I think there are two types of writers. There are writers who never get any version of writer’s block and for whom the act of creation is either pure joy, or a task to be completed like any job. The other type are the writers who aren’t totally full of shit liars.

Aaron Sorkin, in a Hollywood Reporter Writer Roundtablesaid:

Listen, most of the time I really struggle with writing. People ask if I have writer’s block. That’s my default position. And so most days I go to bed not having done anything except climb the walls because I don’t have an idea or I’m stuck where I am. And you really do think in that moment you’re not ever going to write again. Those are tough moments. Another tough moment is when you see something in your head that’s good, that’s really beautiful, and you were just not able to transfer it onto the piece of paper.

There’s a pretty successful writer telling us he sometimes gets locked up. And he’s hardly the only writer in any medium who’s said some version of the same thing. Though I love advice for writers—I collect it myself, trying things and experimenting with ideas, and so on—I also try to remember that this is a creative pursuit, an art form, and as such there’s some mystery to it, and a huge dose of individuality. And by that I mean what works for one author will not work for another, and for no quantifiable reason.

I’ve heard authors advise we treat writing fiction like a nine-to-five job, with an hour off for lunch. I’ve seen various word count goals: a thousand words a day, 1500 words, etc. There are time limits: write for an hour every day, or two hours. I’ve seen advice for when exactly to write your number of words or minutes: in the morning before the kids get up or at night after the kids go to sleep…

Hell, try all these, especially if you’re sitting around not writing. If, like Aaron Sorkin, you’re stuck where you are—if you need to unblock or figure stuff out. I have a whole online tutorial on the subject. Try making lists, play media roulette… or just plain walk away.

This last one, I believe, is the best first go-to position for any author not working to a deadline imposed from outside. I like the idea of self-imposed deadlines, of trying to finish a rough draft in the month of November, or before the end of the school year, or whatever. But unless there’s an editor threatening to call back an advance, a magazine that will publish with or without you… calm down.

If you’re climbing the walls like Aaron Sorkin, or, like me, staring blankly off into space (I’ve never been much of a climber), maybe today just isn’t a writing day. Maybe today is a balancing your checkbook day. A cleaning the carpets day. A taking the dogs to the dog park day. A binge watching Chernobyl day.

No one will punish you if that 1500 words isn’t finished today—even yourself, believe it or not.

I’ve done my own best work under some amount of deadline pressure, my worst work under extreme deadline pressure, and a little of both under no deadline pressure at all. But if writing fiction starts to feel like a mechanical, assembly line process… stop!

Take a breath, take the day off, and give yourself and your muse a chance to catch up.

In fiction, like all things, our motto should be:

Quality over quantity.


—Philip Athans

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About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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  1. Pingback: Phil Athans: When Writing Gets Difficult – meg mac donald, author

  2. JM Williams says:

    Great advice. I wish I had figured this out sooner.

  3. Adam says:

    I think choosing not to write is often the easiest and hardest thing I can do. There’s a part of me that fears the easy path, mostly because I worry that I won’t ever return, though I’m also often chasing a bit of a unicorn, that magical state where, for a little while, writing just works, and that sense of “rightness” feels so good, washing away all the doubts and insecurities.
    In many cases what I tell myself is that I can step away for a few minutes, or half an hour, but then I come back and I give it another go.
    But yeah, it’s definitely scary sometimes.
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

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