This article, by Charlie Jane Anders, originally appeared on io9 on 10/6/11.
Writer’s Block. It sounds like a fearsome condition, a creative blockage. The end of invention. But what is it, really?
Part of why Writer’s Block sounds so dreadful and insurmountable is the fact that nobody ever takes it apart. People lump several different types of creative problems into one broad category. In fact, there’s no such thing as "Writer’s Block," and treating a broad range of creative slowdowns as a single ailment just creates something monolithic and huge. Each type of creative slowdown has a different cause — and thus, a different solution.
Instead of feeling overwhelmed by the terrifying mystique of Writer’s Block, it’s better to take it apart and understand it — and then conquer it. Here are 10 types of Writer’s Block and how to overcome each type.
1. You can’t come up with an idea.
This is the kind where you literally have a blank page and you keep typing and erasing, or just staring at the screen until Angry Birds calls to you. You literally can’t even get started because you have no clue what to write about, or what story you want to tell. You’re stopped before you even start.
There are two pieces of good news for anyone in this situation: 1) Ideas are dime a dozen, and it’s not that hard to get the idea pump primed. Execution is harder — of which more in a minute. 2) This is the kind of creative stoppage where all of the typical "do a writing exercise"-type stuff actually works. Do a ton of exercises, in fact. Try imagining what it would be like if a major incident in your life had turned out way differently. Try writing some fanfic, just to use existing characters as "training wheels." Try writing a scene where someone dies and someone else falls in love, even if it doesn’t turn into a story. Think of something or someone that pisses you off, and write a totally mean satire or character assassination. (You’ll revise it later, so don’t worry about writing something libelous at this stage.) Etc. etc. This is the easiest problem to solve.
2. You have a ton of ideas but can’t commit to any of them, and they all peter out.
Now this is slightly harder. Even this problem can take a few different forms — there’s the ideas that you lose interest in after a few paragraphs, and then there’s the idea that you thought was a novel, but it’s actually a short story. (More about that here.) The thing is, ideas are dime a dozen — but ideas that get your creative juices flowing are a lot rarer. Oftentimes, the coolest or most interesting ideas are the ones that peter out fastest, and the dumbest ideas are the ones that just get your motor revving like crazy. It’s annoying, but can you do?
My own experience is that usually, you end up having to throw all those ideas out. If they’re not getting any traction, they’re not getting any traction. Save them in a file, come back to them a year or ten later, and maybe you’ll suddenly know how to tackle them. You’ll have more experience and a different mindset then. It’s possible someone with more stubbornness could make one of those idea work right away, but probably not — the reason you can’t get anywhere with any of them is because they’re just not letting you tell the story you really want to tell, down in the murky subconscious.
The good news? Usually when I’m faced with the "too many ideas, none of them works" problem, I’m a few days away from coming up with the idea that does work, like gangbusters. Your mind is working in overdrive, and it’s close to hitting the jackpot.