Writer’s block has hit a lot of us during the pandemic
By William L. Hahn
Other than a single flash piece before Christmas, I haven’t written a solitary word on my epic fantasy world in more than a year. And holy crow, do I need to. Not only do I have a complete, well-envisioned novel in front of me. Not only is that ripping tale of Hope and derring-do the start of a mega-cool trilogy. No, it’s worse than that…
Books 2 and 3 have already been published for years.
So don’t come to me singing your sad tales of what-could-have-been with your writing. I know from screwed up Muses and delayed dreams, trust me.
And I know another thing: I’m not suffering from Writer’s Block right now. I’m simply not writing.
But I HAVE had “it”, to the extent that something so perilous and widespread can be called a single thing. I know this malady, or at least, some of its chief variants. I want to show you some of what I’ve experienced, read and heard from colleagues. I’m sure it’s not a comprehensive review. I think it makes sense. I hope it will help.
Writer’s Block Brings Out Our Worst — To Ourselves
Notice how unfair we are when we start talking about this problem? Writer’s Block, in my view, can only be defined as a situation in which you are not writing when you would like to be. Nothing else. It can’t be just the pace, or the output, and certainly not the quality of the work. And that means in the end Writer’s Block is personal to each of us. For whatever reason, we are not writing when we think we could be.
And we seem to save this horrible judgment exclusively for ourselves. Think about it:
- Tolkien took 16 years to finish LoTR (12 of them after The Hobbit was done). And we marvel at the detail, the lavish full-built world. Writer’s Block, him? Idiot, it’s a masterpiece.
- The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz took almost 10 years, during which time he apparently gave up on it, and attended grad school instead! And we gasp at his dedication, the miracle of his genius could not be stopped.
- But then we see that Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol in just six weeks, and Robert Louis Stevenson slapped out Strange Case of Jekyll and Hyde in six DAYS*. Again, we’re amazed at their productivity, nod knowingly at this proof of their well-deserved fame.
- But US? No matter how fast or much we write, we’re not having it. Taking me years? I’m a failure. Whacking out 50k in November? Never mind, it’s all crap. Why do we do this to ourselves?
The point I’m making—writing styles differ, the goals we have as authors differ, and the idea that the identical yardstick should measure our success is whack-a-doodle.
*- Stevenson actually wrote a near-complete draft of the story in just three days. But then he threw it in the fire. And later decided to start again. Can you imagine?
The Malady of Writer’s Block: Variants
I must apologize at the start for using this metaphor at such a time. But we all know what it’s like when the shoe fits. Try this on for size.
Do you find yourself saying any of the following things?
“I can’t do this”
We’ve all felt it I’m sure, especially starting out. Like Sisyphus, we barely move the rock, and the mountain top is forever away. It’s just impossible.
“I ran out of gas”
Many of us have had this sensation, where you were chugging along on the book or a chapter, and then in a relatively short period, what was easy becomes really hard. You certainly slow down, and perhaps even stop. Why?
“The first one’s going nowhere”
This kind hits authors who have actually gotten a first book published. You know the drill, you need to write the next one, but you keep looking over at the sales figures and they’re, well, not stellar. Somebody pulled a drain plug inside you and when you turn back to the WiP you find yourself wondering ‘why bother’.
“Something feels wrong”
My personal favorite because this is the variant I suffer. Authors who write in linear fashion have to go from the end of Chapter 4 to the start of Chapter 5 and nothing else. (:: raises hand :: ) Guilty. Mind you, I come into Day One of a new tale knowing pretty much everything that happened. I’m a chronicler, a witness to these heroic deeds I write about.
But there are times — and I know others have hit this too — when you feel a sense of caution, or hesitation, that has nothing to do with your energy or the Muse. You still think about the story all the time. But there’s a missing piece, you need to do more research.
“I hate doing this now”
There are those, I know, who stop simply because whatever joy they used to find in writing is gone. More, it’s flipped to revulsion. Sometimes they leak out a few words in the same session where they used to cover pages, but it brings them close to tears to even try. What could have caused that?
I’m sure there are other variants, but hopefully this is enough to demonstrate what I mean. We don’t write for all kinds of reasons, and we call it the same thing, and we blame ourselves for it (but nobody else). Rubbish.
Diagnose then Treat
Forgive the former market analyst in me, but I just have to evaluate these things. Step One- what is really making us stop writing? And Step Two- can we actually do anything about our version of “Writers Block”?
Hey, SHOULD we?
Look, sometimes the things happening in your life are beyond your control (External, left side of the figure). And sometimes those things are bad, at others good. But dude, you don’t have Writer’s Block: your life is just off the rails!
Conversely, sometimes the thing stopping us from writing is not a family illness, or winning the lottery. It still could be good or bad, but it’s an area where we are empowered to do something about it (Internal, right side of the figure).
Let’s run that list again quickly. Like demons in my world, you gain power over evil by calling its name.
Imposter Syndrome (cure for “I can’t do this”)
That drop-stomach feeling of impossibility is hardly rare. All kinds of creative artists get it. And then they get over it! So can you. When you see an article urging you to “take these ten writing prompts and call me in the morning”, it could well work if this is what ails you. South African author Tallulah Lucy has a marvelous article about whether you’re a plotter or a pantser in her newsletter that could set you on the right path.
And here’s Ruth Harris’s enlightening post on Imposter Syndrome
And by the way—have you told people you’re a writer? There’s something to be said for, um, saying that. Who needs to believe it more than you do?
Muse-Hostage (cure for “ran out of gas”)
There’s a tendency, especially for new authors I think, to treat their creative function as a mystical spirit. We personify it. But if your low energy is not physical (run down, not getting enough sleep etc.) then experience generally shows you it’s more a lack of mental exercise.
There is no shortage of ideas in this world. But as poet and author Shannon Connor Winward says, developing the ability to notice them is a skill. Fixing your Muse-relations isn’t always a snap, but getting to work depends more on you than anything else.
Motive over Means (cure for “first one’s going nowhere”)
Something like 97% of indie authors don’t get as far as publishing a single novel. If you achieved that, a fair world would have you feeling good! But while marketing and promotion are really tough, it’s still true that nobody but you will have more impact on improving that.
I have found that taking steps to try something, anything to move my existing titles is a step back towards creativity in my current tale. Beats just staring at the sales number all hollow. Ask yourself, “didn’t I start writing because I liked it?”
Headline over Deadline (cure for “something feels wrong”)
Why should you care that you haven’t figured out this little problem yet? Thinking about why or what’s needed counts as writing, in my book. But one way we keep ourselves productive (and break free of Muse-Hostage) is to set a deadline for publication. That’s a personal decision; pick which one matters more to you and then be kind to yourself about the choice.
Me, I always choose to wait. I once waited over four months to figure out just who this minor character was and when it hit me I was in the shower. I shouted so loud my lovely wife almost called the police. But I was back to writing that night and the book just rolled out after that, drought broken.
Creativity Wound (cure for “I hate doing this now”)
This one’s the toughest in my list, but the explanation is simple. Read what Anne wrote about Creativity Wounds: sometimes people just put a hurt on you and who cares why they did it, but that’s what’s keeping you down.
Writer’s Block Can’t Stop You
Sometimes you’re not suffering from Writer’s Block, you just have a life that demands your attention. But the more power you can exert, the more it means to you and the better off your story will be. Try to diagnose where on the grid your variant belongs, and then you’ll be in better shape to tackle it.
All the best with your writing efforts!
by William L. Hahn, January 23, 2022
What about you, scriveners? Do you think Writer’s Block is a thing? Do you experience it in one of these forms? Has the pandemic brought your writing to a halt? How do you deal with it?
William L. Hahn
Will Hahn has helped out with teaching non-History subjects at school, was always available in college Theater classes to play the corpse (rave reviews), and on occasion pinch-hits by preparing lunch for his daughter. He brings alternate modes of telling tales for other authors by narrating their audiobooks. And whenever Anne needs someone to opine about writing because she’s in the zone of Blameless Misery, he’s delighted to volunteer.
Will serves as chronicler for the Tales of the Lands of Hope, and is the first one the cats come to when it’s time to eat. And that is NOT Writer’s Block. But nice to be needed.
Featured Book: Harbingers of Hope
by William L. Hahn
After two millennia of peace the relentless war between Hope and Despair flares again. With the innocent in peril, can raw unproven heroes resist immortal foes?
Treaman lives for the thrill of adventure. Guiding a group of enterprising companions, he’d put his life on the line for any of them. But when the adventurers become lost in a land tainted by the growing curse of Despair, he fears his leader’s mission is destined to end in failure and death.
Solemn Judgement will never see his homeland again. Brought to unfamiliar shores, Solemn burns any chance of return along with his boat and his father’s body, before setting out to seek his purpose. But the determined young orphan has no idea that acquiring his education could unleash the ultimate evil.
In a world that only dreams of heroes, can they rise up against oppressive forces and prevent the Lands of Hope from descending into foul darkness?
Read Harbingers of Hope to stand up and fight today!
Praise for Harbingers of Hope on Amazon:
5 Stars: A Towering Work of Fiction!
Harbingers of Hope is the sort of book that High Fantasy was meant to be—exciting characters engaged in inspiring deeds in a world that is riddled with history and budding with many more stories waiting to be told. You won’t regret reading it!
5 Stars: I was sad when it was over
This book is a welcome departure from the muddy morality and gray tone of more recent fantasy novels in the mold of George RR Martin. Instead, we are treated to romantic tales of courage, honor, sacrifice, love, and friendship — all in floral prose that immediately drew me in.
Featured image Drew Coffman, CC BY 2.0