One of the main questions students ask is how to overcome writers block. It strikes me that even writing for pleasure soon becomes, in many ways, writing on demand once the interest turns serious. Whether someone is writing for a course, or to complete a story of their own, there is bound to be times when they’re required to write something that’s a struggle. For the last few years my own creative writing has been usually contributing towards a novel. Within this endeavour there are usually many, many scenes which I have to write – in order for the story make sense – which I may not be very motivated to actually get on with. In most recent years this has been where I have had to build a toolbox of skills to overcome writers block.
This toolbox – for want of a less pretentious term – began to be filled in 2011, when I embarked on my first novel. I will try not to stray into self-congratulation about this as, in all honesty, I found it a very difficult process and one in which I am not sure I even triumphed at the end of it. I would do a lot differently now, and with no guarantee of an ideal result. But what I did manage to do was overcome writers block and complete the thing.
I had saved enough money to have six weeks off work to write my first novel, which a publisher had expressed some interest in. I had so little time in which to write the book before I would need to go back to paying the bills full time that I worked out that if I was to have the chance to do a quick redraft I would need to write about 3000 words a day. These calculations show my naivety because as any novelist will tell you it takes far more than a couple of drafts to finish a novel. One of the many things I didn’t know at the time.
So on day one I embarked on my 3000 words. At that point I was on my way: I already had the opening chapters, and therefore the premise of this novel was in place. I also had a plan, which was very useful in overcoming ‘the block’. I created a Word document with about three pages summarising the whole story (much as a synopsis would). My target was to remove a few lines of this dread ‘planning document’ every day, or however much of it at least 3000 words of writing would remove. I told myself that no matter how tired or uninspired I felt I would make sure I reached my word count each day. Setting a word target did help overcome writers block, but I hadn’t got enough tools yet to read my goal. (As an aside, not every writer works best with a plan, as some get bored of following the brief. Some authors I know start with characters and a situation and the thrill for them is in seeing where it all goes. That sounds fun to me, and please don’t take my highly subjective advice as any more than an opinion!)
I quickly realised that my limit, as a writer, was in fact to write about 2000 words a day. This was a source of deep frustration and meant all my plans had to soon go out the window. I would get to about two pm in the afternoon, having written a few scenes that seemed to flow, and would realise that clearing my head on a long walk wasn’t going to help my write any more. I’d hit my ceiling. Even though writing isn’t physically tiring, and it’s hardly being down a mine, the engagement of the imagination to tie together all the threads of a story together to make it work is tiring. Once or twice, in fits of inspiration, I wrote 5000 words in 24 hours. But most days I was coming up short. The novel wasn’t going to get done.
One problem was distractions. I hadn’t written any fiction under time pressure before, and so while writing I was constantly moving my desk to another part of my room, or twitching on my chair because my feet weren’t comfortable, or playing with the light so I could see my screen. Or else I’d find myself taking endless trips to the kitchen for coffee, then having drank it needing the loo, then having an itchy nose, leg, or back which meant I couldn’t concentrate. I’d then get started but feel hungry, or thirsty. I eventually realised that my needs, as a human being, were standing in the way of my objective of writing. So all those needs – from sleeping, to eating, to having a comfortable chair in a quiet room that wasn’t too hot or bright, needed to be met before I could even start writing. In truth, this was a realisation that changed my life. I realised I needed an environment I could slip comfortably into and write, if inspiration took me. This is an acceptance that your ‘art’ is important enough to structure your life around. So, I moved the desk to the best position, and I even got a footstool. I was generous to myself with my wall space, putting spider diagrams up regarding how characters related to each other on the wall so I could see them when I needed to, at a glance. I kept my manuscript uncluttered with any notes, with my guide document readily accessible. The part of the guide document that needed intention was in bold, so I could get straight to it. I was now ready to write. I then ensured, each morning, that I had slept well (not too much alcohol the night before) and eaten and had clean clothes on before I wrote. I couldn’t think what possibly else could distract me. I only allowed myself on social media during a break! I also advise you don’t spend time buying luxury stationary, thinking it will help. The writers I know who often struggle to finish their work have the best notebooks and post the most sumptuous pictures on instagram of them writing in them. The writers who get their work done don’t have time for that.
In Part two of this blog I will discuss the tools I learnt to overcome the obstacle when a scene was just not moving. Does anyone have any tips on overcoming writers block which they’d like to share?
Also published on Medium.