My name is M Harold Page ("Martin" is actually fine) and I don't really believe in Writers Block.
Yes, OK, it does describe a situation: "Oh look, there's a writer banging their head on the desk and weeping with frustration. (OMG is that blood?)"
And that was me for the last couple of months. My productivity plummeted. The contract I was working on seemed complicated and hard to focus on...
Then I had a very overdue eye test and the optician regarded my current reading glasses and said, "I wouldn't be wearing those."
It wasn't my brain. It wasn't my Fickle Muse (Oh The Angst). It was my damned eyes.
Not getting around for my eye test had cost me weeks of productivity and even begun to trigger self doubt. Was I really able to hack it as a writer? Would it make me happy?
Stupid! Stupid! STUPID!
Except when I started talking to other people about this, they had similar stories. External stuff - illness, eyes, depression, RSI - seeps into our lives in imperceptible increments. We're like a lobster going, "Ooo. Seafood! Where is that nice smell is coming from?" We don't realise we're the one being cooked until too late!
And that's the wider experience. Writer's block always turns out to be either some issue with skill, or else some non-writing specific issue revealed by the attempt to write.
So, inspired by the Checklist Manifesto, here's a checklist to get you out of the cooking pot. I've listed the most common issues first, but they are, alas, not mutually exclusive...
1. Is your literary skillset broken?
In aspiring and new writers, "blocked" usually just means, "stymied by some deficiency in craft". I got some evil looks when I declared this on a panel recently, but it's true and it's the embarrassing story of the first decade of my serious attempts to write.
Do you actually know how to write your story? Really? Some of it you can learn on the job, but if that's not working you need to look at similar published books with an analytical eye, and perhaps read some good writing books*.
*This is obviously the moment to pimp my book on writing, as praised by Hannu Rajaniemi and Ken McLeod. However if you are penniless and send me a nice email, you can have one of a limited number of free copies; it was written in part as a letter to my miserable younger self, so sharing it gives me some sense of closure.
2. Is your story broken?
If you're going round in circles with a chapter or scene, something else is usually wrong.
Typically, the problem is either (a) further back - you need to add things to Chapter 3 to make Chapter 7 work (don't rewrite at this stage, just make a note) - or (b) further up, at a higher level of abstraction, which is a nice way of saying that your plot doesn't have enough interesting conflict. (Yes, see above for a link to my book.)
3. Is your writing setup broken?
If you put in a lot of hours writing, there's a good chance that the real reason your writing is grinding to a halt is that your typing chair is uncomfortable or that you need new glasses (blush), or that your monitor needs replacing, or your space is badly lit, or wrongly lit or... Gradually you become reluctant to sit down and work, or quickly exhausted when you do.
So check your ergonomics, have your eyes tested, update your writing machine, be realistic about your writing space. Whatever it takes.
4. Are you broken?
It's hard to work creatively when you are operating below par, e.g. because you are ill, depressed, stressed by work, or in need of a holiday. This is all miserable stuff, but approached pragmatically (rather than sympathetically), it divides up into the following:
Temporarily Broken - Work sucks at the moment. Your granny just died. You have flu. You just became a parent... None of this will last. It's time to take a break and sort yourself out. In the mean time, feed your creativity by reading books you enjoy, or by researching around your storyworld.
Forcing yourself to write can just result in spewing out drivel that you subsequently delete or waste days untangling and then delete anyway.
Long Term Broken - You have ME or MS... You are in an ongoing battle with depression or cancer... Or you're just trapped in a dysfunctional work or domestic situation... Whatever it is, it's nothing that you can just fix. (Nor can you just buck yourself up and get on with it or [insert unthinking crass advice here usually relating to diet or copper bracelets].)
People do write successfully despite this kind of thing. You don't have to - perhaps you have enough on your plate? - but assuming you want to...
The people who manage it appear to work around rather than despite whatever the problem is. This takes discipline, opportunism - working when you can! - but also help from other people. It means relying on partners to give you space when you need it, and on beta readers to boost your productivity by acting as a second brain. And it can mean doing a mental judo trick where the writing becomes a refuge.
5. Is your mental approach broken?
This is the one that people leap at because it's what writers are supposed to do: angst, wallow in self doubt, agonise about single sentences.
I left this until last for a reason. There's this bug in humans that we misattribute feelings; we bond when drunk or high, we fall in love on holiday, we think our life is crap when we have flu. So your crippling performance anxiety, your imposter syndrome, your fear of exposing your inner self to the scrutiny of the reading public? They might all be spurious explanations for not being able to work - go recheck points 1-4.
Then again, these feelings might be entirely real.
Though not unique to writing, writing has a unique way of pinging them. And perhaps there's something about writers that tends to make us vulnerable. People who want to sit quietly in private and type stories aren't necessarily thick-skinned extroverts and "just do-it" extreme life hackers. Often we don't have much experience of putting ourselves "out there" and writing being a private thing, we don't have many role models to hand.
There's lots of advice around on how to deal with what Steve Pressfield calls "resistance". To my British sensibilities, it all sounds like what you'd get if Rambo became an evangelical preacher; it goes against the grain to Make A Fuss. However, a Stiff Upper Lip won't help much because that means giving mental real estate to these unuseful feelings. Instead, let me offer two suggestions that work for me:
First, try not to do the angsting and creating at the same time. Make a deal with yourself that nothing goes out the door until you've thought about. Do the writing for fun and make the quality control a different task entirely. I call this "hiding behind the next draft".
Second, try to get a realistic handle on what competent writing looks like in your chosen genre. If you have an objective yardstick, your writing won't feel so sucky...
...which takes us back to #1 Is your skillset broken?
M Harold Page is the sword-wielding author of books like Swords vs Tanks (Charles Stross: "Holy ****!") and is planning some more historical fiction. For his take on writing, read Storyteller Tools: Outline from vision to finished novel without losing the magic (Ken MacLeod: "...very useful in getting from ideas etc to plot and story." Hannu Rajaniemi: "...find myself to coming back to [this] book in the early stages.")