg. By the second time, we learned that if Nici didn’t want to go somewhere, it was probably not a place we wanted to go.

When your writing just won’t move forward, maybe a gentle nudge in another direction will get you around the problem, and you can go on in your intended direction. If it flat out refuses to move even then, it’s time to dig deeper. What is it about the scene that is the problem? Do you know where your characters have to be at the end of the scene, or is it the dread of not knowing what to say when you finish this last part you’re sure of? From my personal experience, the bridging scenes that just need to get characters from point A to point B stall out because there often is a massive cornerstone scene that the story needs. Any time I’ve taken a few days to figure out what has to happen leads to the best bit of the entire book. Your subconscious is a powerful tool, but like all tools it needs practice and skill to learn to use it to the best of your advantage. Listening to it creates the story lines that leaves what most people would consciously write in the dust adding layers and complications that were both hidden and right there on the surface at the same time.

There are lots of writers out there who can plan to write a book, 1500 words a day for six months and have a finished project at the end of the time that is excellent. It’s a learned skill to know what the scene you’re going to write tomorrow is about, and how that leads into the writing you’re going to do next week and in months 2 and 3. But books aren’t mechanical kits that have directions a writer just needs to follow. Between writing the 4500 words that I would need to put out because of some artificial quota and taking three days to figure out what will drive the story I wanted to write forward, I’ll take the story I want to tell over the story I had to. My overall productivity taking the time to figure stuff out is still staggering. The skill of unraveling knotted plots isn’t something that happens automatically, but it is a skill that gets easier with practice.

I certainly didn’t start out writing multiple books a year. I even had a period of three years where I didn’t write anything at all. Now I write every day. It’s the last thing I do before going to bed and the first thing I think about wake up. I don’t write three hours a day, I probably double that on most days and triple (or more) on others. But the thing I do not do is force myself. When I get stuck, I never force the story forward.

I either change up what I was going to do by making the worst thing that could happen in that moment happen (the frost giant method) or I go back and find the point where I last felt passionate about the story and cut. If that takes me to the beginning of the story and I have to rewrite it, I will. If I get totally stuck on a story and it’s not something I want to rewrite, I do something else. Eventually the problem of why I didn’t want to continue will surface, and if that means finishing the story as it is or rewriting it completely, I’ve done both of those things last year.

Writing every day is a cargo cult mentality. If successful writers write every day, they must be successful because they write every day and not that they have something to say each day that they write. Discipline might get your butt in the chair when you aren’t feeling it but have to get something out, but it’s the muscle memory of coming up with interesting plot points. It’s the practice of knowing what to say that keeps you writing in the word processor, not reading the internet or playing a video game.


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