Writing

Dealing With Writer’s Block

Neil Gaiman

Lesson time 14:15 min

Every writer faces times when they’re stuck. Neil talks about some of the difficulties of the writing life and gives ideas about how to get through them.

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Neil Gaiman
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When you're staring at a blank page or a blank screen, the biggest thing that you can do is just give in to despair, give into blankness. People love to talk about writer's block. And they love to talk about writer's block, because it sounds fancy. It sounds like a real thing. It also sounds like something that you can do nothing about. I have writer's block. I cannot write. And it is the will of the gods. Now, I must alphabetize my spice rack. Whatever, you can't do anything about it. And that, of course, isn't true. [MUSIC PLAYING] I have received long emails from people with writer's block. And I'm going, well, if you had real writer's block, how can you be writing me a long email? But what they're actually saying is, "I'm stuck on the thing. I don't know what's happening. It's dead on the page." And so what you do is 1, start one step away. First thing to do if you're actually stuck, don't just sit there staring at the page, staring at the screen, staring at your keyboard being angry. Go do something else. Chop wood. Go for a walk. Go for a run. Go for a swim. Go garden. Go play with small children. Go explore kittens. Go feed the chickens. Go do whatever it is that you can do. 2, come back pretending you have never read it before-- the old pretend you've never read it before technique. Start at the beginning, and read it through. Very, very often, once you do that, where the story should be becomes obvious. Where you went off the rails becomes obvious. And you did go off the rails. The problem is always earlier. Problem's always earlier than the place where the car goes off the road. And now, you're stuck there. You actually took a wrong turning a couple of streets back or a town or two back. But that's something that you can see. Normally, if you just come to it, and go from the beginning and come through, you'll suddenly go, "oh, well, hang on. Why are we with him anyway? She was much more interesting. And we should be with her, here. It doesn't matter what happens to him." And so I abandon half a chapter that had led me down a dead end and go back. And you can do that. Nobody but you ever gets to read your first draft. Nobody but you ever needs to know that you got stuck. [MUSIC PLAYING] I think the biggest things when you are stuck that you can do, and there's a whole bunch of things-- the biggest thing of all is remembering that you are stuck. Sometimes, it's just you're being shallow. Sometimes, you actually need to be a bit better than you are. Go a bit deeper. Get a bit more honest. Okay, why have I stopped writing this? I've stopped writing this because, if I have to go into it, it's a deeper, darker place. Maybe you've stopped because, if you wrote that scene, you would be writing a scene you don't want to write. Why don't you want to write it? Why is it painful for you? What happens if you do write it? I remember with "Anansi Boys," I was about a tiny bit, about halfway through, maybe a litt...


Unleash your imagination

Award-winning author Neil Gaiman has spent more than a quarter of a century crafting vivid, absorbing fiction. Now, the author of Stardust, Coraline, and The Sandman teaches his approach to imaginative storytelling in his online writing class. Learn how to find your unique voice, develop original ideas, and breathe life into your characters. Discover Neil’s philosophy on what drives a story—and open new windows to the stories inside you.



Reviews

4.7
Students give MasterClass an average rating of 4.7 out of 5 stars.

Like Margaret Atwood, Neil Gaiman is both a gifted writer and a gifted teacher. He gently goads you with anecdotes and analogies to realize larger points. I would often smile with each discovery of an unexpected little pearl that fell during a lesson. A delightful and informative class of great value to writers of multiple genres.

I am half way through a second draft of a novel and Neil Gaiman's advice has proved invaluable

I think a new perspective on things as well as the exercises provided have helped me progress in my work. I am looking forward to the continual application of the lessons from Neil Gaiman, and hopefully it will show in my finished projects.

Absolutely loved this class. I've read a few of Neil's books, but now I want to go devour every word he has ever written and then again. I've never been a note taker in classes, but in this one, I was practically taking dictation. Great teacher, great speaker, and thoroughly entertaining as well as informative.


Comments

Maribel V.

Once again this section was so eye-opening, and it's in great part due to how he explains things - I can't get over the spell of his storytelling. Doctorov's line, as Annie Lamott put it in Bird by Bird, is not only one of the best pieces of advice on writing, but on life. As for writer's block...I must painfully agree on the "maybe perhaps it's not good enough" reason behind it. Some times, at least ( I am choosing to believe that :D). Doing something else definitely works. Even if it's just going from home to the next door café and try to write there, in a different environment with a different vibe.

Sam

I've been editing my latest work, but some of it has required rewriting due to a continuity error that spans over a few chapters. I've been having a hard time getting through it and I've always disliked the idea of being stopped by writer's block so I kept trying to power through only to grow more frustrated with myself. So, like Neil says, I retraced my steps and searched for where the problem truly lay. And it helped. Deadlines are something I've always struggled with--they tend to stress me out until I can't even concentrate on writing, but I also noticed some of my best writing was done right before deadlines. I think when I'm confident in my writing, a deadline can be used as motivation, but when I'm writing something I'm not so sure about, I have to understand what's causing my doubt before I can concentrate on writing it again.

A fellow student

Thank you for reminding me to keep the headlight on regardless of the mist or because of it.

Ekin Ö.

Neil's ideas can be used in different contexts, as well. Moving ahead when blocked or doing the next thing you know are marvelously helpful with anything you're working on. It doesn't even have to be creative. It's more like procrastination; you need to keep executing. Then you can come back to whatever the thing you couldn't do, and I promise you'll have a fresher perspective. Deadlines don't work for everyone, though. Perhaps we can paraphrase it as framing. Frame the work within reasonable limits by either using time, place or any other meta and then you'll be more motivated to finish. Why? Because you'll know you'll not be dealing with it when you're out of that frame. With frames like time & place, you have only a limited amount of power to stretch.

joyce (moms) F.

Yep. But with me it's more like, "I'm sorry, I've got writer's block. I need to step away and regroup." Then I skip off somewhere and smoke a joint. It's almost as if I use writer's block like it's some kinda hall pass.

Alexandria S.

I have a pretty bad case of writer’s block. For my novels, they’re based on movies that I’ve come to love so its pretty hard to try and make my stories as original as possible while still adding in droplets of the film inspired by it.

Janet J.

I have my book from my movie script which would be a short film cause its just under 100 pages tryn to add 100 more pages of context to make it into a full length film so that is why i was attracted to this master class

Melanie J.

I know I am going to love it. It’s coming right on time. I am in Europe and am unable to print out the workbook but will as soon as I get back in the end of June. Just finished watching the first series of Good Omens. Terrific!!!!! And so funny!!!

Sydney

Excellent advise on writer’s block during this lesson. I’ve never really thought about it the way Neil described it until now, and after hearing this I’m more determined than ever to write and face the challenges that may be presented to me head-on. Thank you, Neil!

Eric C.

This one is an eye opener. Truth be told, I knew what he said is true about writer's block, but I've always been able to excuse myself from writing by saying that. As you get older and find the bulk of your work is yet to be published, you begin to find a certain amount of urgency in getting ideas on paper... or in the computer, as it were. So lately I've tried some tricks when I find myself stuck, not unlike everything Neil has said. A couple additions are also helpful. While I have never completely finished a "sequel" to anything I've written, I have started a few. Usually they are born from being stuck on the parent project. I will take a scenario I'd like to see in a second story and build it, sometimes around the area in which I'm stuck and sometimes completely different. I may never pursue this sequel... but it helps me to envision where the story could go after my current set of circumstances is over. Another is fairly simple... I just work on a completely different project. If I'm writing something heavy and dramatic and I can't get it moving I might switch to something lighter and funnier. Sometimes it's all about mood... A writer's block is almost as fictitious as the story we are creating.