By Hope Schmidt
The battles of life take many shapes and sizes, and writing is no exception. Glaring plot holes, inconsistent characters, and tangled timelines oppose the author in their turn. And then there’s writer’s block.
Surrounding us with a confusing mist of ‘what should we write?’, these battles can be among the most challenging we face as an author.
Simply not wanting to write isn’t true writer’s block. That’s another battle altogether, a battle of diligence and discipline. You have your story. You know what comes next. But lethargy strikes and you simply don’t want to write. It happens to me quite often but can be overcome through dedication and focus.
To keep this focus I like to set deadlines for myself, such as writing three chapters a week or getting a story finished by a set day. Or you could set a minimum word count per day, be it a hundred words or two thousand. Or set a time limit…even if it is just fifteen minutes a day.
In the end, it comes down to self-discipline. Do you really want to write? If you do, then you must be willing to write even when the wave of inspiration is in retreat (it will return, just give it time). If writing is a high priority, then make at least a little time to write and discipline yourself to actually sit down during that time and write. It is possible, even if it means getting up a little earlier or not playing so many video games or reading so many books.
But what about when you can’t write?
The medical definition for writer’s block in the Merriam-Webster dictionary is: ‘a psychological inhibition preventing a writer from proceeding with a piece of writing.’ A more down-to-earth definition rephrases it a bit: ‘the problem of not being able to think of something to write about or not being able to finish writing a story, poem, etc.’ And my ‘epic’ definition is: ‘one of the writer’s most feared enemies who inhibits the power of transferring words to a blank page and who must be vanquished’.
Now, whether we think of writer’s block as a ‘psychological inhibition’, an aggravating problem, a battle, or simply an excuse to take a break from writing, chances are most writers have been forced to deal, in some way or another, with writer’s block. But, persistent an enemy as it is, writer’s block can be defeated.
The foundational key to conquering writer’s block is to want to. This sounds obvious, I know. But if you seriously want to write and are stuck in the middle of the story, don’t surrender. Writer’s block isn’t an excuse for not writing, it just another foe to be defeated. But you must be willing to put forth the effort to break through to clearer inspiration.
Isolate the problem
The first step is to isolate the problem. Normally something in the story enables the writer’s block to take hold, be it a character who isn’t cooperating, a mangled timeline, or a plot gone awry. Maybe you’ve outlined your story and know what’s supposed to happen in a particular scene or chapter, but can’t figure out how to go about it. Or maybe you haven’t outlined at all and have no clue what happens next. Whatever the case, detecting the basic obstacle makes it much easier to close the breach.
Once you know where to look, try to reason through the problem, methodically setting aside what won’t work and playing with the ideas that could solve your difficulty. You can either do this as yourself, the author, or you can view the problem from a different perspective. Maybe put yourself in the place of one of the guards of the castle that your hero or villain is trying to break into (or out of). How about a prisoner in the dungeon, or a captain in the army? Whether you work the stories as a mental exercise or write the scene out, everyone, from mentor to page boy, will provide diverse and intriguing possibilities. Quite often I write these ‘alternate views’ as letters or diary entries.
My favorite view to default to is the villain’s. Once, when I knew where I wanted the captured sister of my hero to end up, but couldn’t figure out how to get her there without her being discovered by her brother, I pictured the scene through the villain’s eyes and was able to plot out a route and the reasons for it being chosen.
Talk it out
Another helpful prompt is to talk. Detail out your problem to a friend and quite often you’ll come up with ideas even as you outline what’s gone wrong. And you can pray. God should be part of every moment of our life and, just as He cares for the large battles we face in the world, so He cares about our (relatively) small ones against writer’s block.
And you can talk to yourself. Weird? Maybe. Helpful? Very much so.
Of course, to give the impression that I’m at least partly sane, I normally only talk to myself while alone. When we had goats, I’d talk while I milked them. Other safe havens include muttering to myself from a treetop or while taking a shower. Or I might take to the field below our house and pace back and forth for nearly half an hour while working through some troublesome knots in a story.
A close second to talking to oneself is writing to oneself. I’ve done this while planning out characters…writing my ideas down as if I were arguing back and forth with myself about the best course to take. You may be surprised at how many ideas this simple (and perhaps insane-sounding) method produces.
Quite often, if the problem resists being reasoned into oblivion, either through other character’s views or through persistent talking on my part, I’ll try a different tactic. The ‘what if’ method.
The ‘what if’ method
What if this guard was actually a sympathizer of the hero? What if the villain gets lost while hunting and unknowingly stops at the hero’s house for directions? What if the hero underestimates his opponent…or overestimates him? The possibilities are as limitless as your creativity to think up ‘what if’s’. Some ideas produced won’t fit, some might be worth stories of their own, and others just might change your story for the better and break through that attack of writer’s block once and for all.
So identify the problem, try to reason through it, either as one of your characters or simply talking to yourself (or you could try a ‘character/author’ argument), and ask ‘what if’ about everything. And, above all, don’t give up. The answer might break quickly. Or it might take a few days and many sighs and discarded scribbles. But the answer will come.
Above all, don’t give up.
Once you are able, sit down and write. Even if you don’t quite like how the scene is playing out, write it anyway. It is much easier to go back and correct or even rewrite a scene once it’s already written, than to wait until the scene is perfect in your mind before writing it out. First drafts were made to be rewritten. More strikes by writer’s block may (and, let’s face it, probably will) attack, but victory by victory, page by page, correction by correction, your story will come together.
The creation of a great story is by no means easy. There are times it isn’t even fun. But ‘fun and easy’ isn’t what writing, or life, is about. So if you have a story to write, then stick to it. Write for the glory of God and don’t be dismayed by the various troublesome aspects of writing and the occasional attack by writers block. It’s merely another challenge to be overcome; another battle to be won.
To paraphrase an inspirational quote I once saw, I’m not telling you defeating writer’s block will be easy. I’m telling you it will be worth it. So take up your pen, sit yourself down, commit yourself to the battle, and claim the victory.