One second, you’re plowing through your manuscript, thoroughly convinced you’ve got the next bestseller on your hands, and the next moment, you’re staring at the blinking cursor on your page, and the next line–the next word, even–won’t come. Or worse yet, you’ve just sat down to write, you’re staring at a blank page, and it just…stays blank. For hours. Days.
Writers have been dealing with this since words were invented, and you know what, probably longer. I probably won’t be able to tell you any neat tips/tricks you don’t already know, but this post is more about matching writer’s block “treatment” to the root problem. Because if your problem is that you just can’t seem to get started, taking a break isn’t the best idea. Or if you’re stuck mid-story, free-writing a stream-of-consciousness list might only throw you off more.
So without further ado:
General Advice that is Good for Everyone
I once had a professor tell me, “You can wait for your muse to come to you, but they have to know where and when to find you.” Meaning: set writing hours and keep to them. Not everyone can write every day, and that’s totally fine. But look at your weekly schedule and find an hour (or more, if you can) that you can set aside as writing time. Nothing–nothing–will get you out of a writing funk if you’re not setting aside time to write. Especially when you don’t feel like it.
Now onto the good stuff.
For When You’re Just Getting Started
You’re the blank page person. Start by asking yourself these questions:
- Do I know the plot of my story?
- Do I know my main character? Do I know how I want them to change over the course of the story?
You don’t have to know how the story ends, and you don’t have to know every single detail of the plot either, but in longer fiction, think of your character like an HGTV home renovation: before and after. You are at the “before” moment, and if you don’t know how your character is going to grow over the course of the story, then it will be unbelievably difficult to write them in their pre-emotional-growth phase.
So if you answered “no” to the above questions, take some time to fill out a character questionnaire or development sheet. Take some time to jot down your biggest plot points. If you are not an outlining type of person, that’s fine, but even people who write by the seat of their pants have a general idea of what is going to happen to their character to make them change.
If you answered “yes” to the above questions, good for you! That’ts one less roadblock. Now try a little soul searching and ask yourself:
- Have I built the story up so much in my head that I’m worried what comes out won’t be as good?
- Am I comparing my story ideas to other successful books in my genre?
- Have I read too many writing tips lately and feel overwhelmed?
- Am I being overly critical of my writing style?
- Am I trying too hard to make the first line perfect?
These are just a few of the potential problems that come up pretty often for me, though there are certainly others, and I heartily encourage everyone to make a list of the roadblocks that stop you most often.
I’ve Built Up My Story in My Head and It’s Not Coming Out Right on the Page
Oh boy. Let me tell you, this one is personal for me. My most recent manuscript, Throne of Shadows, was originally told as a bedtime story to my college roommate, and originally it was a dark, but funny tale. On paper, it was just dark. I struggled for months with feeling like the story was off because the tone was different.
Here’s the truth: it will always come out on paper differently than it was in your head. I could tell you to just dump your first draft out there because it doesn’t matter much and that revisions exist for a reason, but I’ve always found that to be kind of useless advice.
Instead, let me say that your story is going to come out the way it wants to, not the way you want it to, and forcing it to bend to your will is what’s blocking you. Trust your writing. Trust that it knows what it’s doing, and that it sees the big picture before you do. Throne of Shadows came out just fine as a dark story, and the comedy showed up later on anyway.
I’m Comparing My Story to Other Successful Books in My Genre
Don’t do this. You know you shouldn’t be doing this, and you’re doing it anyway. There’s really nothing for it other than tricking your brain out of this kind of funk. Pick 5-6 books by different authors in your genre that you like/are successful. Look at the plots: they’re not the same. Look at the characters: they’re not the same. Look at the writing styles: they’re not the same. And if they are the same, and yours is still different, that is a Good Thing. Originality is beautiful, and readers crave plots and characters and styles that they’ve never seen before.
I’ve Read Too Many Writing Tips and Now I Don’t Know How to Incorporate All that Good Advice Into My Writing
Don’t. Go read this post if you want someone’s permission to throw all that writing advice out the window so you can actually write what you want.
I’m Being Overly Critical of My Writing
Aren’t we all? But seriously, there are two really fun, really reassuring ways to get over this one.
- Find your favorite books–books that you think are so mind-blowingly good that you just wish you could write like that–and go read their lowest, one-star reviews online. Remind yourself that even beautifully written books will never please everyone. Remind yourself that it doesn’t matter, because there will always be people like you who adore those books anyway.
- Find the absolute worst writing you can. I suggest searching through the dregs of early-2000s fanfiction for some truly harrowing stuff, but there’s plenty of published “literature” that’s just as terrible. Nothing boosts confidence like reading the really, really bad stuff, and realizing that what you’ve written is already leagues above that. Here is a list of bad opening lines. Just to get you started.
I’m Trying too Hard to Make the First Line Perfect
First, go back up to the list of bad opening lines and read those. You can do no worse, okay? Now, unless you’ve got something, really, really good, you will change the first line 4-5 times anyway. It doesn’t matter. It literally does not matter. Give yourself permission for the first line to be one of the worst lines in your entire book, and then go back and fix it later.
And if you’re really stuck on this, don’t start with the first scene. Start with the part of the story that inspires you the most. I personally love writing things in chronological order, but sometimes that just isn’t going to happen.
If You’re Mid-Project When the Writer’s Block Hits
It may be time for a break, especially if you’ve been at it for a while. But if you’ve already set your project aside for a few days and it still hasn’t helped, it’s time to admit that you’ve probably got a bigger issue than burn-out. Ask yourself:
- Am I self-sabotaging because I’m scared of failure/success?
- Am I having difficulty because I’m fighting the natural progression of my story?
- Am I having difficulty because I’m trying to write what I think people want to read instead of writing the story I want to tell?
- Am I having difficulty because I’m bored with my story/characters/plot/etc.?
I’m Self-Sabotaging Because I’m Scared of Failure/Success
This is a big one for me, and I think a lot of people struggle with this. For me, a lot of my fear is centered around the idea that the only thing I really can see myself doing for the rest of my life is writing, and if it turns out I’m no good at that, then I don’t know what to do. Fear of success can work the same way, especially because success means change, and expectations, and new challenges.
You can, again, read the lowest reviews on your favorite books because seeing that you can still be successful even if a few people don’t like your work is empowering. But this is really the time to remember why you started writing in the first place. Make a list of all the things you love about it. Remind yourself that you’re writing primarily for yourself. Remind yourself that there is only one person who has to love what you write: you. And try to figure out if your fear of failure/success goes beyond writing; if you can figure out where the fear comes from, it’s easier to fight it.
I’m Fighting the Natural Progression of My Story
You’ve gotten to the point where you can’t move forward because something is just wrong. Re-read what you’ve written so far–the whole thing, not just what you’ve written recently. Note where the writing starts to feel more stilted, where you start rushing through scenes, where you find yourself losing interest. This is usually (but not always) a sign that you’ve taken your story in a direction that isn’t working, and even your subconscious knows it. You can try to push through it, and that might yield something interesting, but if you’re truly stuck, the best thing you can do is go back to the moment the writing starts to suffer a bit, and start over from that point. (Don’t forget to take what you’ve already written and save it in another document just in case you can salvage something).
I’m Writing what I Think People Want to Read Instead of Writing the Story I Want to Tell
If you find that you’re trying to force a character to avoid all of their problematic traits, or if you’re worried about how your characters’ relationships will be perceived, or if you desperately try to avoid cliches because you’ve been told readers hate cliches, you’re eventually going to run into the problem where your story begins to feel like a shallow reflection of what you wanted it to be.
Get a journal and keep it private. Get in the habit of writing something that you know no one else will ever read. Get in the habit of writing freely and without fear of judgement. It will bleed into your other writing before you know it, and your work will be better for it.
I’m Bored with my Story/Characters/Etc.
Are you bored because you’ve convinced yourself it isn’t good or worth reading? Are you bored because you think it doesn’t measure up to other published works? Are you bored because you’re self-sabotaging? Are you bored because you’ve been working on the story a long time and you know it so well that nothing about it surprises you anymore? A lot of times, boredom is a symptom of a deeper problem, and if you can identify what that problem is, you can save yourself a lot of work.
But if you can pinpoint what it is about your story that doesn’t feel fresh, and if you can provide examples to justify it, it may be time to do some heavy adjustments. This is a last resort kind of deal. No one wants to scrap their characters or their plot. No one wants to start fresh. But if you’ve tried everything else and you’re still unable to move forward, give yourself permission to begin again. If your main character is a two-dimensional blob of nothing, or if your plot is going nowhere, get rid of them. You are not obligated to crash and burn with a failing idea.