Blocked, Stuck, or Swinging Free

Disclaimer: This is all stuff that I have experienced, that I’ve found works, and so on. As always with any creative enterprise, your mileage will vary. If this is useful to anyone, yay. If not, I’m sorry.

There are people out there who say there is no such thing as writer’s block. These people are as profoundly mistaken as those who say PMS doesn’t exist because they don’t get it. (It does. Oh, it does.) Ignore them. I have been struggling hard lately, which is why I was thinking about this.

Blocked = can’t write, but can’t write doesn’t necessarily = blocked. Can’t-write comes in flavours. These are the three flavours I’ve run into, how I define them, and what I do about them if I can.

Level 1: Swinging free

You’re ready to write, but you don’t know what to write. Your story has run out of oomph, or you’re between projects, and you’ve got plenty of enthusiasm but no clear idea of where to put it. Your wheels are spinning but you’re going nowhere.

I usually go in search of inspiration. Reading new books, watching new movies (or old favourites), debating the fine detail of characterization in comics with like-minded fans… there are lots of things that make my brain go ping. If it doesn’t happen right away, I flick through my Little File of Big Ideas, or take a nap, or just declare the day a brain holiday. It’s frustrating, but it usually goes away if I don’t fret about it.

Level 2: Stuck.

You’re working on something and you bog down. The plot’s gone limp on you, the characters won’t move, or you can’t figure out what to do next.

If I’m stuck on a particular scene, I tend to have the best luck rewriting from a different character’s POV. That often shakes something loose. Relocating the scene can sometimes help, or if you really have to, just skipping it and going on with the story. Hopefully when you come back it’ll be unstuck.  If it’s the story itself, an outline can sometimes help if you have one – refer back not to what you’re supposed to be doing now, but what comes *next*. A reminder of where the scene should be leading can help. If all else fails, sometimes just writing something else for a while can help. Take a break and write something funny, or macabre, or anything that’s a big mood shift from what you were stuck on. A change is as good as a rest, sometimes.

Level 3: Blocked

Blocked is the full Can’t-Write. It’s not just not knowing what to write, or having trouble with what you are writing, it’s sitting down and having *nothing*. Your imagination has gone dormant, you feel as creative as a banana slug, and you can’t shake any words out of your brain at all. That’s where I am now, and it’s happened to me quite a few times in the past. Being sick will usually do it, at least temporarily. For me, it’s often linked with stress and/or depression.  And for good reason! When you’re depressed, brain activity drops quite dramatically. See?

So thinking is hard. And creating is even harder. And for a writer, not being able to write leads straight to a cascade of frustration, self-doubt, and you guessed it, more depression. So the more blocked you are, the more blocked you can get.

The only thing I’ve ever found that helps is accepting that I’m not going to be writing for awhile, and trying not to worry about it while I work out the source of the stress and try to sort it out. If I can keep from beating myself up about not being able to write, and feeling miserable and like a failure because of it, it’s easier to get back to it when my brain’s back online, because I have less self-reproach to slog through. (you never, ever get that stuff out of your shoes).

There are lots of other reasons for blockages, but a surprising number of them tie back to being under some kind of pressure. If it happens, don’t blame yourself! Try to identify what outside pressures are putting strain on you at the moment. If it’s something you can fix, like getting your taxes done, then go ahead. If it’s something that’s just got to pass in its own time, like exams or being sick, let it. But don’t beat yourself up for not being Wonder Woman and able to do everything at once all the time. Sometimes you just have to wait for the bad weather to clear, and that’s okay.

But when it does clear, get your butt back in that seat and write.

Little File of Big Ideas

I’ve had one of these for years. Actually, I’ve had several for years – I tend to back them up when changing computers, then be too lazy to go looking and start a new one anyway. It’s where I write down all the nifty ideas that come to me when I’m working on something else, or too busy to deal with them right away. I realized years ago that if I don’t write them down, no matter how brilliant and memorable they seem at the time, sooner or later I will forget. Especially given my Queen Of Bad Memory status.

I’ve got everything in there, including genres I almost never read – there’s one plot for a tech-thriller that just won’t drop out of my head – ready for me to come back to them. I almost never write a story as soon as I have the idea. I can’t. If I do, it invariably dies on the page, because the plot hasn’t had enough time to germinate and put down roots in my head. I need to think it over, play with it, write it down, let it simmer for a while in the back of my head… and then come back and see what grows. Sometimes it’s nothing, occasionally it’s something truly amazing. Occasionally I go through and delete a few ideas that no longer seem big, because it’s possible to grow out of ideas.

But it’s a wonderful thing to have, and I strongly recommend it to any writer. It lets you walk away from an idea you’re not ready for, or one that needs more germinating time, and come back later knowing you won’t forget or lose it. Obviously you should back this particular document up to hell and back. I favour dropbox and USB, but in general just make sure it’s in at least three places that won’t all die simultaneously. Back it up along with your writing, so it’s all safe together, that’s always best.

And go back and reread it from time to time. It’s wonderful the good ideas you’ll find there that you completely forgot that you had, waiting like little gifts from your past self.

Three guesses what *I* was doing this morning…