Those two words. I don't even want to write them. I don't even want to think them. Even the very mention is enough to send shivers up the most successful writers' spines and set their knees knocking. Writer's block is a truly terrifying prospect and it's something we've all had to deal with at one time or another…but if you've dealt with it enough, hopefully you've learned a trick or two to turn the tide of those battles in your favor, and while I may not be the most seasoned gladiator, I've seen my share of time in the coliseum, so I figured maybe I'd pass on a few things that have worked for me in the hopes that maybe they might work for you too.
For me, overcoming writer's block is all about prevention. It's about avoiding that battle altogether, because once you actually step into the ring…all bets are off. I'm not sure who said, "Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face," but I probably would know if I hadn't been punched in the face so often. Anyway…where was I? Oh, that's right. For me, beating writer's block is all about being so prepared that it doesn't even want a piece of you in the first place. It's about making sure there's no crack in your armor big enough for a dagger to fit through. It's about being smart enough that you don't have to fight, which is the sweetest victory of all. So, without further ado, here is my art of war…
1) Outline, outline, outline! Outline everything. Everything. I spend no less than a month (and sometimes much, much more) outlining and annotating and developing before I even sit down at my keyboard. I fill dozens of yellow legal pads with pieces of dialogue and character traits and names and random ideas and plots and subplots and imagery and phrasings and literally anything that's even tangentially applicable to a story. And then…then I storyboard. And I storyboard it all. I have an entire wall in my home covered in cork and I lay out the entire narrative so that I can see exactly how it flows, how it begins, and also how it ends…and I don't stop until I think it's just about perfect. I leave as little room for flexibility as possible…that way I'm never at a loss as to what's happening next, because all I have to do is look at my wall. I'm never lost for plot, because the plot's already finished. In the end, it's like a Mad Libs and all I have to do is fill in the blanks with pretty words lol…and we all know that Mad Libs is the natural and sworn enemy of 'the block.'
2) Eat your frogs. Mark Twain once said that if you eat a frog first thing in the morning, you can be pretty sure that it'll be the worst thing that's going to happen to you that day. Now, he's a stone-cold genius, and I'm most certainly not, but I'm pretty sure that was his roundabout way of saying that it's best to get the hard stuff out of the way early, that was you don't have to worry about it…and I couldn't agree more. I write best when my mind is clear and my frogs have been eaten and I feel like I've earned the right to be creative…so that's what I do. I eat my frogs every bloody day before I even think about writing. Every…single…day before I write, I answer all my emails, exercise for two hours, run all my errands, return all my phone calls and eat any other itinerant frogs hopping about, and only then…only then when my belly is full of horrible, horrible frog…am I centered and clear-headed and ready to spill some ink. I mean, who could work with all that croaking going on anyway? Certainly not me…and certainly not Mark Twain, so at the very least we've got that in common.
3) Edit what you've written yesterday before you write anything new today. This honestly might be the tip that helps me the most. Every day when I sit down to write, the very first thing that I do is go back and do a quick edit of what I've written the day before. Nothing too intense, mind you—just a tightening of anything that reads loose and maybe a subtle reworking of anything that doesn't quite jive. There's a few different benefits here for me…one being that it lightens your editing load at the end of a section or chapter or draft, but the other is that it acts almost as a stretching session before a big run. It gets those muscles loose and gives you time to get focused and reacquainted with the rhythm of your story, so when it comes time to start churning out new content, your blood is already flowing and you're ready to go and you're much, much less likely to be stymied by…well, you know. After all, the surest way to lose any race is to pull up injured, and the best way to prevent injury is to be properly warmed up…so do some edit stretches before you toe the starting line and see how much better you feel when the gun goes boom.
4) Write in the same place at the same time as much as you can. This is a big one for me as my OCD just loves the warm and fuzzy feeling of environmental familiarity, so for me, the best place to be is usually the place I'm properly used to…and that goes double for when it's time to write. That sense of comfort is unspeakably important for me to be able to relax and for my mind to be at the right timbre of ease to be properly creative. I need that place that's not going to hold any surprises for me…that place that has just the right blend of silence and white noise…that place that makes me want to write. There's also something to be said for creative association—if you're used to being creative in a certain place, then eventually that place makes it easier for you to be creative because you now have a positive association with it. It's a bit Pavlovian, but he gave a lot of very good dogs a lot of very delicious treats over the course of his career, so he was a pretty great guy if you think about it that way. In short, write where you're comfortable, and try to make a habit of it.
5) So, this last pointer is a bit meta and not something that you can necessarily employ in any sort of immediate manner, so in the spirit of never being able to leave well enough alone…I'm going to do the opposite of leaving well enough alone. Besides, 'five' is a much more acceptable number than '4' for a list like this, so you can all thank my OCD for this last tip. Know Thy Self. See? I told you it was meta and troublesome, but that doesn't make it incorrect. There is so, so much truth in the fabric of fiction that it's almost impossible to get it to feel authentic if you don't feel authentic…and sometimes 'the block' is simply a writer's inability to make heads or tails of the feeling of inauthenticity in what they're crafting—failing to undo a knot they didn't mean to tie in the first place or the lack of insight into a character whose walls seem to hit a little too close to home.
Now, nobody's perfect, least of all me, but I can say without any manner of exaggeration that I've grown more over the last several years than I did in the several decades that preceded them. I came out…I began to confront and understand my myriad mental health challenges including anxiety, depression, and heavy OCD…I embraced the challenge of sharing my life with a loving partner…I began a search for my physical limits with some intense athletic pursuits…in short, I made a concerted effort to get to know myself for the first time in my life, and that, more than anything else, is the reason that I'm a better writer now than I was three years ago. That's the reason I don't stumble over motivations as much as I used to, the reason I don't feel awkward writing about relationships anymore, the reason I don't feel self-conscious about searching for a character's flaws, and the reason I don't see anything as off limits when it comes to creativity anymore. I used to have so many walls up in my life, and now that many of them are gone or (hopefully) on their way to being gone, I have less walls in my writing too. I have fewer stumbling blocks. I have fewer blocks of any kind, really…particularly that one that starts with a "w." Everything you write is a mirror is some way or another, and sometimes when there's a block on the page…there's also a block in the writer.
Well, that's all I've got for you good folks. I'd have more tips for you, but I didn't outline enough beforehand and I…just…can't…think of anything else to say ;) In any case, I hope my pitiful musings find you all in good health and maybe, just maybe they'll help you the next time you step into the right with the big bad you-know-what…or maybe they'll help you avoid having to put the gloves on altogether. Remember…work smart, not hard. Actually, do both…definitely do both. Cheers!