“If you get stuck, get away from your desk. Take a walk, take a bath, go to sleep, make a pie, draw, listen to music, meditate, exercise; whatever you do, don't just stick there scowling at the problem. But don't make telephone calls or go to a party; if you do, other people's words will pour in where your lost words should be. Open a gap for them, create a space. Be patient.” Hilary Mantel
Most writers have struggled with getting the words on the page at some point. But writer's block is not a monolithic disease with one cause and one cure.
The term is often used as a catch-all for a number of issues which have different causes and solutions. Some of the blocks are caused by fears, anxieties and your inner critic, as covered earlier, but here are some more examples of when you might find writing grinding to a halt.
Watch the video below or here on YouTube.
This is an excerpt from The Successful Author Mindset. Available now in ebook, print and audiobook formats.
If you're blocked as a new writer writing a first book
The ‘block' at this point is generally not knowing how to write a book, so you end up flailing around and wasting time, feeling frustrated because you're not getting anywhere. It's sometimes due to lack of ideas or how to string them together, but more often it's just a lack of knowledge.
It could be the desire to write a certain type of book, e.g. literary prize-winner, and just not being able to write anything like it. That was my fiction block for years.
My Mum was an English teacher and I went to Oxford University, so I was raised within the literary establishment. I thought the only book I should try to write would be something that could enter the Man Booker Prize, or something like Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose.
But actually, I love reading fast-paced thrillers and my guilty reading pleasure while doing English Literature at school was Clive Cussler's Dirk Pitt. I love watching Bond films and my favorite movie is Con Air.
Once I realized that I was ‘allowed' to write fun books that people would enjoy rather than take seriously, you couldn't stop me writing! My block was gone and I focused on learning how to write those types of books.
Ignore what you (or other people) think you should write, and look at your bookshelf.
- What do you love to read?
- What do you choose as a guilty pleasure?
- Be honest with yourself, even if you come from a literary background.
- What's fun for you?
Then go write that.
Read some books on how to write a book (preferably about the genre you want to write in).
Join a local class with other people writing their first books. Do some timed writing sessions based on creative writing prompts.
If you're blocked during a book in the ‘saggy middle'
It could also be boredom with the story and a general feeling that it's not worth writing. It's likely that you're procrastinating at this point, filling your time with things that don't lead to getting words on the page.
You might also find that you're trying to make the book too long, when the idea is suitable for something shorter.
Do some more research around your theme, setting or characters for fiction, or topic if it's non-fiction.
Fill that creative well. Think of your mind as a pipe. You have to put things in the top for the ideas to come out the bottom, transformed.
Take a break. If I'm stuck in the middle of a chapter, or just feeling ‘over it' with a book, I'll go for a walk. Fresh air cures many ills! But sometimes, if I've been working on something for an extended period of weeks or months, I'll need a bigger break. A few days away from the manuscript, or a few weeks' holiday, and you'll come back to the page renewed.
But if you're really just procrastinating, stop what you're doing, get your butt into the chair and get writing. It's about doing the work!
If you're blocked after finishing a book when you think you should immediately start another one
Here's an excerpt from my journal a week after finishing Gates of Hell, my fifth full-length novel:
“My mind is completely empty. I will never have another idea. What if this book is the last one I ever write? What if I never have any more ideas? My whole life is now bound up in writing books and being an author. If I can't write another, I'm finished. I am broken.”
I've written a number of other novels since then, so clearly that feeling was temporary and I now understand that the emptiness is just another part of the creative process.
So don't worry. This is normal. It happens to most writers after the end of a book. You have given your all to the manuscript and it has ripped you apart and taken everything, so it's natural to be empty.
Fill the creative well, then trust emergence. Something will come out of the milieu of this crazy, buzzing world and if you wait a little for the book to pass on, then ideas will start to emerge again and your mind will soon be filled with words waiting to be written.
Whatever the underlying problem, you won't overcome writer's block by moaning about it with author friends for weeks on Facebook … or by any other distraction mechanism.
The only way to overcome it is through taking action to fix the underlying issue … and get back to writing.
“I deal with writer’s block by lowering my expectations. I think the trouble starts when you sit down to write and imagine that you will achieve something magical and magnificent—and when you don’t, panic sets in. The solution is never to sit down and imagine that you will achieve something magical and magnificent. I write a little bit, almost every day, and if it results in two or three or (on a good day) four good paragraphs, I consider myself a lucky man. Never try to be the hare. All hail the tortoise.” Malcolm Gladwell