Set the world on fire: How I bypass writer’s block

Writing advice time.

I was at the WriteIdea Festival in London last weekend and an audience member asked me and Tom Lloyd what to do when the dreaded writer’s block strikes. I figured that I’d share what works for me, and maybe if you occasionally slam into the creativity wall, it might work for you too.

There are different times when, as a writer, you might feel more or less creative or inspired, but if you’re an author working to a deadline, or you’ve put aside specific time to write, or you really just want to get on with the damn thing, then you can’t really afford to just sit and stare at the blank screen, hoping for a lightning bolt to strike. Broadly, I find that I can have the following, very different problems.

  1. I just don’t feel like writing
  2. I’m far too distracted by something else
  3. I don’t know what happens next
  4. The story doesn’t feel right

Let’s deal with each in turn.

  1. I just don’t feel like writing, Ed. But if I don’t write today, then I miss my window for the week.

For me, this all comes down to environment, atmosphere, and how you’re feeling on the day. There are a bunch of different ways that you can change these, but essentially your best bet: get out of the house. This will generally break me out of most slumps. It’s hard to be creative when all you’ve seen during the day is your bedroom, the hall, the kitchen and the bathroom. Just a walk down to the park, to the shop, or somewhere completely different works wonders to clear that funk out. It’s surprising how your entire mood shifts just by going and treating yourself to a cup of overpriced coffee at your local overpriced coffee shop. Yes, you end up £7.20 poorer because you couldn’t avoid that citron tart as well, but changing environment will normally change my mindset.

Citron tart

2. I’m too distracted

Let’s be honest; what’s distracting you is social media. If it’s that, then download an app like Forest, which blocks your phone off for a set period of time. Disconnect your WiFi so you stop getting pop ups.

If it’s not social media, then it’s probably mess/clutter in your immediate environment, that you want to play Skyrim, or that your partner keeps interrupting. Again, all of this is solved by getting out of the house. I am far more productive in the pub than anywhere else, because it totally focuses me on one task. There’s just nothing else to do. Also, I have beer, which makes me happy, and happy writers are more productive. Or at least I am. If you require soul-torture to be able to write, then consider whether you really want a life of that and maybe find something that you can do when happy, like swimming or playing gypsy jazz (NB: playing gypsy jazz may just be shunting your misery onto other people).

3. I don’t know what happens next

This one feels hard, but it’s easy. The problem comes from feeling that there’s something specific that has to happen immediately in the story, and that you have to write it now. But you don’t. You don’t have to write anything, specifically, so write something you do want to write about.

In RAVENCRY, I got to a point where my start had lost impetus, and I was a good 80k words from the end. I wasn’t sure where to take the story, so, I just decided that I’d write what I wanted to write about. I was having a day of obsessing about 17th century English civil war armour, so I wrote a scene where Galharrow was getting kitted out in new armour. Then what should happen, of course, but he’d need to get summoned off to investigate something in order for it to get used. I invented a new monster, and wrote that scene. Now, neither of those scenes made it into RAVENCRY, but while writing them I created a new location in Valengrad – which then inspired a number of other ideas, all of them getting better and better. Before I knew it, the new location became the central focus of the entire plot. The new monster changed  about three times, and became a crucial part of a mystery. It introduced a new character, who became vital, then later got cut, then changed to another vital character… all because I just let myself write what I wanted to write. Don’t try to force something that you won’t enjoy – let yourself write the thing you really enjoy. Be prepared to delete it later, but all of my best ideas happen while I’m writing, never sitting staring at a blank page.

Remind yourself what the original reason that you started working on your story was. For me, it’s all swords, power, magic and deeply entwined character relationships.


4. The story or scene isn’t working/I’m not enjoying writing it

Set it on fire. No, seriously.

If you have a scene or event that’s not working, set the building on fire, or the forest, or the mountaintop. Look at how that changes the dynamic of the scene. What conversation do the characters now have? If they don’t need to have that conversation anymore, then it probably wasn’t very important to the plot in the first place, so skip or cut it. I find that whenever I try to write ‘council’ scenes, as soon as I take it out of the dreary council room, I realise that there’s no point in the scene anyway and it was boring in the first place. So I can skip on to something else entirely. MORE MONSTERS. MORE MESSED UP STUFF. Much more fun.

You don’t always have to set things on fire. Put that heartfelt discussion on a rotten rope bride. The middle of a riot. A wind-tossed ship. Make sure that the background is as interesting as the foreground, and it will force the characters to start acting with agency instead of meandering around Starbucks buying citron tarts.

These are the things that work for me. Let me know in the comments what works for you!


Published by EdMcDonald

Ed McDonald is the author of The Raven's Mark trilogy and the forthcoming Redwinter series. He currently lives in the UK. Find me at

One thought on “Set the world on fire: How I bypass writer’s block

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: