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Break Through Writer’s Block
Podcast has been edited for length and clarity.
This week, I’d like to talk about writer’s block.
Normally, when we talk about writer’s block, we think about the inability to write, the feeling of being stuck, or the feeling that your mind is completely blank.
But there’s another form of writer’s block that can be even more difficult to overcome.
This other form of writer’s block is when you’re actually writing, but your writing feels flat, disconnected, or like it’s happening on the page but you don’t really have anything to say. It can feel like you’re a puppeteer moving the strings rather than being fully connected to the characters you’re writing.
This is the hardest kind of writer’s block. When you’re dealing with the more familiar form of writer’s block, you can think, “Okay, I’ve got a problem. I’ve got writer’s block. I’m not writing and I can try to address and fix that.”
When you have the other kind of writer’s block, this more subtle form, the problem is you don’t even realize you’re blocked. Instead, you start telling yourself other stories like, “Maybe I don’t have any talent,” or, “Maybe I don’t have anything to say,” or, “Maybe I don’t have what it takes to be a writer.”
I want to talk about both forms of writer’s block and some simple things you can do to combat it. Let’s start with the easy form first, then we’ll move on to the more complex, subtle form of writer’s block.
If you’re experiencing standard writer’s block, where you aren’t writing at all, this is actually a good thing.
Every writer struggles with it and it’s the easiest thing to correct. I’m going to give you some techniques you can use right now to start correcting this for yourself.
The first thing you want to do is create a sacred place to write. This sacred writing space doesn’t have to cost you any money at all. If you live in a tiny apartment, choose a different seat at your kitchen table or a different cushion on your couch. Make it someplace you sit only when you’re going to write.
If you’re going to a café, try to sit at the same table every time. You can use a coffee shop, take advantage of some wonderful co-working spaces, or, if you’re in New York, come talk to us and we’ll hook you up with some cheap space. But find yourself an inexpensive, sacred writing place.
You want to build a routine around your writing. When you do that, you’ll start to create a Pavlovian effect where, by repeating it enough times, eventually your subconscious mind will know that when you show up there, that’s the place you go to write.
To break through writer’s block the next thing you want to do is break your writing down into very manageable goals.
Ask yourself how many pages you know you could absolutely write this week, then set a goal much lower than that.
My rule of thumb is to cut it in half. If I think I can write five pages, I’m going to write two and a half instead. If two and a half pages are what I owe myself for the week, then I’m going to break those down into even smaller chunks. Maybe I set a goal of three one-page days or three days of writing three-quarters of a page.
I would highly recommend using page count as your goal rather than using time because time can mess you up. When you’re using time, if you sit down for an hour and all you do is meditate on your script but don’t write anything, you may end up feeling like you’re not a writer. Or, you may write for six hours but only generate one page and end up feeling bad about yourself.
When you use page count as a goal, then you know how much you’ve done and you can celebrate and feel good about it.
I like to set nice, small page goals. I know I’ve got a good page goal if I can write it in seven minutes. I’m looking to create a goal I am confident I can actually accomplish in seven minutes. That’s it.
For you, that might be a quarter of a page, half a page, or a full-page, but make it a goal so small that you can’t avoid achieving if you sit down to do it.
To stop procrastination and fear from getting in the way of your writing be in the quantity business, not in the quality business.
Quality you cannot control; it’s the most challenging thing for writers. But quantity is completely under your control as a writer.
How do you control the quantity? You set a goal for the week, then you set a goal for each day. If your goal for each day is a page of crappy writing in seven minutes, great. Out of all those pages of crappy writing, you’re accidentally going to find some good stuff and you can learn how to build on that good stuff. You can learn how to apply craft to those little gems inside the bad pages.
What I like to do is schedule an hour, if I have it, but I only owe myself that one page. That means if you’re having a good writing day and the screenwriting gods are smiling, the heavens open and inspiration rains down on you, then you’ve got a full hour to keep writing. If you’re more experienced, you might have two or three hours.
But on the days when it’s really crappy, when you don’t want to write, when the screenwriting gods are frowning on you and you feel like, “My God, it hurts to even open my laptop,” all you have to do is churn out one really crappy page and you’ll know you’re a writer.
Everyone thinks great, professional writers must write beautifully all the time, but this isn’t true.
The truth is that professional writers write badly more often than you do.
Out of those thousands of pages of bad writing, they manage to find 105 pages that are going to look really good in a script. They know how to apply craft to bad writing so they can shape it into something good, something beautiful, or even something brilliant.
So, step one toward beating writer’s block is taking the self-censorship, self-blame, and self-criticism out. It’s impossible to build a pattern if you’re got self-blame and self-criticism happening the whole time.
In order to build a habit of writing, you need positive reinforcement.
We’re taking anything that you can judge out and we’re putting in only objective goals where we say, “Okay, this is a page or this is not a page.”
Whatever you want to count as a page is fine. If you want to count a page in a little notebook, wonderful. If you want to count a page in screenplay format, like Final Draft or WriterDuet, fine. As long as you keep it consistent every day, a page is a page.
Then you want to show up. You want to create a schedule each week, but you want to keep it as firm a schedule as you can. If you can say, “I’ll write Monday, Tuesday, and Friday from seven to eight in the morning,” that’s a great schedule. If you say, “I’m going to try to write sometime this week,” that’s a hard schedule.
You want a firm schedule you can keep every week. Then, at the beginning of each week, you want to make any adjustments. If you realize you have a big project on Friday and there’s no way you can write on that day, move it to another day. Move your writing around in advance; don’t allow yourself to move it around on the day you’re supposed to write.
This is how our ProTrack program works. Those of you in our mentorship program know we’re really flexible with moving your appointment around if you contact us in advance. We’re not as flexible with last-minute changes because those start training you as a writer to think showing up isn’t that important. You’ll begin to let any emergency knock you out of your writing day.
To break through writer’s block we need to show the mind that, while this is only a small amount of time, it’s required and you’ve got to show up.
And all you have to do is write one page, half a page, a quarter page, or whatever your goal is. All you have to do is hit that page goal.
It can be a crappy page, a terrible page, a messy page, or a page that never makes it into your movie. But if you keep showing up and working those seven minutes, then that Pavlovian effect kicks in and soon you’ll just know that this is what you do.
When you get into the volume business, writing becomes a lot less scary. If you take my Write Your Screenplay class, we talk a lot about the fears that get in our way as writers, but writing becomes a lot less scary when you’re doing more of it.
When you’re only doing a very little bit of writing, when you’re inconsistent and have a bad writing day, it’s devastating. It just tears your heart out.
But when you’re consistent and getting your work done on a day in, day out basis, you know you can say, “I’m a writer. I show up and I do my job.” Then, when it doesn’t go well, instead of feeling devastated you can think, “Eh, shitty writing day. Okay.”
So, the point is to refocus on all of this and get you into a pattern of writing with low stakes, where there is no stress attached because it’s simply something you do consistently and doesn’t take that long.
If all you have is seven minutes, that’s enough. Over time, you’ll notice that seven minutes starts to expand. If your life is flexible enough that you can set aside an hour for writing two or three times a week, great. An hour of writing two or three times a week is enough.
Don’t set a writing goal to write for an hour every day; you won’t be able to do it unless you have nothing else happening in your life. Everyone needs some rest; everyone needs a break.
I want you to set goals you can achieve so it’s easy and the stakes are low. I want you to achieve them.
The most important part is scheduling it. You’ve got to put it in your calendar and show up on time.
You want to treat your writing like you would a meeting with your boss.
You wouldn’t be late for that meeting or show up checking email or Facebook. You’re going to show up prepared and ready to go. You’re going to know this is important. You want to treat your writing with that kind of respect.
You can always reschedule a meeting with your boss, but you don’t show up five minutes beforehand and say, “Hey, I can’t make it. Can we do it later?” You plan for it and you show it the respect it needs.
This writing you’re wanting to do is your life. This is your passion. This is the thing that matters to you and is driving you. Start by treating it with that kind of respect. Don’t start with that kind of time; we’re going to build to time. I want you to build the respect first.
Create small goals you can achieve in seven minutes. Schedule the actual time, honor that schedule, and show up repeatedly again and again and again. Do not let yourself leave until you’ve written that page.
If you’re having a good writing day, you might end up writing 12 pages. Wonderful! You had an hour; you had plenty of time.
If you’re having one of those horrible writing days, well, you can endure anything for seven minutes. That’s why it’s so important to set a goal you personally know you can do in seven minutes.
So, go ahead and write. You’re having a bad day? You don’t want to show up? Great. Show up anyway and write, nonstop, the crappiest page possible in seven minutes. Get it down on the page, that one page, and close your laptop.
Then, guess what? You just gave yourself 53 minutes to go do anything you want. Go have fun, be out in the world, connect with other people, go see a movie or watch Netflix. You have time because you already did your work.
You can finish early, but you cannot start late. You’ve got to treat your writing with respect so it will start to carve out that time in your life.
This is something that’s probably scary for you because it’s scary for everybody.
You’re working on getting to that place where your subconscious mind, not the conscious mind but the subconscious mind, the child’s mind, the creative mind, that is wonderful and beautiful and scared, can say, “I’ve got to do this whether I like it or not. I’ve got to show up every week, on these days, at these times. I don’t have to endure a lot. If I’m having a bad day, I only have to do this for seven minutes and then I can go home or go do something else. If I’m having a great day and I’m enjoying playing, I can play for as long as I like. If I don’t have any new creative thoughts in my mind, that’s okay because I have a page from last time and I can rewrite that page.”
When you do rewrite that page, it’s important to print it out, make your notes, then throw it away and rewrite it from the blank page. That way you’ll know the new page is a real page.
Another trick to use, so you won’t feel you’re standing in place when you’re in rewriting mode, is to allow yourself to rewrite as much as you want, but make sure you write at least one additional sentence.
Even if you literally retype the page verbatim, which never happens because they always get a little better, make sure you write one new thing that didn’t exist before. It might be one sentence at the beginning of the next scene, one line of dialogue, one moment, or one visual image, but push your script a tiny, baby step forward so that the fear of moving forward doesn’t keep you rewriting the same page for the next 20 years.
These are some small, cognitive-behavioral things you can do to address the big problem of not writing. Of course, there are a million other techniques that we can continue to talk about, but this is a really good place to start.
There are two other ideas I want to cover today. The first is what to do when you succeed at your writing goal and complete your page or half page or quarter page or whatever your goal is.
To overcome writer’s block it’s really important you celebrate your success.
If you don’t celebrate your success, a strange thing happens in your mind. Your subconscious mind doesn’t know you achieved it. There are all kinds of neuroscience research on this that I won’t bore you with, but if you don’t celebrate your success, your subconscious mind has no idea you did it.
Whenever you achieve a goal, your subconscious mind, your body, releases a chemical called dopamine. Dopamine gives you a euphoric feeling. It makes you feel wonderful and high. It makes you feel good about life and it makes you want to do it again.
Every time you fall short of a goal, your mind releases a different kind of chemical called cortisol. Cortisol makes you depressed.
You want to be in the dopamine business, not in the cortisol business. This is why it’s so important to celebrate your success. It can be something really easy like checking off a box in your calendar and saying, “I did it.” Do a little happy dance or go buy yourself an ice cream. Introduce yourself to someone, tell them you’re a writer and talk to them about that tiny scene you just wrote.
You can celebrate in any way that feels good to you and it can be very small, but you need to actually mark that moment of success.
This brings us to our last point, which is that you cannot punish yourself if you fall short of your writing goals.
Everyone thinks they need discipline as writers, but the truth is that as writers we’re rebels, we’re artists! What happens when you discipline a rebel? They rebel.
For so many writers, the more discipline they apply, the more writer’s block they experience.
What we really want is this creative mind, this creative child that lives inside of us, to come play with us. If we’re going to get it to do that, we’ve got to be nice to it.
Punishment doesn’t work and there’s a lot of evidence on this. If you look at our prison system, you can see how punishment doesn’t work. Look at any research on imprisonment or think of your own childhood when you were punished and it didn’t stop your behavior. Punishment just doesn’t work; it makes us rebel.
This is the most important thing: if you fall short of your goal, that’s okay. Fix it the moment you recognize it. Because you’ve set a goal so small that you can achieve it in seven minutes, that means you can fix it in seven minutes.
It means no matter what is going on at the moment when you realize, “Oh my God, I missed my goal,” you can fix it immediately. If you’re driving, you can pull over to the side of the road for seven minutes. If you’re at work, you can go to the bathroom for seven minutes. Seven minutes is such a short period of time and your goal is so small, you can immediately fix it.
This means you’ve put yourself back in the driver’s seat of your creative life. You start to realize that it isn’t whether you do or don’t have enough time to write, it’s a matter of the little choices you’re making every day.
All you have to do is change a few of these choices, just make a few small choices every day, and you’ll begin to get into a writing habit. You’ll start to do this all the time.
As I said, there are a million other techniques we can use, but this is a great place to start. Break out your calendar, schedule a goal for this week, then set up a recurring schedule. Put it in your Google calendar, create a reminder 15 minutes beforehand so you remember to do it, and go achieve those goals.
Then join me for the next podcast where we’ll talk about that more subtle form of writer’s block and how to handle that deeper, more complicated version as well.
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If you’d like a full transcript of this podcast, information on our screenwriting classes in New York City and online as well as our one-on-one ProTrack Mentorship Program, or details on any of the other wonderful community events happening at the Studio, please visit my website at www.writeyourscreenplay.com.