Recently, I had writer’s block.
Okay, I know what you’re thinking: he always says there’s no such thing as writer’s block! And that’s true. But what I experienced is the feeling often called writer’s block. And here’s how I addressed it.
This particular work-in-progress is a spec effort, so there’s no deadline or contract involved; at this point, I’m just writing it to see if the idea has legs. I quickly finished two chapters (chapter one ends on a killer cliffhanger), and have reached a point where the story, and the main character, need to skip ahead ten years.
Which brings me to the problem. I have a vague idea where this is going, but I’m not working from an outline. I’ve done this enough to know that outlining ahead of time doesn’t make my writing faster, or more importantly, any better (your process may be different; the important thing is knowing what works best for you).
I’ve started chapter three probably five times, going off in five different directions, and each time written about 1,000 words before realizing this version won’t work, either.
I put each false start aside in a “scraps” file (you never can tell when you might need to raid something that didn’t, at first, seem to have any value), and got back to work. And I applied the approach I always recommend to students when they’re stuck: break it down until you have a piece so small you can move forward.
For example, if you don’t know what the next chapter should be, concentrate on the next scene.
If that doesn’t work, concentrate on the next paragraph.
Or the next sentence.
Or if you need it, just the next word.
My nine-year-old son is learning about subatomic particles in school, and like all kids, he has an incredibly inquisitive and logical mind about these things. He asks seriously, “What’s the smallest thing in the world?” Currently, the answer seems to be subatomic particles like quarks and electrons, although since we can’t actually see quarks, that may change. In the same way, the smallest particle of a story is the word; we have the individual letters, of course, but like quarks and electrons make up atoms, letters don’t have any narrative meaning until they make up words. So for that reason, a word is the smallest particle of your story.
So your story continues with your choice of the next word. And it’s a choice that, in the vast majority of cases, you can make. The important thing is to keep moving forward. Even one word is more than you had. And you never know when that one word will open the way to exactly what the story needs.
Yes, you can do all this in your head, and if that’s your process, that’s fine. But many writers, like me, need to see that actual progress in front of them. They need proof that they’re accomplishing something, even if it’s just the tiniest possible thing. A story quark, if you will.
So I stand by my assertion that, when writing is your job, writer’s block doesn’t exist. If you call an electrician, will he claim he can’t work because he has electrician’s block? Not likely, because it’s his job. And like any other job, some days will be easy, some incredibly hard. But either way, you show up, put in your hours, and keep moving forward.
Even if it’s only one story-quark at a time.