Thoughts on Writer’s Block | David Annandale

About the Author

David writes fiction in a variety of genres: SF/Fantasy, horror, thrillers; as well as non-fiction about film and video games. He also teaches courses on film, games, literature and creative writing.

You can visit David’s blog here and follow him on Twitter.


If writer’s block is the universal threat to the creative process, the dreaded obstacle that we all slam into at one time or another, I have been pretty lucky, all in all. To the best of my recollection, only twice have I hit a wall so solid that it either ended all work on a given project, or at least came very close to doing so. That sort of block is one I think of as the dinosaur-killer (he said, beginning a thorough mix of metaphors). At its worst, it is a project’s extinction-level event. Since running into it, I have, fortunately, developed counter-measures, and it’s been a long time since I had to deal with a problem of that scale. There are, however, other, smaller strikes. Minor blocks. These remain an occupational hazard, but I have a strategy there, too, that so far seems to be working fairly well.

Starting with the ELE block, then, the counter-measure is, simply, the outline. When I first started writing novel-length works, I loathed the very idea of an outline, believing firmly in the organic, exploratory growth of the novel. I want to go back to that younger self and give him a firm swat to the back of the head. This is not to say that my initial position is wrong for everyone, but I was a stubborn idiot to think that it was right for me. Even at my most improvisational, however, I always had an ending in mind. I have always believed that knowing the ending is critical, especially for genre fiction. It is the lodestone that tugs the plot forward. But in the two instances where I hit my worst block, I jumped in with a premise, not a story. Result: I didn’t know where I was heading, and hit a dead end very quickly.

I muddled along in this way through the manuscripts of three trunk novels and my first published one. But during the writing of Crown Fire, I was having to write more and more elaborate notes about what was coming up. From Kornukopia on, I have worked from detailed, systematic outlines, and I am never going back. Quite apart from the structural benefits (I know my plotting has become much tighter), the anti-block mechanism of the outline is powerful. I now always have a map. I always know where I’m going. I may run into difficulties in sorting out the finer points of getting from scene A to scene B, but the massive, I-have-no-idea-what-happens-next barrier appears to be a thing of the past.

Which isn’t to say, of course, that the A-to-B block can’t be a massive headache. Also potentially fearsome is the very first block: the one that stands in the way of the conception of the story. The outline won’t help here. In the first instance, a macro-level view of the story isn’t going to do the job: knowing where London and Paris are in relation to one another isn’t going to get help me if I’m lost in the streets. At the other end of the creation process, I can’t very well write an outline if I can’t get the basic concept of the story to gel in the first place.

When I’m struggling with the latter problem, I resort to two different tactics. The first involves writing point-form notes as quickly as possible, not worrying about how they connect. The goal is to get the ideas flowing. After a few minutes of immersion in the process, a pattern usually begins to emerge, the previously disjointed notes starting to flow together, with events and characters taking shape. With a bit of luck, this process takes me from a notion, to an idea, and finally to the rough contours of the story itself.

But I’m not always lucky. Sometimes, the story ferociously resists this method to bring it out into the open. I was engaged in this wrestling match just a few weeks ago, trying to come up with the follow-up to Gethsemane Hall. When caught in this way, I have one more card to play, and it’s the same one I use to sort out the obstreperous plot wrinkles that try to stop me mid-chapter. (And these snickering little speed bumps are the ones I am more likely to hit than the big-idea wall when I’m working on my Warhammer 40,000 projects.)

So, what is this to-date-foolproof tactic?

I go for a walk.

I fear I just heard a groan of disappointment. That’s my method? Something that hoary? That obvious? That dull?

Yep. Sorry. Precisely why it works, I don’t know. Something to do with physical exertion concentrating the mind, I’m guessing, plus a relative lack of distractions (the dreaded blank screen or blinking cursor are demoniacal temptations to Internet-driven procrastination). I wish I had a better idea of why it worked, because I have this delusion having the mechanics unveiled would allow me go make the trick work on command. As if stands, there’s a discomfiting element of magical thinking about the process, for me. I go for a walk, and sooner or later, poof, out of the blue, the answers come. That seems to me like a suspiciously vague way of going about things. It feels like I’m leaving too much to chance.

But it works. Again and again and again, it works. It is also very pleasant.

And it did the job with the Gethsemane Hall follow-up. That took two walks, but I’m in business.

So…er… yeah. Walks, outlines and note-taking: my recipe for breaking through writer’s block. Guess I didn’t need to go on for a thousand words just to get you that.

Proves that the recipe is working, though, doesn’t it?

Check out David’s books here. (I’d list them all with pictures but he’s written a lot…. so I figure you can click on the link and discover more for yourself. Forgive my laziness.)

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