Q: What happens when you hit writer’s block head on?
A: I think as you gain more experience as a writer, you learn a few techniques that can help you work through the more common reasons behind a block. Usually, it’s not so much a question of working through, as backing up and heading off in a different direction. My blocks are often caused by something just not working the way I think it ought to. If I can step back far enough in the story, I can usually find the place where I’m still happy with things up to that point. Then it’s a question of changing some of the story parameters: making a character more compelling, adding more conflict, looking at pacing — basically all the stuff that you can find in any decent writing book. (Usually these are things that I already know but have forgotten in the telling of the story). The hard part, of course, is chopping out all the bad stuff and reworking it, but you know you’re doing the right thing when you get the fire back in your belly and the story comes to life again.
Which is great — except when it doesn’t work. If I can’t figure out where I’ve gone wrong, or the idea has just died on me, I find it best to set the work aside. Sometimes forever — because there are lots more great story ideas out there! — but often only until some unspecified time in the future. On that day, casting my eye back over the words with a fresh perspective, the answer is suddenly obvious, and off I go. Or I’ll see a way to pair this half-formed idea with another one and create something new. Or not. Remember: there’s no statute of limitations on blocked, half-completed stories.
That’s okay when writing short stories, but for novel-writing the time investment is obviously much greater. It can feel hugely frustrating to have several blocked novel attempts on the go. A lot of advice I see is to just grit your teeth and work through it, and I think that can work. (I remember listening to a panel of SF authors at GollanczFest one year. One swore blind that in every novel he’d written, the story just died for him on page 147. Always that page. But he pushed on regardless, and eventually the joy of it came back. “No, no,” said another panel member. “It happens on page 190 for me!” The point was, all these big-name authors went through a kind of dip or crisis of confidence, in writing their novels. Is a dip the same as writer’s block? Maybe not, but sometimes the answer is to keep going regardless.)
Yet if I’m blocked because my heart is not in the story, I’ll stop. Pushing on can compound the problems and I’m better off working on something new that inspires me. I like the analogy of a chef working in a hot, steamy kitchen. Sometimes to create a fine meal you need several pans on the go. You spend a bit of time on this one, leaving it to simmer while you attend that one, then back to the first, and so on. Eventually, with enough pans on the go, you can see what looks and tastes good, and you can begin to blend things to create something special — always excepting that there will inevitably be some leftovers and wastage.
David Cleden’s story “In the House of Geometers”
in Metaphorosis Friday, 14 January 2022.
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