How to Beat Writer's Block

Norman Mailer: If you tell yourself you are going to be at your desk tomorrow, you are by that declaration asking your unconscious to prepare the material.

Writer's block can afflict any part of novel writing, starting with an inability to come up with an inspiring idea in the first place. Mostly, though, it is associated with writing a first draft - with facing a blank sheet of paper (or a blank computer screen) and being quite incapable of writing a single word.

If you put into practice everything I have said so far about making best use of your writing muse, the chances are that you will never be struck down with writer's block.

You will be so excited about getting to work on the next small chunk of your story that finding yourself blocked and being unable to write simply won't happen.

But what if it does?

I have a friend who runs marathons. I once asked him about the infamous "wall" that runners are supposed to hit and was surprised when he told me that it had never happened to him. He said he simply didn't acknowledge the existence of this wall - if it didn't exist, how could he hit it?

That's smart thinking, and something you can equally apply to creative writing.

If you refuse to acknowledge the existence of writer's block - that miserable experience of being quite unable to think a single creative thought or write a single sentence - how can you be struck down by it?

In the unlikely event that you do find yourself blocked, despite all the advice I have offered so far, the following tips and suggestions should help.

(As a matter of fact, follow them anyway, whether you feel a bad case of block coming on or not. Prevention is always much better than cure!)

Tips For Beating Writer's Block

1. Take your Time

Writing a novel isn't a race. Nobody is timing you, so work at your own pace and enjoy yourself. Yes, I know that's kind of obvious, but you'd be amazed how many people view novel writing as some kind of ordeal.

Paradoxically, the less you worry about reaching the end, the sooner you will get there. Why? Because you won't be struck down by writer's block along the way.

If you set yourself large daily targets, you will fail to start hitting them sooner or later and the whole project will come to a crashing halt.

If you vow to spend just 30 minutes in your writing room every day, no matter how few words you produce, the odds are that your inner-muse will thrive. And if you still only manage a single paragraph? So what?

If it takes you twelve months to produce your masterpiece, that's great. If it takes you twelve years, that's great, too. So long as you have fun along the way, who's counting?

2. Keep your Eyes on the Road Ahead

The fact that writing a novel means producing several hundred pages of prose is enough all by itself for a bad case of writer's block to strike. And that is precisely why you mustn't think of writing fiction in those terms.

Writing several hundred pages of prose is scary, but writing just one or two pages - or even one or two paragraphs - isn't scary. So just focus on what you would like to achieve today (the small next step you need to take) and ignore the thousands of steps to come. You will be amazed how quickly the pages will pile up.

3. Write in the Right Environment

Writing fiction demands concentration. If you cannot free yourself from distractions at home, find somewhere quieter to work - the park, the library, the car, wherever. Comfort is important, too. It is hard to focus on the mind if the body is not relaxed.

Personally, I write first drafts in longhand sitting in a comfortable armchair. That's because I can't get creative on a computer and I can't get comfortable sitting at a desk, not for long periods. But whatever works for you is what is best.

"There's only one person who needs a glass of water oftener than a small child tucked in for the night, and that's a writer sitting down to write."
- Mignon McLaughlin

4. Plan What to Say in Advance

There is a great temptation with beginners to skip through the planning phase of the novel writing process at breakneck speed so they can get to the exciting part: writing a first draft.

Big mistake.

Writer's block often strikes when you try to do two things at once - planning what to say and working out how to say it. Planning is largely a left-brain activity carried out by your inner-critic, while drafting the novel is a right-brain artistic one. The left half of the brain is the logical side and the right half the creative, intuitive side and, as you know, they don't work well together.

Plunging straight into the first draft without planning roughly what you will say means you will have to plan at the same time as writing. But if you already have the main details worked out before you write, you only have to worry about the language itself.

5. Don't Write your Novel in Chronological Order

Not if you don't want to. If your plan is sufficiently detailed, you will have a pretty good idea of what happens in every chapter. And that means you are free to tackle them in any order you choose.

If Chapter 3 is threatening to make you come down with a severe case of writer's block, tackle the more enjoyable Chapter 30 instead - then return to Chapter 3 on another day when you are feeling more in the mood.

6. Prepare For Tomorrow Today

If you perform a manual task - putting up some shelves, say - it is much easier to start the day with the tools all neatly to hand and the furniture shifted out the way. And it is the same with writing fiction.

If you sit down to write without having planned in advance which chapter or which to scene to work on, you can't hope to achieve anything.

But if the day before you planned precisely which scene to tackle and perhaps even wrote the opening sentence (to act as a springboard into the day's work) you should have a very productive work session.

"When I'm supposed to be writing I clean my apartment, take my clothes to the laundry, get organized, make lists, do the dishes. I would never do a dish unless I had to write."
- Fran Lebowitz

7. Take the Chapter out for a Walk

Just as sprinters have to mentally prepare for the race ahead, visualizing it in their minds before they have even left the starting blocks, so us novelists cannot hope to write well if we have our minds on other things.

Therefore, before writing a draft of a chapter, it is important to put all other cares aside and concentrate instead on the chapter you plan to write.

Personally, I take a walk before writing, whatever the weather, and run through the chapter mentally as I go, picturing it like a movie in my mind's eye. If other thoughts fight for my attention, I gently push them away. I concentrate on the fiction, like nothing else in the world matters. And the big advantage of walking, of course, is that when I do sit down to write, I am not just mentally prepared but physically prepared, too.

8. Work Means Work

Sorry, but there's just no getting around this one. If you sit down to write but can't get started, try a little harder. Whatever you do, don't sit around waiting for inspiration to strike. It's like expecting your lawnmower to start without cranking the cord.

Writer's block is a bully but tends to leave you alone at the first sign of resistance. The first few sentences of the day - even bad sentences - are often the hardest to write (that's because the muse is still sulking and the critic is holding the pen).

Once you have those opening sentences under your belt, the muse gets interested in what you are doing - or failing to do very well. He kicks the critic out of the writing seat, without you even being consciously aware of it, and - like magic - the words begin to flow.

9. Write as Badly as you Want

Writing a first draft of a novel is exactly that - just a draft, something that will end up in the recycling bin. Many famous writers are on record as saying that they have to revise their drafts 5, 10, 15 times before they are happy with them.

And so the likelihood that you will not be terribly enthusiastic about the quality of the first draft takes all of the pressure off it. You simply need to fill pages with words, or with raw material that can later be made to look more pretty. Your creative muse excels at providing you with this raw material - words that might look ugly on the page but that will nevertheless be truthful and alive.

Accepting in advance that what you write as a first draft is going to take a lot of polishing during the revision stage gives you the freedom to simply write and not give a second thought to the quality of the language.

"I write when I am inspired and I see to it that I am inspired at nine o'clock every morning."
- Peter DeVries

10. Do Something Different

If you are tired of writing the first draft, try revising one of the chapters you have already drafted.

You see, even if you follow all of the suggestions above, there will still be mornings when you simply can't face another blank page, no matter how much you are "in touch" with your writing muse. Solution? Face a page you have already filled with words!

Doing some kind of work on your novel is better than doing no work at all. Just make sure that the next day, when you will hopefully be feeling more energized, you get back to the drafting, even if you only manage to draft a paragraph or two.

11. Be Easy on Yourself

If you reach the point where you can't face writing a first draft or even revising previous drafts (and we all have days like that), take a day or two off. So long as virtually every day doesn't turn into a day off, you'll be fine.

After all, there is more to life than writing novels. And I guarantee you will be itching to get back to your story before too long.

12. Learn to Look Forward to Writing (by setting LOW TARGETS)

Until you get paid for doing it, writing novels is - or should be - more like a hobby. Even after you are published it should still be like a hobby, in the sense that you do it for the love of doing it. (If you do not love doing it, go do something else. There are more reliable ways of making money.)

Hands up, though, anyone who has ever dreaded a day's writing. I certainly have. And it's crazy. You wouldn't dread a day's fishing or a round of golf. You wouldn't dread an evening in the attic building your model railway. Why would you dread novel writing?

The answer, of course, is that writing a novel is sometimes challenging - not least the challenge of filling hundreds of sheets of blank paper with thousands of words. But guess what? Dreading a writing session is a sure-fire way to stifle your creativity.

So what is the answer?

Something I have always found - and this seems to be the case for most writers that I talk to - is that the prospect of writing is always much worse than actually doing it. Thinking about writing a tough scene can make you groan when the alarm clock rings in the morning. But when you actually get stuck into it and the pen starts to glide effortlessly across the paper, you wonder what all the fuss was about.

You would think writers would learn from this phenomenon, but it doesn't work out like that. The next time there is a difficult chapter to write and the alarm clock rings, you groan all over again.

The best way to overcome this advance fear of a day's work, in my experience, is to set yourself ridiculously low targets. Instead of aiming to write the entire chapter that day, aim to write the first two paragraphs only. I don't mean drafting and revising those paragraphs until they are as perfect as you can make them. I mean drafting them only, not even reading them back afterwards, and then taking the rest of the day off.

Aiming to write many hundreds (or even thousands) of words in a session is daunting, particularly if the chapter is one of those tough ones. Two paragraphs, though, is simple. Even if the words don't come easily at first, you should still be able to reel them off in an hour.

But here is the thing: working on those two paragraphs stimulates the muse. And when the muse gets going, he doesn't like to stop. "Okay, just one more paragraph," you keep promising him. But soon you have written several pages. And you did it without fearing the work in advance!

Note, though, that this strategy only works if you are serious about writing just two paragraphs and being content with that. Telling yourself that this is what you will do, but secretly planning to write the entire chapter, doesn't work. The muse and the critic are no fools...

  • The muse, the lazy chap that he is, will delight at the thought of only two paragraphs to write. (The fact that he doesn't like to stop once he has started is one of the paradoxes of his character. He loves to work when he is "in the zone", but he would much rather take a lazy day instead.)
  • The critic will be aghast at the prospect of writing just two paragraphs. It will mean slipping behind the schedule, and the critic loves his schedule.

The best thing to do, therefore, is to have no schedule! That is why I have written elsewhere that the best working practice is to work every day but not to expect to reach the end any time soon. If you place a deadline on the novel's completion, the critic will start drawing up timetables - and the muse hates those!

Strangely, though, you stand a better chance of finishing your novel sooner (and enjoying it more along the way) if you don't write to a schedule. If the prospect of having to write two or three pages in a session fills you with dread, the temptation to skip the odd session, unless you are a saint, will be immense. But if you can look forward to each day's work, you will never want to play hookey.

13. Beat Writer's Block By Quietening the Conscious Mind

I must give credit to Dorothea Brande for this next point. She outlines this method of harnessing creativity in her excellent book "Becoming a Writer". The words which follow are mine but the idea is, more or less, all hers.

Have you noticed how you do your best thinking when your body is still? If you have a thorny issue you need to debate with yourself, the best way to do it is to sit perfectly still in a room with no distractions. Only then is the conscious mind able to consider the various arguments.

That's wrong, you might be saying, because a lot of people go for a walk or pace the room when they need to think. Yes, they do. But what happens when they are on the very cusp of finding the answer they have been seeking? They stop dead in their tracks, in order that their mind can make it over the final hurdle of finding the solution.

Now here is the thing: in the same way that you need to quieten your body in order to stimulate your conscious mind, so you need to quieten your conscious mind in order to stimulate your unconscious, creative mind. Or to put it more bluntly: to get the muse to do his thing, you need to get the critic to shut up for a while.

I am sure you have all had the experience of waking up in the morning and immediately recognizing the solution to a problem you couldn't figure out earlier. The night before, your conscious mind was buzzing with the problem. There were so many thoughts pinballing around in your mind that you couldn't make sense of any of them. So you decided to sleep on it. And the next morning, like magic, your unconscious mind had sorted it all out and the way forward was now clear.

A similar thing happens when you take time away from work.

Sometimes you can be so close to what you are doing that you can lose sight of the way ahead. Take a few days off, though, to decorate the bathroom or tend to the garden or lie on a beach somewhere, and you will usually return to work with your vision restored.

  • Partly, this is a simple case of "recharging the batteries".
  • Partly, though, it is about stopping the conscious mind from thinking about what it habitually thinks about and giving the unconscious mind a chance to find the answers to your problems.

In the sense that an unwritten scene in a novel is a "problem" in need of a solution, one way of seeing the way ahead more clearly is to stop thinking about the scene consciously (using your inner-critic) and let the muse in your unconscious mind grapple with the scene instead.

Now, I am not suggesting you have a few hours' sleep or spend a couple of days in the Caribbean before every writing session. But twenty minutes of quietness (of both body and mind) before writing can do wonders for your creativity.

Here is a routine I like to use (it's a great way to ensure that writer's block never sets in...

  • Plan which scene you are going to write in advance. An hour or so before you intend to start work, read through your planned notes on that scene. Then take the scene out on a walk with you.
  • As you walk, think about the scene consciously. Don't think about how you are going to write the story so much as the story itself. In other words, don't try to compose actual sentences but instead try to picture the events in your mind's eye like a movie on a screen.
  • Back at home, go to your working room and prepare to write, but don't start straight away. Instead, close your eyes and quieten your mind. Try not to think about anything at all. I know this is easier said than done, but don't despair if your conscious mind tries to kick back in. Let the thoughts drift away and return to thinking about nothing at all by re-focussing on the blackness.
  • After twenty minutes or so, simply open your eyes and start writing. I can't guarantee that your inner-muse will respond immediately, but he will respond soon enough.

14. Don't Forget to Have Fun

Never forget that nobody is forcing you to write a novel. If you wanted, you could quit right now and go take up golf or jigsaw puzzles instead. But you won't quit writing, because writing is something you want to do with a passion.

I am not saying it will always be easy, because it won't. But writing fiction must never become a chore. Always approach your writing with a positive mindset, filled with the creative spirit, and writer's block should leave you well alone.