Writer’s Block & Building Blocks, Part I

While I was on hiatus, someone on Twitter asked for suggestions for overcoming writing blocks. While I answered her in tweet form (a very long tweet chain) I though I would expand on it here. This is the first in a 3 part series. For more about plot and setting issues click here, and character problems click here.

I used to be one of those people who started stories and never finished them. I still have dozens of story starts on my computer that have never developed past the first 25 pages. Openings are easy–they’re the part we practice most as writers. The rest? Not so much.

So how did I overcome consistent writer’s block? I usually write 1-2 novels a year now, and revise/edit 2-3 others. How?

First of all, let me say that your mileage may vary. These are the techniques and approaches that worked for me. They may not work for everyone.

What causes it?

I’ll be honest. All of those posts and articles saying writer’s block doesn’t exist, or that it’s only an excuse for not writing, piss me off. In my experience, there are two main causes of writer’s block. Either there is a problem with the writer’s mental state, or there is a problem somewhere in the story. The story is trying to tell you, and that is why it refuses to move forward.

So yes, writer’s block does exist. The good news? It’s completely within your power to fix it, if you’re willing to put in the work.

It’s all in your head.

Sometimes, the problem is the author. There really is a mental block of some kind. For me, this comes in three forms: mental health, head space, and physical health.

Mental health blocks, for me, are usually directly tied to either depression or self confidence issues. Neither of these are easy to shake, especially when they decided to piggyback off each other.

Depending on how severe the issue is, I’ll usually take a break for a few days until my moods level out again. Instead of working on the story, I’ll journal or blog. I tend to pull inward and circle my mental wagons; my energy is concentrated on recovering and getting back to an even keel. If you have severe mental health issues, or it lasts more than a few days, I would recommend seeking help.

When it comes to my self confidence, one thing that really helped was some advice I got my very first Nano: Your first draft is allowed to suck. In fact, it is encouraged to suck with all the force of a supernova as it collapses in on itself and becomes a black hole. The important thing for first drafts is just getting the words onto the page. The rest can be dealt with later.

Not tonight, darling. I’m not in the mood.

Sometimes, you’re just not in the mood for a story. Sometimes, you’re not in the right place mentally or emotionally to work on a particular character, and that’s okay. It’s okay to walk away. I’ve had stories that sat around collecting dust for years (yes, YEARS) before I was mentally in the right state to finish them. Sometimes the idea needs to mature. Sometimes you do. But as long as you don’t forget about that story, it still has hope.

That being said, there are little things called deadlines which sometimes get in the way. Sometimes, you just can’t walk away for one reason or another.

To help get in the mood, I usually line up a stack of DVDs with a similar mood or feel to my WIP. When I started struggling with the third Evie book back in August, I set up my queue with Supernatural, The Covenant, Penny Dreadful, and other dark fantasy tales to help get myself in the mood. I altered my reading list to try to capture the feeling. Once I got into that mindset (and out of the one from my last WIP, a historical murder mystery) it was much easier to find Evie’s voice again and get the story moving.

Warning: Crazy writer talk ahead

Another thing that helps set the tone for my writing is to change mediums. I have one character, a reporter from the 1920s, who has to be written either on a typewriter or using a Courier font. Evie frequently has to start out long hand, and then once I get a page or so down I can start using the computer. Ironically, the main character for my 1860s mystery insists on using the computer. She usually has so much to say I can’t keep up if I use anything else. Changing your method can sometimes make the pieces fall into place.

Get a move on

The last way I impeded the story as an author is when I neglect my physical health. If I’m tired or don’t feel good, it’s a lot harder to write. I make sure to take my vitamins every day, and I try to take a walk every afternoon after work. In the winter, I like to go to the gym and use the elliptical machines (okay, we all know I’m not very good about working out, but seriously. If you are blocked, take twenty minutes to do some cardio. Increased blood flow to the brain is a huge help).