Monday, May 16, 2011

On Writer’s Block

There are two kinds of writer’s block and both suck. Suckage #1: You have no work-in-progress and you can’t figure out what to write. Suckage #2: You’re stuck in your current work-in-progress.

Maybe the same methods can help both types of writer’s block, but I’m going to focus today on the second kind.

So you’re in the middle of your novel and…you have no idea what happens next. *gulp* Or you’re editing and you realized a giant supermassive plot hole exists in your story and you have no idea how to fix it.

First, take a deep breath. Don’t freak out. You’re a smart dude/dudess and you will figure this out. And—good news—I have the cure!

The cure is…a quiet mind.

When you’re sitting, staring at the page on your computer screen, pounding your forehead, yelling WHAT HAPPENS NEXT, WHAT HAPPENS NEXT…the answer is not going to come to you.

Have you ever had this happen? You spend all day squeezing out a measly 200 words. You must have written and rewritten the same paragraph ten times. You can’t figure out how to fix this scene. You go to bed frustrated and feeling kind of hopeless. You spent eight hours with Microsoft Word open and got nothing done. Then…while you’re lying there drifting off, almost asleep…BAM. The answer comes.

Why is it that you couldn’t figure out the scene while you were working on it, but your mind came up with the answer while you were lying in bed not even consciously thinking about the book? Because your mind was quiet. It does interesting work while quiet.

I asked my pal Sarah Fine about it. She is both a YA writer and a psychologist who writes this awesomely awesome blog. She said, "It's possible to get 'stuck' in a kind of cognitive loop that prevents you from thinking outside the box. If you're staring at that ms--all the words you've already written, all the thoughts you've already gotten out--it might be harder to think outside that frame you've built for yourself. When you feel stuck like that, getting away and doing something that's fairly 'empty' of intensive cognitive demands could give your brain the space to get the ideas flowing again."

But Sarah warns, "Even mindless activities won't help if you fill them up with anxious thoughts--so you really have to turn it off."

So what if you don’t want to wait until bedtime to fix this scene? Is there any way to get into that quiet mind state now? Glad you asked! There is!

Here are some examples that have worked for me:

- Mindless exercise. Not chatting with people at the gym. Not watching TV while on the treadmill. Go outside and walk for 20-30 minutes. Leave your iPod at home. Your mind doesn’t need to be singing along with a song. It needs to be set free. Walk at a swift pace and let your mind wander. Let it go where it wants to go.

- Shower/bath. I don’t know what it is about the shower, but I get my best ideas in there! I think it’s because it’s an automatic activity. I don’t need to use much brain power since it’s something I do every day and I’m used to it. My mind is not focused on anything. It’s free.

- Take a drive. Alone. Radio off. Not a stressful city drive or a scenic pretty route. Something monotonous like a highway. This one has worked for me so many times. Once I even pulled over to take notes on a Panera napkin I picked up off the car floor. (It was all I had!)

These are just a few examples on how to get your mind into that open, quiet state. YMMV. You may find other methods that work for you. Please share in the comments!


  1. Two of my best ideas have come to me in dreams. So I guess I'm recommending sleep! But I had to laugh at your Panera napkin story- I'm forever digging scrap paper (receipts, gum wrappers) out of my purse in the grocery store to make sure I don't lose a thought that pops into my head! They only come at the most inopportune times.

  2. I'm so glad you posted on this, Kim--these days, with all the fabulous distractions available, I think it's actually really hard to have a quiet mind. For me, I do it best during my commute, which is about 45 minutes each way. I just drive along and let my mind churn, and it's amazing the kind of stuff I figure out. The trick is writing it down before I forget!

  3. Gina - I've heard other writers say the dreams thing, too. I think it's great you wrote on a gum wrapper. lol.

    Sarah - Thanks for contributing a quote to the post! :)

  4. Oh Kim thank you so much! It has been weeks since I wrote my story. I know what happens but am having trouble getting there. So thank you!

  5. I find that whenever I get writer's block it helps to lay down, take a deep breathe and listen to music that has the mood of the story. I don't really listen but take a quick nap--of course as soon as I'm about to sleep writer's block is solved, but hey, it works!

  6. Jenn - I hope it helps!

    MandiLynn - That's a good one, too!

  7. Great suggestions. I have a new idea that I've been stuck on the magic for a few months. Maybe I'll try your ideas.

  8. I hope it helps, Natalie! :)

  9. You're right. I get out of a rut during my quiet times. I'm revising a wip and when I don't know what to do next, taking a break helps.