Wednesday, 27 May 2009

A Chip Off the Old Block

This post was written in response to a request from one of my tweeps who was suffering from a bad case of writers' block

There’s nothing more frustrating for a writer than reading a piece of “advice” that concludes “it’s all down to the individual” (in mitigation I would point out the most frustrating thing of all is to read such “advice” in something you’ve paid for, and this blog is free). And there’s nothing more irritating than an expert taking their personal experience and trying to universalise it (something writers – “ooh, you know, ignore the submission guidelines and just give ‘em what you think they should have,” “I just sent off the first 100 pages, straight to the publisher, why don’t you” – are particularly bad at).

Block really is one of those areas where, even as I type now, I can’t quite see how to avoid one of the prongs of this dilemma. I can tell you what works for me – and then either say “but you need to find what works for YOU” or “and this will work for everyone.”

And I don’t want to do either, so as a means of stalling, I’m going to give what I think is some very important advice. We all have different approaches to the way we work, rooted in our personalities. Understanding some of our basic traits can be a very good way of understanding why some things will never really work for us.

The most famous diagnostic tool for personality types is the Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI). It takes four areas of human personality and divides them into opposites, helping you to see in each case which of the pair of possibilities applies to you. It’s highly questionable in many ways, but it’s more than just a bit of hippy naval-gazing. For example, the Introvert-Extravert pair can explain a lot about our approach to writing. I certainly helped me to see why writers seem to be split in two on the issue of feedback. Introverts – on the MBTI definition – draw their energy form within themselves (they like to think about things before declaring their hand, to work things through in their head); extraverts draw their energy from the outside world (they like to bounce ideas off people, they think better interactively).

In terms of block, the MBTI Judging-Perceiving (J-P) pair seems to me to offer some hope for understanding why certain things suit certain people. J personality types will prefer to approach a task by working steadily towards the final goal. A graph of their output would look pretty much like a smooth line from start to finish. P personality types function best on the adrenalin rush of a tight deadline. After an initial burst of energy, they will find it very hard to get the motivation to do anything else until he deadline looms, when they will get a buzz off working flat-out to get the project finished. Importantly, both J and P types will get the project done on time; and both will get it done to the same high (or low) standard. But the way they do it will differ.

You can see where this is going already, I’m sure. J types suit long, sustained projects like novel-writing; P types suit a series of tight deadlines – they are made for journalism. Unfortunately the world just ain’t that simple. Self-awareness is great, but knowing our strengths and weaknesses doesn’t mean we long to play to them (although it DOES mean that we can be aware of the risks if we decide to play against them). I am as extreme a P personality type as it’s possible to get (how I ended up as an administrator/project manager for my day job I don’t know! Fortunately I’m also an E and an “F” (a touchy feely people-first type) so I find it fairly easy to get people to think I’m doing a good job!), but I want to write novels.

What an awareness of the mismatch between my MBTI type and my dream has given me is the opportunity to try and restructure my approach to fulfilling that dream. There’s a fundamental point about block that I’ll come to at the end, but what awareness of my P personality type has done is enabled me to structure what’s essentially a vast, long project in the form of lots of little ones. I’m writing The Man Who Painted Agnieszka’s Shoes “live” (I post chapters as I write them) on the web, and seeking interaction form readers as I go. Of course, this suits my extravert personality type. But it also creates a series of mini-deadlines (the problem with saying “I must write 1000 words a day” is that if you don’t there’s no sanction – a P type needs the deadline to be real). If I don’t have two chapters a week, the project will fall to pieces. I haven’t had serious block once.

I’m sure a large amount of block is actually the result of a P personality type not realising they are a P, and trying to write in a way that suits the J type.

Which brings me to two general points about block. The first is that one major cause of block is perfectionism. We get frightened of writing the first thing that comes into our head in case it’s rubbish. Perfectionism can be crippling, and is too big an issue for me to deal with here in full (it can also be a clinical condition, and I don’t want to trivialise it by undercooking my answers). What I will say is that writing in public has been a fantastic way of getting over perfectionism for me. It is, at first, very hard. I’ve got over that by making a joke out of the fact I’m making my first drafts public. That certainly won’t work for everyone. You might want to join a critiquing group like or and post your first drafts there. The main thing – and this is the main theme of this blog, the path between universalising personal experience and giving in to relativism, is self-awareness. Once you realise it’s perfectionism holding you back, you’ll be further on the road to solving the problem.

My final point is about how we choose to prepare for writing a novel. I’m not going to generalise here, and it’s certainly true that the most detailed advance synopsis can get derailed by a character who suddenly decides not to play ball. But if your problem isn’t a fear of writing rubbish, or a difficulty with motivation, the chances are it’s a problem with “what next?” What next can mean all sorts of things, but in general it means “my character won’t do what I want her/him to do.”

There are whole books written about dealing with this, and I have a couple of paragraphs. I’m not going to advocate detailed advanced planning to avoid block. That’s a red herring as far as I’m concerned (but again, the awareness that you may have a problem because you haven’t thought this bit of the story through may be a great kicking off point for an answer. it can be really fruitful – do you need this bit of the story at all? Could you do something really exciting with it?).

I plan a story by producing a graphic synopsis – I literally draw the story arcs. It works for me because I think very visually. I can see the book’s structure. I know where it’s going in general. I also do a fair bit of character sketching (words, this time – I think visually and I can do a nice diagram, but I can’t “draw” for toffee). I write out quite detailed “plans” for chapters five chapters at a time (I write short chapters, 1000-2000 words), so I always know the general structure of the story, where I am in that structure, and what’s coming next. It works for me – I write pretty much at the speed I can type because I’ve got the mechanics there already. Doing these mini chapter plans is also great for cutting out deadwood – if a plan reads “information about” or “we learn that” I ditch it. Each chapter has a focal character, and the plan tells me how that character changes in the chapter. I do think “static” chapters are another cause of block – if you know where you’re starting and where you’re going the rest is the fun bit. If you don’t have that A and B you may THINK you’re fishing for words – chances are you’re actually fishing for the “B”.

I hope I’ve steered a kind of middle course. I’ve told you what I do, but by telling you WHY I do it, and not pretending it’s a universal truth, I hope that even if I haven’t given answers to meet everyone’s needs, I have at least given you a set of questions to help you find the answers that work for you.


  1. That's all fairly sensible. I am lucky enough to know Dan and he warned me against perfectionism on our first or second real life meeting. It might sound funny but it really liberated me. I am on youwriteon and I find it very helpful, if only because writing is a lonely lonely job.
    I am not as productive as Dan but I found a system that works for me. As I read his post I've realised it is quite similar to his method. One technique I've adopted to 'cure' my block is to shut the computer down, take a pen and a notebook and write whatever scene I'm blocked on on paper. I know it's not perfect, and I rework it when I key it in, but usually the essence of the scene is there already. I find that I block when I have reached an important point in the narrative, when I have to write what I call a 'bridge-scene' that will have an impact on the whole book. This isn't a 'what next?' kind of block, as I know what I want to write next. I put too much pressure on myself and want the work to come out perfect and publishable straightaway. If I accept that my work will need reviewing before I start writing I am more relaxed and more creative as I'm ready to try more daring things during the 'mock writing' stage.
    Good luck everybody with your projects!

  2. Hi Laurie! Yes! Bridge scenes are so difficult - it's as though your characters are on one side of an almost infinitely thin wall and on the other side is a whole world of story waiting to be written. The only thing you have to do to get them there is punch through that tiny, thin surface, but you just can't. I had that feeling a couple of times with "TMWPAS" and concluded on both occasions that the chapters in question had to change because, writing a serial, I couldn't afford bridging scenes, so I looked to see what happened if I added a complication to the scene (even if it ended up going nowhere).

    I think the idea of chaning your writing method - from computer to pen and paper like you say, for example, is a really good one. There's actually a different mechanics going on in the brain - you're using different neural pathways I guess - so as well as the "change is as good as a rest" syndrome I have a feeling there might actually be a scientific reason why this would work. You're also right about perfectionism - I have a feeling there's something psychologically liberating about writng in a format you know CAN'T be the finished version - it takes that presssure off.

  3. But how do you make yourself go back and edit what you wrote? I think about what I write (for assignments and my blog!) throughout the day and then spit it all out with a quick review at the end for typos and non-sequiturs (very Anthony Trollope). However, once that's done, I am extremely loath to touch it at all; once it's out there, I don't have the energy to go back and mess around with it - time for something new!

  4. Hi Tony. With Aggie, I've been blocking in periods of time to do the edits - and by making the rewriting part of the project, it gives me a much-needed kick up the backside to do it. Usually, I adopt a "write in the week and rewrite at weekends" policy. And then when the draft is complete I use my writing time for solid rewriting. I also put my work on critiquing sites like and - so whenever I get feedback it makes me think about whether something needs changing.

    In terms of blogs - in general I don't think we should edit - if we do, it should be wiki-style, where we make the editing trackable. I think that preserves an authenticity to the form - blogs are like the literary world's action painting

  5. "Write in the week and rewrite at weekends" is very sound advice, as is turning off the computer, using pencils you need to sharpen from time to time, and so forth. Kingsley Amis said that the hardest thing for him was getting a character out of his apartment and into a taxi cab, and this is often the case. Of course, Amis's writing was fuelled by daily trips down to the pub, and I suppose that works too.

    I'm not a prolific 'blogger, but I do see 'blogging as a way of effectively conveying an idea to get it out of my thoughts, so I can refer back to it later if need be, a sort of process of ignoring or forgetting a persistent idea. An oubliette for wayward thoughts.

  6. What he found hardest was probably getting himself out of the pub and into the taxi, but yes, it's those little things that sometimes feel pretty much impossible (which is where *** and a new paragraph slips in as shorthand)

    "An oubliette for wayward thoughts" - hmm, that should be a blog title, Piers

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