Three P’s of Writer’s Block

It happens to every writer. You get to a point somewhere in the middle of the book and the plot that has been rolling merrily along simply evaporates. Where do we go from here? It’s an intensely discouraging moment for all of us. In some cases, it can even convince people to put their writing down for good.

But it isn’t always as hopeless as it seems. There are three questions you can ask yourself that might help beat the block.

1. Is it Physical?

Our brains and bodies are not separate. Writers are notorious for immersing themselves in a project and ignoring the body’s demands. Sooner or later, though, the body says no more! The first thing you should do when you’re blocked is a quick physical assessment. Are you hungry? Dehydrated? Sleepy? Sore from sitting in one position too long? Does your head hurt from staring at a screen? Do you have to pee? Are you coming down with a cold?

Give yourself a break to address your body’s needs. Eat something sustaining (protein, fiber, fat). Drink some water.  Take a stretch break. Put on an upbeat song and dance like only your cat is judging you. Go for a walk. Go to bed early and try again tomorrow.

2. Is it Pressure?

This is especially a problem for people with very little time to write. When you can only squeeze in half an hour of writing time between work, classes, and kids, anything that interferes with it has an outsized impact. We’re also under pressure to produce. How many words today? How many chapters edited? How many queries sent? This keeps us motivated, but the stress can also actively interfere with the creative process.

Writing is a long game, and a sustainable pace is more important than a high word count. If you only have a half hour to write, it’s better to get twenty good minutes in than thirty bad ones. Take ten minutes and do something completely different to clear your mind. Take a walk. Take a shower. Meditate. Don’t get on social media or read…let your mind actually relax from the effort of creating. Don’t think about your writing at all, if you can help it. As Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi teaches us in “Creativity and Flow,” our brain sometimes does its best work when we’re not trying to make it work.

Make sure your goals and expectations are sustainable. If you are continuously blocked and frustrated trying to produce 400 words a day, try shooting for 200. If you do more than that, great! But a reachable goal removes a lot of pressure, and a relaxed mind is a creative one.

3. Is it Plotting?

This is a particular problem for pantsers, but plotters are not immune. You reach the end of a scene in your book, and suddenly have no idea how to get the characters where you want them to go next! Everything you try seems awkward or forced. It’s chapter three, and the book seems to want to end right here.

This is a plotting problem. It usually means you’ve wrapped up a conflict too early in the story, and need to delay its resolution for a while longer. You could also go back and introduce a new conflict before this point to carry the story forward. Always ask if your characters are miserable enough! Yes, we love them. But in the immortal words of Urgl, “It has to hurt if it’s to heal.”  When you resolve a conflict, you remove tension. When you add or prolong a conflict, you add tension. Don’t drop your tension too soon, and it will prevent these “early ending” moments.

What other suggestions have you heard to beat writer’s block?

Writing Polish: The Bulldozer Sentence

Literature trained a lot of us to drone on a bit. William Faulkner’s Absalom! Absalom! has a single sentence that clocks in at 1,288 words.  Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables offers up an 832 word gem.  Modern writing, especially genre writing, are more about the sharp.

One of my biggest revision tasks revolves around bulldozer sentences. These come from moments when I have so much I want to express that I cram it all into a sentence without stopping. This may be fine for a first draft, when the goal is to get the words out onto the page. They don’t work as well for a polished draft, where they make the reader do a lot of heavy lifting. Trying to make a sentence accomplish too many tasks dilutes the effect of each task it’s trying to accomplish. It makes the sentence, and the writing, weaker.

For example:

Jonathan kept a promise to his wife to raise the boys multilingual, but although she had come from a moderately successful business family who had emigrated from Barcelona, the vocabulary and culture of the Mexican migrant workers and their children had a lot of influence.

This is a bit of backstory/description I threw into a scene in my first draft. I was rushing through it to get to the next action, and it shows.  Here’s how I would break it up if keeping it relatively the same:

Jonathan had kept his promise to his wife to raise the boys multilingual. She had come from a moderately successful business family that had emigrated from Barcelona. Now, the influence of the Mexican migrant workers and their children showed in the boys’ vocabulary and cultural references. 

This version is much more clear and easy to read (although it may need a second rewrite to show instead of tell!).

Action Happens Quickly

Despite the fact that the bulldozer sentence shows my urge to write quickly, the shorter, tighter sentences read more quickly. This is especially important in high tension scenes. Short, terse sentences move the pacing along more quickly and lend an atmosphere of urgency.

“No,” he growled, snatching the gun from the floor to whip it upwards into the chin of his first attacker, then spinning to point it at the second.

This is definitely too much work for the sentence. It’s especially too much to hook onto what is essentially an extended dialogue tag.

“No,” he growled. He snatched the gun from the floor. He whipped it upward and smashed it into the chin of his first attacker. Spinning around, he pointed the gun at the second. 

Breaking it into shorter sentences emphasizes the main event in each beat. Because there is only one event/action in each sentence, the brain can process it more quickly. This makes the scene more vivid and easier (therefore quicker) to read.

How Long is Too Long?

The answer to this really depends on your genre and category. Literary fiction tends to have longer sentences, because the goal is to create a more languid, thoughtful atmosphere. Genre novels have shorter sentences because the goal is to create a fast-paced, easy read with plenty of action. Books for younger readers are also going to have shorter sentences, regardless of genre, for ease of comprehension.

In general though, if your sentence is more than 25 words long, it should at least be flagged for scrutiny. A longer sentence may serve a particular purpose, but it should be used deliberately. If not, consider breaking it up.