Annie’s Approach to Writer’s Block

Today, I’m addressing the bane of every writer’s existence: writer’s block.  It’s that feeling when you know you should be writing something, but you can’t think of anything but complete, utter garbage.  Of all writing-related topics to discuss, I feel like this is the topic we bloggers turn to with a startling frequency.  Writers are always looking for new, inventive ideas in the pursuit of slaying our inner demons, so we turn to the ever-so-reliable Internet to find new weapons.  It’s a great idea… in theory.

Let’s be clear: I’m no professional on how to handle writer’s block.  Hell, I have no idea how to handle writer’s block most of the time.  I’m subject to its perils just like you are, but I’ve found an interesting perspective that made it easier to tackle.

Many moons ago, before I started dedicatedly writing my book, I let writer’s block rule me and my creative process.  Writer’s block became a catch-all excuse to not sit down and try to write.  However, when I started writing for my independent study (which you can read all about here), I discussed writer’s block with my advisor and got some of the best advice I’ve ever received.  Here’s what my advisor said:

“Annie, writer’s block doesn’t exist.  You either know what to say and don’t want to say it, or don’t know what to say.  It’s that simple.”

I’m paraphrasing of course, but the sentiment is the same.  If you are sitting in front of your computer or your journal or whatever apparatus you use to write, you are capable of putting words on paper.  Writer’s block does not stop you from writing: you stop you from writing.  Writer’s block is nothing more than something else to blame for lack of focus, lack of purpose, or lack of effort.

Let’s talk about the two situations in which writing gets challenging: knowing what to say versus not knowing what to say.

If you know what you want to say and are consciously choosing not to write it, then I have one piece of advice for you: write your damn novel.  Open your computer or your notebook, pick up your pencil, and write your damn novel.  If you’re looking for a sign that you should close your browser and write your damn novel, then this is it.  I’m rooting for you, my friend.

If you still need a swift kick in the pants to get writing, here are some of my favorite motivators:

  • This video from Rachael Stephen:  In this amazing video, Rachael makes the point that writing is like making a date with your writer self.  Your writer self will never get to the date before you do, but if you show up first (by sitting down to write), she might show up.  She may be a few minutes late, but you can only write when you give yourself the chance.
  • “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story” from Hamilton: I’m as big of a book nerd as I am a Hamilton nerd and listening to the last song of the musical always inspires me to open my computer and write.  This song is about your legacy: you may never know your impact, but what are you going to do today to make sure that you leave something to outlive you?
  • Watching Jane the Virgin: This may seem counterintuitive, but watching Jane the Virgin inspires me to write because Jane, the protagonist and an aspiring writer, is always writing her novel in the show.  Watching Jane write makes me want to write as well (and her baby daddy is a total hunk, so that’s definitely a reason to watch).

If you are ready to write but don’t know what to say, then the endgame is clear: figure out what to write…and then write it.  Easy, right?

Wrong.  Figuring out what to write is hard.  There are millions upon millions of possibilities to choose from and even after choosing possibilities, you have to decide how each possibility will influence your novel as a whole.  No pressure, though.

Here are some questions to ask yourself when you don’t know what to write next:

  • What is the absolute worst thing that could happen to my character at this moment?  Peril, however unpleasant in real life, makes a fabulous story, so throw your protagonist a curveball or two and watch them flounder to recover.
  • What wouldn’t happen next?  Look at your protagonists situation and start narrowing down the possibilities.  Deciding what wouldn’t come next might lead you to what should come next.
  • Is my character where he/she is supposed to be?  If I’m unsure of where to go next, I backtrack one chapter and decide if my protagonist is in the right place at the right time.  If I envision her somewhere else, I backtrack 1,000 words or so and rewrite so she goes where I need her to go.  Looking back at old material while writing can be dangerous, but sometimes we have to take two steps back before we can take fifty-seven steps forward.

If those questions didn’t get you thinking, here are some tactics that I use to get the creative juices flowing:

  • Skip ahead:  I’m the worst about this, but sometimes I get so excited to write a particular scene…but have write a gateway scene that isn’t nearly as much fun.  Leave a note for yourself, come back to it later, and start writing something that excites you.
  • Set a timer for five minutes and write without thinking:  Open a blank document and type every thought that comes into your head.  You may end up with a document full of gibberish, but you may end up with your next plot point.
  • Take a break.  Or don’t:  If you need to step away from your computer for a hot second, then do it.  If you need to put on your big girl pants and write through it, then do it.  You know yourself and your writing process, so decide if absence will make the heart grow fonder or is you just need to write through the pain.
  • Read a book you don’t like:  This one’s a little weird, but it works.  If I pick up a book I know I hate, then I start thinking about the ways in which I could improve upon it.  I’d move this plot point here, cut this chapter, kill off this character… and next thing you know, you’ve got an idea.
  • Whatever you do, don’t quit:  If you decide to push a project to the side because you can’t think of what to write next, that’s okay.  Maybe you’re meant to let it go for now because you’ll get a fabulous idea later.  Whatever happens, don’t quit for good.  Decide that you’re not writing that piece right now, but you’re still leaving it open.  Don’t burn any bridges.

What is your approach to writer’s block?  What are your weird writer’s block fixes?

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24 thoughts on “Annie’s Approach to Writer’s Block

  1. Ohh, this is really helpful! I do a lot of these – like, when I have no idea what to write, I’ll randomly type everything that comes into my head. I usually end up with great dialogue, and good quotes! And “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story” is a really inspirational song – to be honest, almost all songs from Hamilton make me want to write. Especially “Non-stop”. If Alexander can write the other 51, I can write a few pages!

      1. I know, right?! I have a poster on my wall which says, “Hamilton didn’t write the other 51 by procrastinating” and that is basically the reason I get anything done at all xD

  2. This is an excellent post! You have some great, really useful ideas here. Thank you for sharing them.

    I’d like to add my own technique for dealing with writers block, and that is giving myself permission to write garbage.

    After all, it’s a first draft and I’m going to go back and revise it, so if my prose is wonky (which it always is in my first drafts) I try not to worry about it as long as I get the point across and get the plot down.

    Later, I’ll go back and choose each word carefully to avoid too many adverbs, weak adjectives, repetition, or poor dialogue. All of this can be fixed in a second draft easily, when you have the time to focus on it.

    In the first draft you just want to get the bones of the story down. It’s like a clay sculpture. It starts off as an ugly bunch of clay lumps arranged in the general form the sculptor wants, and later it becomes a work of art through adding and refining details.

    I know for me, worrying about whether it’s “good” is really the only thing that keeps me from writing it down. I’m a perfectionist, so in order to be a functional writer I have to give myself permission to write a crappy first draft, or I’d never write at all. If you’re anything like me, don’t let that hold you back. Just remember that you can fix everything but a blank page with revisions.

    Thank you again for this post.

    1. That’s such a refreshing idea! Sometimes I think we as writers forget that it’s okay to write an ugly first draft 🙂 I was actually struggling to figure out what to write next and I think you may have solved my problem!

  3. These are some fantastic tips! Writer’s block keeps me from writing my books all the time, but I love to skip ahead, write something that is exciting, or just push through and write whatever comes to my head (that’s how I get through bridge scenes and other such tedious parts of the book) ✌🏼😊 it always works for me! Thanks for sharing 🙏🏼❤️

    -Helene |

    1. After listening to it a few times, it’s much more about writing and creation than I first realized, which is why I think it makes a great motivator. Can’t wait to hear how it works and happy writing 🙂

  4. Hi Annie! Absolutely love this post! Thanks for sharing your tips! I think I will check out that inspirational video when I need it next!
    I am not in a writers block per se, but it’s been hard to find time to write these days, and I do find that after some time off, it does take me some time to get back in the groove. I may need some of these tips haha…