A group of published UK-based authors and illustrators of picture books, children's and YA.
I believe that writers find themselves staring at a blank page (or a blinking cursor these days) not knowing what to write. And I know that feeling of dread when you write yourself into a (plot) hole and don’t know how to write yourself out of it. And most writers know that feeling of being caught between taking the story in one of two (or more) directions and not knowing which one is best. And maybe that’s the problem with the term writers’ block. It’s a term that’s used as a catchall for a whole bunch of different writing problems. There isn’t time or space to explore all the different permutations of writers’ block on this blog, so I am going to take a look at three that I’ve come up against in my own writing journey.
Problem Number 1: the blank page.
Now, this is essentially what happens when you don’t have an idea. Or you can’t commit to an idea because none of the ideas you’ve come up with excite you enough for you to dedicate the next twelve months of your life to it. Occasionally it might be that you have two competing ideas and don’t know which one is best.
The Solution: ideas are ten a penny. Depending on who you listen to there are only seven plots. Or one. Or twenty. So everything has already been done before. But that’s ok. The reason there are only seven or one or twenty plots is because these stories contain the essence of storytelling that we all love. That’s why they endure. So, to paraphrase Blake Snyder (on what Hollywood producers ask for), write the same, but different. In other words, take a timeless plot and make it your own. Don’t worry that it’s been done a gazillion times before. Everything has. But maybe that plot hasn’t been set in mid Somerset with a Cornish taxidermist protagonist and an Egyptian professor of Politics as an antagonist.
Sometimes it does feel as though every idea you have has been done before and better. Or you’re not sure about your idea – it might work out, but then again it might not. The thing is this: until you’ve written it, you won’t know. First drafts are your space to lock away the critic and let rip. Throw yourself into your story and see what your imagination conjures up. The best ideas often show themselves when you’re in the middle of writing. They rarely reveal themselves when you’re staring at the blank screen.
Now, the writing community generally sorts itself into the plotters (everything is plotted out in advance and I follow the plot to the end) and the pantsers (I don’t plan ahead; I write by the seat of my pants and see where it takes me.) Most of us are somewhere in between. We might have a general idea of how we’re going to end our story and how we’re going to get there, but we’re open to diversions and scenic routes along the way. This type of writers’ block happens when we take a scenic route and it turns out to be a cul-de-sac.
The Solution: This takes some soul searching. Is this really a cul-de-sac or is there a way through? Does it excite you and give your story new life? If so, embrace it. Make some notes about what needs to change from now on and plough ahead. More often than not, however, it’s nothing more than a dead end. Be honest with yourself. A sub-plot ran away with itself. You got excited about an idea but it doesn’t really belong in this story. Your character would never do that. If that’s the case, there’s no way to get this story back in the right direction without tapping that delete key – a lot. It doesn’t matter if that scene (or series of chapters) is the best bit of writing you’ve ever written. Story comes first. Beautiful writing comes later. Cut it out and move on.
You could take this direction or that direction and you don’t know which one is going to turn out best. You know what? No one does. Maybe Lucy should marry the billionaire and always regret leaving behind her soul mate. Or maybe she should marry the man she’s loved since she was twelve and find herself serving canapés at the billionaire’s wedding, while fretting over her next rent payment.
The solution: which choice interests you most as a writer? (You’re the one who’s going to be spending time with these people for the next few months or years.) Or which is going to be the most interesting for your reader? Think it through, but don’t over-think it. Chances are either decision will work out just fine. And if it doesn’t? You can go back and change it.
And that’s the thing with writers’ block. It’s often the fear that we’re going to write ourselves into a storyline that won’t work. But that’s what first drafts are all about. Making mistakes. Going up blind alleys. Having characters do things that are totally out of character. It’s the creative, exploratory part of writing. The analytical, editorial decisions come later.
So, as Mark Twain wrote, ‘Throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.’
Helen Douglas is the author of After Eden and Chasing Stars. She’s a recovering procrastinator who has spent far too many hours (days, weeks, months) obsessing over character motivations, plot directions and story ideas. But she’s getting there – one day at a time.