Writer’s Block: Now I Get It

Writer’s block. That state of wanting to write something but not being able to find the words, disliking anything you do manage to write, or perhaps losing your motivation to write altogether. No paragraphs, sentences, or words appear on the page. You are blocked, silenced, inert.

Confession: I didn’t used to believe this was a real thing. I was in the “sit down and write” and “it’s all in your head” camps, and maybe I still am to some degree, though I’ve realized that my reluctant mind is more powerfully stubborn than the good intentions of my butt in a chair. I do seem to be suffering from a mild case of writer’s block right now, for the first time ever, and thought I’d try to analyze why.

This is what I’ve come up with.

The Short-Story vs. Novel Merry-Go-Round

It goes a bit like this:

I should work on my novel. Getting a novel published (more than one, actually) is the only possible way to make a living writing fiction. I know this, and I’d love to make a living writing fiction. I have a novel in the drawer that I could polish up, and am 30,000 words into a new one. All it would take is a big push to get one or both done. Yep, I should definitely work on my novel, but…

Short stories are so much more fun! I can write and polish one in a week or two! Comb over it a dozen times to ensure the prose is just right! Sustain a unique voice that would be challenging to sustain at novel length. And I can send several out into the world at once where they might sell, bringing in tiny amounts of money but more importantly feelings of gratification and accomplishment, not to mention a hearty round of congrats on Twitter!

But I should work on my novel. Starting a new short story will just distract me, take my mind off of pressing plot problems and interwoven character arcs. The fast glamour of the shorter form will only highlight what a slog novel writing is by comparison. Plus, if I don’t finish my novel, I won’t have anything to pitch to an agent at the next convention. But…

There’s this cool themed anthology seeking submissions! And getting a short story published would add to my resume and get my name out there, and OH MY GOD maybe qualify me for SFWA, and that stuff’s important, am I right?!

And so on.

I’m sure there are many people who can work on short stories and a novel simultaneously and effectively, but not me. My best writing happens when I’m intensely focused on one project, not when my mind is scattered between several. For the last month or so I’ve been plugging away on my novel, but short story ideas—good ones, I think—keep intruding. I need to tell them to buzz off for a few months, or I’ll never finish this book.

What I’m Writing is Crap, Anyway; or A Crisis in Confidence

When I first began writing seriously, I had in mind an adventurous and entertaining series of high fantasy novels that I hoped would be read and enjoyed by the largest audience possible. Best-seller status was something I aspired to, with critical praise and literary merit of secondary importance. Awards such as the Hugo and Nebula were not even on my radar screen.

I started to attend writing conventions, which are wonderful places to meet people and learn about the craft and business. But I also learned something else: critically acclaimed, award-winning authors are revered (rightfully so), while some of the most mainstream, most popular authors seem to be, well, reviled. Okay, if not reviled then certainly looked at with distain. While no doubt much of the criticism leveled at these popular works is valid, I’ve also been left with the impression that “escapism” is unquestionably bad, and that the “masses” are not discerning enough to be considered an acceptable target audience.

Over time this has led me to question my own goals. Maybe I should be aiming for critical acclaim and not popular success. Maybe what I’m writing—what I like to write—isn’t worthwhile. Maybe it’s not enough to want to entertain readers.

And, well, maybe it isn’t. It’s great to be surrounded by talented peers who by example push me outside my comfort zone, encourage me to up my game and improve my writing, think about the messages and themes in my work. These are all good and valuable things, of benefit to any writer. But I also think it’s possible to stray too far. To lose your way because you’re trying to write to please or impress someone other than yourself.

Example: my current work-in-progress novel is a young-adult, high fantasy adventure with plenty of magic and politics and the odd critter. It also has a romantic sub-plot, which I rarely mention. Why? Because romance is perhaps the most disrespected of all sub-genres and I’m worried about what people will think.

But the problem is this: if on any level I’m ashamed of my work how do I sit down to write every day? How do I do justice to a romantic scene while worrying that its very existence will cause some to roll their eyes?

I know! Maybe I should write a short story instead, one with no romance whatsoever…

Or I could just re-read James Sutter’s helpful post: The Benefits of Being a Hack (Or: Why You Don’t Want to Be Ted Chiang).

Or stop caring so much about what people think and just write, dammit.

I Always Thought I’d Be a Novelist, but Life Isn’t Working Out as Planned, and Maybe This Won’t Work Out Either

This one’s tough, and maybe a bit angsty and self-pitying, so I’ll keep it brief.

From the time I was a child, I thought I would be a writer. I read insatiably, and spent hours holed-up in my room drawing maps, creating characters, and writing. I strayed away from this path during high school, university, and early on in my career, but inevitably returned, as the dream had never left me. One day I’d be a novelist, of that I was sure.

Fast forward to now, and life hasn’t gone how I expected on a number of fronts. Decisions I made with certainty have turned out to be wrong, and ground that once seemed solid has shifted and disappeared beneath my feet. The resulting feelings of failure and self-doubt threaten to bleed into other areas of my life, most importantly, writing. What if I was wrong, like I have been about other important things? What if I’m not meant to be a writer? What if I try and fail? If this dream, too, must fall by the wayside?

Some days I sit at my computer and think I’m just fooling myself. Lately there have been more of these days than I’d care to admit.

Sorry to be so depressing.

I don’t have answers right now, as I’m just trying to work my way through. At least I’ve managed to get a few words down over the past couple months, which is something. I won’t even tell you what a mighty struggle it was to write this blog post. But I’d be grateful to hear about your experiences. Have you had writer’s block? Why? And how did you get past it?

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  1. Christie Yant
    02/12/2011 at 12:58 pm Permalink

    Oh, yes. Every time something significant in my life changes, I get writers block. It’s like I can’t solve my own problems and my characters’ problems at the same time. When that’s the cause there’s nothing for it but to try to tell myself that it’s okay that I don’t write for a bit while things resolve into the New Normal.

    I related to the rest of this post, too–the novel vs. short story battle is one I’m all too familiar with (my current solution is to take baby steps on both. I don’t have time for Big Pushes right now). 

    As for whether or not you’re right about being a writer, try this: Don’t write. See how long you last. Right now you’ve got Big Stuff going on, so it might be a little while. But I think ultimately we’re writers because we just can’t see ourselves being happy being anything else. 

    Personally I think you should cut yourself some slack and allow yourself a break. It probably won’t be a very long one. For writers it never is. 🙂

  2. Erika Holt
    02/12/2011 at 2:05 pm Permalink

    Oh, thank you, Christie–such wise advice, as always. <3

    I hope those baby steps take you exactly where you want, and deserve, to be. 

  3. Wendy N Wagner
    02/12/2011 at 3:57 pm Permalink

    Oh, that’s exactly it–can’t solve my own problems AND my characters at the same time. Perfectly put.

  4. Anonymous
    02/12/2011 at 12:59 pm Permalink

    For me, writer’s block is never about the writing, but about everything else. ::hugs::

  5. Erika Holt
    02/12/2011 at 2:06 pm Permalink

    You’re so right… ((hugs)) back. Thank you.

  6. Sandra Wickham
    02/12/2011 at 1:06 pm Permalink

    Everything I write is crap and don’t think I’ll ever be a novelist!! (unless a novelist is someone who writes novels and they’re crap) There. You’re not alone. 🙂 Thanks for the awesome post. 

  7. Erika Holt
    02/12/2011 at 2:09 pm Permalink

    Oh, Sandra! This made me laugh and also shake my head. You WILL SO be a novelist! You’re a fantastic writer with the best work ethic of anyone I know. <3

  8. James
    02/12/2011 at 1:40 pm Permalink

    I just landed in the opposite boat. After several successes at NaNoWriMo, I decided to start tackling short stories for the first time in years and my brain struggles to squeeze the plots down. The thought of all the deep editing required of the form terrifies me, too.

    If I learned anything from NaNo, though, continued effort balanced with the occasional time-boxed break makes the difference in the long run. Athletes see the same kind of thing and consistently report hitting walls that only sheer grit can push them through. You might have to switch to poetry, micro-fiction, non-fiction or the like for a little while, like swimming instead of running after exhausting one’s legs, but keep it! Good luck.

  9. Erika Holt
    02/12/2011 at 2:12 pm Permalink

    “Sheer grit”–yes! This is exactly what I need right now. Thanks for the advice and best of luck with your short stories. You’ll get there. 🙂

  10. Adam Israel
    02/12/2011 at 2:31 pm Permalink

    I have a hard time with the term “writer’s block”. I don’t know that I necessarily believe in it, but it might depend on how you define it.

    Personally, I’ve never run short of *ideas*. I think of creativity as a well that occasionally runs dry when if fail to tend it, so I try to balance writing against activities that keep the juices flowing. Or, like seeding a garden, I read widely, sometimes shallowly, but enough to see what sprouts.

    The desire to write, on the other hand, is different. Life problems — depression, health, stress, anxiety, etc. — are all weights that can make writing time feel like a guilty luxury or a labored chore. When I’m writing as part of a daily routine, it’s easier to push through and keep the momentum but it’s very hard to start if I’m in one of those phases.

    Fear, uncertainty, and doubt. It’s a tactic used by trolls, salespeople, and politicians (I’m not sure there’s any difference) to negatively influence people, and I think we do it to ourselves as writers. We’re afraid what we’re writing it’s good enough, of how other people will interpret the meaning of our words, and we doubt our own abilities to be ourselves.

    I empathize with almost everything you said, Erika. I’ve spent countless hours struggling with the question of writing for praise or prestige (I have a list of most, but not all SFWA-qualified markets posted over my desk), commercialism vs. escapism, and so, so much time worrying about what other people would (will) think of me if they read some of the stories I’ve written.

    The only real answer I have come up with is to keep putting one foot in front of the other. If someone doesn’t like me for me, so be it, but I’d rather they didn’t like the real me than having them like a faux me that wasn’t true to who I am even if that person is sometimes awkward as hell.

    So we write, and we fail, and we keep going. It’s a soldier’s march but we get to wear prettier shoes and the latrine has running water. It might take us one or ten or even twenty years to get to that hill on the horizon that we want to stand on but we will get there, because we put one foot in front of the next, and we have friends to steady us when we stumble.

  11. Erika Holt
    02/12/2011 at 6:25 pm Permalink

    I agree with everything–well said! I will keep going. I will. Thanks for your encouragement, support, and sage words. ((hugs))

  12. Wendy N Wagner
    02/12/2011 at 3:59 pm Permalink

    Yes, yes, yes. Erika, you have put everything so eloquently. 

  13. Erika Holt
    02/12/2011 at 6:25 pm Permalink


  14. Matthew Sanborn Smith
    02/12/2011 at 10:56 pm Permalink

    I think it would be better named as “Writer’s Freeze.” I get the same thing outside of writing too, Life Freeze, wherein I have a lot of important things to do and don’t do any of them.

    To get over writing freeze, I’ve found that freewriting helps. Sit down and tell yourself you’re going to write a certain number of words of whatever crap pops into your head: “I hate doing this. My shoulder hurts. I think I’d like some coffee,” et cetera. It’s the act of talking on paper or on the screen. You do this long enough and you start to loosen up and not worry about what you’re writing. You can slip into fiction mode with this, just remember that you’re going to write crap on purpose and you’ll clean it up later.

    Another thing I’ve been doing for the past three months, which has been working great is to give someone else my deadlines. I found that I work a lot harder to meet other people’s deadlines than to meet self-imposed deadlines (which I almost never stick to). Knowing this, I send all my self-imposed deadlines to a friend of mine and then I feel some responsibility to finish on time and I do so, or get close to it. I have to actually send the work to her on time to prove that it’s done. I’ve written about 40,000 words of novel in the past two months because of this, which I would have never gotten to otherwise (I have to send her a fresh 7,000 words every Wednesday before midnight). I’ve also finished about one podcast script a week for the past three months this way.

    I was constantly torn between the short story and novel writing thing. The deadlines have focused me. What you might want to do is commit to finishing a certain number of short stories and sending them out, then work on the novel while those shorts make the rounds. Plan all of this and then get a friend to send your stuff to. Your friend isn’t there to critique the work or even read it. They just have to exist (so no imaginary friends) and look at your word counts.

  15. Erika Holt
    03/12/2011 at 1:27 am Permalink

    Wow, great, practical advice, Matthew. I am going to try this–especially the deadlines part, as I’m a conscientious/guilty sort. Thanks so much! 🙂

  16. Daniel
    20/05/2012 at 6:13 pm Permalink

    Just be careful you don’t go too far with guilting yourself into writing. Christopher Paolini did that, and nearly stalled partway through writing Inheritance (though an undiagnosed thyroid problem certainly didn’t help anything…).

  17. Catellen
    03/12/2011 at 8:40 pm Permalink

    My job is to either write poetry for a twice a year anthology (in which I receive the characters and some minimal plot, and I have to decide the historical poetry style, meter, rhyme, etc.) …and I write lyrics for my band (or the occasional original commissioned song). My most typical block is, “Argh! I’ve written this before!” Finding something new to say in the limits of a song or poem can be daunting.

  18. Erika Holt
    04/12/2011 at 8:57 pm Permalink

    I bet. Good luck to you!

  19. Edward
    07/12/2011 at 5:24 am Permalink

    Writing block is all about problem solving. The first thing you must get your head around is story structure (see the great work at http://www.clickok.co.uk/index4.html ). Then when you know what you’re supposed to do next, it just becomes a case of “how do I best express this function.” IMHO structure is even more important than research. The structure tells you what to research.