Types of Writer’s Block: What Are Good Ideas??

What are good ideas?! I can’t do that. My ideas are all shit.

I’ve been there countless times. It’s not that I can’t think of what to write. Instead, I’m thinking:

  • This is cliche.
  • None of these ideas fit together.
  • This is terrible.
  • Who would want to read this crap?
  • This isn’t original enough.

I can deal with harsh feedback. I can deal with editing cringe-worthy writing. But I can’t deal with my own inner critique bashing my thoughts.

So I’ve taken a page from my cognitive behavioural therapy to work through it.

I want you to take a piece of paper and put a line horizontall across the middle. Divide the top section into two. At the top, write your idea. Label the two columns “Support” and “Opposition”; and name the bottom section “New Direction.”

I want you to distance yourself from the emotional association with your ideas. Adjectives like “stupid” or “brilliant” or “unique” or “overdone.” Thoughts like “Someone has done this better”; “Nobody would care about this”; and “This is cliche.”

Get back to the logistics and facts of your brainchild.

The spaces should be used to help you see the possibilities and the consequences of your literary idea. We all know what it’s like: one idea can lead to another, and another, and they multiply like a fungus. When we reject our ideas and still search for others, we have the drive to continue thinking. It’s your chance to seize that momentum and direct it somewhere useful. Instead of running blindly through a forest looking for a specific fungus, stop by the first tree and do a hard look at the fungus clinging to the bark.

Let’s work with an example.

My idea: In a world of vampires, a single human is born.

Support Opposition
  • Ability to explore vampiric life and society through worldbuilding.
  • Can work as a satire about eating meat.
  • Can also work as a satire about veganism.
  • Cannibalism?
  • Possibility for a thriller/suspense story.
  • Vampires have a slew of judgement attached to them in the literary world.
  • Romantic subplot would lead to “Twilight” comparisons.
  • Literary vampires have numerous cliches, such as being lusty, seductive, depressed.
New Direction
Here, consult the “Opposition” column and try to spin an opposing thought (or thoughts) into something else that might work. Focus on “What if?” to begin your contradictions to the seeming contradictions.

Romantic subplot would lead to “Twilight” comparisons:

  • What if the human is asexual and/or aromantic?
  • What if humans and vampires can’t crossbreed?
  • What if vampires and humans have different ways of attraction?
  • What if these vampires don’t reproduce sexually?
  • What if all vampires are aromantic?

Taking your idea and placing it in a non-emotional space is an excellent way to make yourself look at a different perspective, rather than a knee-jerk reaction to an initial thought. You’re challenging yourself to think about the idea. It stops your inner critic from being an asshole.

To make this work with multiple ideas, simply put them into the “Support” column and try to work through the Opposition, and then in a New Direction with the goal of finding a way to connect them. And hey. If you can’t, then you can’t. But you might be able to find something along the way.

Let me know if this helps you! I may even make a printable/downloadable template. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Some tips for brainstorming and working with your ideas to develop them into better ones, so you can continue writing!

The Genesis of My Creative Writing

My desire to be a novelist started when I took my first Spanish language class in high school. Prior to this class, I wrote poetry as an outlet for my emotions (#bullyingvictim) and didn’t think I could be a serious writer. I have vivid memories at age 8, when a teacher gave me one of those brightly coloured certificates for a story I wrote; and at age 10, when a story project took hold of me and my artistic ability and I went above-and-beyond the rubric. I don’t remember many good things of my past. But these flashes are important and filled with joy.

At the young age of 14, when I took that first Spanish language class, I wasn’t even thinking about careers, or life-long goals and dreams, or even what classes I would take the next year. I was thinking of my boyfriend at the time, romanticising his first language and everything about him.

Before studying Spanish, I had studied French since I was 10, as is the requirement in my school district. But since this studying was required and not voluntary, I felt it was a chore. Plus, after 4 years of studying it in elementary school, you just get bored of it.

But that Spanish class.

Oh, that Spanish class.

I felt like JRR Tolkien, the linguistic and literature nerd that he was. I was on fire. Grammar! Phonetics! More grammar! Etymology due to the Iberian Peninsula’s strategic placement between three different language families! (Okay, this I didn’t learn specifically in that class, but I did learn some tips about spelling that came directly from words coming from Arabic or Greek.)

Language opened up to me. Here I was, bright-eyed and getting straight A’s in all my Spanish courses, and all I thought about was the potential that language had.

I learned all of my English grammar when I studied French and Spanish. The two Romance languages have verb tenses, verb moods, and aspects that English doesn’t. But even now, as I enter my final year of study where Spanish Language is half of my major, I think back to French grammar rules. If you ask me to state the verb tense in “John had walked to school,” I would say “plus-que-parfait” because that’s what it is—in French, anyway. I have to remind myself of the English translation.

In the English classes I took during high school, we didn’t learn grammar. We analysed literature and media. I think in one Grade 9 class, we had a week of grammar worksheets, but nothing more. Now, my literature profs, the generation above me, question why the heck their students don’t know grammar. Because not all of us were taught it formally in school.

In my creative writing class in 2015, my professor asked me why I used a specific verb tense in contrast with the rest of the verbs in my poem. In my head, it made sense; I had the simple present and the present perfect (or present past) together, and to me (and in Spanish), those fit in the same world of past/present/future. My professor and I debated it for a bit, and, ultimately, he let me decide what I would do with the present perfect. Of course I kept it. It felt correct—and, grammatically, there was nothing wrong with it.

I wouldn’t have even known about different verb tenses if I hadn’t studied foreign languages. Where would I be in my writing journey if I hadn’t studied French for 9 years and Spanish for 5 years? Would I feel like a stranger in my own language? Would I have been inspired to start writing novels?

I don’t really know what prompted me to consider Novelist as a career in that Spanish course. I originally took the class to know more about my abusive boyfriend’s first language.

I suppose it was only a moment of inspiration. The language presented itself to me, deconstructed, and I was given the opportunity to put it back together. There, in the rebuilding, in the dissecting, in the analysing and reconstruction of the language, I think I found bliss—and power. I could create something. I could do things and hope to make other people feel what I felt—bliss, curiosity, awe, intrigue—if I could show them language used differently.

Sometimes my Spanish and French knowledge invade my English knowledge. I find myself pausing, seeking an English equivalent, but eventually settling for a near-translation. How do I translate a second person plural from Spanish to English without using slang? Y’all? You guys? Pronouns alone are troublesome in English, especially since English is so resistant to a singular “they” (which, I will state firmly now, is grammatically correct and even if it weren’t, who gives a damn? Seriously. Don’t be an ass about language “purity”).

If I had grown up bilingual, I don’t think I would have the same appreciation for language. I think I needed to study the languages and take them apart. I needed that linguistic awareness to really see the beauty behind writing.

The Genesis of Creative Writing: How I started writing creatively. It didn't start from a book; it started from language.

Types of Writer’s Block: I’m A Fake

I sit in my designated spot, with my designated writing tools, and think of the designated scene I want to create.

But I can’t write a single word without sighing and frowning. Sometimes I click and scroll through the Internet. Sometimes I sit with my face in my hands.

Why did I ever think I could be a writer? I should have tried being an accountant, or an engineer, or a brain surgeon. I’ve spent so much time and energy on these stories, and these poems, and these screenplays–and what do I get out of it? A few praising comments. Many lashing criticisms. It’s all wasted time.

I’m not a real writer, anyway. Despite the fact that I’ve written, it’s not like any of the material has been worthy. Those pieces that I managed to get published? That was all luck. The editors were having a good day, and maybe one of the Great Writers Of Old sprinkled some beautiful, magical ink onto my writing to bedazzle the readers. I label myself “writer” like a clown puts on facepaint.

This is, by far, the worst type of writer’s block I have encountered. It is debilitating and emotionally destructive. “I’m A Fake” writer’s block presents itself when Insecurity and Societal Pressure And Standards gang up on you. You don’t feel worthy, and there are thousands of writers you feel are more talented, more professional, more legitimate than you.

Whether you’ve been published before or are still trying to mash together something to show agents and publishers, you’re never going to be 100% confident in your writing.

So how do I get rid of this shitty feeling?

Option 1: Write shitty words.

I don’t mean fill a page with profanities; I get a journal or notebook or open a digital file where I allow myself to write utter nonsense. I write something I think is “lesser” compared to what I think is good writing.

And then challenge myself: how can I make this good writing? Can I feel proud of this writing? Is there a single gem in here–a metaphor? A verb? A sequence of meter that came out of nowhere?

Forcing myself to write, but not forcing myself to write something good, still feels like I’m working on writing… Because I am. Seeking something good in the crap is basically what all rewriting is, but by focusing first on the terrible quality and second on the possibility of brilliance in it, I acknowledge the fact that all writing starts somewhere. Part of my insecurity and imposter feelings come from the attention I pay to the end product.

Option 2: Find shitty writing by Really Good Legitimate Writers

This tip courtesy of Carrie Ann (who also blogs).

All those great writers I can never be like, because they’re so Writer and I’m so wannabe-writer? They had to start somewhere, too. They had to be shitty and terrible. At one point, their writing didn’t look like it was worth any attention.

But they continued trying and writing, and eventually got somewhere.

Option 3: Read a book I’ve already read and enjoyed.

Whenever I’m in doubt of my writing skills, I read a book (or book series if I’m really down in the dumps) that I already know. I’ve taken the time to read it at least once, so I know the story and can focus instead on the writing.

By re-reading something, I more easily pick up what made the writing good–but also where the writer could improve. I find solidarity with the author when I notice their skills can still be sharpened, or where they’ve deviated and tried something new.

In a sense, all writers are students and they study from each other, and there’s no textbook with answers at the back cover.

The key to defeating this form of writer’s block is to reconnect with what makes you a writer: the fact that writing is work, and you’re working to write something. It sucks, but the struggle is included (as with many, many things in life).

If writing were easy, everyone would be writing. Be steadfast. Persevere.

You are more than the shame, self-deprecation, and worthlessness you feel. I promise.

Types of Writer's Block: I'm A Fake--Blog post on one of the struggles of writing and being a writer.

Night #1

There are fish and acid-eaten heads. I am one of the scuba divers helping this group of sea-folk retrieve their kin from a circular, many-toothed mouth, like the mechanical shark in James and the Giant Peach. There are long, scaly bodies as I rip open the shark on a large coral reef. Heads roll.

I find the body of a long-deceased pirate, the clothes still intact, sitting uneaten in the guts of this shark. A badge on the lapel says “24 DEC” and I place it in my pocket. Sometime later, the badge will be placed by the mouth of a cave where a dark, salt-crusted skull guards the entrance. This is the shrine to honour the pirate.

I swim, following my line of sight, toward a series of mountains. The water around me disappears under its own blackness and depths. I have left the sea-folk and their kin. I was the betrayer–the traitorous hero who should have protected the others from being maimed within the acidic belly of the shark. The sea-folk wanted my flesh for food, and I swam. Stupidly, I swam. They followed until I passed into the borders, the imaginary wall dividing the sea, of the next land. When I tread water, my heart pounding from exertion and anxiety, and looked back at them, they formed a sinister line and screeched at me.

While my arms ache, I gulp sea water, still barely within reach of the mountain range. The sea and the mountains are too much of a single entity, piled up until it becomes awesome.

Droplet upon droplet until the sea flows; dust upon dust until the mountain grows.

A shanty town on a rock outcropping peeks up on the horizon to my far left. I head for it. The citizens here have wings–great, feathered wings that beat the air like engines. I fear them, and when I hoist myself onto the closest pier, amidst ships unloading imports, they stop in mid-action. Half a dozen land on the dock and examine me. My lungs scream painful fury and my arms, legs, and torso feel liquid on the solid, stable surface.

I open my eyes in a strange orb made of wooden planks. Round windows let light shine through on the opposite wall, and I approach them shakily. The walk reminds my legs of their purpose.

The orb hangs high in the sky, from the edge of the rock outcropping, suspended above the shanty town with pulleys and thick beams made of some type of lush, natural thing. The flying creatures go in and out of similar orbs around me. I fall back as one lands near the window and wedges itself through the opening. Its wings fold down onto its back, its human arms press into a malleable torso, and its fuzz-engulfed face looks down at me. The moth-like being examines me with large antennae. Two more creatures squeezes through the window. They swarm me and grab me, and I know I’ve died before my consciousness breaks.

Night #1--First instalment of a dream/nightmare journal. This post dives into fantasy elements and scenery.

The Fate of “Writing Magic” As A Lit Major

Writing Magic: The feeling I have when I’m writing and enjoying the process. This feeling can come even while I struggle, or when I’m frustrated at the inability to find the correct word, or even while reading material someone else wrote.

When I began my BA nearly four years ago, I didn’t go into it believing I would come out smarter. Perhaps that mindset is what lead me to losing the Writing Magic as I progressed further in school.

My degree has three core creative writing workshop courses, but these didn’t knock out the Magic.

Studying classical literature–from Shakespeare to Keats to contemporary Canadian novels–made me feel like a fake. There was no way I could consider myself a True Writer while these figures towered over me from beyond the grave and book awards ceremonies in Toronto and Vancouver. What was the point? I would never be as good as them.

Through the numerous short stories, poems, and novels I read for classes, I figured out how to analyse writing quickly. I wrote essays. Some of them took days and multiple drafts, and with nervous fingers I would present them to my professor or place them on the desk at the front of the room. Others were lightning-quick, hastily-formed essays constrained to 90-minute or 3-hour blocks of time for an exam, and I would lightly pencil in my thoughts in the margins so I could have structure, ultimately erasing these crude half phrases.

Dare I say it, I learned how to write a mean essay analysing a single point in a piece of writing. I’m not the best, but better when compared to my failures in first year (where I failed a course called “Writing About Literature” due to 1. my incompetence; and 2. my mental health). Somewhere along the way, a light went off; or, more realistically, a certain professor changed the way I looked at literature analysis and helped me figure out how to write a fucking university-level thesis.

So what happened to my love of reading fiction? fantasy? YA novels?

And my love of writing fiction?

Those loves died somewhere. I became a cold cut with no appetite for aesthetics. Sterile. Literature became a thing to criticise, rather than savour and create.

I want to find the Magic again.

As part of my goals for this year, I’ve resolved to wake up early and write. I haven’t specified what I’ll write–on Day 1, I wrote the bulk of this blog post–but I determined that I will write. I have also determined to read daily outside of school. I’ve been working my way through The Chronicles of Narnia again because they seem to kindle some small, precious glow that might be some of the leftover Magic.

No more sitting around lamenting I Don’t Have Time Or Energy Because I Read And Write So Much For School. I’m an adult and I have goals. I can’t possibly take myself seriously if I don’t put in as much effort as possible to achieve those goals. Perhaps that’s the difference between shyly saying, “I’m a writer,” and confidently saying, “I’m a writer.”

I hope that, somewhere in the pre-dawn scribbling and typing, and the frantic nightly page-turning, I can find the Magic again. That excitement; that rush of endorphins; that minuscule, encouraging spark–they still exist. Matter does not disappear; it merely transforms and moves. I will read and write until I come across those sparks of Magic again.

I hope I find something. Anything.

The Fate of "Writing Magic" As A Lit Major--Blog post on what happened when I went to study literature as a creative writer.