writing is hard header

7 Things to Try When Writing Is Hard

7 things to try when writing is hardSome writers might look at that title and respond incredulously: “When isn’t writing hard?” But as I’m sure all writers everywhere can attest, there are times when writing is hard in the normal sense and times when it’s hard hard.

Often, the difficulty lies simply in the unwieldy story—and the need for an ever-evolving understanding and ability in order to manage it. According to my estimate, as much as 75% of what is referenced as “writer’s block” is really just “plot block.” Something in the storyform is out of balance and/or the story’s problem is temporarily outpacing the author’s skill level. With enough persistence, these plot blocks give way sooner than later—and usually with the reward of either a better story or, at least, a greater awareness in the writer.

But then there are the difficulties that fall under the heading of that other 25%. This is when the writing is hard in ways that aren’t so easy to bull our way through.

These are often deeper issues, arising from our life beyond the page. They might include illness (our own or someone else’s), exhaustion, stress, fear or other unresolved emotions, burnout, or any other number of things. Sometimes the cause seems to be something as simple (and vague) as a mood.

And it’s infuriating. Unlike with plot blocks, solving the problem isn’t always as simple as finding the right mental thread to pull. Sometimes, it’s a matter of putting things other than writing first for a while (and coming to peace with that). Other times, it’s a matter of using the writing difficulties to help us work through what’s really causing the block.

Writing Is Hard Right Now: My Story

Until recently, I’d never experienced that second type of writer’s block. Plot block, sure. But I’ve spent my creative life building a skill set that helps me efficiently and effectively deal with that. (Indeed, it’s not really an exaggeration to say “avoiding plot block” is the entire reason I write this blog!)

But real live life-induced writer’s block? Not so much.

However, as I mentioned in the podcast intro a couple weeks ago, I now find myself somewhat bemused to be experiencing a definite (if not quite definitive) case of writer’s block. I am objectively aware it’s not the end of the world. There’s a part of me that is genuinely rolling my eyes at and passing the coffee to the other part of me that is getting really grumpy. And as I say, it’s not definitive; I’m still writing; there are still words.

It’s just that the writing is hard right now. Harder than I ever remember it being. It’s hard in a different way.

Dreamlander K.M. WeilandPart of this surprises me, since I’ve been incredibly eager to start the outline for the third book in my Dreamlander trilogy. But on the other hand, it makes sense. I moved last year, so I’m in a new place, figuring out a new routine. There’s also some heavy family stuff that knocked me for a loop when it first arose a few weeks ago. Also thrown in there were several layers of personal growth that decided to peak all at the same time.

And… then there’s the story itself. This is my first attempt at a series, so even though this book will be my eleventh rodeo, it’s still brand new ground. This is the first time I’ve ever had to tie off a multi-book story arc in a single volume. I started Book 3’s outline with the realization that I’d generously bequeathed myself dozens of little plot blocks—ideas I’d set up in Book 2 with vague ideas of their payoff in Book 3, but not enough info (yet) about how to get there.

Types of Writer's Block

Anyway, altogether it’s made for a potent mix that is allowing me the opportunity to learn new things about myself as a writer and a person. Some of those lessons are the tactics that have inspired this post—tactics that have already helped me move forward positively both in working on my story and working past the difficulties.

7 Things You Can Try When Writing Is Hard

For me, realizing I am most definitely not the first author to experience the whole “writing is hard” thing has helped me draw on the compassionate (and incredibly tough) wisdom of the many authors whose legacies permeate my life.

Today, I want to, in turn, reach out to those of you who may currently be finding that your writing is hard (whether normal hard or hard hard). Here are a few practicable steps I hope will give you comfort and/or help you start moving toward a solution for your own unique writing challenges.

1. Just Admit the Writing Is Hard

In my experience as a writing mentor, I find writers tend to have two different kinds of relationships with writer’s block. The first kind uses writing difficulties as a comfy excuse to embrace the drama:

“Woe is me! I simply can’t write! I have WRITER’S BLOCK!!!”

The second approach, however, denies there’s any problem at all:

“I can’t have writer’s block! I never get writer’s block!! I don’t believe in writer’s block!!!”

That was me for a while there. And then it was like:

“Wow, I have writer’s block…”

My first step was accepting that the difficulties I was facing on the page weren’t just plot blocks, but something bigger. That knowledge then provided me what is always the foundational key to problem-solving: correctly identifying the problem.

How did I know I was facing down something bigger than just your normal, ordinary, everyday, garden-variety plot block? Because the normal solutions to plot block (asking plot questions and looking for the right “thread” to pull) weren’t getting me anywhere. I was scribbling furiously; I just wasn’t advancing.

2. Identify the Cause

I suppose it’s possible serious writer’s block could be caused by a single issue (e.g., the death of a loved one). But for most of us, it’s a condition arising out of a unique cocktail of convergences. For me, the catalyst was a shaken-not-stirred mix of diverse ingredients that included everything from January ennui to unprecedented storytelling challenges to exhaustion/recovery from a big move last year to stressful current events—and more.

Most of these things, I had no control over and little to no recourse for “fixing.” Winter’s gonna end when winter’s gonna end. My emotional processing of life events is gonna take as long as it’s gonna take. Other people are gonna do what other people are gonna do.

After accepting that, I dialed in on the causes I could do something about. First, I figured out what I believed were my main problems:

a) Having a hard time sticking with a daily writing routine.

b) Struggling with ideas that just weren’t flowing.

From there, I started implementing strategies to see if I could unblock the dam.

3. Take Care of Yourself Before You Take Care of Your Writing

A truth that has become increasingly clear to me is that art and life are synergistic. If I’m not taking care of myself on basic personal levels—physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually—then my creative pursuits will necessarily suffer. In the artistic life, discipline extends far beyond the desk.

Since I knew many of the reasons for my writer’s block had nothing to do with the actual writing, my initial strategies also had little to do with writing. For starters, I completely restructured my daily schedule in recognition of the fact that I’m slowest in the mornings, with my motivation consistently climbing throughout the day.

Another thing I did was set my phone to “Do Not Disturb.” This allowed me to check it in between projects, rather than taking the risk that my focus and energy would be disrupted in the middle of flow.

4. Trust the Process

So there I was, sitting with pen in hand, scribbling along, face scrunched in determination—and it’s just not working. No matter what question I asked myself, I couldn’t find the right answer. No matter what idea I tried to chase, it never seemed to be the one that set my imagination on fire.

While this was happening, the one thought that kept me grounded was: Trust the process.

I would take a deep breath and return to the basics that, by now, are second nature. On my iPad, I would open up Helping Writers Become Authors and review my own posts—every one of them inspired by some challenge I had faced on a previous story. I would remember the specific steps I needed to take:

None of these things “cured” my writer’s block. But like familiar road signs popping into view on a snowy night, they kept me grounded, reminding me I knew where I was going because I’d been here before.

The process never fails me. If I stick with it, it will see me through.

5. Go Back to Basics: Daydreaming and Dreamzoning

Even though my writing process is built around intensive causal outlining, I don’t “make up stories.” I will sit down and brainstorm things that need to happen to move a story from Point A to Point B, but I never “create” the A and the B. They come me—spontaneous gifts from my subconscious imagination.

And that, I realized, was one of the reasons I just couldn’t move forward with this outline. I didn’t have enough “As” and “Bs” yet. I knew the bare bones of what needed to happen. But I couldn’t see it. I couldn’t feel it.

From Where You Dream Robert Olen ButlerSo I went back to basics. For me, the hotline to my imagination is what I call “dreamzoning(a term I got from Robert Olen Butler’s excellent From Where You Dream). Basically, this is just intensified daydreaming. I’ll put on an appropriate playlist in the background, use something mindless but moving as a visual focal point (firelight is perfect, though a lava lamp isn’t bad either), and then just sit back and watch the show. I realized the other night that, really, it’s an almost meditative exercise. I’m trying to zone out of my surroundings and go deep into my head, dreaming vivid visual dreams fraught with emotional consequence.

All I get are snippets, flashes, photographs, and sometimes slow-mo movies. But these are the seedlings of my stories. If I gather enough, the story will write itself. Buh-bye, writer’s block. And in the meantime, spending my writing sessions chilling with a candle and some tunes is both productive and seriously low-stress.

6. Find the Right (Guilt-Free) Routine

Ironically, writer’s block often seems to come with a fair-sized dose of guilt. We can’t write, and yet we self-flagellate because we should be writing.

Depending on the root cause making our writing so hard for the moment, the best choice might be giving ourselves permission to not write for a while (as I am—more or less—by allowing myself to focus solely on “dreamzoning” for a while). Other times, just tweaking a writing routine or schedule can do wonders.

Once I realized that outside drama and other factors were wreaking havoc with my ability to stay focused during a morning or afternoon writing session, I switched things around. I moved my writing session to the evening, when my energy is always most reliable. This gave me the ability to once again consistently show up for writing time—which removed the useless poison of guilt from my already complicated cocktail of problematic catalysts.

7. Inhale Information and Inspiration

Often, writer’s block is simply the result of an empty well. As I discovered in #5, above, if I have no inspiration, how can I honestly expect myself to have anything to write about?

This goes for more than just imaginative bursts. It also goes for information—of all sorts. Any story is ultimately a reconstruction of things the writer has either experienced or learned. If you find yourself with nothing to write about, it could be as simple as that: you have nothing to write about.

Start filling your well. If you haven’t been reading faithfully, start a daily routine. If you’ve been reading the same type of thing for years, try something new. Get out. Do new things. Watch new movies. Listen to new songs. Go to a museum. Fill your inner eye with wonders.

And read about writing. My success last year with a host of amazing writing-related books has prompted me to make sure I read something powerful and inspiring about writing, or art in general, every single day.

***

Writing is hard for everyone. Some days are harder for some of us than for others. But the wheel keeps on rolling, and we all get our turn sooner than later. I feel certain that when it is time for me to return to the page, after a couple weeks of dreamzoning, I will find most of my challenges fulfilled. If not, I know further solutions will await me as long as I seek them with patience and discipline. In the meantime, I offer my encouragement to those of you who might be experiencing a similar trial, and I am thankful we get to walk together on this road—in all its many terrains and weathers!

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! What’s the first thing you do when your writing is hard? Tell me in the comments!

Click the “Play” button to Listen to Audio Version (or subscribe to the Helping Writers Become Authors podcast in iTunes).

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. Edward Denecke says

    I have sometimes found that delays (like writer’s block) are a signal to me that I’m not ready yet for what I am attempting to accomplish. As difficult as it is for me to do it, I step away for a season (of varying lengths) and just wait. Often I will sense a small nudge when it’s time to return to the task. And when I do, usually I discover what was evading me before is now waiting patiently for me to come back and get reacquainted. I once heard Neil Gaiman say that it was ten years from the time he had the idea for The Graveyard Book until he was ready to write it. That is very encouraging to me!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Truth. And I’m considering this for myself at the moment. As much as I love order (and schedules), art and creativity don’t always play by the rules.

  2. Casandra Merritt says

    For the last few months, I’ve been struggling to find out how to get one sentence on the page, without deleting two. After sitting down to write every single day and only and only ending up with a page of decent writing, I knew that something wasn’t working. I needed to learn how to write fast, and be satisfied with terrible writing the first time around, just to get something on the page. This was the hardest thing I have ever tried to do, but it works, and if I can accomplish this, it will be the greatest writing victory I will ever score.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Hear, hear. Writing fast is one of the best ways to beat perfectionism in the drafting phase. Sometimes, when I’m really struggling with this, I will force myself to write 300 every 15 minutes. This always gets my fingers typing and the words flowing.

  3. I wish I could join you in commiserating about the hard-hard moments, but I never showed up for them. Instead, I just put the stories on the side.

    Do any of you face things that need to be done and you realize that you’ve refused to do what needed to be done because your real goals weren’t the service of the story. Like last week, I knew that I needed to put more focus on the danger posed by the antagonist. In order to do that, I had to have these thoughts elbow out the MC’s rhapsodizing crushy feelings for an ally. I wept at the prospect. I was able to do it, this time–I don’t yet know how successfully.

    It is like, these people are a lot more to me than figures in a story. So I wonder if it will even be possible for me to persevere until the story happens.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Sounds like you’re faced with “killing some darlings.” This is always hard, but if it’s in the story’s best interest, it can open up a lot of avenues that were previously blocked.

  4. Yes, there are days when writing is harder than usual. Conversely, there are days when it flows easily. Thanks for the roadmap for the tough writing days.

  5. Thanks for this excellent list of strategies.

    I have found some clues to help me overcome one of my current writer blocks: I haven’t been able to write my daily prayer blog for a while, and I am also having trouble keeping to the schedule for my writer blog. I will be praying about how to use your list to get me moving again )i(

    So while I have been pushing aside the guilt associated with not fulfilling my promise to myself, I have picked up a pen and started taking notes on real paper. A while ago, I swapped the real ink and paper method for the faster typing of my ideas directly onto the computer page (which also allows me to hit delete because I don’t like what I discover). I chose a journal that was a gift, so ripping out a page is impossible, and each time I start writing a sentence, I feel a sense of privilege because I know that the book was given because the giver knew I want to be an author.

    I have also subscribed to lots of reader-writer pages and newsletters, so that I don’t feel so isolated. Nothing beats filling my journal with notes and comments about how other writers deal with the BIG issues.

    The one area where my writer’s block isn’t having a catastrophic outcome (ie blank page) is the Romantic Suspense series of novels I am writing. I am privileged to have three manuscripts, in different stages of pre-publication. When I get stalled with manuscript four, I can do some more work for the others. I set up a closed discussion group on facebook with friends who have already demonstrated that they are sensitive to my emotional state and make the appropriate comments that push me back into a more positive frame of mind. To let them know what is going on, I keep them updated with the project, and any other big issues relating to this writing journey. So far, their feedback has been helpful in moving me forward.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      From the sounds of that last paragraph, I’d say you’re still being awfully productive for someone experiencing a block. Good for you! 🙂

  6. “1. Just Admit the Writing Is Hard”

    This actually works, holy cow! I just said those words to myself and all the tension in my mind just went away.

  7. Thank you for this post! I am actually struggling with an idea I like very much but don’t know how to make compelling enough! And with the tendency I have to over-complicate mi plot *sighs*

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      If you’re trying to make the story more compelling, take a good hard look at what it is *you* love most about this story. Try to add more of that.

  8. I find that, sometimes, if I just start writing stream of consciousness, writing without thinking about it, whatever pops into my head, at some point in time it will dislodge the boulder that’s in the way and I can go back to thoughtful writing on the story I’m working on. I learned how to do this by reading Jack Kerouac and other “beat generation” writers, plus William Faulkner. I am told this is how these people wrote everything. Stream of consciousness, no revision, just wrap it up and send it to the publisher. I’m not recommending that, but the practice does often work to get the muse unstuck. Then I take the drivel and send it to electron heaven. Certainlywouldn’t want to foist it on anyone else.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Stream of conscious techniques are excellent ways of tapping the subconscious creativity. This is basically what I’m talking about (sans the actual writing of sentences) when I’m “dreamzoning.”

  9. Wonderful and timely article. LOVED it. I read through my outline and take notes. Right now I am struggling with the sequence for ACT2b. I know what should be there, I know what my ending is. I am struggling with what organically should be in this sequence without cliche stuff. I also write the Cliche stuff and then Mind map how to make it non-cliche. And then there are times where I call it out and say I am resisting writing. Once I say that, then I become determined to overcome the resistance. A great book on that is The War On Art by Steven Pressfield. Once I recognize the resistance, I pull out my outline notes and just read and before I know it I am working on my story again and breaking through the Plot Block and the resistance.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      One thing I like to do in situations like this is ask myself two questions: What will the readers expect to happen here? And-What won’t they expect?

      I’ll write lists of answers for both questions and usually somewhere in there I’ll find a unique solution.

  10. I have hit this several times since taking up writing more seriously a few years ago. Like you said, sometimes it’s just “plot block”. but for me, many times it’s actually something else that is sucking me dry (parenting, homeschooling, commitments to friends or other groups), leaving me feeling like I have nothing left to create with. I’ve tried a lot of things, but consistently I find that planning ahead in everyday life (meal planning, making a double batch of food, ordering things from amazon rather than running to the store) and taking the time to do the little things I enjoy (getting a nice smelling bar of soap, starting a fire, or enjoying a new kind of tea) help me to feel a little more relaxed and ready to try. maybe the words will be few, maybe they will be awful. but overall I will feel better when I start trying and will feel better when I end because I tried.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      “I will feel better when I start trying and will feel better when I end because I tried.”

      Love this. Sometimes even just making the time to write a sentence makes the day better. And one sentence often leads to two…

  11. theotherworldsnet says

    Another great article, KM!

    I just got out of a long writer’s “funk” a couple days back, but I know these tips will prove useful in the future when I get stuck again.

    This time, for me, it was mostly about distractions – shiny object syndrome, which feeds my self-proclaimed “useful procrastination.” It’s so easy to give in to chasing after a tool or skill that at the time seems to offer exactly what I think I need to move on, scale up, or just plain improve momentously. There’s always something, and they almost never deliver the injection of super-mojo I was hoping for. In some ways this is the curse of the internet – TMGP (too many green pastures).

    At any rate, I got some life-changing news recently and it made me reevaluate all this arm-flapping activity. I realize now that, while some of that stuff is important to follow up on (there is good stuff to be learned), it is not as important as doing the hardest and most rewarding work I’ve ever known: writing.

    Here’s hoping you come out of your current “funk” with colors flying and your hair on fire!
    KC

  12. Jenny Benfield says

    This post came at just the right time for me! My main character is in prison and some fellow prisoners are working with him to escape. He then chooses not to escape but the escaped prisoners see him as a friend and ally. I have been stuck on this for days! I have bought your book on writer’s block (a very fair price). And being rewarded with a solution following your ‘what if’ scenario which came to me as I was writing this. It’s blindingly obvious really. He does escape but then he is caught and put back into prison. Yes! Yes! Thank you

  13. Hi. I was interested with the fact that your problems are arising from the fact that your current WIP is the last in a series. This is exactly tha situation that I am in. The first two books are ready to self publish but I don’t want to do that until I’ve got a fair idea of how Book 3 will pan out. There’s plenty of foreshadowing in the first two books that I can use (or not), but they are all looking a tad contrived as I’ve been thinking about them for so long. And then there’s the self-inflicted time pressure to finish it that I’ve put on myself!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes, as I’m discovering, writing sequels is a whole new ballgame. Usually, when I finish a book, I’m able to put it and its problems aside for a while as I move on to outlining the next one. But not so with this one! The problems came right along with me. 😉

  14. This podcast confirmed what I’ve been going through with writer’s block. Life hits and we need to be settled again. Thank you for your insights.

  15. My problem is usually motivation. I’ll get as far as sitting in front of the keyboard and will start typing. But then whatever I type seems wrong and I can’t figure out what it is. I end up walking away from the keyboard.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      The solution I use when facing this problem is writing in timed bursts. I tell myself I have to write 300 words in 15 minutes. Once I get going, I’m almost always surprised that what writing isn’t that bad after all.

  16. Where does self-doubt fall under types of writer’s block? Does it have the same cures, or different? To me it feels like a different beast, but maybe not!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yeah, self-doubt is a huge factor in blocks. I go through (at least) one bout of impostor’s syndrome with every book I write. That’s part of my “cocktail of convergences” right now, actually. :p The only solution I know of is to ignore the nay-saying inner voice and just keep moving forward.

  17. I decided that since I was still waking up at the same time (cats 😂) but going in to work later, I should schedule that extra time for writing, or at least thinking about what I need to write. Haven’t got perfect with that – I’m very distractible. But it’s helped me realize that the problem I was having was that my story’s premise didn’t fit the main character. I’m rethinking the premise. Haven’t done any more actual writing yet, but starting to understand what I need to write once I’m ready.

  18. Thank you so much for writing this! It has really shed some light on why writing has been so hard for me lately, and what I can do about it. You rock, K.M.!

  19. I’m currently writing and finding that my words just don’t sound the way I want them to. I’ve set a small daily word count that so far I’m on track with but I think that I’m going to have to go back and rewrite it to the style and sound that I’d like. But as the saying goes, “You can always edit a bad page. You can’t edit a blank page.”

  20. Thanks for this post! I can relay on that 🙂

    I find myself with the hard, hard writer’s block over a month now, and it still doesn’t works. I know, what I want to write. I think I know enough about the outline. I found a good beginning a few days ago, but the flow just don’t want to come.
    The thing is, sometimes I prefer dreamzoning instead of real writing, and the problem with that is, that you could get addicted to it. On the other hand, if you don’t write… then what sense does it have?
    My main characters are surprisingly cooperative. Too cooperative. This may sound strange to some people, but though it’s annoying if the characters don’t want to go along with my definer outline, I get easier into that writing flow when they aren’t.

    I will try a new writing routine next week, that includes more less, but hopefully more focused and productive writing. I’m also up to resolve the biggest problem in my life outside writing, so I hope I can start writing regulary at the end of next month. Or earlier.

    Again, thanks for the post, I think it helps me to be more efficient in trying to accomplish my goal and, therefore: Solving that damn writer’s block problem 😀

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Creativity is messy, and that’s just part of the deal. But I’m a fan of efficiency. It never fails to help me. Best of luck!

  21. Hey, KM, you mentioned in an article a few weeks that you researched keywords for Wayfarer. I’ve a reference to that elsewhere, but I don’t know where to look or research. Do you have any tips? Thanks

  22. I come to writing novels after having first written screenplays, only to discover how much more difficult it is to write a novel than a screenplay. A screenplay is a kind of blueprint for a movie. The emphasis is on clear direction to the actors and director, and snappy dialogue. Flowery descriptions don’t work as screen direction, so the whole game is a concise capturing of dialogue and actions.

    One technique in writing for the screen that may be helpful to novel writers derives from this more simplified structure. In “Television and Screen Writing From Concept to Contract” by Richard A. Blum, Mr. Blum suggests the idea of a step-outline, which is a very simple numerical listing of the events of the story, usually in chronological order, including snippets of dialogue. I bought this book when I experienced another form of writer’s block; I sat down to write a screenplay and realized I had no idea how to write a screenplay.

    I have found writing these outlines are so free from critical concerns about structure that they devolve into a brainstorming effort where the creative side of the brain is completely free. I wrote these outlines longhand with a glass of wine while at some relatively quiet tavern, or while on vacation on a boat somewhere. I am the type that is typically alone in crowd, which is a little better for me than being alone in my room.

    I found at times I would have to rearrange events and make other revisions when writing the script, but this technique definitely helped sketch out the overall flow of the story. Moving to a novel from the script involved a lot of decisions about POV and such that I never considered, and the excruciatingly painful search for different and interesting ways to say things like “walked” and “looked”. In screen direction, actors typically walk and look, rather than “saunter” or “peruse.” Novel descriptions may actually confuse actors, especially those with lighter hair. Oh, snap! I didn’t just say that!

    Once I had the step outline worked out, the script was just “scribbling and bibbling,” as Mozart said in Amadeus. Getting a novel is trickier from the step outline, but you will have the ammunition for completing a more formal outline, and the confidence that you have the backbone of the story worked out.

    Anyway, if anyone gets stuck, this simple technique might help. If you are stuck trying to figure out how to tie details together, it might help to step back and focus on the simple steps that make a story, then work the details in later. Don’t worry so much about what the story “needs” and focus on sketching how the dominoes fail, and let them fall where they may. You can always pick them up and rearrange them later.

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