There are any number of causes behind writer’s block. Perhaps you haven’t really thought through a scene, or perhaps you’re characters just aren’t cooperating and you don’t know why. Perhaps there’s some underdeveloped foundational area of research or creative work that you need to spend more time on, or perhaps you’re just stumped about how to get your characters from A to C without going through B (where B is some undesirable element of story or characterization). These are all legitimate reasons to struggle, and these are all things that many writers struggle with. Creativity is hard work, and sometimes it just takes effort to get through the block. However, there is a more pernicious cause of writer’s block, and even more grievously, or plain bad writing: a lack of message.
We’ve all read books that were shallow. They fill the shelves of your local book store and your local library. They have flat characters, uninteresting story lines, and seemingly meaningless plot twists. The only purpose for which they exist is to sell copies, make people money, and maybe give you some mild entertainment for a few hours. I call this bad writing because even though it can be formally excellent, it is devoid of substance. It’s like a five-star Filet Mignon that turns out to be made of tofu, or like eating cheetos… for anyone who doesn’t know, I hate cheetos. Sometimes you really want mindless drivel, just like sometimes you really want tofu or fake-cheese powder. However, no one in their right mind would call tofu steak, cheetos nourishing, or shallow fiction great literature.
However, I think that its worth asking where such bad writing comes from in the first place, and I am convinced that it comes from the same place as one of the main causes of writer’s block. When you have something that is worth saying, have done your research, worked out the details of your world, understand your characters, and planned out your story, the actually writing part tends to come fairly easily. Its usually when one of these is missing that writer’s block sets in. That being said, I think the the most important of these is the first: having something that is worth saying. When my fiction has a purpose, when I am trying to express something that is meaningful to me, it tends to be much better. Even fiction that is not exceptional formally can be very enjoyable and captivating when it has a clear purpose: when its alive. A good example of this is Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers or Stranger in a Strange Land. Both of these are wonderful novels that do not excel formally. In Starship Troopers Heinlein tends to use his characters as mouthpieces, and some of the characters are under-developed. In Stranger in a Strange Land the characters as a whole tend to be under-developed and at times it is difficult to follow the course of the story. However, in both novels his message is clear. The same criticisms can apply to much of Ayn Rand’s work, and yet Atlas Shrugged is still selling copies more than thirty years after her death.
So, the question is: what do we do when we’ve said what we wanted to say? I think that there are three major options:
1) Write Bad Fiction: as I said above, there’s a place for it. Sometimes I want to read Isaac Asimov’s Foundation or Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, but sometimes I want to read Never Deal with a Dragon or Streets of Blood (I’ve been on a Shadowrun kick lately). I don’t expect the later to live up to the high standard set by the former. In fact, I don’t expect much from them at all except a few hours entertainment in a setting that I love. So, I think that there is a legitimate choice here, though I certainly hope that writing bad fiction won’t be a permanent choice.
2) Do Something Else: the vast majority of my favorite writers didn’t spend their entire lives writing. Some of them didn’t even spend most of their lives writing. David Eddings was a soldier, a purchaser for Boeing, and a college lecturer as well as a writer. Isaac Asimov was a soldier and a Biochemist as well as a writer. Frank Herbert was a journalist for much of his life. Robert Heinlein was a sailor, a miner, and a failed politician as well as a writer. And Steven Erikson is an anthropologist and archaeologist. So, if you don’t have something that’s worth saying, its perfectly valid to go and do something else for a while. Maybe you’ll return to writing, hopefully you’ll bring back a lot of experiences that will make your stories that much better. Maybe you won’t, but you’ll contribute to the world in some other way. However, for many of the greats writing has been something that they did along with life, not the center and goal of their life.
3) Find A New Message: you might actually do this by doing something else for a while. However, if the best writing has a purpose and a point, and if you’ve made yours already then maybe the best thing to do is to find something else that’s worth saying. Of course, you could just make the same point over and over again, there are plenty of authors writing both fiction and non-fiction who do this, but that can get tedious after a while. However, you are in the midst of an entire world worth of possibilities, ideas, arguments, and beliefs. Find one to support (hopefully a good one, I’m not encouraging you to go out and write something glorifying and defending slavery or mass murder), and write something that does so in a meaningful, interesting way. Don’t be random about this, but find something that you actually believe in, and that you actually know something about.
So, this is my advice for when you don’t have anything left to say. I’ve been majoring on the second for the last year (of course, between work, school, and relationship I haven’t really had time for writing fiction), and if I get into a Ph.D. program I might be focusing on the second one for a while longer. However, what you decide to do is up to you.