No one weaves the classic stories of Greek, Roman and Egyptian mythology into hilarious, action-packed thrill rides for young readers quite like Rick Riordan. Rick’s spent years enchanting the minds of our younger readers (and, let’s be honest, adults too) with his bestselling books and series including Percy Jackson & the Olympians, The Heroes of Olympus and The Trials of Apollo, just to name a few. So, it stands to say that Rick might have some tips on writing — and more importantly — overcoming the dreaded writer’s block. Here, Rick offers some honest advice to writers of all ages and levels (spoiler alert – never give up!).
So, are you ready for the big secret? You want to know how to beat writer’s block and never again get stuck staring at a blank screen or blank pad of paper? You want to know the closely guarded formula that bestselling writers use to master the written word?
Yeah, I’d love to know that too. Unfortunately, no such secret exists. After writing 30 novels, I can safely say that the writing process never gets easy. Perhaps a bit easier, yes, but that’s not because I learned any super shortcut or magic formula. It’s just because I got a little better at identifying what works and doesn’t work for me personally when I’m writing.
That’s my first bit of advice: Learn how you write. Everyone is different. That may be cliché, but it’s true. I happen to be very productive in the morning. If I can force myself to get up early, I get more done. If I try to be creative at three in the afternoon, forget it. I’ll spend a lot more time staring at a blank screen. This literary circadian rhythm is something I recognized early on, when I was a full-time classroom teacher, and it is still true today. Few of us have the luxury of crafting a perfect schedule, I know, but as far as possible, try to find the times of day that work best for you. For many writers, like me, that means working around the margins of the day — morning and evening. Do you work well with music? Do you need silence? Are you a kinetic worker who needs the feel of pen and paper, or do write more easily on a laptop? Maybe you prefer a simple word processor, so you are not tempted by the ever-present distractions of the Internet. There is no one-size-fits-all solution to writing effectively.
Second bit of advice: Perhaps it goes without saying … but learning how you write can only happen if you actually, you know, write. I have nothing against reading inspirational “how to write” books or going to writers’ conferences, but these can often become delay tactics to avoid the actual writing part of writing. Ultimately, you only learn to write by putting your posterior in the chair and getting the words from your head onto the screen or paper. It is very much like a sport. If you don’t practice, you don’t get better.
Okay, fine, you think. But how do you specifically tackle writer’s block?
I have several tips that might help. At least, they have been helpful to me. As I said above, recognize that your creative process may be different than that of other writers. I have great admiration for writers who are so organized that they can write seven days a week from 10AM-1PM without fail. Maybe that works for you, too. That would drive me crazy. I am much too ADHD to sit for two hours straight at the computer every day. Instead, I am a “hit and run” writer. I will work for ten minutes of a passage, then get up and stretch my legs. I will come back, work 30 minutes, then take the dog for a walk. I have no regular hours. I just try to write every day. Sometimes, when I’m in the thick of a really intense revision, that could mean ten hours a day. Sometimes, if I am brainstorming, that could mean only half an hour. Despite this mess of a schedule, I have managed to write those 30 novels in the span of 25 years.
The honest truth? I never think about writer’s block, because I now recognize that occasional stops and obstacles are simply a natural part of the process. I am writing all the time, in a way, whether I’m doing the dishes or walking the dog, because the ideas are churning, trying to take the right form. If you get stuck, give yourself permission to get up and do something else. Don’t beat your head against the screen! This is not a sign of defeat or failure. This is just part of the deal. As long as you come back to that screen later and try again, it’s all good.
Another hint: Outlining, for me, is really helpful. I’m not talking about Roman numerals and complicated subheadings. Usually, I just write a quick paragraph, maybe four or five sentences, about what I think will happen in each chapter. These summaries can change. They most often change a lot. But just having a road map that shows the beginning, middle and end is hugely helpful. This will often prevent me from getting into the middle of the manuscript and not having a clue what to do next. Not everyone is a “plotter.” Some writers famously proceed by the seat of their pants. If that’s your process, great! But if you are struggling with getting stuck, try even a simple outline. You may find it saves you a lot of frustration later.
My biggest piece of advice, and this was my single most important discovery: Don’t stop and revise when you’re doing the first draft. Just don’t. You will finish chapter one. You will start revising it. You will think it needs to be perfect before you go on to chapter two. It will never become perfect. You will get frustrated and think, “Oh, this is too hard. I will start another project and that will go more smoothly!” It will not. My archives are full of half-finished stories and manuscripts from the Times of the Before, when I did not know this precious wisdom. Force yourself to finish what you start. It will be terrible. That’s okay! Just finish it. When you get to the end, then you can go back and revise to your heart’s content. What you will find, I think, is that 1) you know how to revise the manuscript better now, because you have built up your writing muscles, and 2) the first draft wasn’t quite as terrible as you thought, at least in some places!
So … if you’re stuck, let’s recap.
- Check your roadmap. If you don’t have one, make one!
- Allow yourself a break. Then come back to it.
- Force yourself to finish the whole first draft without looking back or revising.
These things combined, for me, have made all the difference. I can’t tell you I never get stuck, but I’m not expecting that! Getting stuck is okay. Sometimes it is your brain telling you to step away for a sec, breathe, regroup and make a new plan of attack.
Lastly, don’t give up! I started writing when I was 13. I was not published until I was 30. I was not able to become a full-time writer until I was 40. Everyone’s path and process are different, but one thing is always true: The only writers who are 100% guaranteed not to succeed are the ones who give up!