I once heard it said, undoubtedly by a rookie, in a rather self-righteous tone that writer’s block is a lie. This person told me that, if you’re so unfamiliar with your work that you have nothing to say, you have no business writing. As a writer, you’re going to meet plenty of people with this perspective. These people are as blatantly foolish, but that’s not entirely my point.
Quality work – in any regard, not just writing – requires that you hold yourself and your output to a higher standard. Many times, writer’s block is a matter of not having quite the right words for what needs to be said, or lacking a bridge between the current scene and the next in the case of narratives. But sometimes, the purpose is lost and the work goes stale. A big part of holding your work to a higher standard is knowing and accepting that sometimes you have to start over from scratch or just scrap the idea altogether.
And I speak from experience when I say this. For about a decade, I worked on a novel through a multitude of incarnations. I would get through anywhere from 20 to 200 pages, realize I had changed directions too abruptly with altered ideas, and throw it out. Eventually, I finished the darned thing. It came out to well over 500 pages of epic fantasy action. I started re-reading it to proofread and edit. Then I realized, every time I stepped away for a couple of weeks, I reworked the overall concept and had thus ended up with a Swiss cheese plot. What was to be the final rendition of half my life’s work ended up in the garbage, because I decided that, while the concept was a sure seller, the execution was something I didn’t want my name on.
So when you’ve hit a block in a large project, look back on what you’ve written thus far. If the work feels inconsistent, that’s exactly why you’re stuck. Your mind can’t make sense of what you’ve manifested from a mess of ideas, and as a result, it’s nearly impossible to continue. At this point, you can either scrap it and start over, or you can decide which string you want to unravel from the tangled mess and weed out the rest with a fine-toothed comb.
In other cases, you might just be having trouble figuring out where to go next, or how to get from Point A to Point B. After all, transitions can be just as important as the scenes themselves. Rereading parts of your work will help with this as well, as it will refresh your insight on your creations and also re-familiarize you with your writing techniques.
As strange as it sounds, it’s possible to lose “the touch” with any skill. Writing is one skill that comes with the built-in benefit of allowing us to learn from our past successes when we find ourselves in a rut.
But if you still feel out of touch with your characters and concept after rereading, there may not have been anything to get in touch with in the first place. If your techniques don’t come back after observing how you used them in the past, you may not have put them to use. The ideas may have been great as you perceived them in your mind, but something was lost in the transition from thought to presentation.
Among other reasons, this tends to happen when we focus the bulk of our attention on the beginning, the end and a few key points in between. The scenes that connect these moments are absolutely vital to quality work, and when we lose sight of them, we lose both the characters and the purpose behind those landmark scenes. Sometimes, we get so concerned with personal deadlines or bulking up the pages that we end up forcing out work with the subconscious mentality of quantity over quality. I used to obsess over forcing each chapter to be at least 10 pages, until I realized that 4 great pages make for a better chapter than 4 good ones, 4 mediocre ones and 2 horrible ones. I was also guilty of the aforementioned tunnel vision in most, if not all, incarnations of my aforementioned garbage novel.
At times like this, when you can’t move on because the path is tangled or barely existed in the first place, the best approach just might be to cut your losses and throw it out. You can start it over again later, but you may feel so disenfranchised by your past failure that you’re more comfortable applying what you’ve learned to a new project. That’s what I’m doing, the latter, and things are going better than ever. Whatever your approach to the aftermath though, if you can learn from your mistakes, move forward with your new knowledge instead of abandoning writing entirely. Just as we can learn from our past successes to regain the touch, we can learn from past failures to further develop it.