The Internal Paralyzer


As most writers do, I read quite a lot, even when I’m writing. Usually it’s the best way for me to know what’s happening in the industry: which trends are burgeoning and which are dying, who’s changing genres, that sort of thing. Not to mention I simply love losing myself in someone else’s world for a little while. Reading also lets the writer know what’s already been done, and doesn’t need repeating.

All of us want to write original stories that thrill the reader, full of gripping adventure and sparkling wit. Notice I said “original”. No one wants to read a review of their own work that says, “Pansy Prosescribbler’s work was good, but she was clearly borrowing the magic baby subplot right out of Neville Novelwriter’s classic quest fantasies of the 1970’s.” We struggle to make our stories unique, but sometimes we end up repeating something someone else has done. Not on purpose, and that makes it doubly frustrating. It might be as extreme as a major plot thread, which forces the writer to go back and rip out that section and everything leading to it, to come up with something else that will work. Or it could be something as small as a name. Either way, the discovery can sometimes lead to writing paralysis.

I don’t like to call it writer’s block, because that’s become a bit of a dramatic catchphrase these days. “Oh poor me, I have writer’s block!” as if there’s a pill one could take to remedy the situation. When the real problem is paralysis. The brain locks up, the story dries in the metaphorical sun and all you hear is a little voice whispering You shouldn’t write that. Someone else already said it better. The readers will think you stole that name/idea/magic item and they’ll trash your book anyway so why are you bothering?

I suffered from just such a creatively paralyzed state not so long ago. I had just added a new and pivotal character to the book I was working on. Usually my characters pop into my head with their names attached, but this one didn’t. I worked hard researching to find the perfect name for her, and when I chose one at last, it was mysterious and exotic and fit her like a glove. At the same time, I started reading Scott Lynch’s Red Seas Under Red Skies, and to my horror, in walked a character with nearly the exact same name. It was spelled a little differently and the two women aren’t at all alike, but the name was uncommon enough that I panicked. I had to change my character’s name, didn’t I? People would see my book and think I’d stolen from Lynch! I worried so much over that minor sameness that I completely derailed my own process. Eventually I realized that by stopping and worrying about it, I would never get my own book finished. If my editor saw the name and thought it was too alike, she’d tell me. And with that, I kept going.

It’s so easy to be thrown off course. Real life intrudes, of course, but more insidious is the internal paralyzer, whispering to us about how unoriginal we are and how we should just give up and watch reruns of Lost. It’s hard to shut that voice down, and here’s another secret for you…just because you sell a book doesn’t quiet the nagging. Last night I was reading a new book by a first-time author, and to my momentary horror, he’d given a certain skill to a magical creature, an identical skill that I’ve used in my book. Oh no! Not again! I felt my chest seize up and for a second I couldn’t breathe. Was I going to have to completely change my whole story? But then I remembered that my story is mine and his is his, and except for that slight similarity they’re completely individual stories. I took a deep breath and went back to reading.


15 comments to The Internal Paralyzer

  • What I really hate is when someone uses an idea that I know ought to be mine even though I’ve not actually had it yet 🙂

  • Likewise, I’ve had ideas that I loved but not had the right story for them, so they got put on the back burner. Then I’m reading something or other one day and BAM! There’s my idea in full-form being utilized in a novel. That just kills it for me to even try using it. I hate that.

    BTW, my ol’ college writing teacher used to say that there was no such thing as writer’s block. That what most writers call writer’s block was really just your unconscious mind working out the puzzle pieces in order to form the next step on the staircase of your artistic progression. As hokey as that might sound, I’ve found it to be true for me. Whenever I have had a slow-down, block, paralysis type moment, I usually just let it all lay for a day or two. When I start writing again, I find I’m seeing things in a new light and putting words together in ways I never did before.

  • AJ, I was going to say that… (grins)

    Stuart, your college writing teacher and I totally agree about writer’s block being a fictional concept.

    And Misty, I love the term creatively paralyzed! I’ve been there. It isn’t a nice place to visit…

  • Misty, I think we all suffer from the paralyzing mind. I too don’t believe in writer’s block, but I think we can psyche ourselves out of writing by not trusting our gut. This was a good post. Thanks so much for sharing your story, it helps me see that I’m not alone when it happens to me!

    Happy writing

  • Stuart said Then I’m reading something or other one day and BAM! There’s my idea in full-form being utilized in a novel.
    The first story I ever submitted to F&SF was a “frog princess” offshoot. They rejected it, but later that same year a “frog princess” story, by a well-known name, appeared in their pages. At the time I, being innocent of the ways of publishing and a bit clueless as well, thought they’d stolen my idea and given it to a more famous author to write. Nowadays I realize that even if it had been good enough for them, it was probably turned down because they already had the first one. 😀

  • There are times where I feel like I’m plugged into some bizarre aether…the aethernet…where my ideas are just laid out and other people can enter and take ’em. I have also had the paranoid feeling that people have gotten into my computer and pilfered my ideas when I type up a short synopsis and then find out a couple years later that someone else had nearly the same idea.

    Course, I guess there’s another angle. An idea will only wait around so long to be acted upon before moving on to someone else to use.

  • Emily

    I like the idea of writer’s block that Stuart presents. Makes sense to me.

    When I’m being really hoenst with myself, I find that “writer’s block” for me is often just “wow, that’s going to be a lot of work, and I don’t feel like doing it right now. Maybe I’ll go wash dishes…” A friend of mine, who was a few years ahead of me in grad school, told me once about dissertation evasions. She said “I hate cleaning. HATE it. And yet, I cleaned rather than work on my dissertation.” A few years later I found myself putting down a rearch book thinking “this room needs to be straightened…” and realized I was doing the same thing. It is similar for my fiction, too. Sometimes I’m genuinely at a place where I need to work stuff out, but some of the time it is just me being (*hangs head in shame*) lazy.

    That being said, I think I’m going to go do some work on my fiction! 😀

  • Wolf Lahti

    What some people call writer’s block is nothing but self-indulgence and a form of procrastination. There are those who say that all writer’s block is of this type, but I don’t believe that’s true. When you sit down in front of your computer or typewriter for hours at a time and try–really try–to come up with something, anything, that can hardly be called procrastination. Paralysis does seem a more fitting word for it. I just wish I could overcome it as readily as you seem to. My particular brand of writer’s block/paralysis seems to stem largely from a lack of faith, and that isn’t something I’ve been able to whip up out of nothing.

  • heteromeles

    Am I writing here because of writer’s block, or as a break between activities? I think there are at least three different types of writer’s blocks, at least for me:

    One is when I’m “out of juice,” at which point a walk in the woods is required to come up with the next thing to write. I don’t have the endurance to write for ten hours per day without a break, anymore than I can run a marathon every day. Some people can. But I can turn out several thousand words per day, with breaks.

    A second type of paralysis was what I ran into in grad school, and I think it’s the same as Misty as describing here. It’s hellish to write when you know that all you’re going to face is criticism, no matter what you do. When I watch “Dog Whisperer” on TV, I keep thinking, “DAMN IT! Most advisers treat their grad students worse than they treat their dogs. They’d get more and better students out, faster, if they used positive reinforcement of what we’re doing right rather than criticizing what we’re doing wrong!” I even wanted to start a “treat your grad students like dogs!” movement just to get the point across. Unfortunately, too many professors are too thoroughly critical to learn how new tricks. I’m sure that this is Misty’s paralysis. So far as I know, the only cure for this is learning that you can survive it. This is where the author’s legendary iron hide comes from, and it’s one of the critical lessons of grad school.

    A third type of paralysis is one I ran into with my current manuscript. It becomes harder and harder to write something. When I sat down and analyze it, I realized that I was proceeding down a wrong path. My subconscious realized it before I did, and threw the brakes on to alert me. These are worth paying attention to, because when I rewrote the sections, they were much better.

  • Emily

    Heteromeles> Amen to that discussion of grad school. I’ve got some stories, which I won’t tell, but wow. You’re right, they treat their dogs (or in some cases, cats…) better than their students. And the ASPCA would go after ’em if they treated their pets the same. But if you get through it does help you take criticsm (esp. when the criticism isn’t as awful, personal, and mean spiritied!) I hadn’t thought about the third kind, but it makes a lot of sense!

  • AJ, are we long lost telepathic twins?! (Well, I guess I have a real twin my age, who is most definitely the opposite of telepathic, so probably not… darn.)

    Stuart, I know what you mean. I hear a lot that you should not read while you’re writing to avoid just such situations. Or that you should read while you’re writing to avoid just such situations. I find that reading works better for me.

    I think that your teacher is only partially right. One of the common reasons for creative paralysis is definitely taking a step up on the crystal stair of artistic endeavour. (Writers are not the only artists who get paralyzed, but how come nobody ever bitches about trombone-block, or acrylic-block?) But there are plenty of other reasons.

    Misty, great analysis. I think writer’s block is a pile of crap. There are plenty of reasons people may not write, or feel like writing, or be able to write, but to chalk it up to some fragment of the writer’s mystique, which is so often used as an excuse for not writing, seems to me to be ethically bankrupt. And I mean that it both senses of the word “ethic”.

    Not only does it poison the minds of many poor newbie writers and professionals alike, it shores up the idea that writing is not hard work in the same way that other things are hard work. Which is bad because it tricks the uneducated, and also because it can cause the work of writers to be devalued—something we already have enough experience with.

    Coincidentally, one of the best ways to un-stick myself is to read other books. And if they happen to be similar, well, I can claim “genre research” as an even more acceptable excuse.

  • Creative paralysis — yeah, I get that. Mostly because of the third scenario Heteromeles presents. It’s usually a sign that I’ve taken a wrong turn with my narrative or a character and the story has dried up on me. If I backtrack and rewrite, I can usually fix the problem.

    When I was in grad school and I was working on my dissertation proposal I worried constantly about being “scooped” — finding out that someone somewhere was writing on my topic and rendering my dissertation irrelevant. My advisor gave me a great piece of advice. He said, “If you’re worrying about someone taking your topic, you’re thinking too narrowly. Your dissertation should be broadly conceived and original — that way, no one can scoop you.” I think that novels are similar. I totally understand that feeling of panic, Misty. I’ve had it plenty of times. But then I realize, as you did, that my story is mine, and that superficial similarities can’t undermine the essence of my creative vision. Nice post.

  • heteromeles

    Charlie Stross’ “Five rules for cold-bloodedly designing a fantasy series” ( also be useful here, as an antidote to the paralysis caused by the fear of copying someone else.

  • heteromeles

    Sorry for the repost. I want the address to be clear:

    Charlie Stross’ “Five rules for cold-bloodedly designing a fantasy series” may also be useful here, as an antidote to the paralysis caused by the fear of copying someone else.

  • When I was in theatre school, I learned that the only way to play ‘boredom’ on stage was to have an interest in something that is not in the same place as you are. Makes perfect sense. Kind of like Emily’s desperate, “I’ll wash the dishes” idea. Writer’s block is just resistance to actually sitting down and doing the work, for whatever reason.
    Heteromeles had it right with the three paralyses but I definitely will always opt for a hike in the woods with my dogs. People sometimes ask me how I handle the routine of plunking out words hour after hour. I feel a bit like a sham that I don’t make myself suffer with an egg timer and an anxiously ticking cursor. When I have doubts about my capabilities (ie. gosh, she’s just a teacher!), when the character’s next move isn’t forthcoming, or when I feel the ridiculous urge to scrub the toilets, I know it is time to head to the woods. The answers will surely come.
    All that feel good mumbo-jumbo being said, I have been struggling for months with a symbol for renewal and rebirth that hasn’t been used recently in either a major publication or a feature film. Better strap on the snowshoes and grab the dogs.