Block Head: Getting Past Writer’s Block
By Kevin Holton
Almost every writer has faced the horror of attempting to continue (or start) a story, only to realize the words aren’t flowing. It’s a nightmare, even for those who write the most disturbing, tormented content, and the stress of not being able to do what you love can really eat away at even the most stoic ego. This goes double if you’ve got deadlines coming up.
I’ve been writing for nearly ten years now, amassing just shy of 100 short story publications, with one novel out and three more, plus a collection, on the way. Needless to say, I know a thing or two about overcoming those blocks. Hopefully these tips help you in your quest toward immortality and infinite riches. Or, falling short of this, enough income from writing to offset the cost of seeing Infinity War in Imax.
Get to know your story
Overwhelmingly, the number one time I’ve hit a mental obstruction is because what I’m writing isn’t making sense. Maybe the scene involves someone acting out-of-character, like a helicopter parent forgetting a child at the supermarket without any causative distraction. This could be from a plot point missing the story’s arc, like the introduction of somebody’s sibling to save the day when that sibling hasn’t been mentioned at all.
Writing is an immensely subconscious activity, so your brain knows when you’re trying to consciously drive the tale in the wrong direction. When that happens, that subtle, suggestive part might hit the brakes to make you reflect on what you’ve done. Human brains are built to reflect on, understand, and eliminate flawed or nonsensical behavior, so if what you’ve written isn’t logical for the plot/place/person, take a look at what you’ve already written for a hint on how to continue.
There’s a chance you can’t write because you’re bored. Seriously. Change genres, write about a character in a situation you have no knowledge of, like being orphaned, or addicted to drugs, or as a sex worker, or whatever. Take an established character and write a quick, for-your-eyes-only ditty about that person in that situation. Doctor Frankenstein as a young black woman, for instance. Dracula, the Gigolo. Tracer, from Overwatch, if she used superspeed for evil. A sociopath in a Saw game outsmarting the traps because many of them had clear flaws that would’ve made them easy to survive, if people paid attention and stopped freaking out.
Keep in mind, you can’t publish fan fiction. That’s copyright violation. This is just a ‘break out of the box’ exercise.
Take it easy on yourself
Lots of people freak out and shut down if they have too much on their plate. That’s fine. You’re allowed to be human, you’re allowed to be stressed, and you’re allowed to take a day off if that R+R gets your head on straight. I recommend making a list of things you want/need to do, and keeping yourself to three tasks a day, whatever it takes. “Write 2,000 words, go to work, cook dinner” might be one day, followed by, “Write 2,000 words, go to work, do chores (vacuum, laundry, dust fans),” and so on. Also, don’t think of activities as ‘must do,’ and they’ll be easier. If you love writing, you can take it off the to-do list, because you’ll want to do it anyway. Love working out? Don’t include the gym in your ‘obligations.’ Then your day might look like, “Pay bills, go to work, run errands on the way home,” even though you’re writing before you pay the bills, and hitting the gym before the errands. Life’s all about perception.
Joyce Carol Oates is a huge fan of daily walks, as is Stephen King. Getting your blood flowing is a proven way to increase thinking speed, information processing, creativity, and even intelligence. Wrath James White still runs and hits the gym to lift weights, though that’s not surprising, since he spent years as a professional fighter in several disciplines. I’m personally a fan of yoga, as contrarian as that may seem for a horror writer, because the inverted positions like Down Dog send blood right to your head.
Cut down on the coffee
Go ahead. Burn me at the stake right now for saying it, but you can’t think your ideas through it you’re jittery and bouncing off the walls. That extra cup of joe isn’t going to get anything flowing but your bladder, so just keep on with your regular intake. Cutting caffeine might impair your writing too, though, so keep that in mind. Try a nice herbal tea if you’re in need of a warm drink to keep you seated. Mint tea is, empirically, the best tea, because its name is also describing its flavor. (Mint tea is mint-y.)
Write every swear word you know
I can’t explain why, but if I lose my train of thought midsentence, or can’t figure out what to say next, an all-caps F***! does the trick. Just remember to delete it afterwards. You do not want to see what happened to my seminar paper last year…
There are, of course, more ways to beat writer’s block, but those are my favorites. In a few words, they boil down to this: be mindful of what’s important to you, and make sure you view pursuing your passions/taking care of yourself as opportunities, or blessings, or rewards for good time management, i.e. “I get to write today because I remembered to do the errands yesterday.” Whatever wording gets you going. When all else fails, shake it up. Get the blood flowing, literally or metaphorically, with a change of pace (pun obviously intended).
One last piece of advice, actually: get a bookshelf with everything you’ve written on it. It’s very easy to inspire yourself to keep going when you can look at how far you’ve already come.
Kevin Holton is the author of At the Hands of Madness, as well as the forthcoming titles The Nightmare King and These Walls Don’t Talk, They Scream. He also co-wrote the short film Human Report 85616, and his short work has appeared in dozens of anthologies.
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