Writer’s block- The canary in the mine
Not to be confused with its ugly sister, Procrastination (although it can lead to it), writer’s block is the canary in the mine.
If you feel blocked when you try to write, there’s a good chance there may be something wrong with your WIP that you haven’t yet acknowledged on a conscious level. Your subconscious knows it and because you can’t see a way forward, your brain seizes up in protest.
There are a number of issues that may have led to this paralysis and they seem to fall into two categories: plot and characters. I have endeavoured to explore them below.
Confusion about the plot
Whether you’re a plotter or a pantser this can still happen. You surge ahead with your story but along the way you get a little confused about where you’re heading and grind to a halt.
- It’s possible you took a wrong turn and have ended up a blind alley
- You may have got carried away with a sub-plot that is starting to take over
- Your story might in fact be two separate stories and you’re beginning to realise they don’t fit together
My suggestion is that you take a good look at the overall story-line and structure. Inspect your sub-plots and see whether you have too many, they may be detracting from your main plot.
Look at whether you need to separate out two major plot-lines into different books. If they don’t gel then you may have a sequel there that you hadn’t envisaged or you could even have one book and one short story.
Go back and edit – you may have scenes there that don’t add to the story and are acting like brakes. If you have an unnecessary scene, it will be hard to follow on from it.
Check out the sub-plot that’s taking over, it may be that it interests you more than the main plot – you might want to shift direction and let it take over as lead. Look at why you’re enjoying it so much, is it the characters who are dominating this story line that you love? Or is it the direction it’s going in that you are enjoying? Either way, you need to work out how much room you want it to have and how to weave it into your main story line. If you don’t it will stall you.
Problems with your characters
We love our characters, they are the reason we write. The story we write is how we bring them to the world. Sometimes though, they can cause us problems.
- You may have too many characters and find you are losing their unique voices or struggling to include them, like leaving them in the next room and forgetting to go back to them!
- Your main character might be too unlikeable and you’re finding that you don’t want to engage with them
- A sub-character is taking over, only you don’t have a clear direction for them because they’re not supposed to be front and centre
- Your characters are misbehaving and leaving you stranded somewhere you hadn’t expected to be
The first thing you need to do is take a good look at the characters you are most engaged with: Your main characters. Do you like them? Even if they are villains, we as the writers have to like what we are creating or they lose authenticity. An MC who is a villain usually has to have some redeeming qualities and you may have inadvertently omitted to include any, which won’t matter at first but will gradually grind you to a halt.
Do you need all the characters you have included? A cast of thousands will dilute your work and make it difficult to move forward. See who you can remove. Don’t forget that readers need to have each new character well-drawn for them to keep their individual voice in mind. If you include too many too fast, they’ll get lost and the reader will give up. It will stop you in your tracks too.
Are your characters well-rounded? Are you inside their heads one hundred per cent when you write them? If you can’t hear their voice or see how they think it will stop you. In this instance try writing an internal narrative from a character’s point of view and see if you can gain a deeper understanding of what motivates them. Even if you aren’t going to use their pov in your story, you’ll find that it takes the brakes off your writer’s block as you engage with them.
A sub-character that takes over is a sign that you have created someone you really enjoy writing. Look at your story and consider a greater role for this character; rework your plot so they become one of the key players. Consider their back-story more closely and how it can add to the plot. Your enthusiasm at including them more will get you started again.
If your characters take over, be brutal. Go back and edit. A well-written piece/chapter/scene that takes you off-track can be cut and saved in your folder marked ‘bits’ or ‘kill your darlings’. You’ll find that removing these scenes can be strangely liberating and you will be able to move forward. You’re the one in charge, not them, although it sometimes doesn’t feel that way!
The corollary to the above is that everything else in your life has to be taken care of first. There could be any number of external reasons why writer’s block has taken hold and you need to take care of you, before you take care of your WIP.