Beating Writers' Block

Almost all writers have an opinion on 'writers' block' -- 'the condition of being unable to think of anything to write or of being unable to find a way of proceeding with writing.'


Some claim that it doesn't exist: that writers who claim to have it are simply dodging the hard work of writing while continuing to proclaim that they are geniuses -- and would prove it if only they could overcome this dratted writers' block.


But, obviously, there are those who do, often, find themselves wanting to write but are unable to find a way of writing.


Here's my advice, for what it's worth.



On Being Unable to Think of Anything to Write



Well, you can't think up an idea.

     You just can't.

     Coming up with inspiration is not your business. It's the business of your daemon.

     (Follow this link for an article about 'the daemon.')

     If you sit down and try to think of an idea to write about, you will probably fail. If you do come up with something, it will almost certainly lack originality because you will find yourself copying story-lines and situations that you've read or watched elsewhere.

     I know this very well, from experience. The harder you try to think, the tighter and tighter your thinking closes up until it is just going in circles, round and round the same tired old ideas that lead you nowhere.

     This is because you're trying to think with your conscious mind. The conscious, awake, every-day mind is very good at organising, spotting typos and research mistakes, being tidy. It's not much good at the messy business of being creative.


     For that, you need to get in touch with your subconscious, your dreaming mind, your daemon.


     How do you do that? -- Well, my advice would be to relax, for a start. Your daemon knows you want to write. Leave it alone, stop pestering it and it will do its work quicker.

     Forget all about writing. Go and do something else. Go to the gym, the cinema, out shopping -- whatever you like, so long as it stops you thinking about writing.

     Pursue some interest solely for its own sake, not for research. Just follow your curiosity.  Find out more about something you don't know much about. I once read a lot about Neanderthal man, simply out of curiosity and the research ended up in a book. Likewise, my Sterkarm books came out of the reading I did on the Border Reivers purely out of curiosity. You never know where your curiosity will take you.

     Learn some kick-boxing, Japanese flower arranging, how to use some new computer programme... help the National Trust, volunteer in a charity shop -- anything.

     You will learn new things, form new opinions, meet new people and fresh points of view... Out of it all, and probably sooner rather than later, a new wish to write will form.

     But the more you sit in front of a computer or sheet of paper worrying about it, the further from writing you will be.



Being Unable to Find a Way into a Piece of Writing


There is another kind of 'block' that I've often suffered.

     This is when you know quite well what you want to write, but you just can't 'get into it.'

     Maybe it's a difficult scene and you're not quite sure that you understand or can handle what your characters are feeling.

     Or you don't know, and can't decide, which character's point-of-view you should be telling the scene from. Or whether you should split it between them.

     Maybe it's just a dull bit of 'filler' between interesting scenes and you can't seem to summon up the enthusiasm to get it down in words.

     This can go on for days, even weeks.

     I have found a couple of way around this problem.


The Kitchen Timer


Get yourself any kind of timer. It can be a kitchen timer shaped like a tomato (the photo on the left is by permission of Erato of Italian Wikimedia.)

     It can be an on-line timer or a phone -- doesn't matter, so long as it can be set to sound an alarm after a certain length of time.

     Decide how long you can bear to make yourself work on this scene, essay or whatever. The length of time is entirely up to you. One day, you may feel that an hour is do-able, provided that it's no more than an hour. Another day, you might feel that five minutes is almost too long. It doesn't matter.

     Get everything ready. Computer on and file open to the place where you're going to work.

     Or notepad open with pen at the ready.

     Have all the books or notes you need ready at hand. Have beverage, snacks, good-luck charm of your choice -- and whatever else you feel you may need -- at your workplace. This makes sure you don't waste a moment of your time, whether it's an hour or three minutes.

     Set the alarm to sound at the end of your chosen time and --- begin!

     Somehow, the knowledge that you're only going to work for a limited time is freeing. You're here, but only for X number of minutes, so what the hell -- might as well scribble something down. Doesn't really matter what -- you're only going to be doing this until the bell rings.

     It's amazing how much you can get typed or scribbled down in five minutes -- and even more amazing how often you carry on after the bell has rung. Might as well finish this sentence. But then you might forget the next sentence you had in mind -- so might as well finish the paragraph. And while you're on, might as well finish the chapter.

     I think there is a psychological explanation for the success of this method. You have set yourself a task: To write for a certain number of minutes. While it's easy for your mind to shrug off something that has to be done (but not yet), it's another matter with a clearly outlined task: Write for ten minutes. Once you've outlined and made it clear to yourself like that, it's almost impossible to walk away until it's done.

     It's worth noting that this applies to other tasks, as well as writing.


But the kitchen-timer trick has been known to fail.


Just occasionally. Sometimes, I find, you feel so nervous about writing, so uncertain of how to tackle a scene, that you can't even nerve yourself to find the timer.


This crisis calls for;--




You may have heard of 'na-no-wrimo.'

     If not, this is short for National Novel Writing Month -- the month being November.

     At this site, people sign up and pledge themselves to write their novel in a month. (It's the task-setting trick again, as with the kitchen-timer.)

     'Pub-o-wrimo' is named after Na-No-Wrimo in my circle of writing friends, although pub-o-wrimo, thankfully, doesn't last for a month.

     It goes like this.

     When desperate to get some scene or chapter written, but you find that not even the kitchen timer is helping, then pack a large pad of paper and some scribbly, easy flowing pens into a knapsack and head out for a walk in the hills.

     Time your walk so that it ends just about the time a favourite, friendly country pub opens at noon.

     In the pub, buy a drink to justify your taking up a table. Then write for an hour.

     If a friend has come along with you, then promise each other that you will not talk until the writing hour is over.

     Once the hour is up, you can do as you like -- chat, go home, criticise each other's work or agree to write for another length of time.

     Of course, I can't promise that this will work for everyone, but for me it's never failed. Perhaps the walk beforehand helps. I know that, often, as I step through the door of the pub, the words start coming to me. The scene that seemed so elusive and hard to nail at home just flows onto the page, while I wonder why it was so difficult before.

     At the very least, I have something written down that I can rewrite and improve -- whereas before I had nothing.


This can be adjusted, of course. Perhaps you're not old enough to pub-o-wrimo. Then find a quiet cafe -- or even a busy, noisy one. It doesn't seem to make much difference to me whether my chosen pub is almost empty or very busy. I have a notion that the noise and business holds the attention of the 'chattering monkey' part of my brain while the writer part gets on with writing.

     I find almost anywhere away from home is conducive to writing. I always take writing pads and pens with me when I travel.

     The only reason I usually write in a pub is because there happens to be a comfortable, friendly pub very close to the area where I like to walk.


If you are suffering from 'block', I hope that either the Timer Trick or Pub-o-wrimo helps you overcome it.


The photo of the Cross Keys pub sign is from Wikipedia, courtesy of Trish Steel