What do Santa Claus, an effective wrinkle cream, and writer's block have in common? Answer: they don't exist.
That's right. I said it: there's no such thing as writer's block--or, at least, there doesn't have to be.
When I sat down to write my first novel in my mid-twenties, I had tons of what I thought was writer's block: an empty Word doc before me and no ideas about what to put in there. I didn't have a story in my head, not even a shell or a seed. Just vibes and a desire to bang out a novel and become a NYT bestseller before I hit 30. I thought that's how things were done: light a fire inside yourself, sit down at a computer, and just go for it. But it's kind of hard to drive a car and make decisions about whether to go right or left when you don't know where you want to end up.
Needless to say, my first attempt to write a novel flopped. I didn't try again until my early thirties. By then, I'd read a few books on the craft and had a premise in mind, so I felt a little more confident venturing back into a big, empty Word doc. This time, I finished. It wasn't the greatest book of all time, but I proved to myself that I could string ninety thousand words together to make a story that stood on its legs, even if it was a little shaky.
A couple years later, I finished my second novel. Last month, I finished my third. Starting with my second novel, I'd figured out two very important things that ensured I would never have writer's block again.
#1: Have a plot. Okay, okay. I know there are a lot of very successful pantsers out there. But if you're reading this article, you probably suffer, at least occasionally, from writer's block, and I'm here to tell you that if you want to strike that affliction from your life forever, having at least the bare bones of a plot structure will help tremendously--even if it's just in your head. All those times I couldn't think of what to say, it wasn't because I didn't know how to say it but because I didn't know what I was saying. I didn't have writer's block, I had plotter's block.
#2: Don't stop, no matter what (AKA: The Placeholder Trick). The second thing I've discovered is the power of a placeholder. So often when writing, even with a detailed outline of my plot and character arcs, I'd struggle with what to name someone or where they'd be meeting or how exactly they would phrase a question in dialogue or express some emotion. So I'd linger on the page, trying to find the right words or the right name, or maybe I'd need to research a place or a theory or some other reference in the story that required factchecking. It was these things that slowed me down from having a finished story until, during Book Attempt #2, I forced myself to just write through it. It may have been garbage or factually inaccurate, but I wrote something, anything, just so I could move along and stop stopping. And you know what? It worked! I started finishing my manuscripts, and all that garbage got tidied up later when I came back for editing.
These days, I do something similar but instead of putting in garbage, I put in a placeholder. I use "TK," which represents "to come" in the publishing/journalism industry, but you can use "XX" or any other two letters that probably won't crop up in an actual word in your novel. Here are a few example of how I might use it:
When I don't know a character's name or haven't decided on some other minor detail, like hair color.
Example: Hattie looked up from her book to find TK standing in the doorway. His TK hair looked disheveled, like he'd been out for a run or had driven over with the car's top down.
When I don't know an important facet of the story or a plot point. In these cases, instead of being a placeholder for a word, I might be putting in a placeholder for a paragraph or even a whole scene. I do try to put any ideas or considerations in there to help prompt myself next time I come back to it.
Example: Emily looked down at the TK--book? necklace? on her doorstep and gasped. She hadn't seen that TK in over twenty years and had hoped she never would again.
When I need to fact check something or get more details.
Example: Jack knew a lot of things. He knew the start and end dates of every major American war, TK, and that the atomic weight of plutonium (TK-capitalize?) was TK. But he knew nothing about talking to a girl like Hannah Hostetter.
When I don't like how I've phrased something or am struggling with even a passable explanation of something.
Example: She broke down crying, clenching her fists to prevent herself from reaching out to him. TK--find better way to showcase this moment.
When I come back to edit, I do a search for all the TKs and tackle them one by one. Some TKs stay in there for a couple drafts because again, my goal is to keep the momentum going. I also find my writing and ideas are best when they are spontaneous and organic, not forced. So if I'm combing through my TKs and this time is the time that something brilliant comes to me, great. If not, I'll move on to the next TK and come back to the others again later. After a few passes through the manuscript, I usually only have a handful of TKs left that are really causing me trouble and will require some real thought and finagling.
I thought I was a genius when I first figured out placeholders but realize now that many, many writers use this tactic. I use it all the time now and not just for getting through a first draft of a novel. I pull out my TKs when writing emails and social media posts, in outlining my next book...I even used it several times while writing this short little blog post!
Let's wrap it up with a little summary: If you struggle with writer's block, the first thing to do is to strike that phrase from your vocabulary. Next, nail down your story, then sit back down at your computer with the confidence that whenever you're starting to get that "stuck" feeling, you can kill it with a TK.
For more details on fast-paced writing, I really enjoyed and recommend 5,000 Words Per Hour: Write Faster, Write Smarter by Chris Fox.