Thoughts on Writer’s Block | Carol Berg

About the author

Former software engineer Carol Berg never expected to become an award-winning author.  But her thirteen epic fantasy novels have won national and international awards, including multiple Colorado Book Awards and the Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for Adult Literature. She’s taught writing in the US, Canada, Scotland, and Israel, and received reader mail from the slopes of Denali to beneath the Mediterranean.  All amazing for one who majored in math and computer science to avoid writing papers.  Her novels of the Collegia Magica have received starred reviews from Publishers Weekly and Kirkus Reviews, using words like compelling and superbly realized.  Learn more at her website.

Thoughts on Writers Block

I would love to say my stories blossom fully formed, and the words always flow like water from a faucet, ready to fill the empty vessels of scenes and characters, ever easy to turn on and off.  But, alas, not so.

My definition of writers’ block is:  the inability to move forward, ie. produce new words, with a writing project.

Does this occasional incapacity mean I’m a bad writer?  No.  I produce books that I’m happy with.  Yet still, from time to time, I get stuck.  (It helps to know it happens to people who are much better and more experienced writers than I am!)

Does it mean I have a bad process? No.  It happens to writers who use all kinds of processes, from rigorous outlines to purest develop-as-you-go.

Does it have one particular cause?  Heck no.  Maybe we shouldn’t call it writers’ block at all, as if it is a single disease or something outside of ourselves.  Blockages stem from our own particular circumstances, and identifying the cause is the first step to getting over it.  In my case, the inability to move forward on a writing project usually has one of two causes.

First Cause: Fragmentation

Point one.  I wish I could work on multiple projects at once, but like an old dog with a bone, my brain wants to be occupied with only one story idea (or work project or remodeling job, or whatever I’m doing) at a time, and finish it before starting something else.

Point two.  I write complicated stories.  They focus on one or two principal characters, but deal with multiple plot lines and the characters’ shifting understanding of the events, mysteries, and other characters that surround them.  These stories are set against the background of great events in worlds that are not this one.  Worlds I have to invent.

Point three.  I also use what many people call an organic writing process.  (I hate the word pantser).  I begin with some very specific ideas about characters, situations, and world, but develop detailed plot, settings, and characterization as I write.

The combination of these three points means that I need extended periods of concentration to hold all these ideas in my head and produce new ideas for scenes.  When my days are chopped up by visitors, unusual business demands (eg. come up with cover suggestions for the book you haven’t half finished yet or prepare a point-of-view workshop for an upcoming writers’ conference), traveling, home projects, or even the best kinds of distractions like holidays or vacations, it limits my “clear space” for work and I often find myself unable to get moving again, even when life calms down again.

Sometimes I just have to keep inching forward for a while, defining progress as something other than new words–refining a plot idea, perhaps.  Cleaning up a scene that is rough.  Reviewing proof pages for other projects.

But when I’ve been really fragmented and progress has ground to a halt, there are two drastic things that help me get moving again.

Immersion: If I foresee a period of relative calm – like January – I do a complete reread of the “story so far” and all my pages of notes and ideas.

Displacement: I get out of my usual work space (at home).  The most effective displacement is a retreat to my favorite little hotel in the mountains with some writer friends where I have nothing to do but focus on the story. (And I have eyes to notice and voices to scoff if I sit there playing spider solitaire.)  Second best, a visit to a coffee shop with only pen and paper.

Second Cause: Wrong Turns

This is the most frequent cause of my failure to produce new words.  The way I develop my stories means I start out writing a scene–or a set of scenes–with a particular expectation of where they’re going.  But I bring in details of action and emotion, twists and turns along the way.  Sometimes, I just hit a wall.  It could be in page three or chapter 18.  I can’t push on no matter how many hours I sit at the computer.  Yes, I deny it, and continue to allow distractions like solitaire or email or facebook to hide the problem.  But once I admit that I’m stuck, I have a few tried and true strategies.  I pull out the analytical side of my brain and:

Look at structure.  Where was I last happy with the way the story was going?  Where was the last decision point?  The last plot twist?  Did I go somewhere unexpected and end up at a dead end?  Where did I veer off into the weeds?

Make lists.  Sometimes it’s simple confusion that gets in my way.  For the Collegia Magica books, the mingling of double-agent mysteries with fantasy, I had to write out parallel lists of what my investigators knew and when, what my villains knew and when, what my renegade sorcerer knew and when, and such like.  Following the threads, allowed me to figure out what was missing.  Sometimes I need to work on a timeline.  Sometimes I need to follow through what I’ve said about certain characters because I can’t figure out their motivations.

Ask questions.  Hard thinking is usually the answer to any story development problem.  If I can’t figure out where to take the story next, I try to ferret out fundamental questions of goals and motivations.  What does he want?  Why did she do that cool thing I just invented.  Whose portraits have been altered?  Maybe I’ve made the wrong person the villain.  If not the one I chose, who else might it be?  Even if you are a strict outliner, you might come to realize that the choices you made are the wrong ones.

Call for help.  Every writer should have someone – spouse, writer friend, first reader, muse – to bounce ideas off of.  It doesn’t make the work less “your own,” but serves to stimulate sticky thinking.  I am fortunate to have a most excellent friend who allows me to bombard her with the current state of my WIP, including the circumstances of the current snag.  Often it is the very act of explaining with my voice instead of my fingers on keyboard that allows me to see the problem.  Sometimes it is the simple questions she asks that illuminate the dilemma.  “But what if it wasn’t?” or “Is that the only reason he chose that way?”

And very often, I find that the answers and insights I gain from this hard thinking, are exactly what I need to take the story to a higher level.

Good luck with your own blocks.  Happy writing!

12 Responses

  • Whatever the cause and the solution, I’m glad you always work your way through!

  • What a great breakdown, Carol! That’s why I love learning from you.


  • Love it, Carol!

    I’m primarily an organic writer, too, and the result is that I sometimes take the long way (unintentionally) to get where the story is going. But for me it’s more fun than left-brain writing. (I’m looking for a mixture of the two that suits me.)

    Generally I don’t get stuck. It’s happened only once, and I lost a lot of time trying to figure out what happened! I wish I’d ready this post at that time, ‘cuz I might have figured out a lot faster that I took a wrong turn and my muse was putting on the brakes and refusing all forward motion until I knew what I was doing. Eventually I did figure it out, ripped out 7000 words, and finished the rest of the first draft with no more problems!

    • Lucky girl, Marti! Though I’ll say I had much less problem with it early on. I think I was better about just letting the words flow and working out the kinks later. Now, they hit me square on a bit more often.

  • For me, and I suspect this is true for most writers, the second problem is the most common. Whenever I have writer’s block it’s because I’ve hit a vague part of my outline, or the characters need to get from A to B but they aren’t even walking. Like the story’s engine has stalled. When this happens, it’s back to the drawing board–i.e., the outline. How can I get things moving again? I move around the pieces in my head, make notes, and try to gin up some action.

    • Yes, #2 is definitely the more common. And even if one does not have an outline, this is the time to get some things straight.

  • LisaC

    I loved the writing in the Collegia Magica series. Thanks for a look at all the work that goes into it.

    • Thanks so much, Lisa. It’s kind of scary when I write it all down!

  • Jill

    Thank you, Carol! I find your writing process fascinating. 🙂

    • I probably make it harder than it is. But then, that’s the way I get it done.

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