By Catherine Ryan Hyde
There’s no denying that at some point in most of our projects, forward momentum halts.
The newer writer (believe me, I remember this, from when I was newer) panics, thinking the muse has left forever and is never coming back. Kind of like your dog the first few times you leave the poor guy alone. You say, “Trust me. I’m coming back.” But still he panics. And nibbles on the sofa. And pees in the hall.
Trust me. It’s coming back.
Now. What is this dreaded lack of motion trying to tell you?
In its mildest form, an inability to write the next scene probably only means the next scene is not ready to write. An inner voice is telling you there’s some rich detail or two missing. Or that a plot junction you might not have anticipated is coming up, and if you write past it, you might miss it forever.
So it may only mean you have more imagineering to do.
Now let’s say the work has seriously stalled.
You try to write through it, but what you write is trash, and you know it’s trash even as you write it. And if you think you’re on the wrong road, how far do you want to travel in the wrong direction before you turn around? And aren’t you just getting yourself more and more lost?
At this point, I assume the blockage is telling me I’m on the wrong road.
Now. Can we stop for a moment and honor our blockage? Thank it for its good work? Because when I first started writing, I finished everything, no problem. I just trudged to the end of the wrong road and ended up with a finished novel. One that didn’t work. I’d rather have an internal guidance system that stops me and says, Wait. I don’t recognize any of this scenery. Are you sure it isn’t time to ask directions?
So a wrong turn message is relatively easy to swallow.
If you have the luxury of time, put the work down. Do something else. Get outdoors. Work on a different project. Then come back to the stalled project, read it over from the beginning. See if you can pinpoint the moment you slipped off track.
Now for the painful part. When you find it, toss out everything after it.
Hurts. I know. But you want it right, not just done. Well, let’s take it a step further and say it’s not done until it’s done right. So you’re actually speeding things up.
Now for the toughest message of all. The one no one wants to hear. Maybe the blockage is telling you that your whole novel is one big wrong road. Maybe the work is just…not…working.
The only way you’re going to sit at your computer for hundreds or thousands of hours, doing the gritty work of creating a good novel, is if it’s a good novel. If it’s a good novel, it’s a joyous thing to work on. It’s fun. And if it’s fun for you to write, it’s probably fun for readers to read.
So…if you really can’t bring yourself to work on it in the long haul, it could be—stress, could be—a bad sign.
Could be other things, too, like fear of failure, fear of success, fear of both, or other negative messages that aren’t about the work. But, not being a psychologist, I’d better stick to the ones that are.
How do you know one message from another? That’s a hard question to answer. My best advice is a combination of the luxury of distance and the help of fresh eyes. Being a writer reminds me of the old joke about a painter on a scaffold. The problem is you can’t step back and get any perspective on your work.
Here’s what I can tell you. I can advise you what to do in a case of complete block. One that seems to suggest that the novel is not working.
Give yourself permission not to finish it. Period.
Most writers think it’s a type of failure to start a novel and not finish it. I think it’s more successful than finishing something only to find it wasn’t worth your time.
Bottom line, you can fight blockage all you want, but your resistance seems to make it stronger. Try listening instead. If you really are deeply stalled, I submit you have very little to lose by working with the dreaded block instead of against it.
About the Author
Catherine Ryan Hyde is the author of 23 published and forthcoming books, including the acclaimed When You Were Older, and Second Hand Heart. Her bestselling novel Pay It Forward was adapted into a major motion picture, chosen for the ALA Best Books for Young Adults list, and translated into over 23 languages for distribution in more than 30 countries. She lives in Cambria, CA and writes full time.
Check out an excerpt from her book How To Be a Writer in the E-Age… And Keep Your E-Sanity!
Great article! I needed to hear this.
Catherine, this is excellent! You’re offering a new (and creative) way for writers to use the “block” in a positive way but my own experience varies somewhat from yours. As you do, I go back to page one. I begin to read v e r y s l o w y. For me at least, it invariably turns out that I’ve made one of two kinds of mistakes: I’ve either left out something that should be included OR I’ve included something that should be placed later in the story. Once I figure out the mistake, I either add or reposition as the case might be. Deleting everything after the mistake hasn’t turned out to be necessary—at least for me.
Every writer is different and every book is different but finding that early mistake—although it’s often no fun!—is a reliable block breaker.
I don’t remember who told the following anecdote; that’s not important. He was a writer who, years ago, shared office space with Robert Silverberg, the science fiction author who was, at the time, not yet wildly famous but doing O.K.
As the teller of this story was struggling, day by day, to move his novel forward—sometimes typing a few paragraphs, sometimes just sitting, ruminating, thinking about where to go next with it and not having anything come to mind—he could hear Silverberg typing away non-stop all day long.
The typing would occasionally halt for a minute while the page was pulled, placed on a pile, the pile set aside into a drawer, another pile pulled out, another page inserted into the typewriter, and the non-stop typing would again commence.
It drove the speaker nuts! Here he was, struggling daily just to get a few hundred words out—sometimes just a sentence—and here was this other guy typing away like mad, constantly.
He finally couldn’t be silent any more. He asked Silverberg how he could go on typing like that every day. Silverberg replied that, when he got stalled on one story, he stopped, put it away for awhile, took out another story and went back to work on that one, which had been stewing in his mind and now had ideas sprouting in it and was ready to be continued.
His method was to never force anything, to always have a bunch of stories going around in his head (as all of us do anyway), and to continue working on each story in its own time and at its own pace.
It always sounded to me like a great idea, and I have followed it myself.
The storyteller? He finally couldn’t take it any more—he found it too depressing—and moved out to a different office. Robert Silverberg went on to become one of the most prolific, most famous, and most successful science fiction authors of all time. He even has a writing award named after him.
Great insight! Thanks for posting this!