Writer’s block

And why writer’s block is a good, useful thing. Like any other symptom, its purpose is to tell the writer something is wrong.

I’m defining writer’s block as a sudden loss of desire to write when the project was previously flowing freely. Writer’s block because you don’t know what to write, you don’t want to write anything at all, you just got a heartbreaking rejection, or you’ve just experienced a mind-numbing tragedy (been there, done that) are not really writer’s block.They’re a different category.

But if you’ve been dumping out 1200 words a day for three weeks and suddenly nothing will come and you have no desire, that’s a real block.

When it happens to me, I’m doing one of three things:

1) I’m tired and need to gather myself for the next group of scenes. I call this a literary pause and it’s totally healthy. It means the book is going well and your psyche knows what it needs next, and you should give it.

2) You know what’s coming up but subconsciously you know you don’t yet have the techniques at hand to get over the next few scenes, so you take a longer break, write something else where you learn those techniques, and come back to the book charged to handle what would have been impossible before. More problematic, but still good for both you and the book.

3) There’s something you’re subconsciously handling that you don’t know how to resolve in your own life, and the fiction is a distorted reflection. Because you don’t have the answers yet, you can’t find any solution for the characters. The key here is to stop all writing, investigate whatever is going on in your subconscious, and try to decode what you’re really writing about.

Case in point: in the very first draft of what eventually became my novella The Boys Upstairs (to be released by Lilley Press in November) the two protagonists stalled at the end of the last scene. I couldn’t write the last page or two after the climax. Everything was fine — it just wouldn’t go.

Took time off. Thought about it. Realized — much to my shock — that the story was actually about motherhood ( Huh? ) even though none of the characters were mothers, or even women. The story “was really about” how I felt I was setting aside my dream of writing because I was taking up the dream of being a mother. In order to move the scene forward, I needed to acknowledge that the character who had left behind his original dream (a priest) wasn’t being looked down on by or doing something lesser than the one who was still living that original dream (his brother).

Once that was in place, it became obvious what needed to happen in order to give the story the emotional payoff it required. My subconscious had known there was one question remaining to be answered. I just needed that missing piece to make it work.

Writer’s block actually serves a purpose. You need to figure out what the purpose is and use the block effectively to better your book.


  1. Deb

    You are so good at putting things into words. (That was inelegant, wasn’t it?) Really, as a completely amateur writer, that described my various cases of writer’s block to a tee. Thanks for the perspective.