Chip off the Ol’ Writer’s Block

The information in this post comes from an SFWA panel on writer’s block I attended in June 2015. If you’re a speculative fiction writer and can afford to attend the SFWA weekend in June 2016, I highly recommend the experience. I learned a lot in this session and others, and I met a lot of great people too. Now, about that block…

What’s that? A blockage? Let me at it.

Authors Nancy Kress, Sarah Pinsker, Jack McDevitt, and Jack Skillingstead began the session with introductions and a definition of what writer’s block would mean in the context of their discussion. That’s more important than it might seem on first glance. See, the creative dry spells writers usually mean when we talk about being “blocked” are frustrating, but they’re actually not the debilitating condition a psychologist would call writer’s block. Everything here is directed towards problems of the  “where do I go from here?” “I’m stuck,” or “what happened to my motivation?” type rather than deep-seated avoidances and phobias rooted in “I’m scared. I can’t face it.”

Point 1: There’s no one cause or type of block, and writers can be blocked for more than one reason at a time or over time.  If I’m blocked I might be:

emotionally or technically unprepared for a specific project
distracted by life’s other necessities.

unsure what comes next, plot wise.
buried under too many voices/advice/info on how to. 
suffering from”Tolstoy syndrome” (mired in the emotional swamp of “If it’s not as good as why bother?”)
having an episode of blank page panic
overwhelmed by discouragement.

(to name only a few common issues) 

Point 2: Nothing works for everyone. Nothing works for anyone every time. The suggestions below have worked for some people some of the time. Trying them out is one way to find what works for you. 

Go back to the last place in the story you were excited and re-write from there.
Refuse yourself writing or even words (even talking, if that’s practical) until the ideas start to flow again.
Go be physical (run, walk, garden…)
Free-write: start typing thoughts from a characters standpoint, riff on a keyword related to plot, anything that gets random words on paper
Keep away from the work area and think until start is set in mind before sitting down to the blank page.

Deny self TV/ reading/Facebook/other entertainments until work is done.
Keep multiple projects in play and switch between them whenever the energy on one wanes.

Point 3: Some general tips help writers avoid blocks and ease the work of grinding them down:
Know what you need to do to get the brain settled. Rituals and routines help.
Know your rhythm; work when your mind is sharper. Morning, evening, whenever.
Set smaller goals when you can; focus on writing a paragraph, not a novel
Recognize that each scene is a thing–helps clarify n move ideas
Write into the next scene, try to not end a session on an end
Set a far goal aim, even if it’s not the goal you end up hitting
Reread or read work aloud to find tiny changes to make

Suggestions from the audience at this point included:
using a spreadsheet (the panel wasn’t enthused but agreed it was a good motivator for those who feel motivated by word counts. Petty counting-hater that I am, I silently cheered.)
Opening new files for free writing with the thought “this doesn’t count” in mind
Rewriting other people’s work
Write a bear into the scene. Literally. Just to see what happens.
Outline a scene, if you usually don’t, and when dialogue or description starts happening on its own, go with it.

The panel then digressed into a neat conversation on types of stories: gifts vs shitting rocks. Some stories come wrapped in excitement, others have to be bled from a vein.
And then they meandered into discussing their approaches to writing & rewriting (free vs critical first drafts, some like rewriting, some despise it, etc)
The session ended with commentary on critiquing and the results and how it can both cause and cure blocks, which leads to the last point.

Pointers on using criticism as a springboard to renewed motivation:
Don’t get annoyed. (Silent tears of mirth on my part, on hearing that. Might as well suggest people stop breathing. In fairness, I think the idea was more to recommend getting over being annoyed, without responding. That whole side conversation is what inspired the whole Critiques Are Like Road Trips post.)
Find a good critic who won’t hold back but also won’t indulge in toxic superiority
Find a simpatico readers who are looking for the style and content you create.

Find people who are better than you when it comes to craft and technique.
Find people who aren’t interested in scoring ego points on you.

There. I think that covers my notes. I hope someone else gleans some useful ideas from this. I know I did. 

2 responses to “Chip off the Ol’ Writer’s Block”

  1. Cheryl Sinnott Avatar

    “Keep multiple projects in play and switch between them whenever the energy on one wanes.” Works for me with my sewing. I usually have one major project, and one or two smaller projects at the same time.”Don't get annoyed.” I hear you! I'll need a partial lobotomy for that to happen! Getting over it is where the spouse comes in, thankfully.

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