6 Common Problems Masquerading as Writer’s Block and How to Solve Them
Writer’s block is one of the most popular themes in the canon of writing. There are endless articles, books, and online courses promising to solve the problem, and most of them are, quite frankly, dumb.
Saying you have writer’s block is the creative equivalent of saying you’re not feeling well when you actually have an infection. While it might feel gratifying to air your complaint, it doesn’t help a doctor figure out what’s wrong or how to make you better.
Writer’s block as an affliction is a myth — a pseudo science–y label that people slap on a problem they don’t fully understand. I’m not saying that people who claim to have writer’s block are lying; I’m just saying that they haven’t correctly identified the specific issue that’s holding them back.
In my experience, the issues that make creators feel “blocked” can be put in one of two categories: creator problems and story problems.
You’re experiencing self-doubt. Self-doubt is probably the biggest obstacle that prevents writers from completing a book. It can manifest itself as a sort of writing paralysis, debilitating perfectionism (polishing a draft to death), or an unwillingness to show your work to anyone.
Morning pages can be a great way to boost your confidence as a writer — or at least persist in writing until you prove to yourself that self-doubt doesn’t have to inhibit you as a creator.
For me, self-doubt tends to rear its ugly head whenever I get critical feedback in the form of a bad review. This can haunt me for hours or even days. When this happens, I have two go-to strategies that work for me:
Fish for compliments; bask in praise. My first stop for an ego boost is always a folder in my inbox labeled “fan mail.” It’s full of compliments from people who love my books. Narcissistic? Maybe. But it works for me.
(If you haven’t published anything yet, you can still collect bits of positive feedback. Do you have a friend who reads the stories you write? Do you participate in a writer’s circle or critique group? While pointers on how to improve are crucial to any writer’s creative journey, sometimes filing away praise is even more important.)
As a writer, you also must build a good support system. When I wrote my first novel, I initially shared it with two close friends who I knew would be helpful and supportive. One of the reasons I started dating my husband was because he didn’t just approve of my writing — he was an enthusiastic supporter. The people you surround yourself with should think your writing ambitions are admirable and worth supporting. If they don’t, I recommend surrounding yourself with people who do.
Remember Anne Lamon. Anne writes, “I don’t think you have time to waste not writing because you are afraid you won’t be good enough at it, and I don’t think you have time to waste on someone who does not respond to you with kindness and respect.”
This reflection came in response to a terminally ill friend telling her she didn’t have time to obsess over minor insecurities. That friend literally didn’t have the time, and in her view, Anne didn’t either.
The truth is, we are all going to die — maybe soon. If you died tomorrow, would you really care what some asshole said about your writing?
You’re procrastinating. Okay, writing is hard. When we write, we are literally creating something from nothing. That’s amazing. It’s also a lot like giving birth. It’s hard and it sucks…until it doesn’t. Steven Pressfield calls that pain “resistance,” and sometimes our subconscious just wants to avoid that pain.
You’ll know you’re procrastinating when you suddenly have an urge to do the dishes, check Facebook, or take a toothbrush to the grout. Sometimes procrastination can be the manifestation of fear: fear that we aren’t good enough, fear that people will judge us for our writing, or fear that we might actually be successful.
When procrastination hits, you just have to treat yourself like a kid who’s been grounded. Turn off the Wi-Fi, or install Freedom to block distracting websites. Put away your phone, or turn it on airplane mode to block calls and texts. Stick your butt in your chair and write — no matter what.
You’re experiencing a crisis. This can be an internal crisis (like depression or addiction) or an external crisis (like a lost job or a death in the family). While I firmly believe that writing can be intensely therapeutic, it isn’t a substitute for professional counseling. If you’re experiencing depression, despair, or crippling anxiety, you must take care of your mental health before you can work on your writing.
You’re feeling burned out. Sometimes writers call burnout “not being inspired,” but to me, these are two different things. If you simply don’t feel inspired to write, join the club. Professional writers still write.
Burnout is different. When you’re burned out, you might feel flat, foggy, or unable to come up with anything new no matter how long or hard you try. Maybe you’ve been working too hard. Maybe you just finished a draft and need a week to decompress.
There are lots of fixes for burnout — some of them cheap, some of them expensive. Here are a few of my favorites:
Take a trip somewhere (and a week’s break from writing).
Go to a writer’s conference.
Go see a movie.
Read a book.
Make something with your hands.
Go to an antique store.
Take your dog for a walk.
Exercise, or do some hard manual labor.
If you’ve tried all these things and you still feel “blocked,” move on to section two.
You’re writing the wrong story. This realization has come to me at every phase of the writing process. It sucks when it happens after you’ve started writing, but once you realize that this isn’t the story you’re meant to write right now, it can be an enormous relief.
Before I wrote my fourth series, I took a trip to Sedona. I was convinced that I had an idea for my next book and that I just needed some inspiration. But no matter how hard I tried, I could not get a handle on the main characters or the plot. When I came home and tried to hammer it out, it felt like beating my head against the wall. So I switched gears entirely and ended up writing a different story. The words poured out of me.
File this away: It doesn’t matter if you have a great idea. Great ideas are a dime a dozen, and they are nothing without the follow-through.
You’re stuck on a plot point. If you’re lucky, this happens to you while you’re still in the throes of the first draft. (If you’re really lucky, this happens in outline.) Unfortunately, it quite often happens in edits or when a beta reader points out that an event couldn’t possibly have happened due to an issue with the timeline or a world rule that you established earlier in the book. Don’t panic — everything is fixable.
The best defense against plot issues is a detailed outline of the book you’re writing and a rough idea of where the series is going. It’s also helpful to get feedback on a second or third draft of a manuscript from a trusted reader. If you are really far into a book when you discover an issue, your best bet is to enlist the help of a good developmental editor.
Are you seeing a theme here? It’s all about perspective. If you are truly stuck on a plot issue, the best thing you can do for yourself and your novel is to seek a second opinion. You do not need to show an unfinished first draft to another writer, a friend, or a spouse to get this opinion. In fact, you shouldn’t. Usually, all you need is a sounding board for your ideas from a thoughtful and tactful human being.
You don’t know your characters well enough. This, in my opinion, is one of the greatest risks of writing and publishing at a breakneck speed. It’s something I struggled with on my first and third series, but it’s something that can easily be remedied in the outline phase. Before you ever start writing, I recommend jotting down everything you know about your primary and secondary characters. For your protagonist, I would go as far as drafting a complete character history.
If knowing your characters and understanding how they drive the plot is a persistent problem for you, I’d recommend “Wired for Story.” This is the book that helped me fix my characterization problem once and for all.
The good news is that all of these problems are beautifully solvable. They aren’t mysterious or supernatural in nature — they’re everyday issues that all writers grapple with at some point in their careers. Sometimes the passage of time is enough to resolve them. Usually, it takes intensive self-examination, persistence, and compassion.
Which of these issues is holding you back from writing? What action could you take this week to get one step closer to where you want to be?