Yesterday I spoke to two authors who were in the throes of writer’s block, albeit in very different situations. One is trying to think of ideas for a follow-up series or standalone book after finishing a trilogy that did pretty well in bookstores. The other has been trying for years to write a second novel; her first, which was an extremely good book, went out on submission to a number of publishers but never found a home.
I am an expert at writer’s block. After I sold my first book, Enter Title Here in May 2014, I started to experience difficulty writing. I managed to force out a middle grade novel that summer, but after that it took me two years to write another book, and it wasn’t until 2019 that I’d consider myself fully recovered.
During this time, I would constantly google “Cures for writer’s block” and I found nothing! There are no cures! Nobody knows shit! In fact, the internet is full of these smug, self-satisfied writers, both published and unpublished, who are like, “Uhh, I never get writer’s block.” To which I always want to reply, “Yeah, but your books are also not very good; of course writer’s block isn’t a problem if you don’t care about quality.”
Sophomore novel writer’s block is extremely common. I’d say my unscientific opinion is that about half of all debut authors fall prey to it. When a debut sells a series, usually it doesn’t hit you on the second or third book of the series: it hits you at the start of your next series or next unrelated book.
Not infrequently, sophomore novel writer’s block is career-ending. The second book simply never comes. Or when it comes, it’s extremely bad and doesn’t sell. Or it sells and flops and you never sell a third.
This writer’s block usually doesn’t involve staring at the blank page. Usually the writer is writing constantly: reams and reams of stuff. But they feel that all the work is terrible!
The typical advice is to ignore that self-critical feeling and keep writing, even though you suspect the work is really bad. This is not good advice. The problem is that the work usually is terrible. You’re accurately responding to its badness.
So the real question isn’t “How do I feel better about my crappy work?” it’s instead “How do I make work that I don’t need to feel better about?”
Because while it’s true that all first drafts are bad, there’s a difference between ‘bad’ and ‘boring’. A first draft ought to contain the kernel of that thing that makes you excited about the book. You can see the part of this draft that is incredible and world-altering, even if right now that part is mostly obscured by all the cliche, trivial, or just-plain-weird stuff that you also threw into the draft.
When the draft lacks even that element of greatness, you’re not gonna like it, and no matter how much you write or rewrite it, probably nobody else will either.
Ultimately, we all know both the reason for this writer’s block and the route to get out of it. We get sophomore-novel writer’s block because of fear. The first book was really good! It got an agent. It felt special. It often flowed relatively easily. Or at least it carried some element of destiny.
You don’t know how to replicate that. And now there are expectations. What if you give your agent or editor this book and they hate it? It’s even worse if the book didn’t sell or didn’t get an agent, despite being a perfectly good book. If you feel like you did your best, and the book didn’t sell, then it’s hard to do your best again.
The publishing industry conspires to deepen writer’s block. Publishing tends to view books as commodity. Where does this book fit into the market? And agents and editors frequently try to intervene in books even before you’ve finished writing them. in the young adult space, authors are encouraged to run their ideas past their editors so their editor can weed out any that aren’t ‘worth’ pursuing.
Some writers can work like that, but many can’t. Once you’re interjecting other peoples’ voices and other peoples’ opinions into the drafting process, it becomes very difficult to find what you really want to say.
The most infuriating thing about this is that what publishing ultimately wants from you is the thing only you can do! Which means that all through your writer’s block time, your agent and editor will say, “Give me the book you’re really passionate about! Give me the book that’s deepest and most critical to you! Give me the one you’re afraid to write!”
The problem is that if this book isn’t marketable, they will reject it. Your books must exist at the intersection of your aesthetic interests and the marketplace. When you’re a new or less-developed writer, this isn’t as scary or frustrating, because you don’t know the market place as well, and you don’t know your own interests as well either, so there’s always a feeling that, well, these two things will converge somehow.
But when you get more experienced you realize…that’s not guaranteed to happen. You can very easily write a book which you think is perfectly good, but it doesn’t sell, not because it’s bad, but because it’s literally unsalable. It’s simply outside the general purview of what editors consider acceptable within the genre. This is even true for literary fiction. There are lots of literary novels that cannot be sold. For instance, if you want to write literary novels that are mannered and cold in the extreme, in the style of the French nouveau roman, you probably can’t sell them to mainstream publishing, even though this is a perfectly fine way to write a novel. That’s an obvious example, but there are plenty of less obvious ones. Historical fiction about stuff nobody cares about, for instance. Or, more generally, fiction that falls into that vague space between “women’s fiction” and “literary fiction”, where it feels too smart to be women’s fiction but, for whatever reason, not smart enough to be literary fiction (where ‘smart’ is entirely a matter of appearances, of course). The point is, your novel is dead in the water the moment you conceived of it, and yet you wrote the stupid thing anyway!!!
It’s this realization that causes writer’s block. You start to evaluate your own work through the eyes of the publishing industry, instead of through your own aesthetic interests.
This basic problem–“How do I write books that are both marketable and interesting (to me)” is not really solvable, since they tend to be at odds. The more your book is like other books, the less you’ll be into it. And the more different it is, the less publishing will be into it. I think a lot of authors succeed in having long careers simply through luck: their own interests happen to coincide with the mainstream of their genre. In not a few cases, this is because the author is extremely basic in their own reading tastes.
But the problem we’re trying to solve here isn’t the above, the problem is “How do I keep writing books even though I know that getting ‘better’ (in my own eyes) might mean making my books less and less publishable?” Its this realization–the idea that, after a certain level, quality is decoupled from marketability that causes you, paradoxically, to choke up and start writing terrible books!
Because, say what you will about books that don’t sell, the fact is: at least you wrote them! And if you wrote the book, then you accomplished something, you did something. And, moreover, if you’re writing then you can at least have some hope that something will hit, something will happen, and eventually you’ll break through.
Whereas when you’re blocked, there is no hope. Anything bad can happen to a writer, but it’s bearable so long as they’re writing. Once you stop being able to write, you just feel like a fraud. You lose that sense of hope.
Okay, so that’s the problem? Now what’s the solution?
I don’t know! It’s like asking what the solution is for depression. There is none. Depression is completely logical. Everyone should be depressed all the time. And yet life isn’t livable if you’re depressed. When it comes to writer’s, everyone should be blocked. This conundrum, the idea that you can write a good book that nevertheless can’t ever be sold, is crazy-making!
My solution came in stages. First, I stopped writing proposals. It was profoundly debilitating to go to all the trouble of thinking up an idea, only to have it shot down. That’s not how I work. So then I was at least at the stage of needing to write an actual novel, instead of just a proposal. But that novel was still extremely difficult to write, and it took many drafts. I think, however, that my writer’s block lifted most substantially when my agent fired me sometime in 2017. It was extremely depressing, of course, but I almost instantly felt a sense of freedom. I was finally in control of my own career again! I could write a book and query it to agents, and nobody could stop me. I had returned in some sense to the situation of before I had sold a book, when it was just me and the keyboard.
I also had the experience of taking my YA novel, the one I had written on-spec, without a proposal–the one both my agent and editor told me was unpublishable–and, essentially, twisting it into a more marketable form. Basically, I took the homosexual subtexts and turned them into text. I made it a more explicitly queer romance. And now, with a firmer place in the market, it was not only vied over by agents, but it sold in the first round of submission to a larger publisher than my old one.
I think that was the final nail in the coffin for my writer’s block. I realized that there is often a way, at least for me, to turn my book into something that is superficially marketable. This might not actually be true–I’ve since suffered the ‘this isn’t marketable’ or ‘this doesn’t fit the genre’ problem with other novels I’ve sent out–but it’s my own personal delusion. I persist in believing that no matter what I write, there is a way to make it look or seem marketable. And that if one book doesn’t work, there’s always another that will. Moreover, I’ve made peace with the idea that most things I write won’t sell.
I am serious. When I write a novel, I fully expect it not to sell. But I don’t think that nothing will sell. I have hope that somewhere, something in my arsenal will sell. I decided, very explicitly, during my two years of writing proposals that my editor didn’t accept, that I would much rather write books instead of proposals. Because at least if a book doesn’t sell, you have something, you’ve discovereds something, and you’ve improved along the way.
But my solutions won’t work for everybody, unfortunately, because my solutions are, at their core, pretty insane and delusional. And, moreover, I don’t need to make money from my writing. Some people do. They literally can’t afford to write (as I have) nine unsalable books. They need their next book to sell.
For these people, I can offer no solutions; you’ll have to find your own. But I can guarantee you one thing, whatever that solution is, it won’t be reasonable one, because when it comes right down to it, writer’s block is the very logical end result of living in a difficult and cutthroat world.