Friday, May 18, 2012

Write Now!: Overcoming Writer’s Block

Over the last two weeks, I discussed goal setting. But sometimes, even if you know what you want to do, it’s hard to get started. This post addresses the challenges of writer’s block and diving into that intimidating first chapter or paragraph.

How do you feel when you see a blank piece of paper—or a blank computer screen? Sometimes it’s the excitement of potential, a clean slate, ready for the ideas to flow, for a wondrous work to emerge. But sometimes that blank seems to go on and on—as if it can never hold anything but emptiness. How does one start?

That feeling can come partway through a manuscript as well. It’s like walking to the edge of a cliff, and being unable to take the next step. You’re stuck, and there’s nothing to do but walk away—perhaps to the sofa, to spend time with a good book. A book that is already written, by someone else.

Most writers faces writer’s block at times. Even successful and prolific writers struggle with writer’s block. They have just figured out how to get past it more quickly. 

In my experience, you can break writer’s block into two basic types: trouble getting started, and trouble moving forward. For each, a few simple tricks can help you get past the block, so the words flow again. This week we’ll look at ….
Trouble Getting Started

Starting a new piece can feel like a big commitment. I find this most true of longer work, like novels. Do I really want to spend the next year on this project?

I’ve written several work-for-hire books, where I’m writing for a publisher’s pre-existing series (such as Jesse Owens: Young Record Breaker and Milton Hershey: Young Chocolatier, written under the name M.M. Eboch). Often I have to write a sample chapter to apply for this work. That’s easy enough—it’s just one chapter. I don’t have to write the rest of the book until much later, once a contract comes through. At that point, it’s easy enough to keep going. After all, I already have the first chapter!

You can try a trick like this yourself. Don’t think about sitting down to write a whole story or book. Just plan to write the first page, or even the first paragraph. Forget about the rest, and just work on those opening lines. 

In fact, how about writing several first paragraphs? You’re not trying to write The Perfect Beginning. You’re just getting different options on paper, so you can choose the best one later. No single paragraph is important, because you’re going to throw most of them out anyway. That gives you permission to play.

This helps get past the fear of The Wrong Start. Sometimes it’s hard to begin, because you’re afraid of what will happen. Will a bad start sabotage the whole piece? What if you put all your energy into this story, and it’s terrible?

Give yourself permission to write something awful. After all, it’s just the first draft. You’re going to do a lot of editing anyway. At worst, you can throw out the whole thing. Even if you toss the story, you’ll have made progress. You can start over, with a better idea of what you want to say (or at least what you want to avoid). And any writing—even bad writing—is a kind of practice. It gets you into the habit of sitting down and putting the words on paper. That’s the first step in becoming a writer.

Find advice on great starts in Advanced Plotting
Start before the Beginning 

If you’re still having trouble getting started, you may not know enough about your story. Perhaps you’re not sure of your plot, or don’t know your characters well, or aren’t confident about your message. In this case, try pre-writing. With pre-writing, you’re not even trying to write the story or article. You’re just writing about it. That helps prepare you to write the actual story.

Some authors like to interview their characters. They ask questions and write down the answers in the character’s voice. You can ask your character about her family, friends, school/work and other activities. Ask about her past and her future. Be specific, with question such as these:

•    Who is your favorite person at school or work? Who do you dislike, and why? Who do you envy, or admire?
•    Do you see yourself getting married and having children someday? At what age? How many kids?

You can come up with dozens of questions on every aspect of life. But one warning—do not use this information in the story! Readers don’t want a biography of a fictional character. They want a story with conflict and action. Pre-writing is just an exercise to help you learn more about your character. You might use a few small details from your character biography, if they fit naturally into the story, but most of the exercise is just background information. Your character will seem more real because you know everything about her life, even though you’re only showing your readers a small slice of it.

The Story before the Story

You can pre-write about the plot as well. Write a summary of what’s going to happen. Once again, don’t think of this as part of the final story. Think of it as an outline so you know where you’re going. Once you know what’s going to happen, you can start writing the story in vivid scenes full of action and dialogue.

If you can’t decide where you want the story to go, try interviewing yourself. Ask questions that will help you identify your goals in writing the story.

•    Who is my audience?
•    What do I want them to get from my story? Why?
•    What is my theme or message?
•    How can my plot best bring out that theme?

Don't worry if you struggle with some of these questions. You may not know the final answers until you're in the process of revision. Once again, your goal now is to learn more about the story, so you’ll feel confident writing it. With each of these writing exercises, it’s best to do them, review them, and then put them aside. You may want to refer to your plot questions once in awhile, so you don’t forget anything, but if you keep looking at your character biography, you’ll be tempted to put in all those details, and your story will bog down in backstory.

Do you have any tips to share? What has worked for you? Where do you get stuck?

Next week I’ll discuss Trouble Moving Forward.


  1. Wow, this is my first comment on the blog because this one really hits close to home. I am not a professional writer (maybe one day!) but I do enjoy writing a lot in my free time and I like to joke that I hate “beginnings, endings, and transitions”. I can never seem to get started over that first hump of writing. I'll have dozens of scenes planned and can't wait to get to those parts to write them, but actually getting there is the hard part for me. I usually just “move on” and sometimes it seems to work, other times I'm left with a bunch of jumbled scenes with no sense of progression. I love your advice and will most definitely use your suggestions in the future! Thank you so much for sharing your tips on how to overcome the struggles of getting started!

  2. Thanks for your comment, Remmy! Hopefully you'll find some useful advice in next week's post as well, on getting over trouble moving forward.

    In somewhat related thoughts, I recently read an article in the romance writers newsletter on different learning styles -- visual, auditory, or kinesthetic (physical). It suggested that kinesthetic learners may benefit by using a treadmill desk, walking while brainstorming, or even just chewing gum while working -- something to distract that restless physical part. I tested as a visual learner, but I think I may be a kinesthetic creator, because sometimes moving around helps quiet my mind so I can focus.