Tips and Techniques to Avoid Writer's Block
The writing process is rarely a straightforward one. It always comes with periods of self-doubt and lack of inspiration. Most authors struggle to know how to handle these challenges. This is why we decided to interview a specialist on writer's block: Tom Evans.
Tom is the author of over 10 books on creativity, meditation and Big Questions. He teaches authors how to ‘meditate’ to get inspiration and words for their books.
In this interview, he teaches us simple techniques and principles to keep writer’s block at arm’s length and unlock our creativity — even under tight deadlines!
Hit “play” if you want to hear him offer his advice in a calm, soothing voice; or, alternatively, read the transcript below!
Hi Tom, great to have you here! Why don’t you give us a bit of background on your writing career and how you got started as an author unblocker?
Sure, I’ll tell you how my career started, because I think most writers end up being writers by accident - you can’t necessarily plan it. I was on a plane going on a holiday to the Caribbean when all of the sudden this idea for a book came in. So I started writing furiously and by the time we landed the first draft was finished. I published it when I got back to the UK, it’s called 100 Years of Ermintrude, as a hommage to One Hundred years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
That was before the Kindle, so I just published it as a PDF-ebook and people started downloading it and liking it! A lot of people started approaching me, saying “you’ve written a book, can you help me write one?” and it kind of started from there. At the time I was a bored IT consultant. Before I knew it I had written and published a second and third book and was helping a lot of writers with the creative process. But many people came to me as they were stuck, and I had no tools to deal with the “stuckness”. So I went and learned a bit of hypnotherapy and progression therapy and I discovered mechanisms to unblock pretty much anyone.
In all cases of writer's block, there is an underlying life block, which you need to deal with.
Let’s say an author approaches you because they’re stuck. What do you do to unblock them, do you look for the underlying life block?
There are two main ways of doing it. The first one is to put such a big carrot in front of the author that it blasts the block away: “look, getting this book out is going to change your career; it’s going to open a bunch of doors, etc.”
Or, sometimes, they just don’t have a big enough idea. I was talking to a couple of authors this morning who had been writing this book for 5 years now, but didn’t have the idea for it formed that well. So I didn’t technically need to do any unblocking; all I needed to do was give them the whole vision for their book — through mind-mapping. I also gave them the structure for the book and how they were going to co-write it. Now they’ve got the vision, they’re up and running.
A few weeks ago, we were interviewing Scott Berkun, a speaker and myth-buster on creativity and innovation, and he said that writers’ main problem is laziness. Would you agree with that? What can writers do to avoid it?
Yes, it’s actually amazing how people can become creatively uncreative: they get really creative about doing everything else but the creative task.
A lot of times, what happens is people have false starts when getting started. I’m sure there are many more half-written manuscripts on people’s hard-drives than there are published books out there. For most of them, it’s because the idea wasn’t strong enough, so they get to a point where they ask themselves “where is this going?”
So I always start with a structure. Of course I leave the author enough freedom to creatively wander around, but always within a structure. All my books have got a metalayer. For example, for my latest book, I knew it was going to be 18 chapters. And what I do is I make appointments for my chapters in my diary. I move other plans around these appointments, but these are sacred because no one else is going to write my book. It’s a really good discipline to have.
And what happens then is that the information that you need to write that following chapter has that uncanny way of just showing up. There are a few neurological reasons for that, but basically your brain tunes in to what you need to write, so you get into that lovely zone on the given day and the chapter just flows.
But of course, if you allow other elements to come in, it will disrupt that process and the book will never get written.
But doesn’t this outlining, defining of the structure and planning of the writing process impose constraints on your plot and characters that go against the idea that the story will develop by itself?
There are two approaches I think. In non-fiction, structure is vital. In fiction, I believe you still need some form of structure. It can be temporal — a chronology you’re going to follow — or event-based, or even character-based.
Let’s say you have this classic structure of a character who goes through a journey of trial to find enlightenment, you need to define a meta-level for this character that you’re going to hold, and then you can throw things at the character that will challenge them and help them find their way.
If you think about Dan Brown — my guilty pleasure – all his books have this hero A, hero B, and then the albino monk. And you know that at some point the heroes are going to get together and the albino monk will come in as well. Having that kind of meta-structure works. Obviously, you let things happen as you let the creative flow come in. But the reason you have a structure is so you finish. I started working with somebody a couple of years ago who has now ended up writing 180,000 words, so we have to split it into a trilogy. If you have a clear structure when you start writing, you know how long the book will be.
You also use meditation a lot to unblock authors, slow down time and unlock creativity. How can authors use meditation in order to get past all the things that are an obstacle to the writing?
The first thing I want to say is that there’s no mystic around meditation. You don’t need to sit in a dark room or in a cave. It’s a natural thing that we all do. When we fall into our creative zone we are in a meditative state.
One thing we all need to remember is that our minds are only capable of having one thought at a time. When you’re thinking about what you’re thinking about, the thought you were thinking gets replaced by the thought you’re thinking about it, you know what I mean?
If I’m thinking “will people really care about the words that I’m writing right now?”, then that takes my mind away from the words themselves. So getting in the meditative state with your eyes open is a fantastic way to get completely absorbed and focused on what you’re doing, and to take your conscious mind out of the loop. You become more of a channel of the work as opposed to a generator of it: it’s almost as if the work comes through you. Very often, I have to read the book that I wrote to work out exactly what I’ve written because I was in such a meditative state when writing that I wasn’t aware of it.
The way to get into the eyes-open meditative state is to learn first how to meditate with your eyes closed. I’ve recorded a few visualizations that are free to teach authors how to do that. And as you rightly say, when you get into that state, time seems to take that lovely ethereal quality and you get more things done.
You mentioned book marketing. That’s the other big thing that authors can be afraid about or don’t know how to handle, and I think marketing also requires a lot of creativity and structure. Do you also help authors on that path?
Yes, more and more. I think there are two forms of block: writer’s block and author’s block. Writer’s block is the one that prevents the authors from getting the book written, and author’s block is the block that stops them from getting the book out there.
Often, writers can be shy, afraid of public speaking, etc. So I help them with that. Nowadays, thanks to the internet, we can do things like this Hangout, or podcasting. There are lots of ways of being creative about getting the work out there.
One of the things I love doing, for example, is serializing bits of my books in audio. You can put those out on podcast channels, you can tweet them, Facebook them, etc.
That’s really interesting, because there is a lot of talk around serializing novels now with Kindle Unlimited, and there has been a lot of talk around audiobooks for some time now; but combining the two and serializing audio is something I haven’t seen any authors do so far. Thanks for taking the time to chat with us, Tom!
My pleasure! And one last note to finish for all authors out there: you must get yourself a Reedsy profile, they’re absolutely brilliant!
What do you do to “get in the zone”? How do you manage to power through writer’s block? Leave us your thoughts, or any questions for Tom, in the comments below!