Writer’s Block is Really Your Friend (and you should listen to it)

Writer’s block is a horrible term I don’t even like to use. I think most writers hate the term and loathe the reality. We dread getting writer’s block but what does writer’s block even mean? How does it feel to be ‘blocked’ and what, if anything, is the ‘block’ trying to tell us?

I am very fortunate because writer’s block is not something I usually suffer from. I tend to have too many ideas, and too many projects on the go and my main problem is not enough time to do it all in! But recently the dreaded writer’s block struck and in fact I now realise it was with me for some time.

So, what is writer’s block? I think it can manifest itself in different ways. There is a block to ideas, when a writer quite simply can’t think of anything to write about. These writers tend to have big gaps between writing projects while they wait for the muse to show up again. There are blocks that happen mid-flow – one minute you are tapping away at the keyboard and then suddenly it all runs out. Your mind goes blank and you cannot conjure up the next words. There is also what I call plot blocks. Basically, you get stuck. You don’t know what to do next with the plot. Maybe you had it all planned out but now can’t figure out how to do it, or maybe you were winging it from the start and just ran out of steam. I’m not sure what type of block is the worst but I am more than familiar with the dread of sitting down and staring at a blank Word document.

Image by Steve Johnson from Pixabay

The block I’ve been suffering from was none of the above, not really. My current work in progress is a four book YA post-apocalyptic series. I had the idea a few years ago and it had to wait its turn. During that time I started a little notebook of themes, ideas and character bios. I always knew this one was going to be a challenge. I love the post-apocalyptic genre as you might already know from my post here: https://chantelleatkins.com/2021/07/02/post-apocalyptic-fascination/. From the start, I had this feeling that the series was a good idea but someone else would be able to do a better job with it than me. I don’t normally feel like that about my book ideas. I’m usually hugely protective and obsessed with them so I would never consider offering or suggesting the idea to someone else. But this one niggled from the start.

I started book one about a year ago but had to keep stopping to get other books finished and published. I was initially quite surprised with how well it went. The first chapters flew out of me effortlessly and were exactly what I wanted. I genuinely think the first few chapters of book one are excellent and I’m proud of them. It got harder after that. It became a slog!

And that’s the difference between these books and my others. Aside from my YA dystopian The Tree Of Rebels, all of my books follow a familiar pattern. I get the character first, they suggest the plot, back story, dilemma and so on. It builds in my head and everything flows from the characters until my head gets so noisy it feels like it will explode. By the time I get around to writing it it almost writes itself because I know it all so well. It’s not hard. It’s fun. It’s addictive and exciting. I normally cannot wait to sit down at my desk and tap away. Sure, I get stuck here and there and some parts are trickier than others, and first drafts are always a clumsy affair, but I still love it and believe in it.

With these books it has been hard work. I’ve forced myself to write a chapter a night most nights and with that work ethic I have managed to write the first two books and even get them to fourth draft stage. I am now nearing the end of the first draft of book three. I know what will happen in book four so it is all getting there. But it is so painful! When I say I force myself, I really do. I stare at the screen for ages. I nearly always get distracted by my phone, checking social media or emails or playing a game. Because it’s hard and I don’t like it being hard!

The trouble has been not understanding why it has been so hard and the other day I finally worked it out. As I mentioned earlier the only other book I had this trouble with was The Tree of Rebels. And there are similarities with this series – The Tree Of Rebels came from a concept first. I had the idea and then built the characters around it. The other similarity I only just realised was that I started writing that book and this series with an audience in mind. I knew The Tree Of Rebels would be a YA dystopian. It was great knowing that because then I’d know who to market it towards. Normally it’s a struggle to figure out what genre my books are! With this series, I knew it would be YA post-apocalyptic and with both The Tree Of Rebels and this series I wanted to aim them at 12-14 year olds. That’s the younger YA age bracket to my other books. I have some books aimed at adults and some aimed at 14 years and up. With The Tree Of Rebels I wanted to write a book my children could read at the time and with this current series I wanted to write a book the children who attend my writing clubs could maybe enjoy…

And that was the trouble! That was the block! When I realised it was like this light bulb eureka moment! Now I can’t believe it took me so long to figure it out!

Having the idea before the characters was a problem but the main problem was deciding who to aim it at before I even started writing. It’s like having someone watch over your shoulder the whole time and it totally changes the experience for me. I start thinking about what elements are expected in that genre and what things are suitable or appropriate for the age group. It ruins the process. I feel like I am writing a book to order, writing for someone else, and that just doesn’t work for me.

I realised that the age group was a real problem. There is a big difference between books aimed at ‘tweens’ and books aimed at older teenagers. I didn’t feel I could swear in this series and it’s just not as gritty or hard hitting as my other books. It’s just not me.

But all that is going to change. Once I figured out what was causing the writer’s block I made a decision. I’m now going to aim the series at the older YA audience and I am going to do what I normally do. Let rip, let them swear, go as dark and gritty and edgy as I like! I am going to write these books for me and no one else because that is the only way it works for me.

It’s amazing but since I realised all this, the chapters have started flowing again. It feels different. It feels exciting and a bit naughty! I have already wandered into darker territory. I am going to finish book three in this vein and carry on into book four. Of course, then I need to go back and rewrite everything I have done so far. I do think that was partly what prevented me from admitting what was wrong – knowing how much work I’d have to do to correct it! But I’m looking forward to it now. There will be more character development, some extra chapters and lots of rewriting in each book but I think it will all be worth it. And I will keep one thing in mind the entire time until these books are ready to publish – I am writing this series for ME. I am writing the books I want to read.

That should work!

And I suppose the moral of the story is always listen to writer’s block because it’s just trying to tell you something. For that reason, writer’s block is actually your friend. You just need to figure out what it’s telling you.

Do you ever suffer from writers’ block? If so, what kind? And what do you do to push through it?

First Draft Madness

Last week I finished the second draft of The Boy With The Thorn In His Side – Part 5. I originally scribbled this book into a notepad about six months ago. Finishing the second draft was exciting, because I managed to untangle the ending I had got in a mess with, and this lead to such excitement about the planned and plotted Part 6, I just couldn’t resist launching right into it.

So, in the evenings I am currently editing a chapter or two a night of Part 5, (making this the third draft). While in the day, any chance I can get, I am writing brand new, first draft Part 6 into a notebook. I am so excited!!!!

I have realised over the years that writing the first draft of a novel has a really strange affect on me. I love it but fear it. I can’t get enough of it. It is something I get addicted to, but also can’t wait to be over. I thought I’d list the things that happen to me when writing a first draft. Perhaps if you are a writer, you can relate? Feel free to comment if you do!

  • I feel nervous. This is a very, very weird thing. Now, I don’t think of myself as an especially anxious person, but like everyone, I have my moments. However, there is nothing that can make me quite as anxious and tense as writing a first draft. It’s really really hard to pinpoint why. All I know is that I will wake up with a nervous tight feeling in my belly, go about my day with that same heavy, almost painful sensation, start to panic about what it means, only to find it goes away completely once I start writing. This does not happen with the subsequent drafts of novels. Just the first! I guess it makes me nervous, though I’m not sure why. Maybe its nervous excitement? The longing to be writing is so strong that knowing I can’t do it until later makes my body tense? I have no idea.
  • I am addicted. This is the worst thing and also the best thing. Obviously, feeling addicted to what you are writing is a good thing because there is no danger of writers block or any kind of procrastination. I am utterly in love with the act of writing and shaping this novel and it feels like that too, like butterflies in my tummy. But it’s not the easiest thing to live with. When you’ve got two day-jobs, multiple pets and four children, it’s hard to find the time to squeeze writing in and when in the midst of the pure addiction that only happens with the first draft, it’s a bit like torture not being able to write.
  • I am distracted. Beyond belief! When I was a kid I was constantly being told by people that I was in my own little world. They were right I really was. And I still am. I’m still that kid. In a constant daydream I struggle to break free of. I am constantly thinking about my book and my characters. Plot twists and story-lines weave through my head all the time, which is exciting and brilliant, but I’m meant to be reading to my child? Or making dinner? Sometimes I wish the voices in my head would be quiet. Or at least wait until later. But they have other ideas and I just have to deal with it the best I can.
  • Creativity is at its peak. I usually have a plot before I start writing. In particular, with these books as they are part of a series, the plots are somewhat already in action, and at the end of the last book I would have written an outline for what happens in the next. But something exciting happens with the first draft of a book. Yes, I’ll have my basic plot, but every time I write a chapter, I get new ideas for the next ones. The next chapter will write itself in my head before I have finished the one I am on. The next chapters will line up in my mind while I am walking dogs and cooking dinner…it’s like a constant bubbling? I truly believe the more you write, the more your mind wants to write. The ideas flow once you let them, once your provide that release. It’s like they know it’s coming and they are finally getting their turn! It’s really quite amazing. So although my basic plot probably won’t change, in the process of writing the first draft, creativity will hit the roof. I also find I have way more ideas for blog posts, poems and short stories during this time!

There are loads more things I could say about writing a first draft. I think it’s important to let go of how clumsy and new it is, and just embrace the ideas as they flow. Subsequent drafts are for tidying up, tightening up and cutting down…and I enjoy that process just as much for different reasons. But the first draft is a crazy time…a crazy thing. I will be a bit sad when it is over for this book!

In The Writing Zone…

It’s my favourite place and I love it here. Yes, I am currently well and truly trapped in the writing zone. For anyone who is not sure what I mean by this, imagine being given full access to the thing you love doing the most. Imagine that thing giving you pure, unadulterated joy. Imagine that thing going really, really well and filling you with feelings of satisfaction and excitement. That is how I would describe the writing zone.

Of course, I’m a writer and I write every day if I can. Sometimes life gets in the way and it doesn’t happen. Sometimes I am trapped in the editing zone for what feels like years…This is not so bad. I actually love editing and revising my books. To me, this process is really interesting, as you begin to shape and mould your first splurge of words into something that others can hopefully one day appreciate.

But I have to admit that writing the first draft of a new book is the most fun thing ever, and perhaps the most addictive. If it is going well, and I am well and truly ‘in the zone’, then the book is all I can think about. Here are some signs that I am in the writing zone, with no sign of emerging any time yet…

  • when I am not writing, I am thinking about writing. The book in progress dominates my every waking thought. It follows me around like a daydream I can’t escape from. If I go for a walk, the book is in my head. If I go to bed, there it is again. There is no escaping it and I wouldn’t want to.
  • when I am writing, I’m writing fast. Super fast. It’s been there all day teasing me and making suggestions, so when I finally get at that keyboard, it’s a bit like an explosion. Certainly, it’s messy and there will be plenty to clear up later in further drafts, but right now, speed is everything. I need to get that story out of my head!
  • when in the zone, time does not exist. I don’t even think to look at the time. It’s just not relevant. I will keep going until I feel there is a good place to stop and leave it for tomorrow.
  • I am happy. Really happy. This new book has probably been in my head for years and the book is happy to be getting its turn and the characters are really, really happy to be having their voices heard, and so I am happy too. It gives me an enormous sense of satisfaction and relief to be finally writing a book that has had to wait so long.
  • I’m excited. I kind of hate the start of the day, because normally writing has to wait until the evening. So I feel guilty, but can’t help wishing the day away so that I can get to the end of it and start my writing.
  • the writing is my reward. I can’t allow myself to have this reward until everything else is done. So, the day-jobs, the children, the pets, the husband, the house, the errands all need to be sorted out, before I can allow myself this wonderful indulgence. This is a great motivator because there is no way I am not getting my writing time!
  • I am distracted. There is a running joke in my house that I react to things a few minutes after I’ve heard them…and this is probably true. I’m so distracted by the writing zone, that it’s hard to focus on anything else. I get really forgetful in this state and my family certainly notice it.
  • I feel like myself. I think when I am sucked into the zone, I am more ‘me’ than I am at any other time. Which sort of means, I am multiple ‘me’s’ ? Slightly worrying perhaps, but I think more than anything, writing and loving writing are what make me me. It is the love that has been with me the longest and saved me the most times and provided me with so much it’s impossible to even try to explain.
Basically me!

So, that’s me, ‘in the zone’. I’m working on two new books, (one is the first in a four book series, and the other is the fifth in a sixth book series) at the same time. It’s utterly crazy but I wouldn’t have it any other way.