Nathan Bransford, Author

Thursday, October 31, 2013

How to get over writer's block

With National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) starting tomorrow, here's an excerpt from How to Write a Novel: 47 Rules for Writing a Stupendously Awesome Novel That You Will Love Forever, on sale now!

Rule #34: You don’t have “writer’s block”

The most important thing you need to know about writer’s block is this: it doesn’t exist.

Seriously. Writer’s block does not exist. It is not a worm that suddenly lodges itself in your brain, it is not a mysterious goblin that sneaks up on you and poisons you with an anti-writing serum, and it is not something that you need to fear coming down with.

Now, when I say writer’s block doesn’t exist, I don’t mean that you will never have the feeling associated with writer’s block or that people who say they have writer’s block are big fakers. I’ve felt the feeling! I’ve been there.

But when people encounter the phenomenon otherwise known as “writer’s block,” what they are really describing is one thing and one thing only: writing stopped being fun.

That’s it. That’s all it means. The writing process stopped being easy and the words were no longer flowing as readily as they were in the beginning. Writing, in other words, just got really, ridiculously hard.

Writer’s block is what happens when novels stop being polite and start getting real. The Real World: Writing!

But remember: it’s a feeling. It is not something that will stop you from finishing, nor is it something that you have to give into because it’s inevitable. You can’t treat it like a virus that will pass in time if you just wait it out. You must seek a cure.

There are ways of dealing with “writer’s block,” and they all have one thing in common: work. Here are the strategies that will help:

Figure out the problem you need to solve
Chances are you will, at some point, feel completely and utterly stuck. This isn’t writer’s block (which, again, doesn’t exist). You’re just stuck.

It’s completely frustrating. And this is okay. There are going to be setbacks. Don’t stress yourself out thinking that everything should always be easy.

Instead of focusing on your exasperation with your own writing abilities, it’s eminently important to figure out why you’re stuck. Does something in particular need to happen in your story that is stymieing you? Do you need to figure out how characters get from Point A to Point B? Is something just not feeling right, and so you need to go back and fix some things leading up to the sticky spot? Has a plot thread gone astray?

The first step to getting unstuck is understanding the problem you need to solve. Once you’ve identified the main issue, the solution is just around the corner. You might not know what to do immediately, and your brain might need to work itself toward the solution, but knowing the problem is a crucial nudge toward writing again.

Go outside and get some fresh air and sunshine

Once you have a general sense of the problem at hand and what you need to accomplish, it’s okay to take a break. Give your brain a breather, get some Vitamin D, stare at some flowers, and ponder how in the world you ended up writing a novel and how maybe it would’ve been simpler to take up gardening instead.

Changing your location and experiencing some peace and quiet can help dislodge the clog in your brain. Find as much nature as you can, depending on where you live. Trees and grass and oxygen are magic.


Get the blood flowing. Lift some weights. Punch a punching bag. Really punch that bag stupid novel argh *#&%@.

You’ll be amazed at the ideas you’ll have while exercising.

And not only this, but, as I’m sure you know, the brain is part of the body, so you might want to keep the whole enterprise healthy. You’ll be happier and more creative if you spend time getting your heart rate up.

Whenever I was stuck with the Jacob Wonderbar series, I headed straight to the gym. The problems had often been solved by the time I got back to my apartment.

Force yourself to stare at a blank screen until you think of something

This is the ripping-the-bandaid-off approach to dealing with writer’s block. It is painful but utterly effective.

Turn off your Internet connection and cell phone. Close the blinds. Hide the TV remote. Lock the doors.

Open up your novel. And stare stare stare at the blinking cursor.

This is my absolute favorite technique for dealing with the affliction formerly known as writer’s block. You just power through.

It is absolutely agonizing to stare at a blank screen and a blinking cursor. It can inspire feelings of panic and despair. You may start wondering if you’ll ever think of another idea again. You may start to wonder if the blinking cursor was originally invented as a torture device.

But then, after ten minutes or more of staring at the blinking cursor of death, you’ll eventually start to calm down. You’ll do the only thing you can do in a quiet, Internet-less room with nothing else to occupy your attention: you will start thinking of ideas. If you concentrate and don’t let the feeling overpower you, you’ll eventually come up with something that will get you out of the writing block hole.

It may take minutes, or it may take hours. It may be the most agonizing few hours of your creative life, or you may be surprised at how quickly you get going.

But here’s what happens after you’ve overcome your blockage and you get back into the flow: you’ll be so euphoric that you’re back on track that it will start feeling fun again.

You’ll realize that the whole writing block thing never existed in the first place.

Read the rest of How to Write a Novel: 47 Rules for Writing a Stupendously Awesome Novel That You Will Love Forever. On sale for just $4.99 at:

Amazon Kindle
Apple iBooks
B&N Nook


Maryann Miller said...

Excellent tips, Nathan. I agree with your point about there is no writer's block. We get stuck in the plot, we lose some of the energy of the story, or some days we are just too tired to be creative, but that's all there is to it. Your tips for stimulating some energy were so good. In theatre we create that energy before going on stage with some energetic moves, and athletes do the same before taking the field or the court. It is important.

Maya Prasad said...

I love these excerpts, Nathan. Very motivational. Can't wait to read the whole book!

John "Ol' Chumbucket" Baur said...

Absolutely! It's not that you are physically incapable of writing coherent sentences, you just no longer like any of the ones you write. And the answer is to keep writing. That's what first drafts are for. As they say, you can't fix it if you don't write it down first. Can't wait to read the book. I want to get a copy for a friend who doesn't read e-books. When will it be out in dead-tree edition?

Cinthia McCracken said...

Sure, there is a such thing as writers block: having to work in a hostile workplace u till your emotions and mental state go volatile, missing pens and paper and broken computer, multiple personality disorder where one despises that the other wants to write, and possibly a very devastating tornado slamming the doors shut with feelings of terror as the trees scream and the schizo hearing them scream realizes there is no real writers block at all. Haha. This was a pointless reply, but I got a laugh, so I am good. Thanks for this post. I am considering buying this book. Your stuff is always amazing.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

Mr B I am loving your book.

Wrote about it on my blog today because...well just because.

You're like one of the guys who came up with 'plain language' in legal documents.

Thanks my friend, I'm lovin' the journey.

BP said...

So true! I believe the same.

Michele Gibson said...

Nathan, it's great that your book is out in time for NaNoWriMo. Just bought my copy.

Technically, NaNoWriMo starts tonight - midnight - ha - I lead the South Bay region near San Francisco & it is wild craziness to start writing as a group in Denny's at the stroke of costume; it's Halloween after all.

Anonymous said...

Posting anonymously for obvious reasons...

Nathan, I have a great deal of respect for you, but you're entirely wrong on this. Your basic mistake is misunderstanding what writer's block is.

First of all, it exists. I know, I have suffered it. I have not suffered anorexia, or agoraphobia, or any number of debilitating, life-altering psychological conditions, but that doesn't mean they don't exist. Just because you haven't experienced writer's block - real writer's block, not the day-to-day struggles of writing you describe - that doesn't mean writer's block can't exist.

Real, true writer's block is not something that is resolved by bulling on through a difficult passage, or going to the gym, or staring at the screen until something falls out of your head and onto the keyboard. Real writer's block is the absolute paralysis of your ability to think like a writer, to function in your profession. It is not something that lasts a few days. It can stall careers for months on end, sometimes years.

My own case lasted over twelve months. Deadlines passing, no income because I couldn't perform my basic function, the terrifying prospect of not being able to feed and clothe my family or keep a roof over their heads, all of that pressure on top of knowing agents and editors are waiting, and the absolute dread of being discovered to be a fraud, of advances being recalled, of contracts being cancelled. Not to mention being a nightmare to live with, putting my spouse through hell, my children taking the worst of my moods.

Yeah, staring at the screen will cure true writer's block. In much the same way eating a cheeseburger will cure anorexia, or the way out of a cycle of depression is to tell yourself a knock-knock joke.

Writer's block is a real and deeply damaging thing. Please don't trivialize it by equating the condition with the minor blips all writers experience when working through a project. You're smarter than that.

Kathy Steinemann said...

Here's an unusual but effective tip that actually works.

Juggle. In addition to the temporary mental break, research shows that people who know how to juggle have more gray matter than those who don’t.

Bryan Russell said...

Dear Anonymous,

I sympathize with the struggles you went through, but I think the point being made here is that people lump a million problems together and call it "Writer's Block." They mythologize it, and it becomes this large, overwhelming thing. But writer's block is not "Writer's Block." There's no capital W and capital B Writer's Block. There is just a multitude of problems faced by writers -- both small problems and large problems. If someone has severe anxiety about writing, this does not mean they have Writer's Block, this means they have a severe anxiety about writing. Some people say they have Writer's Block when they have a plot problem, or when they're tired and feel unmotivated. None of these are the same things, and it doesn't help to mythologize them as Writer's Block, and look for answers to solve Writer's Block, because the problem is different for everybody. If someone has severe anxiety about writing, they need to try to face that, find the causes, and try to treat those root problems. If someone's stopped by a plot problem, they need to work out where their story is going and how it's going to get there.

I think writers, in a general sense, have made Writer's Block into a sort of Boogey Monster. And it's hard to concretely face something that lives only in imaginary shadows.

Writers face numerous problems, big and small. I think the key is trying to correctly see the problems for what they are, find what is causing them, and then try to find specific solutions for the specific problems at hand.

Whirlochre said...

Stuckness is a weird thing, and it's always worth remembering that it isn't something special that happens to (oh so special) writers (because they're so special). Everyone gets stuck, and the more special names you invent for the phenomenon, the harder it is to disentangle yourself.

My solution is to engage in what I call Mule Work. It serves very little useful purpose most of the time, provides a GREAT distraction, and affords me the opportunity to dress up in my own hand-knitted mule costume.

Mule work is stuff like ironing, shaving, hoovering, mowing the lawn — activities that are neither demanding nor necessarily stuff you "can do in your sleep". The mule part (please, no guffawing — it's only innuendo) comes by adhering to the rule that AS YOU iron, shave, hoover etc, you MAKE NO ATTEMPT to continue thinking about the focus of your stuckness.

Meditation will zonk you out completely and a bombardment of information will put you off your stride. Mule work will maybe give you a break and allow ONE SMALL THING to be shaken free.

As you iron or shave (but never both at the same time — dual weilding electrical appliances can be fatal) maybe you'll see a hint of a glimmer between the shirt cuffs and the whiskers. Or maybe it will happen a few hours later. If you trust that it's the one insight you really need right now, you can use it to unlock the next piece of the puzzle (even if it's only a small piece).

As for longer term writer's block — the kind of immutable stuckness that outlasts a month of Sundays' worth of muling — my guess is that this comes under the heading "my life is shit". That's a different problem.

Looking forward to the book.

Neurotic Workaholic said...

A very helpful post! I think one thing that makes me have "writer's block" is jealousy of other writers; although I'm happy for them, at the same time it makes me feel insecure about my own writing. I know that I need to pay less attention to their work and more attention to my own.

Spencer and Kimberly said...

I usually find myself stuck when I don't know my characters well enough to continue on, or when I'm bored by what I've written. I can usually free myself by doing a freewrite of why I hate what I've written. It allows me to accept my mistake and regain control over the story. Another tactic is to read a book in my same genre to get some ideas.

Anonymous said...

Awesome tips, thanks! Another option: write stories with other people, round robin style. Like this event on Twitter (going on now):

Trish Mercer said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
John Scherber said...

I stumbled into writer’s block in 1968 and didn’t get out for 37 years. This is one experience that led to my book of writing tips, A Writers Notebook: Everything I Wish Someone Had Told Me When I Was Starting Out. Writing it, I imagined the self I am today, after 19 books, standing next to my younger self, ready to answer any question. There’s a sample on my website:

Anonymous said...

I totally agree with the first Anonymous. Writer's Block is as real as any other mental illness. It's extremely insensitive to those who have suffered or have been suffering from it, to say that it doesn't exist. Nathan might be a writer but he's not a psychologist or psychiatrist. The sort of things he describes here aren't symptomatic of Writer's Block. What he's talking about is the usual problems faced by writers, especially those writers who bite off more than they can chew.

A lot of the times, writers get stuck because they're not willing to sacrifice. They fall in love with something that doesn't fit in the MS and they push it at the expense of everything else. Other times, writers run out of ideas because their initial plot doesn't work or needs a lot more thought. In cases like these, going for a jog around the neighbourhood might help the stuck-writer to get ideas or to get unstuck and work out that perfection isn't an essential element of writing. However, for a person who suffers Writer's Block this doesn't work because Writer's Block isn't about the MS itself, but about the writer's mental struggles to accept him or herself as a writer.

Related Posts with Thumbnails