Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Writer's block - the reality

I've seen a few writing blogs lately discussing the "myth" of writer's block. They all pretty much say the same: there's no such thing, and if you really can't think of anything to write, you're lying, lazy, or just trying to avoid doing any work.

Great news, eh? No such thing! It's a myth! Perpetuated by lazy writers! What a relief!

Fuck that. Okay, so there probably aren't any times when you simply can't write about *anything*, when no matter what you sit down to do, there are no words, you have no voice in your head and can't make *anything* up. That's very unlikely - not impossible, but unlikely. I suspect most cases of the dreaded block are really procrastination in disguise - it's not a blockage, it's just a lot easier to do nothing, and most of us have it down to a fine art. That's not to say it doesn't exist though.

But you can usually think of *something* to write about, even if it's just an exercise to get your fingers moving. The thing is, that's not always helpful, is it? If I'm stuck trying to figure out how to get the good guy to kill the bad guy (whoops, gave away the ending for 96% of all movies), then doing a writing exercise about my favourite childhood memory isn't much use. Sure, it'll be *writing*, but not the writing I need *right now*.

Maybe there's no such thing as writer's block, in the sense of a complete and utter inability to write anything. But does it exist in any other sense? Oh yeah. And it has many different forms:

--I have no idea what happens next
--I can't figure out how to end this
--I don't know where this is going
--I have the beginning and the end, but how the fuck do I come up with a middle bit to connect them?
--I'm doing the middle bit, but I'm just making shit up to try and connect acts 1 and 3
--I'm halfway through this, but it's shit
--60 pages in, and I've run out of story
--I have nothing to say with this script, it's not about anything
--I need character A to be in location B, but the way I've written it, character A would *never* go to location B, and I can't just do it for the sake of it, so how the hell do I make it convincing?
--I've had about a hundred ideas over the past year, and every single one has been shit, didn't go anywhere, and was a complete waste of time
--I've spent months working on this outline/idea, but it's just fallen to pieces and won't work, so it was a complete waste of time
--I can't think of anything good, interesting, or original
--I have 8 weeks to write this, no more, and if I'm not finished it by then, I'm fucked, oh shit, 3 weeks left, I haven't even started properly yet, where the hell do I begin?
--This ending isn't working, and I don't even know why, I just know it's no good
--I've solved all the problems, it's technically perfect, but it's just not interesting or "alive"
--They're going to hate this, it sucks
--I suck
--I'm ugly, too
--They're going to realise I'm a fraud, I lucked into this whole thing, I'm a big, sucky, ugly fraud

…and so on. Basically, writer's block can be anything that means you cannot continue writing right now, anything that stops you going to the next scene. Anything that dents your confidence, stops the flow, fucks your story up.

Writer's block is the constant voice asking "what happens next?", and you not having an answer.

Writer's block is just being fucking *stuck*. I've experienced all of those things up there on the list at some stage, and I'm sure I'll get them again. Some of them are easier to fix than others**. Some may even be helped by writing exercises, or brainstorming. But some can't. Sometimes, you just have to sit there, wracking your fucking brains, trying to force an idea out of nothing. Sometimes you have to stop thinking about it, and hope that the solution will magically pop into your head at random. Sometimes you just have to let it go. Maybe you'll come back to it, maybe it'll just sit in your old ideas file for years, and every now and then you'll stumble across it, and think hey, why didn't that ever work. Maybe then it'll fix itself, or you'll have a brainwave. Maybe it can't be fixed, ever - the killer is, if it can't, you'll never know. If you do fix it, then you'll know, but if you don't, you won't. And it'll just sit there, the one that got away, mocking you. A better writer could have fixed me, it whispers. A better writer wouldn't have got stuck in the first place. A better writer wouldn't have failed. Because when it comes right down to it, much of the time writing isn't some magical creative alchemy, it's just sitting down and working out how to get from A to B to C without making it look too obvious. And the first five answers you think up will turn out to be either unusable or unconvincing, so you need to come up with another way.

No such thing as writer's block? Yeah. Sure. Never been stuck on something? Always know what happens next? And it's always brilliant, is it? Well good for you. You've been lucky. So far.

And when you're days away from that incredibly important deadline, desperately trying to figure out how to begin or end or link something, slowly getting that sinking feeling that it's all gone horribly wrong - think back to this post, think back to your chipper "no such thing" post, then look me in the eye and tell me writer's block doesn't exist.

** In the next post, some tricks to get out of those sticky, stuck situations...


Danny Stack said...

Gee, you just described my last weekend in a nutshell.

Lucy said...

I don't get writer's block...I just write really shit scenes that don't go anywhere, followed by ridiculous scenes where people sing and dance and wear stupid hats. If things get really bad, I kill all my characters. So essentially, I actually write fuck all. And fill up my hard drive. Damn.

Tim Clague said...

Good shout. But I never start writing until I have a fully planned script. So I never quite get writers block as you describe it.

If I do get stuck I grab some ideas out of a pile of loose end ideas I have. What I called story-dust in this post

James Moran said...

Definitely - that's pretty much how Curfew came about, I came up with loads of random ideas around the concept until a story began to fall together.

But you can always get stuck on the outline - probably a sign that things aren't ready to be outlined yet. Story dust, I like that, makes it sound all magical and mysterious...

David Anaxagoras said...

I've always thought it was disingenuous in the least to tell someone who feels blocked that there is no such thing as writer's block. Worse, the solution offered is usually something along the lines of "apply ass to chair" or "just write".

"Doctor, I'm depressed."
"There's no such thing as depression."
"But I'm sad all the time and I want to kill myself."
"Really? Well...just be happy."
"I'm cured!"

I also suspect that people who claim they never get "blocked" aren't going deep enough with their writing -- they merely skim the surface and play it safe. Those who really open up and put it all on the page for everyone to see know just how terrifying that can be.

Ruth N. said...

I've often found, though, that when I *do* eventually work out how to fix a plot hole, it's an improvement on my original story. I've also found that when a story seems to tail off, it's usually because the characters have started behaving out of character, and I need to backtrack a bit.

My own personal experience of writer's block (which only happened the once, thank God), was that I just didn't feel the urge to write. It wasn't the same as not being in the mood (which happens quite a lot!), but actually feeling as though I'd never write again. Took about a year to get past it...

On a completely different note, are you a Stephen King fan? I've just picked up a copy of "Cell", and reading the first few chapters is like watching a film. I'm so jealous of this man's skill as a storyteller. He comes up with little details that I'd never even think of, like the power-suit woman's jacket buttons scraping along the ice cream van counter. An extract's here if you're interested:,,8802-2055797,00.html

James Moran said...

There may be people who genuinely never get blocked, and write well - if there are, then I despise them - but I doubt it. I mean, I could write a load of stuff without any planning, and think it's great, but as soon as someone reads it, it becomes clear that it needs much more work.

I had a similar thing once, just thought there was no point to writing, that I was fooling myself thinking I could ever get involved in the business. I just felt like a big idiot, and gave up for a long while. It sucked...

I'm a huge King fan, and will be all over Cell when it arrives - read the extract, dying to see the rest. He's a very underrated writer, I love his characters in particular.

Anonymous said...

He's thinking what we're all saying!

Mme G said...

They're going to realise I'm a fraud, I lucked into this whole thing, I'm a big, sucky, ugly fraud

Ah, that old chestnut. That's where most of my blockages usually end up, too. Slippery slope, that one. And someone put lube on all the handrails.

I'm not going to try to teach a very experienced, successfully published dog new tricks. I have my own ways for getting around blockage that I'm currently working through which would probably be fuck all help to anyone else at all. But the fact that others experience it too - people far more prolific and successful than I - is somehow reassuring.