(Curiosity) Writer’s Block

A couple times now I’ve been asked how I handle it, most recently yesterday. This is my answer.

I don’t think there’s a thing called Writer’s Block. What we call Writer’s Block is a collection of many different psychological faults and phenomena, some real, some imagined, so don’t fall for it.

In my experience, there’s a big problem and a little problem hidden in there. The little problem is just how to get started in the morning, and while there’s no universal solution, I set an achievable bar for myself — something small but tangible, like a hundred words. Just write a hundred words, I tell myself. If you can’t do that, you have no business calling yourself a writer, and neither does anyone else. Seriously.

I will even go so far as to refuse myself internet privileges for the next 24 hours if I can’t get out five hundred words in a writing day. (Not every day is a full writing day.) Usually, of course, in the course of writing a little, more comes. Sometimes a lot more. Not always, but it frequently primes the pump.

Another trick is to write non-linearly. I let myself write whatever part of the story is in my head. Sometimes that’s a scene that comes later in the book. Sometimes it’s just snippets of dialogue between two characters that I may or may not even use. But it’s all writing and it all counts. Taking character notes counts. Describing an interesting setting counts. You’re not gonna hit a home run every day. Don’t try. You don’t even need a hit! Some days you strike out. But you should at least get your ass off the bench.

So that’s the little problem — removing all the hidden constraints you put on yourself when you sit down to a blinking cursor. The big problem is when you have to rely on those tricks repeatedly. If you have to force yourself off the bench for more than a few days in a row, or for many nonconsecutive days in a couple weeks, then there’s something else going on other than simple laziness or lack of focus.

For me, the biggest issue has been a difference between what excited my head and what excites my heart. If I have to force myself to work on a project, I’ve come to accept that means I’m not really that excited about it, no matter how it felt before, or how well I think it would sell. It happens. Your heart is vile and fickle and sometimes it just isn’t into it, and in the end, we all have to write authentically, which very much means writing from your heart rather than your head.

In this case, the first thing I do is ask myself what WOULD make it exciting. What would make me want to sit down and start writing right now? (Where “writing” includes laying on the bed with my eyes closed plotting.) I then modify the project to get my heart in it, to make it something I legitimately want to write. The opening chapter of Episode Five of THE MINUS FACTION was exactly that. I was losing focus after the battle in New York, so I introduced a second set of villains — very interesting villains who live underground in an abandoned Soviet nuclear missile silo, which was interesting and upped the stakes and got me excited again.

If there’s no answer to the question of what would make it exciting, if after a couple weeks of trying I just can’t get going, then I shelve that project for a later date. We all have idea files. That’s where that goes. You may find your heart’s in it some time later. You may cannibalize elements of it for a completely different project. There’s nothing wrong with that. That’s what I did with the scene at Omin, the warlock’s dark court, in the third course of FEAST OF FIVE SHADOWS. That insidious game of Russian roulette came from an earlier abandoned project.

Of course, you DO have to finish something eventually, but the best way to get there is to practice. Try. Genuinely try. If you can’t finish, set it aside and try something else. I’ve found it gets easier to stick with things over time. It could be, for example, that you’re trying to jump right from Novice to Expert and are skipping the practice, practice, practice phase.

Finally, if none of this works, then I don’t know what to tell you. Creativity is unbounded. There’s enough clay and enough open space in your mind to forge worlds. If you remove all the constraints on yourself — including the myth that you have to write something you think people will buy rather than what you want to write — if you listen to your heart and you still aren’t excited enough to sit down and do the work, then I’m not much help. I’ve not had that problem. I love my job.

End answer.

art by Qixuan Lim