Thursday, June 20, 2013

I think most writers have experienced the cold chill of uncertainty that freezes our flow of words from time to time.

The writer who thinks writer’s block is primarily a problem of imprecise metaphors and weak ideas—that is, of not being able to find brilliance on the tip of her tongue—will spend a lot of energy looking in the wrong place for the solution she really needs: motivation and momentum to press through self-doubt.    

Yes, self-doubt. In my world, writer’s block is a peculiar type of fear. It’s not a void of ideas or possibilities, but a creative pipe clogged with anxiety. More than just “I don’t know what to write,” writer’s block is a hesitation to take a risk. Why? Because we might get the story “wrong.” Readers might “hate that” choice. We might paint ourselves into a plot corner that’s impossible to escape. We might betray our characters, or waste effort on material that doesn’t make the ultimate cut, or really really  really mess up our outline.

The first question I ask myself when I’m feeling frozen is What are you afraid of, Erin?

> I’m worried that this passage is boring even though it’s important. Solution: Skip it for now, or ditch it and merge what is “important” with a function of another scene.
> There are so many ways to execute this scene! I don’t know which one serves the story best. Solution: Just pick one. Or better, write it three ways and then pick. Nothing in a novel is ever set in stone.
> What do I know about industrial bread-baking ovens? What if I get it wrong? Solution: Do the necessary research, or pick a different subject.

That’s just a sampling of a very long list of reasons how fear freezes me up. Usually, naming the fear helps me to break through it pretty easily. But in situations where even that isn’t enough, these strategies sometimes help:

(1) Pretend you’re a journalist under deadline. Put yourself under a time constraint no longer than 90 minutes to get something done—a scene, a line of dialog, a certain number of words. Write with only a mind for the clock and the destination—do not judge what goes on the paper. Write without regard for consequence—to pacing, to plot, to readers’ suspension of disbelief.

Sometimes I write stream of consciousness right into the manuscript about all the reasons I’m stuck. Like a battering ram, the exercise can occasionally bust a locked door open. Also, hitting a word count helps foster a sense of accomplishment and helps to maintain important momentum.

So: write something. Anything. It’s easier to refine material that exists than it is to create something good out of a blank page.

(2) Call your editor/agent/writing partner. Talk it through. I offer this advice as an editor who has been called many times by verbal-creative types who need a sounding board. I’m not this type of writer. For me, talking about ideas is like turning a fan on a stack of paper. It creates mental chaos, which makes things worse. You have to find what works for you.

(3) Write a tricky passage from a different point of view, to gain a different perspective on it.

(4) Write scenes out of order. Write what is hot on your mind, even if you’re not quite sure how it will fit yet.

(5) Return to research, because sometimes discovering something surprising is like finding a puzzle piece that’s fallen under the table.

(6) Dip into writing books that speak not to writers’ block, but to your issue at hand. (Such as a problem with pacing, or characterization, or suspension of disbelief, and so on.)

(7) Deal with the problem during your high-functioning writing hours. For me, these times are before noon or after 8pm. During those hours especially, the goal is to keep my fanny stuck to my writer’s chair, and just keep going. Like a body in a blizzard, it has to keep moving. If you lie down and stop, you’ll die.

(8) Outside of your scheduled/peak writing hours, put the writing behind you. Abandon it (temporarily) for a non-writing-related activity. Great ideas come to those who play with their kids. Or go for a drive. Or start a home-improvement project.

What do you do to keep your efforts flowing?

Thank you, Erin, for sharing these wise words with us today. Readers, make sure to stop by tomorrow to enter to win a free copy of Erin's latest release, Afloat.

Erin Healy writes supernatural suspense novels from a Christian worldview. She is also a career fiction editor and owner of WordWright Editorial Services in Colorado Springs.


  1. I was one of those authors who used to call and "talk it out." :) Great post, Erin! I'm especially fond of #5 because that's often where I find my creative flow.

  2. I found this encouraging. Actually, I'm not anonymous, I just don't know how to sign on as a URL, etc? Erin, I love your posts, and never thought I'd have writer's block, but feel intimidated when I think of reviewing my book for the last time for formatting, last chance edits, etc. I'll try your suggestion of sticking to a routine. Thank you! Jill Carpenter

  3. Erin, this is invaluable.

    "A creative pipe clogged with anxiety" - that this description. I'm learning to take one step (bit like your 90 minute sprint), get writing. The Spirit takes one step with us, helping unclog the pipe.

  4. I find that I can 'solve the problems of the world' by going for a walk. I just let my mind wonder & voila.


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