Sunday, May 4, 2014

The Psychology of Writer’s Block in Writing

We’ve all been there:

Maybe it happens at the beginning of a new project: We stare at the blank, white screen as it intensifies, its brightness burning our retinas, which will ultimately make us go blind, rather than gently sweet talking us into writing the next bestseller.
Maybe The Block happens in the middle: Just seconds ago, you were typing happily along and then all of a sudden—what the hell—you have no more ideas…you rub your eyes, you stretch your wrists, you try again to keep the story moving: Nada, zilch, nothing. Except the book is not yet finished, but it is now suckers! Thanks for playing, now get off the computer—you’re done! Game over.

The Block can come at any time, even when you are hundreds of pages in and can see the light at the end of the tunnel: Your book is almost finished! But sadly, you just can’t come up with a satisfying ending and it’s driving you crazy! You begin to doubt your abilities: Will I ever write again? Will this be The One That Got Away—the novel that gets thrown into a drawer never to be pulled out again (unless you move and have to pack and upon said packing, find this unfinished piece and get to have yet another panic attack all over again!)
Ah, the great fun to be had as a writer!

But we’re not alone:
The Block is a common, universal condition that doesn’t have to alienate us from our work. In fact, I propose we use it as a phenomena that binds us writer folks together. As in, “Hey Sally, I’ve got The Block, pass the Oreos, please. Oh, what’s that? You’re currently in recovery from The Block? As in, back on The Writing Wagon typing happily away again? Oh, I see… you suck! I mean, that’s great. Good for you! Could you pass the Oreos now, please?”

Let’s roll up our sleeves and see how many tricks we can come up with to get through The Block faster:
1.       Expect it rather than dread it: Since we know it is a common, universal phenomena that has been experienced by John Green and the lovely Sarah Dessen (I assume. Please feel free to comment, validate, or disagree, John Green, Sarah Dessen, or other great writers we totally love and respect.). If you know that The Block is a natural part of the process, like having to get up at some point from the computer to pee, than we can take some of the more intense, negative emotion out of it.

2.       When you are face to face with The Block, talk to it, out loud like a full-on crazy person. Here are some dialogue examples to get you started: “Hello, Block, I’ve been expecting you. Thank you for joining me today. Stay as long as you want…I think the sheets are clean in the guest room, but I can’t be sure, it’s possible that they are still unwashed from my last overnight guest, but hey! Make yourself at home. If you don’t care for dirty sheets, I won’t complain if you’d like to do some laundry—there’s plenty to choose from.” By recognizing the problem for what it is and normalizing it, even in a crazy way, you dilute its power. The best way to make a problem stick around longer is to dread or fear it. By staring down the barrel of The Block, you neutralize its effect as much as possible, making it pass in the shortest amount of time.

3.       Never underestimate the power of distraction: The Block is easily distracted, like a toddler or a squirrel! Or a writer … remind me to place that order later… what was I talking about? Oh, yes, distraction as a way to combat The Block. Here are some of my favorites: paper crafting, pretending to cook, swimming, wake-boarding, and spending time with family. (Yes, I just referred to my family as a distraction from writing. You know you feel the same way sometimes.) And if none of that works, you could always start a load of laundry, or better yet, come to my house and start a load. So many ideas come to me when I’m just living my life throughout the day. We don’t have to be tapping away at the keys to be productive.

4.       The Sure-Fire-Anti-Block: Read! Reading stimulates your brain. You can enjoy exciting and inspiring stories while your mind is harvesting fresh ideas as for your work. This is my favorite tool—reading fights The Block without even trying.

5.       Keep typing through it. Even if you write the same word over and over again, or make up something ridiculous. My friend, Christina Farley, author of GUILDED, ( told me that when she gets stuck, she has ninjas come and fight. I love this idea. No matter where you are in your story—stuck in the middle of a love scene or in the middle of the scene where Grandmother is expressing her last dying wish—get those ninjas to come and start an uproarious fight. And while you are shaking your head writing your ninja scene, other ideas will come to you.

7.       I mentioned this in a previous blog, but it bears mentioning again, Brian Farrey-Latz’s ( idea of writing Never Scenes. What you do is write a scene that WILL NOT be part of your book, but it’s something different, fun, and exciting that you are just experimenting with, but without the pressure. This technique got me through a tough spot in one of my manuscripts and I ended up being able to mold the Never Scene into something that was actually usable. It brought in a new element to my story. It’s the section where I have my main character face an armed lunatic at a Strawberry Festival, it was totally out there at the time, but I realized my seventeen-year-old character could use what she learned from her psychology books to navigate the situation. That was a lucky discovery, but the point is to write something crazy just to keep writing, but it’s best to have the expectation that you will not use it.

8.       Write the old fashioned way. Get out a pen and a pad of paper and STEP AWAY FROM THE COMPUTER. Free write, no matter what comes out. Just write. Even if you scribble, I don’t know what to write, over and over again. You don’t have to write about your book. Write about your feelings. Write about anything. The act of ‘hand swirling’ will jar your brain out of a stuck place into an unstuck one.

9.       When faced with The Block, I like to write letters to my characters within the manuscript that I delete later. Example: Dear Elton, Boy, we’re really stuck now. What do you want to do next?  Sometimes she writes me back, like her very helpful and frequent response: I don’t know. So I keep going without her oh so helpful input: Okay, here is how I’m thinking/feeling today. I am very frustrated that you’ve stopped talking to me, but I am sure we will get through this together. If you don’t have any ideas, I’m going to have you fight a ninja. Then I wait for a response: That could be fun…she says. And out come the ninjas.

10.   Write about your feelings in a journal. Be honest with yourself about your hopes, fears, and goals, and what they mean to you. You might be holding too tightly onto something and when we hold too tightly, we don’t give ourselves any space to adjust. Flexibility is key.

11.   The Blocked Beginning: If you are starting a new project and facing that blank screen: Accept that you will start out by writing at least ten sucky pages, knowing that they will lead to something amazing later as you warm up your writing muscles. And those ten sucky pages will most likely be deleted eventually, but hey, they got you started, so they served their purpose well.  Notice a trend here? We are working to alleviate pressure. Tension within a novel plot is desirable. Tension to unleash greatness at the beginning of a project, or anywhere within a first draft, is not.

12.   The Blocked End: I’m not talking about constipation here, but maybe that metaphor is appropriate. Pressure to create the most amazing ending ever can be the plug that stops your creativity. Instead, expand your options. Write the ending in ten different ways and pick the one you like best. And make sure you put tons of effort into creating the worst ending possible. Again to alleviate pressure—make it chock full of feeling statements where you show and don’t tell and all kinds of horrible writing don’ts.  It will be a 'Never Ending' that you won't actually use. Don’t create a Block by locking yourself into a singular point of view. I’ve heard writers say that they don’t want to waste time writing something that they aren’t going to use. This is, in my opinion, not a helpful philosophy. A wonderful aspect of writing is how much revising is possible, meaning we are free to experiment, especially in those first drafts to find the most satisfying organization of scenes, leading to the most satisfying ending. This should include trial and error, because our errors show us why something doesn’t work and that in turn can point to what does. It’s all grist for the mill.
I hope you get some use out of these twelve tips for combating The Block. If you find them helpful, please share them freely with others.

I'd also like to invite you to add a comment letting me know if you've ever faced The Block and what helps you move past it.

Your responses are very helpful! I'd love to hear from you!

Happy Writing!

Tori Kelley


  1. Hi Tori! This is s common issue with me, along with having ADD... I can't focus long enough to finish anything. I have tons of synopsis written for various books but I've never finished one.
    Something i agree with is to welcome writers block - as I would welcome depression - because pushing it away only makes it worse.
    Still, it is a recurring problem. What could be the source, other than a nagging distraction, of something we have forgotten to do?
    Thanks again!

  2. Hi Sean! Thank you for your excellent question and reaching out for answers. It is my understanding that you'd like to know the source of Writer's Block. I will answer that question now, but stay tuned for an upcoming blog about the nature of ADD (and distraction in general) in writing.

    The source of writer's block could be due to so many reasons: Distraction as you say, or a psychological impasse that may require professional help, or a form of self-sabotage (if you never put yourself out there, you can never be rejected). I like to break things down into plans of action. Not knowing the source, can be frustrating, but it isn't required to breakthrough a problem. I'm a believer of slow and steady wins the race. If you use the techniques I listed above, they will get you back to work. In your case, with so many projects lying around, you may need to be firm with yourself and commit to your favorite one. If it is impossible to choose, ask someone who knows you and your writing (like a critique group) which project you should focus on, and then stick with that until it's complete.

    I wish you much success and Happy Writing!