Embracing the Blank Page

Embracing the Blank Page

Whether you call it writer's block, getting stuck, or feeling uninspired, the result is the same. You, staring at the blank page, with no idea what happens next. You try to write anyway, hoping that the ideas will come if you just get started, but forcing the words only makes it worse.

Don’t worry. You’re not doomed. You’re also not alone. This phenomenon can happen at every stage of our writing journey, so learning how to address writer's block now will make your life easier when it pops back up again later.

There’s a lot of advice about how to get over writer's block, but most advice skips an important component: diagnosing why you’re stuck.

Over the course of writing ten novels myself, and helping my clients get through their own writing struggles, I’ve distilled the source of writer's block into five main causes.

1. Your Story Is Going in the Wrong Direction

Diagnosis: You have this sense that something isn’t right. The characters aren’t speaking to you anymore, and you have an unsettled feeling in your gut.

Solution: Ask yourself, “What’s wrong?” This isn’t a time for judgement (“Where did I f*ck this up?”). Instead, ask with compassion: “What doesn’t feel right? Where did it flow last?”

The more books I write, the more adept my creative brain is at spotting that I’ve taken a wrong turn in the plot or—more often, actually—a character’s reaction is inauthentic, causing a domino effect of incorrect character choices.

For me, I can tell this is causing my block when I get stuck trying to figure out the same scene day after day. Once I’ve ruled the other causes below, I’ll back up and reread the last few chapters until I can see where things have gone off course.

Staying open and curious here, rather than judging yourself for messing up, helps a lot.

2. You’re Putting Way Too Much Pressure on Yourself

Diagnosis: You find yourself worried the project will never sell, that readers will hate it, or that this whole endeavor is a waste of time. Perfectionism creeps in here, too.

Solution: Big goals are great, but creativity is not lump of coal waiting to become a diamond. Intense pressure is not your friend. What if writing this story could be fun?

I love big, ambitious goals. I think stubbornness is a huge part of success as a writer. However, if we get too attached to the goal—get an agent, sell this project—and forget that writing is allowed to be fun, we put too much pressure on our first draft to be perfect. I think of this like the writer version of stage fright or choking at the big game.

What if this draft was just for you? What if enjoying the process was just as important as your end goal?

3. You Think There’s One “Right” Solution

Diagnosis: You feel totally stuck. Every idea (if you have any) feels terrible and not good enough. The predominant thought about what comes next is “I don’t know!”

Solution: Get silly with it. Come up with 10 possible places the story could go next, the more bizarre and ridiculous, the better. Once your brain sees it’s OK to be wrong, it’ll offer up ideas you’ll actually want to use.

Many of us have been conditioned through all a decade-plus of education to associate wrong answers with failure. We’re taught that failure should be avoided at all costs, that if we’re not automatically good at something, we’re doomed to be terrible forever and should avoid it.

Writing a story isn’t anything like solving a geometry equation, though. We’re not solving for X. This isn’t a right answer. Creativity, by its very nature, requires risk and a string of failure.

When this is the reason that you’re feeling stuck, coming up with all the ways it could go (or even playing a round of “what comes next … wrong answers only!”) can unlock your creativity again.

4. You Doubt Your Ability to Tell this Story

Diagnosis: Your inner monologue sounds a little something like this: I’ll never figure this out. Why did I think I could do this? The story is too complicated for me. I’m not smart enough.

Solution: First, know that doubt is normal. Try thoughts like: All writers have doubts sometimes. I don’t need to know the entire story to write the next scene. I’ll become “good enough” during the process of writing this book.

Writers are an inherently creative bunch. Unfortunately, we often use that amazing creativity to spin out futures where all our hopes and dreams lay broken at our feet.

When you find yourself being overly critical or spiraling in a cyclone of my career is doomed before it begins take a breath. Don’t try to force an overly positive mantra. Find something that feels better than “I’m doomed” to inch yourself to a more neutral state.

I love the thought “If I wasn’t capable of writing this story, I wouldn’t have been able to come up with the concept.” Or, if that’s not working, an addendum: “I can grow to be good enough.”  

5. You’re Too Damn Tired to Think

Diagnosis: You find yourself drifting off, losing focus, or chugging caffeine to get through a writing session. You can’t even bring yourself to open your manuscript.

Solution: Give yourself permission to rest without feeling guilty about it. Take a nap. Go for a walk. Snuggle your pets or loved ones. When you’re rested, ideas will flow again.

Sometimes, we’re just f*cking tired. We are human, after all, not writing machines. The solution is simple—get some rest—but it’s often the hardest for the overachievers among us. We tend to think rest is for the weak, or that if we rest whenever we’re tired, we’ll never finish our novels, screenplays, etc.

The truth, though, is the opposite.

If we want a sustainable writing career, we need to be able to take breaks. Burnout is a huge problem in the writing industry, and this fear of rest is one piece of that.

Once you’re able to spot and correct the other four causes of writer's block, you’ll find yourself skipping fewer writing sessions and getting more words in. Then on the days when you are genuinely too tired, you can rest knowing that the words will be there when you’re ready.

*Feature photo by Dom J (Pexels)

How to Revise Your Novel (Without Wanting to Quit)
Isabel Sterling is a traditionally published author, certified life coach, and host of The Author Burnout Coach. Her latest YA release, THE COLDEST TOUCH, is out now with Razorbill.
More posts by Isabel Sterling.
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