This post is part of the Writers Write All Blog Hop hosted by A Writer Named Charley. Thank you for organizing, Charley.
One of the hardest shifts I had to make as I moved from being a hobby writer to a professional was having to meet deadlines and put words on the page whether I feel like it or not. It’s quite a shock for someone who previously put about as much dedication into writing as I did into playing video games. We like to imagine writers moodily smoking cigarettes and staring out windows into the rain as they wait for inspiration to strike, but inspiration tends not to strike on a very convenient schedule, and unless you’re someone like George R. R. Martin, you can’t let your career languish for years on end as you wait for the right feeling. The rest of us have to write whether we feel like it or not.
I started out naïve to this difficulty. I fast-drafted my first two manuscripts with no problem, which was sufficient for me to decide that fast-drafting was how I wrote and all future manuscripts would be produced with equal ease. So I waited for it to happen again. And waited. After a year, I had to admit that this book wasn’t going to leap out of my forehead fully formed, Athena-style, and if I wanted it, I was going to have to drag it out by force.
Full disclosure states that I haven’t actually finished said manuscript, so you may want to take my advice with a grain of salt, but I have identified a few of the common reasons writing motivation just isn’t there and the course of action I find the most helpful in each case.
This is by far the most common obstacle that prevents writing from happening. It’s not writer’s block, per se; you’d like to write, but something more important always comes up.
On one hand, emergencies happen and of course they take precedence. But the things that most often interrupt writing are ordinary things. It’s finals week; the kids needed a ride to soccer practice; there was overtime at work. These sorts of things will always be there. It’s a classic mistake to think that when you graduate, or your kids are in school, or you have a job closer to home, then you’ll have time to write. That’s how you end up becoming that relative who’s been saying “I’ll write a book someday” for twenty years.
If this is the problem, you’ve got to push through it one way or another. Whether that means penciling in writing time on your calendar, going to your local distraction-free coffee shop or park, hiring a babysitter, you have to find a way to prioritize writing as part of your daily life, no matter how busy you are. In essence, that’s what it means to be a writer.
The Wrong Project
Busyness isn’t an easy problem to solve, but at least it’s an easy problem to identify. The remainder of this post deals with situations where you could be writing, but just can’t put words on the page.
Occasionally this is a sign that you should rethink the whole project. For one reason or another, you’re not completely invested in this project. Maybe you’re writing it because you heard it was selling right now, or because someone really wanted you to (my in-laws are convinced that the hamster comic I drew a few pages of right after college is my literary future), or maybe the premise seemed like a better idea than it actually is. In those cases, the right course of action may be to set it aside and work on something else.
Exercise caution. It’s much more common to throw away a viable project in a moment of discouragement than it is to soberly recognize that the project isn’t going to work out. If you’re anything like me, your computer is littered with aborted projects that could have gone somewhere if you’d been more persistent. And moving on to something else isn’t always an option. If you sign a book deal for a trilogy, your editor won’t be amused if you fail to deliver the last book because you weren’t feeling it.
Talking to someone else is helpful here. Find a friend who really cares about you but also has good judgment and high standards and ask them whether your project has potential. A second set of eyes can help you overcome your own biases and look more objectively at whether a project is worth the continued effort. Most often, it is.
That One Scene
Writer’s block doesn’t apply evenly to everything. It may strike a single scene, inevitably the scene you absolutely need to finish for your deadline today.
The obvious solution might be to skip the scene and come back to it later. I don’t recommend this. In my experience a difficult scene rarely becomes less difficult if you let it sit, and if you get into the habit of skipping around you can end up with a Swiss cheese manuscript where you already wrote the kisses, fights, and other fun bits and now have to slog through all the boring parts at once. (Everyone has a different workflow, so if skipping around works for you, don’t let me tell you otherwise, but I’ve never finished a manuscript that way.)
The best advice I’ve ever heard for writing difficult scenes—and some of the best writing advice I’ve received, period—is that if you don’t want to write a scene, readers won’t want to read it, either. If you’re bored, the reader will be bored. So take a good look at that difficult scene and consider whether it’s really necessary to the story. If it is (for instance, if it conveys plot-important information), try reframing the scene in a more interesting context. In a well-known example, Spielberg spruced up a dull informational scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark by including a bowl of poisoned dates.
When it’s the opening scene of the story, a difficult scene can fool you into thinking that the whole project is difficult. It’s common to begin stories too early and end up with a lot of dull, everyday scenes to get through before you hit the part you and the reader really care about. If you’re having trouble getting a project off the ground, try starting in a different place before you conclude that the whole story isn’t working.
The Symptom, Not The Disease
Finally, in many cases, when you can’t find the motivation to write, writing isn’t the core problem. It’s a sign that something else is wrong. Maybe you’re wondering about your place in the writing community and whether the world really needs your stories. It’s next to impossible to write with in that mentality, and it’s one all writers wrestle with. I can tell you that the world does need your stories because everyone brings a unique perspective that enriches the literary landscape, but while that’s true, most people won’t find a boilerplate statement much of a consolation. You’ll need to find your own reason why your writing gives something to the world that no one else could provide.
Many writers struggle with depression, which can cause this kind of self-doubt and lack of motivation. It can feel easier to acknowledge the writer’s block in isolation than to step back and acknowledge a larger problem. But it’s extremely difficult to overcome writer’s block while depressed, and the attempt can plunge you into a bottomless spiral of guilt. Trying to write with depression is very much like trying to write with any other serious illness: It’s hard for reasons that are not your fault and mostly beyond your control.
I’m no expert on dealing with depression, but I can tell you that beating yourself up over your inability to write won’t help. Sucky as it is, there are sometimes seasons in life when writing intensively isn’t helpful to your well-being. In those cases, you have to cut yourself as much slack as you need.
This is not an exhaustive list of the reasons for writer’s block. It wouldn’t be such a universal problem if it were easily summarized in a bulleted list of causes and solutions. It can be caused by a combination of factors or it can strike for no discernible reason. In the end, every writer comes up with a blend of strategies and superstitions that works for them. I hope this post will help you figure out your own.
Image is from Superman: Under a Yellow Sun. Even Supes is not immune.