Dragons are real. At least, they’re as real as we imagine them to be. You might be reading this thinking that dragons have nothing to do with writer’s block, but I’m here to tell you that dragons and writer’s block are the same thing. Because writer’s block is only real insofar as we imagine it.
If you tell yourself you’re stuck, you’ll feel stuck. Writer’s block is, as bluntly as I can say it, an excuse to not write. Even better, saying you have writer’s block can make you seem mysterious, a tortured artist, a martyr for the sacred written word. Writer’s block isn’t even an excuse for one thing, it’s an excuse for many. It’s more of a chimera than a dragon. Writer’s block is a Frankensteined amalgam of legitimate issues sprinkled with Element X, a nebulous tincture that pretends the poison is a cure. What follows is a list of genuine and sincere writing difficulties that are often confused for the mythical block reserved only for writers. Hopefully separating out these issues will get us closer to dismissing writer’s block for the false flag that it is, and closer still to finishing the next draft.
You’re stuck on a plot point.
This is the kernel of truth in the myth of writer’s block. There are times where you’re just not sure what happens next. Or there are so many things that could happen next, you don’t know which one to pick. This creates decision paralysis, a fear that if you choose wrong you’ll somehow ruin everything. The key to moving past this is to just write anyway. If you’re not sure which plot point to go with, just pick one and start writing. Whatever comes out gets you closer to finishing the draft, which is the most important thing. Make a note of other plot options, and come back to reexamine your choice later. If you have no idea what happens next, try to find a bold character choice. Even if it doesn’t seem like it will lead somewhere fruitful, there’s no way to know unless you try. Another option is to skip ahead to a later scene, one you can see clearly in your head. Write that. Or go back to your outline and figure out where you went off the rails. All of these options are writing, and as long as you’re writing then you’re doing valuable work. If you’re sitting in front of a screen, berating yourself for not knowing exactly what to write, you’re only hurting yourself and your project.
You’re focused on something else.
For some people, writer’s block involves a preoccupation with something other than writing. It could be financial stress, a nagging social issue, or even a sense of foreboding based on where the moon is in relation to Mars. We all get distracted. But part of writing is focusing on the work, even when things are hard. Life is always happening, but writers have to write through ups, downs, and retrogrades. If you’re distracted, figure out how to give yourself time and space to write. Put the worry aside in an active way. Change your location or devote a set amount of time to worrying about “the other thing”. If you can find a way to consider the issue and move past it, you’ll have improved as a writer. If you don’t have the tools to focus on writing, develop them. Then start writing.
There’s also a chance you’re just hungry.
You aren’t in the zone.
This self-created obstacle is equal parts pessimism and optimism. It relies on you convincing yourself your work won’t be good now, but it will be better later. Take a moment to realize that procrastination, even if it’s based on good intentions, is still procrastination. Don’t let “later” undermine “now”. Persuading yourself that not-writing is good for your writing is foolish. If you’re one of those Herculean heroes that have the time and the will to come back to the grindstone later in the day, then more power to you. But most of the time, the best way to get into the zone is to start writing, no matter how good you feel. Of course, self-care is important, so if you truly feel debilitated then put your mental health first. But don’t rob yourself of writing time by making a vague promise about future plans. Bear in mind, this version of writer’s block happens before you’ve written anything. A similar version crops up when you write material you’re not happy with.
Your writing isn’t as good as you want it to be at that moment.
Some days you write bad pages. This happens to everyone, so don’t punish yourself for it. Even if you’re producing material you don’t plan on keeping in your draft, you’re still doing valuable work. You know what doesn’t work, which helps you figure out what does. And you’re getting closer to “FADE OUT”. The only thing you can’t fix with editing is a blank page. The advice for overcoming this issue is the same as the advice for overcoming every issue: keep writing. Write more. Write again. Your writing will improve, as long as you keep at it.
Essentially, unless something is physically stopping you from writing, you’re not blocked. Hopefully, the above tips are a magic bullet that help you solve whatever difficulty you’re having right now. Or maybe you disagree and want to trade barbs with me about how writer’s block definitely exists. Feel free to @ me, but realize that you might just be feeding the beast that tells you “Don’t write.” And of course, remember that writing is a difficult thing, and you shouldn’t feel guilty if you feel blocked. But you shouldn’t revel in it either. A warning, if you’ve read this far. In this world of weary verbs and mixed metaphors, there’s more than one mythical writer’s block to fear. Here there be dragons…
Shaun Leonard is an experienced writer, editor, and assistant. He is available for story consultation and script editing. Follow Shaun on Twitter @shaun_leonard