Beating Writer’s Block
by Vaughn Treude
Like me, you probably have childhood memories of sitting in front of a blank page, agonizing over what to write for a school essay. Years ago, in my first foray into writing fiction seriously, I would occasionally have the same problem. Eventually I stopped writing because I was blocked on a particular story. That doesn’t happen to me anymore, thanks to a few simple techniques I’ve picked up. I’m hoping they will help you, as well.
My theory is that writer’s block is caused by confusion about what you’re trying to achieve. If you sit in front of your computer expecting a masterpiece to appear on the page, it won’t happen. The masterpiece may be your ultimate goal, but it’s not valid for the moment. Your immediate goal is to write, because no story can ever be finished by waiting for the perfect phrasing. It helps to do some preparation beforehand, but it’s not mandatory. Some writers outline their stories in detail; others have a vague concept and let the words flow freely. I’ve done both, and both can work, given the right discipline.
Over the years, I’ve attended a few writers’ workshops. The most common advice I’ve heard is, “A writer writes.” To be a writer you, must inculcate the habit of writing. Science fiction writer Cory Doctorow recommends setting aside a particular time of day (when you’re at your creative peak) to write a specified number of words, for example, 500. While doing this, you mustn’t censor yourself or make anything but the most rudimentary fixes. Editing is an entirely separate task.
Doctorow advocates stopping at exactly the chosen word count, even in the middle of a sentence, so that you’ll have a natural place to continue the next day. I find this rule frustrating. If I have enough time and I feel inspired, I’ll sometimes write 2,000 words or more. Resuming the next day is seldom a problem for me because I always try to keep in mind where the story will continue.
Five hundred words may not sound like much, but over the course of a year, that number can add up to two or three novels’ worth of writing. Keep in mind that the writing of the original draft is only one of the tasks a successful writer must complete. There are revision and editing, formatting, dealing with agents and publishers (or self-publishing on platforms such as Amazon), and of course, promotion.
The skeptics out there will say, “What if I can’t think of anything to write?” That’s not a valid excuse. You must have some idea for the story, or the writing bug would never have bitten you. When establishing a daily writing habit, you must write, even if it’s crap. I probably throw away at least a third of everything I write, but sometimes those wrong turns give me inspiration for new and better plots. Just think, “How can I get my character from point A to point B?” and expound upon whatever comes to you. Don’t worry about formatting, spelling, grammar, or punctuation. One method I sometimes use is to imagine a conversation and write in script form. You can fill in the descriptions and the “he said/she said,” tags later on. Action scenes are the opposite; write them like an instruction manual. “Captain A swings his sword at Mr. B. Mr. B raises his shield to parry the blow.” Any trick is fair game if it gets the words down on paper.
The more frequently and regularly you write, the more your writing project will stay in the back of your mind. I like to use idle time, such as commuting or walking the dog, to turn over unresolved issues in my head. How do I get my protagonist(s) out of their problem? What obstacles should I place in their path? If I’m still undecided, I use a separate “notes” file to jot down ideas. The act of recording them forces you to clarify your ideas, and often one rises to the top. It also breaks the psychological resistance to “messing up” your nice clean story. If you have a beta reader or a supportive friend or partner, bounce your ideas off of them. Frequently they’ll give you some real gems.
Don’t let writer’s block stifle your creativity and destroy your dreams of creating your own work. Writing, like any other craft, requires practice and discipline. Make the creation of your initial draft a daily ritual. Getting the words on paper should be an end in itself. Save the criticism, editing, and self-doubt for later. Employ dead time to work on ideas and issues in your mind. If you keep at it with determination, you’ll have written an entire novel before you know it.
Vaughn Treude grew up on a farm in North Dakota. The remoteness of his home, with few children nearby, made science fiction a welcome escape. After many years in software, he realized that the discipline of engineering could be applied to writing fiction. Check out his works at vaughntreude.com.