Writer in Residence

The Many Faces of Writer's Block

Submitted by Wendy Orr


Despite the fact that I don’t really believe in it, the words Writers’ Block always conjure up a dark, amorphous cloud in my mind.  Which is ironic, because the part I don’t believe is that there’s simply one opaque cloud – there are definitely many different things that can make us unable or less able to write at some times. Identifying them is the first step in finding solutions, although both the problems and solutions will overlap. Here are a few to get you started.


1)    I want to be a writer but don’t know exactly what or how I want to write.
a)     Get a pen and notebook; set a timer for 10 minutes. You can go longer if you want to, but you must keep writing till the timer goes. No judgement or correction, no expectation that this will lead to anything more.
b)    As randomly as possible, choose an object from your window sill, kitchen or desk and write about it. Describe it with as many senses as possible; delve into memories; possible uses; possible histories. Again, no judgement – if the pen makes you think of a feather quill, makes you think of a bird, makes you think of a pirate with a parrot on her shoulder… that’s how fiction works.
c)     Do the same process with a photograph.
d)    Choose incidents in your life that could be or start a story; identify the key points and create a character, as similar or as different to you as you like, give the story to them and see what happens.
e)     Go on reading widely and experiment with any genre that appeals.
f)      Rewrite a fairy tale from a different point of view, eg one of Cinderella’s stepsisters.

 2)    I have a story in my head but can’t find the words.
The words should come when you know your story well.  

a) Spend time summarising your protagonists, physically and mentally. What are their fears and desires? Try drawing them.
b)    Draw maps of your locations.
c)     If you can see a key scene, start there.
d)    Write by hand.
e)    Write a poem for the story.
f)      Try changing point of view.

3)    I’m too afraid of failing to actually start
a) Remember that most first drafts are crap – but no matter how bad it is, once it’s done you’ve got something to correct.
b) There’s no law that says you have to save what you write. You can delete it; hide the notebook, burn the scrap paper. Just maybe wait an hour.
c) Set a routine, or even a ritual for your writing time. Once you’ve done your alternate nostril breathing, lit your candle, started your music, whatever it is – you have to start writing.

4)    I’m too afraid of success to actually finish.
It’s taken me a while to believe in fear of success, but I now think it’s huge.Think about what you’re truly afraid of – demoralising a partner, being exposed to strangers, abandoning your children to do massive publicity tours? There will be ways around the issues if you do get that massive success, but it’s important to identify the fear first.

5)    As soon as I start writing I hear the person who told me, ‘You’ll never be able to do it.’
If you can motivate yourself by thinking, ‘I’ll show them!’ – great.
If that voice is actually inhibiting you, try Emotional Freedom Technique tapping, ie tapping on acupressure points while ranting about how you feel. (There are lots of resources online to show the points and explain how it works)
I use the same techniques for all of the fears here, and also for clarity about what I’m doing next.  

6)    I'm stuck in the middle - I don’t know what happens next in the story.
a) Try interviewing your protagonist, writing the questions with your dominant hand and answering with your nondominant hand.
b) Storyboard the plot.
c) Put scene summaries on index cards and rearrange them.
d) Mind map.
e) Put the question into your mind and then meditate.
f) Go for long walks.

7)    I’m afraid to commit to the time in my crowded life.
a) If you really want to do it, schedule it in, put it in your To Do list.
b) Tell the story out loud while you drive.
c) Be content with whatever amount of time you can carve out for it; don’t kill yourself trying to find hours that don’t exist.

8)    I’m afraid to commit to another story after what the last one took out of me.
This one struck me last week when I was tapping about my procrastination over starting a new book. My last three books, especially Cuckoo’s Flight, have been exhilarating at times but intense and draining to write. Once I’d realised this, I saw the shape of the new book as a golden light above a dark forest. This may or may not have anything to do with the plot, but I’m hoping means there’ll be less exploration of trauma. So I guess my message is – think about writing something lighter.

 9)    I’m physically exhausted.
Sorry – you have to rest.There’s a difference between a sedentary occupation and a restorative one – writing is hard work. Be kind to yourself, limit your work to daydreaming and just enough notes to make you happy. You’ll write much better once you recover.


The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.

Award-winning author Wendy Orr was born in Edmonton, Alberta. The daughter of an Air Force pilot, she has since lived around the world, including several years in Colorado, in France, and England where she studied Occupational Therapy. After graduation, Wendy settled in Australia, but returns home yearly to visit her family. Wendy’s many books for children have been published in 27 countries and won awards around the world. Prominent among them is Nim’s Island, which was made into the 2008 film of the same name; a 2013 sequel, Return to Nim’s Island, was loosely based on Orr’s book Nim at Sea.