Please note, the advice I give in this article is based on my experience as a published writer. Though the techniques I use to defeat writer’s block and procrastination work for me, they may not work for you. Still, try them out and see what happens. Even if these techniques aren’t effective in your case, this article may help you understand what’s going on in your brain well enough to come up with strategies of your own.
Some writers believe that if you don’t put your butt in the chair every day, you’re just lazy. Writing every day is certainly important—you can’t really get a head of steam going without it–but sometimes the writing process isn’t that cut and dried. Besides, hanging the lazy label on yourself can create guilt and stress that will only make the problem worse.
Once you understand the underlying causes of your procrastination or writer’s block, you can overcome both problems.
In the 10 years I have been writing for Penguin-Putnam, I have written 18 novels and more than 20 short stories, novellas, and e-books. I can truthfully say that with each and every one of them, there was at least one point where I experienced either procrastination or writer’s block.
And no, they are not the same.
Procrastination is putting off writing for some reason. Writer’s block is being unable to write because you don’t know what to write next. In this article, I’ll outline my favorite strategies to defeat both.
The obvious question is, how do you tell the difference between writer’s block and procrastination, and does it really matter? Yes, actually, because the techniques used to defeat them differ.
First ask yourself why you can’t write. If the idea of creating 400 pages out of nothing leaves you feeling so overwhelmed you’d rather do the laundry, it’s probably procrastination. Early in my career, I experienced that one a lot. I discovered that I could beat it by plotting my books–working out the major events of the story before I sat down to write.
I am not one of those lucky souls who can plunk down at a computer and watch the whole thing flow out of my fingers in a miraculous stream. I have to plot. In fact, the more detailed I get in my plotting, the easier I find it to write. A detailed plot also gives me a sense of security that reduces the stress that can block creativity.
Now, some people complain that if they plot, it sucks all the joy out of writing. I have never found that to be the case. When I plot, I lay out the skeleton of the book in ten or twenty pages, describing the events of the story and why they occur. That’s the part that I’m most likely to get stuck on, so if I work it out ahead of time, I’m not as likely to get stuck.
What actually happens on the page may end up different from that initial plot. If so, I go with it. If I think of something better as I’m writing a scene, that’s what I do. I’ve always found that those spur-of-the-moment changes make the book better. True, it may mean readjusting the plot, but it’s worth it.
But even if everything goes according to plan, there are plenty of lush, vivid details as a scene takes place that do surprise me. I always experience the joy of the story coming alive even though I’ve plotted the whole thing out ahead of time.
I strongly recommend that new writers plot their books. You may not understand story structure as well if you’re not a veteran writer, so you’re more likely to get lost if you try to wing it. Outlining the events of the story gives you the opportunity to concentrate on its logic and structure in isolation, so that the resulting story is more likely to hang together.
Besides, looking forward to writing a particular scene is also the world’s best antidote to procrastination.
But if you find yourself staring at a blinking cursor when you know what you should be writing, it may be a sign of writer’s block–something gone wrong in the writing process.
At this point in my career, I no longer find the idea of writing a book intimidating. Writer’s block, however, is something I encounter frequently.
Neuroscience tells us that much of the creative process takes place in a part of the brain we can’t consciously access. The theory goes that the creative right brain doesn’t have access to language; it thinks in images and emotions, and it may have a hard time communicating with your logical left brain. It has to do so by sending images to your consciousness, which may be blocked by all the mental chatter the left brain generates.
Over the years, I’ve learned my unconscious knows a lot more about my story than I do. If I try to write something that doesn’t fit with that creative plan just because that’s what I’ve got plotted, I may find myself unable to write. That’s when I discover a sudden yen to do the laundry or wash the dishes.
So I do.
Here’s where my approach to writer’s block is different than with procrastination. When I want to procrastinate, I often just force myself to put my butt in the chair anyway. If I still can’t write—especially if the problem persists for several days—I know it’s writer’s block.
What that means is that my unconscious is working on some problem with the book, and when it has a solution, it will let me know. The best way to help it do its job is to get away from the computer and do the laundry, go to a movie or read a book. Taking a long walk or a hot bath is also helpful. Anything to help me silence my chattering left brain and let my creative unconscious do its work and send me the solution.
But sitting at the computer staring at a blinking cursor and stressing myself out is the worst possible thing I can do. Especially if I’m only doing it because someone has told me I’m a lazy writer if I don’t.
The fact is, writing doesn’t just take place at the computer. More than 50% of the writing process takes place when you’re just walking around thinking. Hitting a metal speed bump for the day doesn’t make you lazy, and it doesn’t mean your book is doomed. Just relax, get away from the computer, and give yourself a break.
Another good trick is to talk about your plot with somebody. My husband is an excellent sounding board. I’ll be ranting about my latest problem with the book when he’ll make some offhanded comment that triggers my subconscious to spit out the solution. Or maybe he’ll just give me one hell of a good idea that I should have thought of to begin with. My critique partners are also good at that.
One of the very best tricks I’ve discovered is to go on a half-hour walk in the morning. I use that time to sink into the scene I’m about to write and let my creative unconscious present me with the images of the story.
Walking also gets the blood flowing to my brain. Experiments have shown people are more creative after a half-hour walk. By the time I get home, I’m ready to sit down at my computer and knock out 2,000 words.
But sometimes, life just slaps you upside the head, and there’s nothing you can do about it.
This year has been particularly frustrating to me, because every time I’ve gotten a good head of steam going on my current book, I’ve been hit with a disaster.
First, barely 16 pages into the novel, I broke my ankle. I couldn’t write a word for six weeks. The pain of the break kept me from being able to sleep or concentrate. The meds the doctor prescribed helped with the pain, but I can’t write while taking narcotics. Either way, my concentration and creativity were shot.
I finally had to accept the fact that I couldn’t write until I could get off the meds. My editor was very understanding (never hide a major problem from your editor), and I was eventually able to get back to work.
Then, halfway through the same book, I discovered I had ovarian cancer. I was incredibly fortunate, because my surgeon was able to remove all of the tumor, and the cancer hadn’t spread to any of my other organs. As a result, I didn’t need chemotherapy or radiation treatments.
But even with that great outcome, I have had a hard time returning to my writing schedule. For one thing I had to take pain meds immediately following surgery. Once I was able to get off the meds, they had to get out of my system.
But more than that, I had to deal with the realization that if we had not caught the cancer early, I could have died. That kind of emotional blow will stop you in your tracks every time.
Unlike when I broke my ankle, I decided to cut myself a little slack. As my sister pointed out, if I had been working a 9-to-5 job, no one would’ve expected me to be back at work for a good six weeks. A hysterectomy is major surgery, and my kind editor told me she understood and that I shouldn’t stress about the delay.
Now I’m ready to get back into the book again. The pain meds are out of my system, and I feel well enough to sit at the computer and work. Hopefully I can have the book finished in a couple of months.
However, in all likelihood I will encounter other delays in my writing, if not on this book, then during the next. Luckily, I have these techniques to fall back on, and I know I’ll soon be writing again.
But whether the delay is caused by not knowing what to write, or by the curves life throws at all of us, I’m not going to freak out about them. Guilt and stress are not good for writing.
I wish you luck in your own writing career. Whatever problems you encounter, realize you can find publishing success as long as you work hard, cut yourself a break when you need to—and never, never, never give up.
Angela Knight is the New York Times bestselling author of books for Berkley, Red Sage, Changeling Press, and Loose Id. Her first book was written in pencil and illustrated in crayon; she was nine years old at the time. A few years later, she read The Wolf and the Dove and fell in love with romance. Besides her fiction work, Angela’s publishing career includes a stint as a comic book writer and ten years as a newspaper reporter. Several of her stories won South Carolina Press Association awards under her real name.
In 1996, she discovered the small press publisher Red Sage, and realized her dream of romance publication in the company’s Secrets 2 anthology. She went on to publish several more novellas in Secrets before editor Cindy Hwang discovered her work there and asked her if she’d be interested in writing for Berkley. Not being an idiot, Angela said yes.
Angela has written 18 novels and over 20 novellas and e-books. Love Bites is her latest book, an anthology of Angela’s erotic romance. It includes the novel-length Mageverse novel, Oath of Service, the latest installment in the long-running Mageverse series, featuring King Arthur and his vampire Knights of the Round Table. Oath of Service recounts the romance that has been brewing between the immortals Morgana Le Fay and Sir Percival for the past 1500 years.
Angela lives in South Carolina with her husband, Michael, a polygraph examiner and hostage negotiator for the county’s Sheriff’s Office. The couple has a grown son, Anthony.
In “Oath of Service,” Angela Knight introduces the Doms of the Round Table and a kinky circle of pleasure, pain, and power as she returns to her Mageverse world for a new twist on the Arthurian legend.
After a fight with a dragon goes wrong, Morgana le Fay takes an Oath of Service to Percival, vampire Knight of the Round Table. Percival and his partners, Cador and Marrok, decide to give Morgana a taste of bondage and submission she’ll never forget. What they don’t know is that the lovely witch is keeping secrets that could destroy them all. To make matters worse, the dragon is plotting a deadly revenge….
In “Be Careful What You Wish For,” a beautiful vampire and her two vamp lovers lock horns with a wizard with the ugly habit of refusing to take no for an answer.
In” The Bloodslave”, a female mercenary comes under fire during a hunt. The beautiful, virginal, and very human Verica is captured by three alpha vampires who want more than blood.