Stuck in the Middle: Conquering Writer’s Block

The nightmare begins something like this:

The Writer is in her groove, typing or scribbling away. The words are flowing beautifully, then, suddenly… nothing. The Writer has hit a wall. All momentum vanishes. She can’t focus. She can’t think. The frustration boils over, and the words are abandoned.

Pretty scary, huh?

Every writer has moments like this, especially during National Novel Writing Month, a.k.a NaNoWriMo. Maybe you’re stumped about what comes next, unsure of how to move forward. Or perhaps your motivation is gone and you can’t make yourself move forward.

Writer’s block is a common complaint. And although some experts, including Grant Faulkner, Executive Director of NaNoWriMo, say it isn’t real, that it’s just an excuse we give ourselves once the going gets tough, it sure feels real when you’re in the middle of it. And it can be demoralizing. But there are ways out.

Problem 1: Not sure how to proceed

In our Writer’s nightmare, the woods ahead are dark and scary. There are are many paths forward, but it’s impossible to tell which ones lead to “happily ever after” and which ones lead to fetid bogs of bubbling quicksand and Rodents of Unusual Size. It’s easier to make no choice at all than to make the wrong one, so the Writer freezes in place. Not good.

So how do you decide which way to go? Look at the writing and planning you’ve already done. If you don’t know where the story is going at all, it may be time to step back and do some big-picture plotting. If you know where you need to go but not how to get there, open a new note and try these techniques:

  • Skip ahead. There’s no rule that says you have to write chapters in order. If you’re stuck on one scene but have ideas for a later one, write that instead. You can always fill in the gaps later.
  • Think backward. Imagine your story at the next milestone, then walk it back one step at a time. What needs to happen, logically, to get your characters to that point?
  • Change your perspective. Write from another character’s point of view, or leave the main narrative and try a flashback.
  • Give yourself a prompt. Take one element from what you’ve written so far (like a person, or a room, or the town where your story takes place). Write about that in as much detail as you can. Maybe you can use this material later, maybe not. But it gets you thinking about the story in new ways. Or better yet, join a NaNoWriMo word sprint to get those words flowing.

Problem 2: Lack of motivation

Back in nightmare-land, our Writer is in real peril. It’s not that she’s having problems with the story, it’s that she can’t seem to stay in the writing chair. Life is stressful enough, and the pressures of writing aren’t making things easier.

Before you go over the edge, ask yourself why you’re not motivated:

Do you have story fatigue?
If you like the piece you’re working on but you’re tired of thinking about it, set it aside for a little while and write something else, like a blog post or some flash fiction.

When you come back, think about the story as a whole instead of the little details. Remember that great idea you had at the very beginning? The one that got you started in the first place? Go back there, play with the idea, and get excited about your story all over again.

Are you physically exhausted?
Brains are energy hogs, and they need downtime. Set your story aside and go for a walk, or get a good night’s sleep. A fresh mind is a productive mind.

No time to write?
Our Writer knows all about this one. She’s juggling work, family, and a dozen hobbies, and every time an email or tweet shows up, the phone chirps and she just has to look. Sound familiar? You can’t write if you’re distracted. Luckily, there are many ways to build focus and discipline as a writer. Here are five.

Do you think your writing is bad?
This is almost guaranteed to come up at some point during NaNoWriMo. When you’re focused on speed and raw word count, some of what you write will not measure up to your own standards of quality. And that’s okay! Give your “inner editor” a vacation. You can edit, revise, and improve your writing all you want… after you finish your rough draft. But you can’t fix it if you never write it.

Are you not feeling creative?
Feeling like you’re not creative enough to keep (or even begin) writing is a common struggle.

Grant Faulkner says that by participating in NaNoWriMo, by realizing that you are a writer and that you are a creator, you are much more likely to be creative in your everyday life. So next time you’re not feeling creative, remind yourself that you’re a writer because you write.

However it manifests for you, writer’s block is a common and perfectly natural experience. The important thing is not to let those nightmare moments turn into days, weeks, or worse. We hope these suggestions will help you get back on track when the going gets rough.

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