Writer’s block is a very controversial subject in the publishing world. Everyone has an opinion and everyone is right. Okay, maybe not everyone. I am right…and also NUMBER ONE AT HUMBLE!
*gets cramp patting self on back*
I believe that, when it comes to discussing writer’s block, there is a real danger of oversimplifying a truly complex phenomenon. Many claim there is no such thing as writer’s block. Just sit down and write and stop making excuses for being lazy. While laziness might be an answer (as we’ll explore) this One-Size-Fits-All solution is low-hanging fruit. Sort of like going to the doctor where the standard answer for everything is to “lose weight.”
Me: I’m tired all the time.
Doctor: Lose weight.
Me: My knee really hurts. I think I might have arthritis.
Doctor: Lose weight.
Me: *blood spurting from missing arm* I uh, think I need emergency surgery.
Doctor: Nah. Lose weight.
Now, is it true that many health issues could be remedied if we weren’t carrying around extra poundage? Sure. But, the human body is vastly complex, meaning it’s wise to ditch the myopia and take into consideration other factors.
Same with writer’s block.
Writer’s Block & Laziness
We’ll just deal with probably the most common explanation for writer’s block right now. Why? Because just like sometimes losing weight really IS the answer to a health issue, laziness could be at the root of our inability to put words on the page.
Because writing is hard work. Let me add a caveat, “Superlative writing is hard work.”
I know this because when I knew NOTHING about my craft, I never ran out of stuff to slap on the page. My first ‘novel’—the 187,000 word monstrosity I keep in the garage because it pees on the carpets—was a JOY to write. My book had IT ALL! There was romance, action, comedy! My novel had everything…except a plot.
Once I decided to be an author FOR REAL, everything changed.
After a slew of rejections, I decided maybe I didn’t know as much as I thought I did. Once I joined a critique group, started attending conferences, began reading loads of craft books as well as fiction….
Suddenly this super fun activity transitioned into a serious brain-bender. I go into more detail on this in my post The Writer’s Journey: From Total Newbie to the Joy of Mastery.
Suffice to say that writing will always be tough work, and the challenges will never evaporate, only change. When we are new, pre-published authors, we are literally in the process of learning an incredibly difficult skill. While having talent is definitely an asset, it’s only one piece of a giant puzzle.
As we grow in our craft, the challenges shift. We might publish our first novel and it’s well-written. But then we have to write the next novel and the next. Then there is creating an author brand, sales, social media, formatting, covers, research, revisions, edits….AHHHHH.
Thus, writing can get really overwhelming and, if we fail to develop good habits, laziness definitely can be at the root of writer’s block. It’s just SO much easier to repaint the house than it is to knock out a thousand words, right?
Writer’s Block as a Safety Against Stupid
This opinion might be unique to me. I read a ton of blogs and books, but if someone else has shared this theory, I haven’t seen it yet.
My greatest weakness when I was an emerging author was I struggled with structure. Structure isn’t sexy, but it is essential. If you struggle, too, I recommend my post Fatal Flaws: Why Your Story is Falling Apart & How to Fix It.
If outlines make you break out in hives? No worries. This post even has tips that will work for pantsers (those who “write by the seat of their pants” for any n00bs).
I’ve been a writer and an editor for over twenty years, and the single biggest flaw I see in most new works is the writer does not have a clear central story problem in need of resolution. All stories are about problems. How do we know the story is over? The core problem is resolved—win, lose or draw.
*** Though admittedly endings where the hero ‘loses’ are most popular in foreign films and anything Sundance likes.
Maybe you’ve encountered this scenario.
You come up with a fabulous story idea and take off writing. The words flow out faster than you can put them down. You’re on a creative high…for about 10,000-12,000 words. Around 12,000-15,000 words, it gets a little harder, but you can still keep moving forward.
By around 25,000 to 30,000 words, it starts to feel as if it would be easier to perform brain surgery from space with an egg beater than to finish. So maybe you keep going back and perfecting the beginning, revising and editing what you already have…until you decide that the garage really needs to be organized.
I believe our subconscious mind is smarter than we could ever imagine. When we hit that wall, this could be a warning that something in our story blueprint needs to be repaired before proceeding.
Often, the core story problem is weak. But it might be a pacing issue, or we need to change a character, we have redundant characters that could be combined, we aren’t hitting plot arc and character arc at the right spot, etc.
Pay Attention to Warnings
Writer’s block can be a lot like those warning lights on our car’s dashboard. Sure, we could keep driving if there is a CHECK ENGINE light. We can keep going with a LOW FUEL light, or CHECK OIL light. It IS an option.
But, eventually everything WILL grind to a halt. This is one of the reasons I’m not too keen on the pat answer that writer’s block is ONLY laziness. If we keep slogging through and turn out word count for the sake of word count because we don’t want to ‘be lazy,’ we can inadvertently make a mess that will take much more time to repair (if it can be repaired at all).
Our subconscious could be waving a red flag that there is a critical flaw in our story. If we’ll learn to pay attention, it can save us a TON of revisions and also help us become better at finishing what we start.
When I feel any major drag on a story, I recommend a quick check.
Want to unlock writer’s block? Write out your log-line for your story.
You should be able to explain your entire plot (what your story is about) in ONE sentence. If you can’t? That is a HUGE problem. Maybe you believe your work is ‘too complex’ to whittle into ONE sentence.
Okay… *cracks knuckles*
A small band of friends from a naive and innocent race must traverse a land fraught with danger and war in order to destroy a magical ring in a specific volcano before a power-hungry necromancer destroys everything they love.
I just put the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy into a single sentence. Hey, I never said it couldn’t be a LONG sentence 😛 .
Why do I LOVE the log-line? First, it is an incredible diagnostic. Here is my formula for the log-line:
Intriguing protagonist + ACTIVE goal (PLOT PROBLEM) + Stakes +Ticking Clock = AWESOME STORY
Lord of the Rings is so long and detailed it’s borderline insane. Tolkien even made up his own languages. But, at the end of the day? One goal. Drop a magic ring in ONE specific volcano before the world ends.
If you are struggling with your story, put it into this formula. You might see that you don’t have an ACTIVE goal. In Act One and partly into Act Two, YES, our protagonist will run. They will avoid, evade, hide and be reactive. Eventually, however, the protagonist must transition into a hero. To do this, they require an ACTIVE goal.
Figuring out your core antagonist—Big Boss Troublemaker— is essential for this. Without a core antagonist creating a singular problem in need of resolution, stories quickly devolve into ‘bad stuff happening.’
You might not have high enough stakes. What happens if your protagonist fails? If the protagonist doesn’t have skin in the game, neither will the reader. This is why Finding Nemo was awesome and Finding Dory was two hours of my life I can never get back.
You might not have a ticking clock. If a protagonist has forever to solve a problem, that’s going to be a hard sell to the audience. Give your protagonist a deadline…then roughly midway through Act Two, cut that in HALF. Then cut in half again.
Very often, when writer’s block slams into us, the key to moving forward can be easily located—then remedied—using a log-line.
Fallow Times or Writer’s Block?
What happens when a farmer keeps farming the same piece of land with the same crop year after year without rest? The harvest, over time, diminishes until nothing grows. This is why it’s vital to not only rotate crops, but to allow the land to rest.
Writing demands a ton of mental, physical, and creative energy. In the ‘olden days’ of publishing, the pace was far slower. If a writer scored a publishing deal, it generally took a year (minimum) to two or more years until the author would ever see that book in print.
While I’d love to discuss the positives and negatives of the sweeping changes in publishing, it’s a moot point. There is no putting the genie back in the bottle. Being a successful working writer simply requires a lot more than it used to. This means burnout is a much larger problem.
Many of y’all know I took on a ghostwriting project in early 2020. From outline to finished book IN HAND took thirteen months. After a 93,000 word manuscript, complete with a gazillion citations? I was put-a-fork-in-me DONE.
Often, we’re struggling because our creative reservoirs are depleted. When we’re writing, blogging, posting on social media, on and on and on? It’s a drain. We can only run on fumes so long before everything WILL come to an abrupt stop.
Active rest is essential. I recommend setting aside a block of time to do something else creative during the time you’d normally write. Whether that is painting, reading, or underwater demolitions is all up to you.
Remember Life Happens
Keep in mind, LIFE doesn’t suddenly pause because we want to write books. There was a time I would keep pushing and pushing no matter what (that whole ‘terrified of being lazy thing’) and all it did was give me shingles.
After finishing The Trap: Sex, Social Media and Surveillance Capitalism, to say I was fried is the understatement of the century. This book was one of the toughest projects I’ve ever tackled, an expose of epic proportions. Thank GOD I wasn’t doing it alone. But I saw things I can never UN-SEE. The research that went into that book boggles the mind since it covers everything from the adult industry as a whole to algorithmic data structures to surveillance capitalism to neuroscience and on and on.
***But OnlyFans is ditching their adult content, so WINNING!
I dedicated over a year of my life to a very worthy cause, but it took its toll. And, considering all the other stuff that happened in between? Pretty shocked I didn’t end up in a padded room.
Just this year, my mom has had two major surgeries, one for cancer. My husband had a surgery for melanoma (which was TERRIFYING). I still homeschool, run a business, and dream of one day having a clean kitchen. On top of this, my health, that hasn’t been great in a while, suddenly tanked.
I couldn’t even get out of bed.
I’ve been telling doctor after doctor for TWELVE YEARS my thyroid is messed up, only to be brushed off and told I’m a hysterical woman who spends too much time on the internet….and to lose weight.
*rails at heavens*
For TWO YEARS I’ve been saying I have Hashimoto’s Disease and that my hormones were whacked, only to be informed I was fine and needed an anti-depressant…and to lose weight.
A month ago, thanks to a dear friend, I was able to see one of the top endocrinologists in the country and GUESS WHAT? I have…Hashimotos’ Disease (which is an autoimmune disease that attacks the thyroid, among other things). Two weeks into the new meds and I am a brand new me.
The old Kristen would have kept pushing, kept blogging, editing and teaching, but I learned from the shingles nightmare. My body was demanding rest, so I rested until I could find a solution…a doctor who would listen and get me the treatment I needed.
Writer’s Block & Time Management
There are a couple of sayings I loathe with the power of a thousand suns. One is, “Everyone has the same 24 hours in a day.”
Those rearing children, running a business, homeschooling, working a full-time job on top of writing, caring for elderly or infirm family, those suffering chronic illnesses might have precious little time to devote to writing. No, sorry, not everyone has the same 24 hours in a day.
DaVinci didn’t have to wash his own clothes, make his own meals, and take care of a young child and or an elderly parent prone to wander off to test-drive one of his flying machines while he was painting The Last Supper.
***Imagines Michelangelo checking a crockpot and calling out spelling words while painting Sistine Chapel.
This said, there is another quippy saying that bugs me equally—If I can find the time.
We cannot FIND time, only MAKE time.
I know from the comments that you guys wear a lot of hats, are caregivers, and many of you even struggle with a chronic illness. This is all a given. And YES, these constraints are real. At the same time? We are in charge of our priorities.
Writer’s block, in all its forms, is a call to action. It can be a sign we are lazy. We’re unwilling to do what needs to be done. If that’s the case? Then writing simply for FUN actually IS an option. Not every hobby needs to be monetized.
It could be signaling us to go back and look at the core components of our story before we get too bogged down in a mess.
Writer’s block might be the warning siren telling us to take a break before we break. It can also force us to examine our priorities.
“No” is actually a full sentence.
If, after reading ALL of this, you still want to be a working author? Understand that writing time is sacrosanct.
***During a resting season, then active rest will go into this slot and has a time limit/deadline as well.
Writers WRITE. This is the priority ahead of laundry, dusting, PTA, and (insert activity HERE).
For more on this, check out my post Good Girls Don’t Become Best-Sellers—Channeling Your Inner “Bad Girl” to Reach Your Dreams.
Busting Writer’s Block
Now that I’ve given several different underlying causes for writer’s block, it’s up to you (and me) to see what fits. But keep in mind, our answers can and will change. What is true today, might not be true tomorrow, so it’s good to know these principles so we can do better regular ‘health checks.’
Some changes are easier than others. Is it time for a kick in the pants or to ease off the gas pedal?
If we’re truly being lazy, this behavior is frequently rooted in fear and perfectionism. Just remember, no one ever sold millions of copies of half of a ‘perfect’ book.
Though plenty of completed ‘crappy’ books have set sales records.
Some of us might be dealing with life circumstances or health issues that limit what we can do. Okay, set and maintain priorities then adjust accordingly.
Aside from the log-line, I have two more tips before we go.
Sometimes we simply need to write crap. We cannot edit what isn’t on the page. Creative flow can be like water and we might need to ‘prime the pump’. Get out the junk to get to the good stuff. If we set a time and make writing a habit, then it’s easier to slip back into our stride if we have to take a break.
My second tip? When I hit a roadblock in any book, I first check against the log-line (or thesis statement for non-fiction). If that’s all strong, then I literally write AND SOMETHING AWESOME HAPPENS HERE, then pick up the story/book at the next logical point. I let my subconscious chew on how to bridge that gap while I keep moving forward.
In all the years I’ve been doing this, I have yet for ‘the boys in the basement’ to fail me. Often, my subconscious comes up with a solution far more inventive than I could have staring at a screen trying to force my writing into submission.
I hope this post has given you real solutions to a real problem because, YES…writer’s block is a real thing.
What are your thoughts?
Have you struggled with writer’s block and felt lazy or ashamed because you aren’t ‘trying hard enough?’ Do you need to kick it into gear or maybe take some dedicated time off? Are some of you dealing with being a caretaker or trying to manage a chronic illness and write? Do you struggle with telling people “No” while making you and your writing last on the list?
Do y’all have any tips or thoughts you’d like to add?
I LOVE hearing from you!
To prove it and show my love, for the month of AUGUST, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).
July’s winner is Charlotte O’Shay. Please email your pages (250 words is a page) in a Word doc, double-spaced 12 point Times New Roman font, with one-inch margins to kristen at wana intl dot com. Yes, I am being picky but it keeps me from going blind…-er. Also please put CONTEST WINNER in all caps so I see you in the sea of spam. Congratulations!
I will announce August’s winner next post.
Personally, I know that fear is a major problem for me. Have you previously addressed this in one of your blogs? And, please, don’t just tell me to lose weight.
LOL, I actually have more than a few, but this one is a great start Learn How to Master Fear Then Put It to WORK.
This was a great post. I have tried not to have writers block, feel uninspired, or feel like I haven’t written enough, but it all comes back to haunt me as I sit in my chair, mumchance, looking out the window, tapping my pencil on the desk. My solution? I sat myself in my most comfortable recliner, plopped my laptop on my lap desk, and made my fingers move. Even if it came out crazy dumb. Eventually, something came to me and I pursued that course, hoping and praying for new inspiration. Sometimes it just takes doing. And writing.
Yeah sometimes that really IS the answer…just not always, which was why this post was super comprehensive. I have really struggled with guilt over not blogging like I used to. But when you can’t hardly get out of bed and aren’t eating? That might be a huge STOP sign. Now that I am feeling so much better, yes I will have to get back to ‘butt in seat and write even if it is garbage.’ Scheduled writing time is essential and it HAS to be the priority because if we only write when we FEEL like it? We aren’t going to get very far.
My current log-line for my WIP is “An ostracized foundling must earn admittance to a band of adventurers commissioned to find a missing princess, if he is ever to find his own missing identity.”
Whenever I find my figurative feet dragging, I know there’s something coming up that I haven’t figured out yet – and just pushing through will bring me to a complete halt.
The only potential issue I would point out in this seems to be lacking stakes and a ticking clock. Why does he need to find his missing identity? If he fails, what are the consequences? I don’t know your story, so this is a ‘Hail Mary’ tweak.
An ostracized foundling must earn admittance to a band of adventurers commissioned to find a missing princess, if he is ever to find his own missing identity, an identity that is the key to unseating a violent dictator poised to plunge their world into war.
Now we know his identity has real-world implications in your story. If he fails, then the world will fall into war and ruin. As it is, I can’t see what the ending is. Finding a missing identity is akin to ‘she must find herself.’ Without context and stakes, that’s an incomplete goal. How do we know if he ‘wins?’ With the retooled version, we know your foundling wins if he unseats a tyrant and prevents his world plunging into chaos. If there is peace at the end and the rightful heir is on the throne, then that’s a win.
Just my two cents anyway.
How much of the story should/could be included in the logline? To take your example, if the MC doesn’t find out that his missing identity is key to unseating the dictator until halfway through the book, should it be included? Or should the driver/motivation of the earlier part of the story be given prominence instead?
Your log-line is the entire plot summed up in one sentence, unlike, say, a teaser. In my example, the dictator would likely be the BBT and hid the identity because the orphan is the legitimate ruler, thus unseating the dictator would be Act Three. Think, ‘Return of the King’ and no, there are no new stories. Unseating the dictator is the core point. The WHY his identity is hidden and what it will prevent/restore at the end is the point and should be included. Your log-line, as is, is a bad situation. I don’t see an antagonist or a core story-worthy problem. So he finds out his identity. Why are we supposed to care? What happens if he doesn’t? What is the ultimate story goal?
Does that help?
Yes! That’s really bringing a new level of clarity to my thinking on this. Thank you!
For instance, in my LOTR example we know the end goal is to destroy a magical ring in a volcano (Mount Doom) before Sauron takes on corporeal form and destroys Middle Earth. The Hobbits (and most of the allies) don’t even know Sauron is back in town for sure until the end of Act One (end of ‘Fellowship of the Ring’). The Hobbits only have an idea of the end mission after Frodo is wounded and they take refuge with the elves. Then Gandalf confirms they DO have the Ring of Power and that Sauron is rising. The entire story problem is about destroying The Ring of Power before it is too late.
Now would they put that as a movie teaser? No. Because you don’t tell the end of the book/story to the audience. The log-line is for you, the author to keep on track and have essentially a micro-scaled version of your entire book.
Hi Kristen, I have been reading your posts for a couple of years and out of all the ‘advice’ out there, yours hits the mark just about every single time! I love your honesty and your strong uncosseted advice. My current writers block had almost convinced me to be sensible and leave my dream to write on the side of the road. But thanks to this post, and some random thoughts of my own, I will dig in again and resurrect my current manuscript which, by the way, already has a strong log line. Just needs a bit of spice I think. Thanks again. Julie Carbone
Love reading your posts.
Thank you! I put a ton of work into them, so I appreciate the compliment and I hope they help.
CONTEST: Writer’s block. Great post. After a dozen books, I’ve learned to trust my gut. I run through the checklist you posted and then rely heavily on ‘the boys in the basement’. If I take my active mind off “it” and sleep or garden or vacuum, I usually come up with the blinding obvious or sheer brilliance, depending on the situation. lol. If I get really stuck, I talk it through with interested family or friends. Sometimes an outside perspective can be useful, if only to run through a long series of “no, that’s not it”.
Love your newsletters and posts. Cheers, Shari
For me fear plays a big part, fear that I won’t pull it off, that I won’t do justice to the story I’m trying to write. Whenever I’m stuck in a different way unsure of how to set a scene up or some other problem with the story, I take long hot showers and the answers come every time—highly recommend. I’m glad you got your Hashimoto’s sorted so quickly. I got the diagnoses a year ago and it’s not only in the last couple of week that I think my level are rising. Thank you for a great blog, your energy, honesty, and bloody good advice.
I feel personally attacked by this post. LOL. Lots of great advice here.
enjoyed the read
This is a great post. I’ve bookmarked it. Also really happy you were able to find a Dr. that listened to you long enough to diagnose you. I haven’t been that lucky. Not only is it “lose some weight”, it’s also “all in my head”. But in a rural area, there are very few options. Your advice and “realness” is refreshing and on point. Thank you for taking time to write these posts.
Because my kids were young, I found that often I would go long periods without writing. However, since they’ve grown up and I have taught them to be self-sufficient, I have all the time i need for writing. We all have periods in our lives that should be devoted to specific things and for me, raising my children to be independent was a priority and writing took a backseat.
I have never had writer’s block. I have had times when writing was slow, but never when I couldn’t put words to paper. They weren’t always good words, but they get written. Sometimes writing becomes such a priority that it gets in the way of other things and I have to force myself to do that other thing. Other times I just feel guilty that I am not getting those other things done and writing has to be put off because I really don’t need the stress.
Thank you for this great post! SOOOO sorry you’ve been dogpiled with all these struggles, but glad you are on the mend.
I took your Log Line formula and tried it out on the first book in my humorous fiction novella series….
” A ‘Yankee’ recently relocated to East Texas is framed for payroll fraud and must prove her innocence before she gets fired or even faces prison time.”
I realize this doesn’t sound very dramatic, but it is, after all, humor. Being framed is only my protagonist’s central problem and the most serious. The cliquish (dare I say “redneck?”) community she’s trying to fit into offers plenty of other problems to drive her crazy / give us a laugh / segue into the next book.
Actually that is a FABULOUS log-line! Excellent job!
“This opinion might be unique to me. I read a ton of blogs and books, but if someone else has shared this theory, I haven’t seen it yet”
Actually, Kristen, you’ve checked off many of the possible root causes I cover in a booklet I wrote a few years ago called “Breaking the Block”. Motivation and time management are part of the foundation, but a big part of what I see as classic writer’s block is exactly what you point out here – your subconscious mind throwing up red flags. It may be structure, but it also may be you need a better understanding of setting, or characters and their backgrounds and motivations, or a list of other possibilities, but the subconscious mind is balking at something.
I’ll have to give the log line a try, BTW. Thanks for that tip.
Yeah I added in that caveat because I was fairly sure I wasn’t alone in this opinion and I think structure is usually the biggie, but YES, it could be casting the wrong character as a protagonist, wrong POV, wrong setting, the list goes on. I believe if we’d get better at listening our subconscious is actually offering a huge help. Thanks for the comment!
Sometimes I actually have to do the laundry and wash the dishes. Sometimes the cat comes out on the losing end of a Brisk Discussion with the large Siamese down the block. Sometimes the husband stops driving and has to be driven to his dialysis appointments and taken in on a wheelchair. That’s when Candy Crush and Fishdom start looking *really* good.
I honestly think what we term writer’s block is one of the things you touched on: you don’t know where your story is going and you get stuck and can’t figure it out. (I’m an expert at this.) I begin things with that great idea–total pantser–and later realize I don’t know know what the story is about. I wait (my current wip is one I started 5 years ago) until I have it figured out before I go back to it. Even then, it’s often a struggle to get what I want on the page. Writing requires so much thinking! Great post. Thanks!
Can we add brain fog mistaken as writers block. For years I would be so frustrated for hours wasted in front of the screen with nothing to show for it. Ugh! The hit to self confidence is real. Too many chronic conditions come with this special hurdle for writers.
“Two half-brothers must resolve the mysterious connection between a murdered schoolgirl and a masked menace before spirits destroy our world and their own”
…I think this will help me prioritise going forward. Been stuck in the 40k mud for a while. Thanks, Kristen!
Pretty good. I’d be more descriptive/creative with the half-brothers, but other than that? It works.
For instance, “Two half-brothers home from war and suffering from severe PTSD must….”
“Two half-brothers newly released from prison for crimes they didn’t commit must…”
See how this is being QUALITATIVE about whaat sort of characters are in the lead? I hope that helps.