Why You Don't Write (and What To Do About It)

Carrie* says: I'm relatively new to your website. I'm curious to hear on what are your thoughts in regards to writer's block.

* Who, I'm obligated to point out, is not Carrie Kei Heim Binas.

I hate it. But I think I know how to deal with it.

For the purposes of this post, writer's block is any time you should be writing, but aren't (i.e. you set aside the time, opened your Word Doc, sent out an #amwriting tweet... but zero words are coming out). Take, for example, my word count spreadsheet from a month ago:

It says I was "planning" chapter 7, but that was not my intention. Even when I do plan a chapter, it's rare I don't write anything. So what happened? In this case, I was trying to get from Plot Point A to Plot Point B, but every method I thought of was weak, lame, or contrived. I couldn't find anything worth writing.

If I may generalize millions of writers into tiny boxes, I think there are two kinds of writer's block. The first is where you don't know what to write. Common causes are plot holes, poor planning, weak character development, characters stuck in impossible situations, or just a plain lack of ideas.

Everyone's different, but the way I deal with this is to GET OUT. I might talk to someone about the story, but usually I just need to do something different. Something non-creative. Walking, swimming, cleaning, yard work...whatever works (of course my wife is wondering why she doesn't see me "getting over writer's block" more often, but we won't talk about that here).

It might help to even take some time off writing, but don't do it for more than a week or two. Maybe a month in extreme cases. If you need more than that, you might have a different problem. Or you might have the second kind of writer's block: you don't really want to write.

Maybe it's laziness, lack of self-discipline, poor time management... Don't feel bad. Every writer struggles with this stuff.** Writing is a lot like exercise--it's hard to do, but you feel great once it's done. The solution to this type of block is the opposite of the first: SIT DOWN AND WRITE. Even if it's full of plot holes, contrived situations, and weak characters, getting it written down is better than not.

What about you? Do you ever get blocked? How do you get over it?

** In the 3 weeks I had in the States--a lot of which came with free babysitting--I only squeezed out 8 hours of writing. Few of them productive.


Michelle Scott said...

Great post. Wow - do you really have a spreadsheet for all of the writing you do? I'm impressed. Do you find it helpful? I used to write down my progress in a journal, but I'm not really a journal-keeping type of person.

Adam Heine said...

Thanks, Michelle. I do have a spreadsheet. I'm kinda sick about statistics. But also keeping track like this motivates me to do better, like a high score list :-) And it helps me understand my process. Like how long it usually takes me to write a chapter, short story, novel, etc.

Anonymous said...

Hmm, I've never thought about setting up a tracking system for my writing. I wonder if that will help improve my productivity? I'll have to test it out!

Thanks for a very insightful post!


Ricardo Bare said...

Good stuff, Adam.

For me, if I get stuck, I will resort to: write something else. Or Edit something else. If I can't get moving on the particular scene, I'll jump to another section of the story, or another story all together, then come back later.

Taking breaks works too. I think it's really valuable let problems simmer in my head, both consciously and subconsciously.

Joshua McCune said...

Adam, you're not by chance an engineer, are you?

L. T. Host said...

I'm SO glad I'm not the only one who uses spreadsheets for stuff outside of work.

And BAM. I really think you hit the nail on the head with this post, Adam. This sums up writer's block perfectly.

jjdebenedictis said...

Robert McKee, in his book Story, suggests that research is the best way to combat writer's block. If you stuff your brain full of information, sooner or later, you'll get an idea that fires you right past your block.

Myrna Foster said...

I always have more than one project going at a time. If I'm really stuck, I work on something else for a while. But thinking about writing while pulling weeds or washing dishes helps me figure stuff out as well. Writing backstory on characters to find out what motivates them has also yielded interesting results.

Thanks for the post, Adam!

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

Awesome advice. I AM an engineer, and even I don't use spreadsheets to track my work.

I must quote Darth Vader here: "Impressive. Most impressive."

I rarely have writer's block - more like writer's cramp, which is like your Version 1 of writer's block where you're having a hard time getting from Pt A to Pt B.

Writing is more like a rabid obsession that I may have to get therapy to overcome.

Or just write another book. :)

Victoria Dixon said...

I need to find time to unplug from this infernal machine. It's proved impossible thus far and probably will continue to be that way for awhile. On the other hand, I think I've been blocking myself from writing what my mind and heart need to write on for fear it will hurt loved ones. My practical side says, "Why write something that will never see the light of day because of the pain it would cause? Go do something pain free that you can publish." My artistic side is telling me to go reread "My Name Is Asher Lev." LOL

Adam Heine said...

C Ann: It could help or hinder. It really depends on your personality. But by all means, test! (Btw, I hope you didn't change your screen name just because of that little footnote. Just a joke, you understand :-).

Ricardo: I have trouble jumping around my novel. Probably one of those things I need to get over.

Bane: Does it show?

LT: Actually at my old job we had fancy software to do this sort of thing (being programmers). Using spreadsheets feels so...data entry temp. But I could waste a whole month polishing a program. I'd rather write.

Adam Heine said...

JJ: I forgot about that. Usually research serves to help me procrastinate, but you're absolutely right. Sometimes it's exactly what you need.

Myrna: The only reason I finished my first novel was because I didn't let myself work on anything new when I got stuck. I wonder if I'm mature enough to change that now.

Susan: Writer's cramp, I like that. I get that all the time too. It was just that one day it lasted my whole writing time :-P

Victoria: Write for yourself, that's about all I can tell you. Nothing blocks me faster than trying to please someone else (esp. agents ;-).

Anonymous said...

Adam, I go by a few different names; Carrie, Carrie Ann, or C Ann. I noticed that "Carrie" is a fairly common name so lately I've been going by C Ann. I took no offense at all by your comments :) I intend to test!

Thanks again,
C Ann

Barbara Martin said...

I tend to write by the seat-of-my-pants, that is, I write in bits and pieces of what I think ought to go into a story until I complete the first draft. Then I go back and outline or chart where the chapters ought to be.

For my second manuscript I tried to be more organized and prepare an outline first. After I had a chart that covered the areas I wanted to write about my burning desire to do so evaporated. My interest waned for over six months. Only now am I thinking about getting back to it. I scrapped the outline but kept the ideas I had thought up in a separate list. Now I'm back to writing the way I like: on whatever section I want. Whether it's part 1, part 2, part 3 or part 4--it doesn't matter.

And after going through my list I realized that I have another book in there. There were too many para-phrases for one book. Now I can begin again and write those sections while adding in the transitions later.

This is how Diana Gabaldon wrote and writes her Outlander series, so I know I'm not alone in my method.

Barbara Martin said...

I forgot to add that Bob Mayer and Randy Ingermanson both recommend using spreadsheets to plot a story.

Adam Heine said...

I'm a big fan of Randy's method. Everyone's got their own process that works for them. For me, if I wrote a draft first and then planned, my 2-year process would become a 5-year one (although I'd have a great story, I have no doubt).