I’ll tell you what, growing up, my daughter was SUCH a pistol—a wired drama queen and a bundle of energy—that I used to joke it was like I spit her out of my mouth. My husband would laugh and say, “Yes, Julie, she is a chip off the old block, but thank God she has just enough of me to keep from making a fool of herself.” Thanks, babe,” I’d say, with a wry twist of a smile, “always appreciate the support.”
But the truth is, he was right, and thank God! Yes, in many ways, my daughter is “a chip off the old block”—that wonderful, mysterious genealogical tie that makes every parent smile. You know, like the first time I discovered both my kids slept with their knees tented in the air just like their mother? Or how my daughter picks at her eyebrows just like her daddy picks at his moustache? I mean, who teaches them that? No one. It’s inherent, in the genes, in the blood, a lovely gift from God that says HE thinks you’re wonderful enough to repeat and emulate.
Well, as writers, there is another “chip off the old block” that’s pretty wonderful, too, and most worthy of repeating and emulating. I speak, of course, of chiseling away at that debilitating and demoralizing condition that affects writers everywhere at some time in their life—the dreaded writer’s block, hereafter referred to as WB.
Brrrr … cold chills!! Just the mention of that word sends shivers down my spine, dredging up memories of one of my worst author nightmares ever. It was 2008 and I was three quarters of the way through writing book 3 in my “Daughters of Boston” series, A Passion Denied. Deadlines were looming when I did something reallllly stupid. I got sucked into a book by an exceptionally talented secular New York Times bestselling author whose work literally blew me away. So much so that when I would sit down at my computer to write A Passion Denied, I literally wanted to puke on the keyboard. I’d stare at the tripe I’d written and swore somebody stole into my computer at night and changed all my words because they were SO bad that it stole my creativity, my confidence and my passion. And if you know anything about me at all (my tagline is “Passion with a Purpose"), it’s that if my passion is gone, I’m dead in the water. I’m talking face down at the bottom of the creativity pool, an anchor around my neck that looks suspiciously like a wooden block.
How does one deal with such a problem? Well, back then, I broke down and cried, then fasted both food and the NYT bestselling author while I waited for my sister to read the book, fully expecting her to tell me I needed to start over. “Julie, it’s the best thing you’ve ever written,” she told me several nights later, and I was stunned. I mean, how can you look at something you wrote, think it’s good one day, then want to vomit the next?? For me, it’s a matter of confidence, and honey, let me tell you—if you don’t get the old sledge hammer out and start whacking some chips off that old writer’s block, your confidence will be as dead as your passion.
Soooo … what are some ways to do that? Well, I’ve listed twenty points below, some of which I’ve tried, others I’ve only researched, but there’s bound to be one or two in the bunch that will help chip-chip-chip away at that awful writer’s block that attempts to stymie your progress. So, give it a shot, and hopefully before you’re done, like a sculptor with stone, what emerges from that blinking cursor will not only be beautiful piece of your soul, but a true work of art that will uplift and inspire. Here we go:
1) EXERCISE: I have found that this is the #1 way that I fight writer’s block. It seems like every time I get on the treadmill, great lines and ideas start flying, so much so that I keep a pen and notebook handy. Ironically, I took a stress test recently where you have to walk on a treadmill till your heart rate gets to a certain level. According to the technicians, I have the stamina of a marathon runner because it takes my heart much longer to get to that point than the normal person, so they actually made me run on the treadmill to speed up the process. HOLY COW, the minute I did, scenes and various ideas for my ms. started flying through my brain like crazy. I asked why, and the tech told me that when you exercise or do anything to get your blood flowing, it pumps it up to your brain for greater creativity, and boy, is that true!
2) Change your surroundings: I found this really helps, ESPECIALLY when your new surroundings are outside on a pretty day!! I share an office with my hubby, but when I get stale, I move to the hearth room in the winter with a cozy fire, then out on my lower deck in spring/summer/fall—SO great for WB!!
3) Treat Yourself to Some Ambiance: Around my house I am known as the Ambiance Queen because for dinner, I have to have a candle lit and the lights dimmed, which drives my daughter and hubby crazy since they like to actually SEE their food. As a writer, little ambiance touches really help me to get in the mood to write, like a new peach- or hazelnut-scented candle, a picture of Keith when I met him (hubba, hubba!!), or my notes doc open on my computer that contains pics of the movie stars I envision to play my characters. And in the winter, I used to have a foot warmer in my office, and no, it wasn’t my husband!
4) TRY FASTING E-MAIL: I have this bad habit of keeping my e-mail open, and it breaks up my writing flow, even after I turned off the ding that announces new e-mails. So lately, I’ve been “fasting” e-mail most of the day except for certain times (first thing in morning after my Bible/prayer time, then at noon, 3:00 and 6:00 PM) because just turning it off doesn’t work for me—I need a spiritual incentive to help me stick to it, and this seems to work.
5) Listen to music: I find that worship songs (especially on the treadmill!) help me to focus on what’s really important—God—so I can move forward with what He wants me to do, which is to write for Him.
6) Start what you’re stuck on first thing in the morning: A lot of times I will be writing at night and NOTHING sounds right to me—you know, it’s that tripe syndrome back in play. So I will close my computer and read instead, preferring not to risk writing tripe when I’m tired. Almost 100% of the time that same piece of tripe the night before will read SO much better in the morning anyway when I’m fresh and ready to tackle it again.
7) Work on something else: This is similar to #6 above, but different. If I am struggling with a scene, the more frustrated I get, the worse it is. Kind of like a person trying to go to sleep and getting agitated when they can’t. In cases like this, I will often work on a blog I need to write or e-mails or anything else that is writing-productive so that I don’t get frustrated with the loss of writing time.
8) Grab Coffee or Tea or NEW FAVORITE BEVERAGE: I am a sucker for hazelnut coffee, but lately, I have found that switching it up a little bit helps my writing as well. My daughter got my husband and I hooked on peppermint tea, and OH MY, what a treat!! My husband was really stressed one day and commented that he felt calmer after drinking it, so I looked up the medicinal qualities of peppermint and guess what?? Peppermint tea not only helps relieve stress, headaches and is believed to ward off the common cold, but offers a plethora of other benefits such as:
· Peppermint tea treats irritable bowel syndrome
· Peppermint tea eases nausea and vomiting
· Peppermint tea controls flatulence, diarrhea and diverticular disorders
· Peppermint tea improves digestion and reduce heartburn
· Peppermint tea dissolves gallstones
· Peppermint tea reduces the severity of herpes outbreaks
· Peppermint tea fights bad breath
· Peppermint tea controls muscle aches and chronic pain
· Peppermint tea clears congestion and cough related to colds and allergies
· Peppermint tea controls mild asthma
· Peppermint tea fights stress
9) Outline scene-by-scene: One of the best ways to chip away at WB is to keep a scene-by-scene sheet. When I begin a ms., I will do brief blurbs for each scene, even including great dialogue that comes to me when I’m on the treadmill. This is INVALUABLE later when I’m stumped because I can go back and pick up great lines that I wrote down before, which help trigger the writing process. Also, as a pantster turned plotter (plotster), I find that it helps to know where you’re going in the process, warding off that nasty WB.
10) Don’t think/just write: I took a fiction-writing course once, and every day the teacher started the class off with ten minutes of free writing, which meant you put the pen to paper (this was WAY before computers!) and literally did not stop or lift the pen for ten whole minutes. You were not allowed time to think what you wanted to say, you simply wrote whatever came into your mind, and you know what? I usually thought it was pretty good when I was done. Also, when Patti Lacy and I taught a fiction class a few years ago, I was painfully structured with reams of hand-outs while Patti, a former teacher, was this laid-back, relaxed gal who started every one of our classes with music and free writing. Uh, guess who got more results??? Hint: it wasn’t me!
11) Just Do it: For me, the “Nike” method seems to work, which means when I have mild WB or WD (writer’s drag), I find that just forging ahead and writing whether you feel like it or not will eventually get the pump primed again. Some experts say you should never force yourself to write when you have WB, but for me it’s the opposite. And it was Mary Connealy who taught me a very important trick, and that’s if you’re stumped on a particular scene, pass it up and move on to the next, coming back to it later to revise and flesh it out.
12) Read blogs/articles/books outside the scope of what you normally write: This was advice I found when I researched WB, and I suppose it would work. But to be honest, I found that reading what I write (historical romance) in the work of authors I enjoy and admire helps me get my own creative juices flowing. For instance, I just finished three of my favorite historical authors’ books—An Inconvenient Match by Janet Dean (her best yet!), MaryLu Tyndall’s upcoming release Veil of Pearls (also her best yet!!) and The Merchant's Daughter by Melanie Dickerson (would you believe her best yet as well??), and all three ladies did things in their books (in style and phrasing) that really inspired, taught and motivated me to get the lead out.
13) MAAS IT: Donald Maas’s Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook has been a big help to me, not only in teaching me to take conflict and tension to the “next level” as he likes to say, but also in chipping away at WB. If I get stuck, often I will think of ways to ramp up the scene or take it to the next level. Example: Maas tells you whatever your conflict is, to make it worse by ramping it up, so in A Passion Most Pure, to make the heroine’s sibling rivalry with her sister even worse, I gave the heroine a twin sister who died in an actual polio epidemic of 1908 Boston and then had the heroine almost die too, which meant her parents doted on her, to her sister’s chagrin. See? Ramped it up and opened doors that got me excited about the plot.
14) Keep an idea notebook: Whenever an idea for plot or dialogue strikes, I write it down for future use. I actually had an incident of WB just last week in which this very method helped to break the WB deadlock.
15) Write daily. Like an athlete has to train his/her body to do what he/she wants it to do, so does an author have to train his/her mind. When I don’t write for days, it’s like I have to re-prime the pump every time, and it’s a very sloooooow process to get back up to speed, often taking me days to go from writing only two or three pages a day to my record high of twenty.
16) Eat healthy food and snacks, especially protein: This is a given, so when you hit WB, hit the pantry as well for a granola bar, fruit or something my doctor daughter-in-law has turned me on to—V8 juices with Fresca. In order to get daily requirements of fruits and vegetables, V8 now has these wonderful juices (I like peach and mango) that my DIL and daughter now mix with calorie-free Fresca to cut down on the cost (the V8s aren’t cheap) and improve the taste. OH MY GOODNESS!! They are WONDERFUL and give you the needed punch to go back to that computer.
17) Take a nap: You know what? I can’t nap to save my soul, so I’m just putting this sucker in here because it was in my research. BUT … when I can’t sleep at night or wake up in the middle of the night and can’t fall back? I give myself 30 minutes of tossing and turning, and then I’m done trying and trot downstairs in my nightgown and bare feet to pound away on that computer. :)
18) Brainstorm with friends: This is actually #1 on the Seeker list. Whenever any of us need help with titles or plots or WB, all it takes is one e-mail to our personal Seeker loop, and help starts flying in!! These gals are AMAZING with their creative input, so find yourself a writer friend or group like this and start bouncing things off of them. Or you can always sign up for a critique group with ACFW, another good option.
19) put on Lipstick, fix hair and Do something productive: Okay, I know this isn’t for everybody, but when I am stuck with WB or just plain blue, I find that the #1 thing that helps perk me up is—are you ready for this? —lipstick and fixing my hair and then doing something PRODUCTIVE. Cleaning out a drawer, ironing six month’s worth of clothes while I watch Gone With the Wind, straightening my office, cleaning out the fridge or pantry—ANYTHING that I’ve been putting off that makes me feel bad because, well, I’ve been putting it off!
20) Watch a movie that relates to your book: For my upcoming series set in 1902 San Francisco, the “Heart of San Francisco” series, I found that watching movies in that time period (San Francisco with Clark Gable and then the six minutes of footage shot on the main street of San Francisco days before the earthquake, etc.) really helps to stir the creative juices. For anyone writing the WWI time period of A Passion Most Pure, Downtown Abbey is a wonderful means of getting excited about your WIP, so give a period movie or book a shot when WB has you by the throat.
21) Who, What When, Where & Why? Believe it or not, when I get stuck on a scene, I have started stepping back to ask the basic journalism questions of Who? What? When? Where? And Why? Why, you ask? Well, because answering those questions in a scene will not only help jog the scene loose in your head, but also give you clearer direction of where to take it OR determine if it’s even necessary at all.
22) Reread some of your favorite personal work: Finally, when I am stuck, I will sometimes go back into my other books and read a favorite scene to remind me that, yes, I do like what I write and yes, I can do this, which is sometimes all the boost I need.
There you have it—sound ideas to lick writer’s block, so print this sucker off and tuck it away because at some time or another, we ALL need it, right?
Leave a comment and you’ll be entered to win your choice of any of my books PLUS your choice of a top CBA book from my personal library. Let’s hear what YOU do when you have writer’s block so we can share the wealth, okay?
And, HEY, anybody who lives close to Grand Rapids, Michigan, I will be speaking and signing at a book signing at Baker Book House tomorrow night, Thursday, March 15, from 7:00 to 8:30 PM, so come see me!!
Good luck and get writing!
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