Dealing with Writer’s Block: What’s Lurking?

At one point or another, pretty much every writer hits a wall. For whatever reason, you can be moving along at full tilt when, all of a sudden, you realize that you’ve either painted yourself into a corner or, worse, that you’re fresh out of paint. The technical term for this, I believe, is writer’s block.

The important thing to remember when you’re hit with writer’s block is not to panic. Instead, look back over what you’ve written and try to figure out what’s “lurking.” In other words, what remains unsaid? Where’s the potential for your story to grow? For example, is there a character you’ve mentioned in passing but have yet to develop? Is there a “gun over the fireplace” that you haven’t fired yet? Have any of your characters missed opportunities to meet? Is a character holding back on expressing her true feelings or revealing an important detail?

I recently saw the author Robin Black read from her wonderful collection of short stories, If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This. One of the things she said she does when she’s stuck is to go back and look for places where her characters don’t speak their minds because they’re trying to be polite. She’ll then remind herself that her characters don’t need to be as polite as she is, and she’ll allow her characters to say what she might never say in real life. From there, the story is forced to take a new turn.

By allowing something that’s lurking to creep out into the open, you give your work the opportunity to do something unexpected. When that happens, your work takes on new life. To go back to my initial analogy, it’s a little bit like giving yourself the power to paint a doorway into the corner you thought you’d painted yourself into—and then to step through that doorway and into the rest of your story.

Phrases to Avoid

In my capacity as a reviewer and editor, I’ve come across a lot of over-used phrases. My best guess is that writers use these phrases to give their writing a sense of personality—to make the storytelling seem natural, to proffer the illusion that the narrator is “just a regular guy.” The problem is that this regular guy uses trite clumps of words that hold no real meaning and, worse, come off as hackneyed and amateurish.

What follows is a list of words and phrases that really get under my skin. Granted, this list is probably largely subjective, and in all honesty, there’s an excellent chance that I’ve used these phrases myself from time to time. I also wouldn’t be surprised if some of my favorite writers allow these phrases to creep into their work. But I’m also willing to bet that these phrases show up far less in published fiction than in the manuscripts and self-published works that have come across my desk.

  • anyway: “Anyway, everything I spelled out in minute detail over the last three paragraphs was completely irrelevant to the main point I’m about to make. But thanks for hanging in there with me while I cleared my throat.”
  • don’t get me wrong: “Don’t get me wrong. I’ve given you a lot of miscues and irrelevant information up to this point, but I’m about to clear it all up with some clunky exposition that will make my true feelings painfully obvious.”
  • if you know what I mean: “That guy’s kind of a jerk, if you know what I mean. And if you don’t know what I mean, then either you’re an idiot or I’m not doing a good job of telling my story.”
  • mind you: “Nobody uses this phrase more than narrators in bad fiction, mind you, but I’m going to use it anyway because I want to underscore an obvious point.”
  • now: “Now a lot of people in real life begin sentences with this word, but a lot of people in real life aren’t writers.”
  • one of those: “He drank one of those beers that people are always drinking in fancy bars. Sure, I could have just said that he drank a beer, he drank a microbrew, he drank an imported lager, or even that he drank a fancy beer, but I threw ‘one of those’ into the mix to demonstrate that I’m just one of those regular straight-talkin’ guys.”
  • sort of: “I’m sort of worried that my writing will lose some of its impact due to my use of language that undercuts the full weight of the emotions I’m trying to convey.”
  • well: “Well, everyone I know told me that my story was great, so those editors who said it could use a little more work must all be idiots.”
  • what you need to understand: “What you need to understand is that this is just the way I write. If you don’t like it, then… Hey! Why did you stop reading?”
  • you might say: “You might say this guy has a real stick up his ass about overused words and phrases. Then again, you might also notice that the sentence conveys the same meaning if you simply write, This guy has a real stick up his ass about overused words and phrases.

How Books Are Made

In case you ever wondered how your manuscript gets turned into a book, here’s a brief film on the subject circa 1947:

But if you’ve been thinking about publishing your book via a Print on Demand or POD service, you might want to check out my essay, “Wherefore Print on Demand?” at The Nervous Breakdown.