Guest post: Thirst, terror and barriers: three flavours of writer’s block by Emma Newman

I met Emma quite recently through another blogging writer.  I liked what she had to say on her blog, so I stuck around to watch her journey.  She writes lashings of short fiction as well as interesting articles and opinion posts.  Today Emma sheds some more light on writer’s block and gives great tips on how to beat it so you can keep on writing.

I spend a lot of time not only writing, but thinking about writing, thinking about not writing and the reasons why. I know what it’s like to write to deadlines, to write when you’d rather have root canal work and to have to make the most boring thing on earth sound newsworthy.

Why? Well, I run my own copywriting business so I write thousands of words a week for various clients. That writing doesn’t thrill me, excite me nor make me want to get up in the morning; it pays the bills.

As for the fiction I need to write to stay sane (barely), I write a weekly flash fiction serial and try to get a Friday Flash on the site weekly too, clocking in 2000 words or so a week for those, and in the remaining nooks and crevices I am writing the sequel to my debut novel and running a short story club in which I write a story for almost 200 subscribers every month.

Why am I telling you this? Well, I guess I want you to trust me when I say that writer’s block does exist, and like everything else, comes in many forms. With the humble hope that I’ll say something of help to you guys, I’m going to focus on the three that I know best, and what I find helps for each one.

The Drought

CC via Georgie Sharp

I don’t know about you, but it’s noisy in my head. I have characters chattering away, my own internal dialogue that’s worrying at plot ideas like a puppy with a slipper, random bits of prose that spring up, you get the idea.

But there are times when it’s deathly quiet, and not in a good way. I call this kind of writer’s block ‘The Drought’.

There is simply nothing there. When you turn your thoughts towards writing, you might be lucky to get an image of a desert and a tumbleweed, and that’s on a good day.

The last time this happened to me was just over a month ago. I had three body blows in a week; a friend died suddenly and unexpectedly at the age of 48, a family friend suffered some terrible news and my husband’s work suddenly dried up, plunging us into dire financial straits.

The combined stress and grief cut me off from the creative geyser. This went on for three weeks. I stumbled through client work, but it absolutely exhausted me. I managed to do a couple of short blog posts, mostly apologising for my absence. The drought I had before lasted for ten years.

Yu-huh. Ten. Years. But that’s another story altogether.

So what do you do in drought?

Firstly, getting out the big stick is not appropriate. Bullying oneself to put the bum the in chair and just write does nothing to help if there is nothing there to write.

Feeding the creative wellspring is something many have written about (Ray Bradbury springs to mind as one) and it’s not rocket science. Read, both in and out of your genre comfort zone. Watch TV and films (even the bad ones can remind you of how not to write dialogue and how to create a semi-decent plot). Go for walks. Absorb and don’t try to produce. When it’s ready, the well will be full again.

And try not to panic. I’m very poor at that. Droughts are painful and scary, but they do eventually end.

The Fear

CC via Tiago Ribero

This is a facet of writer’s block that I deal with every single day. I estimate that I write anywhere between 4,000-7,000 words a week between my client work and fiction writing, and for every single piece, I feel fear before starting. It varies from the little worry that a client will reject what I’m about to write, through to a solid belief that anything I put on the page to express the story in my head will be sheer, unadulterated pap that should never be read by another human being.

With client work, I’ve learnt to get the big stick out and just write. If I don’t, I don’t pay the mortgage. Simple. But the key thing to remember is that with the client work I always know what I have to write. The map is there, laid out, I just need to put one word after another. It simply isn’t as demanding as fiction writing.

But with fiction, the fear is sharper. In my head you see, the idea is perfect. It plays out like a film, it expresses itself in my imagination in glorious Technicolor. Where the fear begins is thinking that I will not be able to press that onto the page.

And this fear is a sneaky, slimey little blighter. It hides itself well, sometimes never even emerging into the bright sunshine of conscious thoughts. Instead, the urge to clean the oven, or clear out the email inbox, or tinker with something online becomes hugely powerful. Then the grumpiness creeps in, and the story starts battering on the inside of my skull. The characters start tapping their feet, growing impatient with me. It’s not a nice place to be.

So what do you do when the Fear strikes?

Sometimes that big stick is needed (or that big carrot if you’re that way inclined) just to get in that chair. But when the fear is at its worst, you might have to trick it. I know mine is rooted in perfectionism (I’m not claiming to be special!) so I remind myself that a first draft doesn’t have to be perfect. I actually say out loud “I give myself total permission to write complete and utter crap” and then start writing straight away before the dreaded internal censor realises I’ve pulled a fast one.

And yes, I am mad. You are too, right?

The Roadblock

CC via Moresheth

There are times when the ideas are racing by like hundreds of little yellow ducks bobbing down a river just waiting to be grabbed, lifted out and give a story as a prize. There are days when I have cleared a space in the schedule, made my husband feel neglected, and given myself all the permission in the world to write drivel.

But still nothing comes.

This is the Roadblock facet of writer’s block. I’ve turned up, I’m tapping words into the computer, I have the shape of the story, I know what I need to do and yet something just isn’t letting me make progress.

When all of the conditions are right and the story isn’t flowing, it’s always because something is wrong with it. It might be that the character is acting implausibly, or the plot has a hole in it the size of Russia that I just hadn’t noticed before because I was distracted by something shiny. Sometimes there is the painful realisation that this new idea isn’t actually going to work.

Roadblocks are put up to stop us driving off incomplete bridges, or stop us from crashing into a previous disaster. This is exactly the same thing – and an aspect of writer’s block that actually helps me to be a better writer. I know it’s a roadblock when I take a step back, look at it with some perspective and realise that something isn’t working.

When the problem is resolved – i.e. the next scene that couldn’t be written is changed to advance the plot and reveal character development in the right way, or a character is paid attention to more closely, then the writing flows again.

How do you recognise a Roadblock?

The hard thing about this is that it only develops after a lot of writing. When I wrote the first draft of my novel, I had no instinct for this whatsoever. Now I am writing as much fiction as I do, to weekly deadlines, I have shown up and struggled so many times over the last few years that a gut instinct has developed. Now the challenge is being able to listen to it when it has such a quiet voice. This is the best argument I have for regular writing. I’ve never been able to accommodate a daily word goal, but writing regularly gives you the chance to learn how your own writing process works, as well as honing the craft.

So there you have them – three types of writer’s block that I know well. Are any of them familiar to you? Do you have any techniques or tips to add to the pot?

Emma Newman drinks too much tea, has too many ideas and writes too many stories. Only one of these is true. Her debut novel ’20 Years Later’ will be published in late 2010 by Dystopia Press. Emma is currently writing a year and a day of urban fantasy set in the Split Worlds available to read on her website.

Join Em’s Short Story Club to get an original short story for free in your inbox every month.

Thanks Emma!   How about you, participants?  Do you recognise these flavours?

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9 thoughts on “Guest post: Thirst, terror and barriers: three flavours of writer’s block by Emma Newman

  1. Pingback: 5 cures for Writer’s Block « Not Enough Words

  2. Pingback: Creativity workshop: the end, and thank you | Not Enough Words

  3. @darksculptures – Yay! Looking forward to getting to know you :)

    @mew – Yes, droughts do seem to be situational, you’re right. And the whole thing about writing anyway is critical isn’t it?

  4. Emma, your post really resonated with me. All three of these have happened to me! The drought was definitely the worst, and mine lasted for years, as well, and was definitely situational. So glad it’s over, and I suspect I’ll be on alert and not let such occurrences derail me ever again. (Knock on wood.)

    The fear, yes, is still with me every time I face the blank page. But its power is lessened every time I practice and just write anyway. :)

  5. I don’t often suffer from the block. Maybe occasionally the drought, but it is a self-imposed drought. You can’t expect the water out of the hose if you never turn on the spicket.

    I followed the link to your site – WOW! We have much in common. So I subscribed to your feed. :)

  6. Hi Karen, I know exactly what you mean about this wonderful community. I too experience a minor drought with illness, and indeed, when the geyser is at full strength my health feels at its best too.

    I experience the branching problem at the plotting stage, but I try to decide on the one I’m going to take before I start the actual writing – if I’ve chosen the wrong one the roadblock comes soon enough!

  7. I got done reading and said Yippee! I’m so glad you wrote this Em. Before I found the HUGE community of writers sharing their wit and wisdom online I had no idea that other people’s heads worked the same way mine did. For decades I had to hide my creative flights of fancy because no one around me “got” them. Laughing…after making some drastic changes in my life I don’t have that issue anymore, thank goodness.
    I still greatly enjoy editing/ghostwriting because I find it challenging to take someone else’s idea and mold it and give them a final product that they love. Especially for the people who had an idea kicking around a LONG time and never thought that it would see the light of day. That’s really gratifying.

    I’ve never experienced true writer’s block, but I’ve experienced the writer’s drought, but only when I’m ill. Otherwise I can keep the well filled and words spew forth like a geyser.

    The only thing that I don’t think you touched on is the story branching issue. Sometimes I wake up with an idea and while I’m writing it it branches off into three or four totally different directions and I can write it from each perspective. Usually only ONE is worthwhile…laughing…but it’s interesting how just changing the delivery of a line of dialog for instance can really shift a story from humor to horror.

    This was a great piece. Thank you for sharing and thanks to Merrilee for having you over to visit.
    Big hugs!
    Karen :0)

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