For as long as there have been writers, there has been writer’s block. That infuriating moment when you put pen to paper (or, more likely, fingers to keyboard!) and nothing comes out.
It’s something all professional writers struggle with from time to time, as self-doubt and anxiety settle in, but the important thing to know is that it can be overcome.
To help us tackle that fear of the blank page, we asked Emylia Hall, writing coach at The Novelry and author of six novels – including The Harbour Lights Mystery, which is published this week – to offer us some advice on how she and other professional writers (including lots of familiar faces from The Novelry) reset their creative minds when they’re feeling blocked.
So let’s settle in, clear our heads, and get ready for those words to flow...
What is Writer’s Block?
It was psychoanalyst Edmund Bergler who coined the phrase writer’s block in 1947, but the idea of people suffering for their art pre-dates this substantially.
In 1804, Samuel Taylor Coleridge famously spoke of the ‘indefinite indescribable Terror’ he experienced when trying to write meaningful poetry. In what’s widely considered the first official recording of writer’s block, Coleridge turned to his diary, lamenting:
‘So completely has a whole year passed, with scarcely the fruits of a month. — O Sorrow and Shame… I have done nothing!’
—Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Rather than attempting a history of the condition and its famous sufferers here – for that, do read this excellent piece in the New Yorker – I’d like to offer some practical pointers for how we can overcome our creative inhibitions and keep on keeping on.
A lot of the time, writing feels like staring into the great unknown and finding a pathway through it. It’s an act of faith, and no little daring. When the words are flowing, it’s magic; but when they’re not, it can seem like a pointless endeavour because, really, who cares if we don’t finish our novels?
The consequences of deciding not to write often feel acute only to the writer: the sky won’t fall if we set down our pens. In this state of mind, it’s easy to think that there are other people out there who will write it better, or want it more, or that it’s all been said already.
Against this backdrop of ‘why does it even matter?’ is it any wonder that our resolve can falter?
I think fostering a positive relationship with our creativity is the most important thing that we can do for ourselves as writers. And that’s probably the same thing as fostering a positive relationship with ourselves, full stop.
We must write because we want to. Because we enjoy it. Because it brings a dimension to our life that we simply cannot find elsewhere. We need to make it matter.
It can be a catch-22, though. If we feel blocked – or have any kind of a negative association with our work – how can we enjoy it? Instead of sitting down to write in a positive mindset, we can end up feeling worse about the whole endeavour, and quite possibly ourselves, than we did before we started.
With some help from my fellow coaches at The Novelry – Mahsuda Snaith, Piers Torday, Alice Kuipers, Krystle Appiah, L.R. Lam and Gillian Holmes – here I offer five tips to beat writer’s block (and perhaps understand it better too).
Five Tips for Overcoming Writer’s Block
Block Hack 1: Figure out the source
Writer’s block is rarely only about the writing. If our mental or physical health is under pressure, it’s no wonder that coming to the page might feel complex or, under certain circumstances, impossible.
Gillian Holmes says:
Sometimes writer’s block is a symptom of other things going on in your life. Sometimes you just need to step away and accept that your mind needs rest. If you can’t write, or if writing is making you even more miserable, work out what else is bothering you, take the time to deal with it, and then see if you can go back. In other words, allow yourself to batten down the hatches and weather the storm. Then when the clouds part, hopefully you’ll be able to find the joy in writing again. Because a negative frame of mind distorts your view – you could be writing The Great Gatsby, and you’d still think it was terrible.
If it’s possible, we must try to separate how we feel about our writing from whatever else we’ve got going on in our lives. To see it as a place of peace, of respite, of freedom and control – and a place that will always be waiting for us.
It might sound easier said than done, but we’re almost always in control of our attitude; it’s a saving grace, when there’s so much that we can’t control. The fact is, we can always decide how we feel about our writing. That might mean stepping away from the desk for a while, because life is just throwing too much at us. Other times, it’s about recognising what’s surmountable.
Self-awareness calls for honesty – more honesty than is sometimes comfortable. In Natalie Goldberg’s brilliant Writing Down the Bones, she describes writing as ‘a path to meet ourselves’. If we can bear it, we need to look ourselves straight in the eye.
L.R. Lam says:
For me, writer’s block is 100% loss of confidence, second guessing my intuition, etc. It’s being too afraid to actually sit there and tussle with the manuscript to find the solution, or being far too self-critical and perfectionist so I am afraid of writing something ‘bad’. Even if I know all first draft stuff is kinda bad!
Sometimes what we think of as ‘block’ is more of a disinclination to write because, simply, we’d rather be doing something else. Having an extra hour in bed. Reading someone else’s book instead (finished, published, no doubt marvellous). Running a bath or meeting a friend or throwing down a yoga mat. It’s perfectly OK to want to do other things instead – other things are fun! And there may be times when the best thing we can do for ourselves is not write (more on that later). But our choices are always worth a moment of examination.
So, let’s ask ourselves the question: am I not writing because I’d rather go and have a coffee with so-and-so, or am I not writing for other reasons, such as…
1) ‘I’m afraid what I’m doing is no good. It’ll never be published! And I can’t bear that kind of failure.’
Advice: Think baby steps. When you’re writing a first draft, all you must worry about is getting to the end. Trust in the process. All those beloved novels on your shelf? As readers we don’t see the blood, sweat and tears that went into every one of them. We don’t see the multiple drafts, and substantial input from multiple people. So draw inspiration, but don’t be intimidated. Hold your nerve. Confidence is a fragile thing and you must protect yours at all costs.
1) ‘I don’t know how to write a novel. I was kidding myself that I did as I racked up the first 30K words but I don’t know where to go from here.’
Advice: Lean into your instincts as a reader. Ask yourself, if you were reading this – or watching it as a movie – what would you like you to see, or expect to happen next? What might truly surprise you? Book a coaching session with your writing coach and chew over the story together: here, a problem shared is a problem more than halved. Rest in the embrace of the courses at The Novelry, and go back to the lessons with a clear head and a notebook for jottings.
3) ‘I’ve got too much going on in my head and when I sit down to write I can’t focus.’
Advice: Choosing when to write can be crucial. The early mornings are often so good because the day and all its myriad demands and problems are yet to get its clutches into us (or, at least, we can tell ourselves this, as we stave off reality a little longer). Some writers find this same cocooning sensation late at night. Whether early bird or night owl, if your head is feeling cluttered, the margins of the day can often seem the clearest. Rituals can also help here: the brewing of a drink, the lighting of a candle, or a certain soundtrack can assist with clicking you into ‘I’m writing’ mode. And if you really need to empty that head, then go to your journal as a first port of call, perhaps. Julia Cameron’s Morning Pages principle works for many: freewriting your way to a clearer mind.
Alice Kuipers says:
It’s difficult in a distractible universe to push through the first seven or so minutes to get to the page and get into a flow state. Hiding the phone behind the screen so that we stay in the seat and go through that tiny struggle is important.
4) ‘I know what I’m writing is brilliant, but what if the gatekeepers can’t see that? I’ve been let down before and I’m fed up of being passed over.’
Advice: Anger can be channelled into something productive – for instance whenever John McEnroe lost his cool over a line call, he almost always won the next point – but unless it’s reframed into a positive mindset it’s going to feel like a pretty dispiriting way to write an entire novel. Being published is a collaborative process and staying open to the feedback of agents and editors is all part of it. So, if your work is rejected or criticised, then you need to sit with that initial disappointment then decide how you’re going to move forward, as clear-sightedly and as open-heartedly as possible. Your work might very well be brilliant, but in most cases it won’t help your growth as a writer to believe it unreservedly...
Block Hack 2: Ask ourselves why we’re writing in the first place
Exploring the answer to this question is useful because once we understand the roots of our ambition, we can make sure we’re feeding them accordingly. And we can contextualise our emotional response to the writing process!
Maybe we’ve things to say and our voice gets drowned out in day-to-day life. Maybe we’ve particular experiences we want to explore in the safe space of a novel. Maybe we want to slip our skin, cheat time, be someone else, somewhere else, for a bit. Or we want to create something that might outlast us. The reasons are limitless and always valid, but setting our personal desire for self-expression against any external forms of validation can be helpful when the going gets tough.
If commercial publication is our goal, and we’re eyeing the charts to boot, then we’d best load the dice in our favour and consider what makes a bestseller. Coming to the page with a practical and industry-aware mindset calls for its own forms of diligence. In this case, go deeper: why do we want that? If it doesn’t happen this time, or the next, what then? The sooner we can build up our resilience, the more we’ll appreciate it later.
I’ve kept a writing diary since 2010. It’s an ongoing conversation with myself about my process and while the jottings are sporadic, it’s always there for me when I need it; a non-judgemental space to document, ruminate, and, when I need to, let rip. The question of what I want from my writing is one I return to again and again. Beyond the navel-gazing, I find it galvanising. For me, it’s about being in control of my attitude: knowing what I want from my writing helps me find balance and gives me direction.
Block Hack 3: Think about the characters in your story – they’re the vitality
Sometimes what feels like writer’s block can be a general sludgy feeling around our work-in-progress. We often forget that it’s within our power to reinvigorate ourselves, and perhaps what’s needed is a new way in.
Mahsuda Snaith says:
If you hit a roadblock when you’re on a journey, you don’t abandon your car on the side of the road and forget about your destination; you pull out a map and find a new route. Writing is similar; when you hit writer’s block, pull out the map of your writing skills and find a new route to the end of your novel.
Just as the best way to fix a plot problem is often by taking it back to character, it’s also one of the best ways to re-establish our connection with our story – and make it feel like an interesting, vibrant and beguiling place to explore.
When it comes to writing skills, we all have different strengths. While some of us find it challenging to bring three-dimensional characters to the page, and this evolves draft upon draft, thinking about people is something we can all do productively from the outset. We all have stories of people, whether first-hand or overhead – tales of desire and hope and treachery and betrayal. In our human being toolkits, we’ve plenty of emotions and conflicts to draw upon.
Try spending some time exploring every character, away from the line-by-line of your work-in-progress. Crack open a notebook and see the whole story through each person’s eyes, even the minor players – after all, we’re all the heroes of our own lives. Possibilities will start to spark. Because the more we know about the people in our novel, then the more ideas we’ll have for the kind of journey we’re taking them on – and the trouble they might get into along the way.
I’m currently in the early stages of planning a new crime novel. I know the set-up and the big secret, but I’m still figuring out how the story unfolds, and who does what to who and when and why. Trying to plot it from a standstill was feeling difficult, and it’s only been by fleshing out the characters, and then considering the story from each of their perspectives, that I’ve been able to come to something that feels solid. Or, at least, has potential. But this exercise has been more valuable than simply ticking boxes on a plot sheet – it’s made me feel excited about spending time with these people and bringing their complexity as human beings to the page. There’s an energy to things: a heartbeat; multiple heartbeats, in fact. And that energy brings me to the page and keeps me there.
Block Hack 4: Nurture ourselves and look elsewhere for inspiration
Remember that as creative individuals, we need to nurture our imagination. One of the joys of the writing life is knowing that the whole world glitters with inspiration, if only we can see it.
Piers Torday says:
It depends how severe the writer’s block is, but I think it is not good to stay seated for too long as the connection between the brain and your writing/typing hand goes and it gets lost... But a short walk can reconnect and get that flow going again. If it’s really bad, I recommend two days’ total rest, no writing, no thinking about the book, just two days of solid self-care: reading an old favourite novel, random movie watching, baths, walks, meditation, music, candles etc… Let the subconscious refuel. If two days is just too much then go see a movie you would never normally watch or read a book, visit an exhibition etc. Go outside your comfort zone to get your imagination going.
If I ever want to blow away the cobwebs, I get my skateboard out. It’s both mindful and mindless, and I always return to my desk with a renewed sense of purpose (and having experienced the reminder that writing, while difficult and demanding, is a lot less painful than taking a full slam!) Being in our bodies in a different way can work wonders. If I go straight from skateboarding to writing it takes me a while to settle down, but I always have an ‘up for it’ mentality. And a lighter spirit.
Krystle Appiah says:
Different tips and tricks work for different writers. Personally, I find it helpful to press pause on writing and re-read my favourite passages from my WIP or dive into my hero book until I find my footing again. Sometimes, I latch on to a word or sentence and use that as a stepping stone or read a few pages of a book I adore until I figure out my rhythm. A change of scenery helps too. There’s something about writing surrounded by people that means I’m less likely to procrastinate.
Alice Kuipers says:
Try being patient with your ideas. Treating them like a little flame that needs fuel for a fire (that mean girl/guy on your shoulder needs to have the volume turned down) so the idea can have time and energy to see if it works.
Remember, too, that creative inspiration can be found in unexpected places. In Elizabeth Gilbert’s glorious Big Magic, she tells the story of writer, poet and critic Clive James who, after suffering a crushing creative and financial failure, lost all lust for his work. One day, while deep in this ‘funk’, his daughters asked him to jazz up their old bicycles by painting them, and he ended up doing it magnificently, adding constellations of tiny stars across the frames. The next day another neighbourhood child came to his gate asking for the same. Then another. ‘And so it came to pass,’ writes Gilbert, ‘that one of the most important writers of his generation spent several weeks sitting in his driveway, painting thousands of tiny stars on the bicycles of every child in the area. As he did so, he came to a slow discovery. He realized that “failure has a function. It asks you whether you really want to go on making things.” To his surprise, James realised that the answer was yes.’
I think all of us writers probably go through a phase – or likely more than one – where the best thing to do for our mental health is paint constellations on kids’ bikes. Or the equivalent thereof.
Block Hack 5: Just do it!
I think it’s largely a myth that we’ve got to be in the right mood for writing. A myth that’s lingered on in some form or another for centuries, since ancient Rome when the general belief was that creative gifts were bestowed by the gods, writers and artists serving as mere channels.
Sure, sometimes we’re more fired up to write than others, but isn’t that the same with everything? Once we’ve considered what’s getting in our way, it might be that the best answer is… Just Do It.
Externally set deadlines and professional obligations can be big motivators. For authors under contract, there’s no choice but to get the work done, or face what can feel like stiff repercussions. This pressure can ironically make things easier. But as some of our team at The Novelry have attested, it can be no less painful along the way.
Stephen King’s vibe in On Writing is no-nonsense:
This isn’t the Ouija board or the spirit-world we’re talking about here, but just another job like laying pipe or driving long-haul trucks.
—Stephen King, On Writing
I think we probably know deep down if this matter-of-fact approach is going to work for us, depending on the circumstances.
Mahsuda Snaith says:
For me, writer’s block is usually a sign of a wider issue. You can’t get past a certain point in the novel because you haven’t fully figured it out or you really can’t make yourself write a chapter because it’s too static and lifeless. Analyse what it is you can’t face and then make it more fun for yourself. Brainstorm the most crazy ways you can move the plot forward or inject something magical in a scene that feels lifeless to you. And if you’re still struggling? Put a placeholder on the page stating, ‘Haven't figured this part out,’ then move on. Give yourself permission for messy writing days, especially if you have a lot going on in your life. Remember: your early drafts don’t have to be perfect, they just have to be written.
Piers Torday also has some practical tips on this point:
- Print the manuscript out in a crazy font like Comic Sans to get a fresh take on your book. Try writing the scene you are stuck with as a sketch conversation between the characters involved... What are you trying to do?
- Just jump straight to any scene you are excited about writing in the book and do it. Rekindle your love for this story!
- Choose your favourite passage from your hero book. Say 500 words. Copy it out word for word. How would you change this passage to fit in the book you are writing? Don’t use it, obviously, but it might stir some thoughts.
- Work on something else and make your book a cheeky side project again to be playful with, working on it when you are meant to be doing ‘proper work’ instead!
That word Piers uses – ‘playful’ – is so important. Coming to the page with lightness is what we should be striving for. Not to diminish the value of the endeavour, but to foster a positive relationship with it. Seeing creative challenges as a chance to flex our grey matter and have the confidence to interrogate our work will make the process more fulfilling. That’s why our mantra at The Novelry is ‘Happy Writing’.
Writer’s block is real, but so is every writer’s ability to overcome it.
The Harbour Lights Mystery by Emylia Hall is published by Thomas and Mercer on October 17th. Order your copy here.