Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

storm moving across a field
January 6, 2012

Talking Back to Your Brain

By Harry and Susan Squires

Harry and I can’t tell you how many times we’ve heard from writers frustrated and “stuck” on their current work in progress.

Often they say something like, “Why am I such a crummy writer?” “Why is this book so hard to write?” Or sometimes you hear people express goals like, “This year I’m going to write a novel that hits the USA Today list.”  The truth is, we’ve engaged in some of those practices ourselves.

But those expressions are a disaster for writers, primarily because of how the human brain actually works. However, once you know how to engage your brain properly, it can work for you and not against you, not only in your writing life but your private life as well.

Harry took several seminars from a psychologist named Bob Maurer, who lectured to creative people around the country about how to use your brain to help your creativity, avoid writer’s block, and generally improve your life. He has a wonderful book called ONE SMALL STEP CAN CHANGE YOUR LIFE, which is the basis for the ideas we’ll share.

First, a quick tour through the brain. It has three parts.

  • The brain stem that sits on top of your spinal column developed about 500 million years ago. It’s the reptile brain that keeps your body functioning on a physical level--breathing, circulation, etc.
  • About 300 million years ago the mid-brain or mammal brain evolved. That’s the one that controls emotions (including fear.)
  • And finally the cortex evolved about 50 thousand years ago. It’s the crinkly outer covering we know as the human brain. It controls language, creativity--all the higher functions of being human.

One thing the cortex was designed for is to answer questions. The first sorts of questions it answered were about basic survival. (“Is that a leopard in that shadow?”). It can’t help but answer any question you ask. And it has done a really good job of keeping our species alive.

That characteristic of the cortex can be an immense advantage to you or a horrible disadvantage, depending on the type of questions you ask yourself.

If you could get the cortex to answer questions that would help you further your goals, it would be great, wouldn’t it? But be careful what you wish for. Say you’re thinking about your love life (instead of your book) and you ask, “Why am I such a loser with the opposite sex?” Get ready for your cortex to provide a list of answers--possibly a long list. You might decide to go back to bed and hide under the covers for the day.

If you frame the question in a positive light, for instance, “What could I do to be more attractive to the opposite sex?”, you might come up with some productive answers. (Our brains are answering even as we write--Well, you could listen more instead of talking. There’s the extra weight--you could lose that, etc. etc.) However, since it’s a big question, there might be a LOT of answers.

And that’s a problem. When the list starts to get long, we’re back to being so depressed or fearful that we can’t address the issue. We’re unlikely to take any action at all. The question is so big it freezes us up with fear.

That little journey in improving your love life we just took is an excellent example of another brain fact. The cortex thinks it’s in charge because it has all those higher functions. But you know what? The Mid-brain that runs our emotions is the real boss. If we are frightened or depressed it’s very hard to focus on anything else.

When you ask yourself why you are such a horrible writer, and the list starts coming back from your cortex, you may be invoking one of the writer’s biggest fears--that we won’t finish the book, won’t sell, won’t be taken seriously--we won’t reach our secret goal. And when we’re afraid, we just shut down. When negative emotions take over, it’s NOT conducive to creativity.

So the trick is to get the brain to answer your questions without invoking fear or depression. How do you do that?

Think small.

It’s the big, huge things we can’t control that frighten or depress us. The Japanese have a concept called Kaizen. It’s all about improvement through small, incremental changes. Americans tend to like big, transformational changes (think, “I’ll lose 50 pounds in three months by only eating wheatgrass and ice cream.”)

The way of Kaizen asks, “What small, insignificant change could I make to improve?” That concept has proved invaluable in business for the Japanese. One small change built on another until they had created significantly better cars.That thinking was how they got quality into their cars when Americans couldn’t back in the eighties and nineties. (We’ve since imported their technique to great effect.) So, the key to getting productive answers from your brain is to take many very small steps to your goal.


Let’s focus now on the specific work you’re doing as a writer. You can get real help on your work in progress by asking yourself small questions about how to make it a better book.

We’re talking REALLY small at first, so you don’t invoke that fear or depression. Some examples from recent classes we’ve given where students learned to ask productive questions are:

*  What one small thing can I do to make my heroine more likable in this scene?
*  What does my hero want to happen in this scene?
*  Why would my hero act this way?
*  How can I put more tension in this scene?
*  How can I weave the exposition into dialogue in this scene?

Notice we’re not asking questions like: How can I make this a better book? Too big, too vague, and way too scary.

We’re not asking negative questions such as, “Why isn’t my heroine likable? A really long list of answers will just be depressing.

Keep it small (one scene, even one paragraph, one character, one action, etc.). Then let your brain work.

Sometimes, especially at first, when the brain isn’t used to answering small questions calmly and promptly, it can take a few days to come back with an answer. A great example of delayed response is when you rack your brain about where you left your keys.

You’re frantic, you’re scared, you just can’t think about anything except how you don’t have the money to replace that expensive automated car key or that if anyone found the keys they could get into your house and murder you, so should you really just have all the locks changed, but who can afford that? And by the way, why do you ALWAYS lose things, and hasn’t this been a problem all your life which makes you just incompetent?

You’re totally shut down. And then two days later, you just realize out of nowhere that they must be down behind the garbage can where you sorted the mail and threw away the circulars that afternoon three days ago. You had to get beyond fear and depression in order to quiet the mid-brain and let the cortex do its job.

If the cortex doesn’t come back with an answer at all, then think about reframing your question, and maybe making it even smaller.

A really good strategy is to ask yourself the questions you’ve carefully formulated right before you go to sleep at night. The cortex will work on them overnight, and then you get the morning “a-ha” moment. For Susan, it’s in the shower. Einstein used to say he got all his best ideas while shaving.

This technique is great for advancing your story, improving your writing, and getting yourself out of writer’s block. You can use it to create discipline about your writing life as well.

Try asking yourself how you can take a very small step toward becoming a productive writer. Think really small. Can you think about your WIP for fifteen minutes and write down your thoughts? Set a timer to keep it small. Can you write a paragraph about what your main character wants? Don’t make promises like “every day without fail.” That pretty much guarantees failure. Just gradually build up and let your brain do its work.  You’ll find that one small success will lead to another and another.

This method is also useful in everyday life:

  • “What one small thing could I do to improve my relationship with my husband?”
  • “What one small thing could I do this week to eat healthier?”
  • “How can I put 20 minutes of exercise into my day today?”

We can just hear the answers coming back. When you get a viable answer, stop asking. You might get several choices but one will seem right. If you’re so frantic about it that you keep asking and get 50 answers, you make choosing among the answers a task too big, too fearful, and you end up doing nothing anyway. When the answer that feels right occurs, smile, be grateful, and move on to the next small question.

An interesting side fact about the brain is that mammals can’t be fearful while they’re eating. Now doesn’t THAT explain a lot about why we just show up at the refrigerator during stressful times?

We’d like to reiterate that what you are doing is retraining the way your brain functions and the way you ask it questions.

This takes practice. So sometimes the miracle doesn’t happen for you all at once. Keep at it. The brain will learn to work in more positive ways, and as you learn to catch yourself using negative or fear-inducing questions, you’ll get better at it.

We still both get stuck and have to realize we’ve started asking questions that paralyze our creative cortex. Then it’s back to the beginning--consciously thinking about small questions our brain can answer.Let us know if this starts working for you. We really believe in this technique.

Do you have other tried and true ways to help you solve problems and deal with fear?








Harry Squires was born in Chicago, Illinois. He attended Journalism school at the University of Missouri and UCLA’s school of screenwriting. He’s worked in news writing, film production, educational television, and as a corporate trainer in the insurance industry.

His paranormal mystery What Rough Beast was a critically acclaimed first book. Currently he is working on a non-fiction project and an historical mystery.

Susan Squires is known for pushing the envelope in her writing. The only thing her fourteen novels have in common—whether about vampires, wicces, computers, or time travel—is that they are all paranormal.

She has been on the New York Times Bestseller list, won the Golden Heart, the Holt Medallion, three Prisms, two Reviewer’s International Organization Awards, A Reviewer’s Choice award from RT, and has been a Rita finalist. Publisher’s Weekly called her book Body Electric one of the most influential paperbacks of 2002 and One with the Shadows a Best Book of 2007. Her time travel novel Time for Eternity earned a starred review in Publisher’s Weekly in 2010.

Harry and Susan live by the beach in Southern California with too many dogs.

0 comments on “Talking Back to Your Brain”

  1. Harry and Susan, I loved this ! Last year a very good friend challenged me to take my "to do" list and write down only things I could accomplish in one week. I had two really bad habits and two really good ones. The bad habits were always planning too far ahead, which keeps us from dealing with those pesky day-to-day decisions we need to make; and allowing fear to control the things I could do to make that far off plan come to fruition. The good habits were a strong work ethic in everything I do and my high energy always needing an outlet.

    My friend challenged me to only plan one week, since Friday wasn't as scary as four years from now and use my energy to find new outlets for my personal health and my work. Four years ago I retired and decided to become a full-time writer. My goals were to lose a ton of weight, work out two hours a day and publish a national best seller.

    Nine months ago I took up her challenge and as of this week I've lost almost half of what I "planned" to lose four years ago. I work out at least fifteen minutes every day, one hour three times a week. I have completed and submitted a lit. novella to small press, and have the drafts and queries to send my novels to agents and publishers. One query, not twenty; one submission, not a national best seller. Not a far off fantasy to avoid fear, but one week to remind me of how much someone can actually accomplish in only one week.

    Nine months ago I only knew a handfull of other writers and didn't venture far from my comfort zone, my desk. Today I know a dozen writers from local groups, on-line groups and group blogs and I've met writers who inspire and give me a good kick when I need it (thanks Laura Drake). And for one hour every day I get to visit blogs and meet great people like you two 🙂

  2. I'm a huge fan of baby steps and getting specific about what I need to do. I've lost days to worry or frustration about an amorphous goal or problem. I've found journaling to be helpful in identifying next small steps.

    Thanks for this! Good reminders about the practice.

  3. I took Susan and Harry's online class on this subject, and I was amazed at what a difference it made! You know when you paint yourself into a corner and have a snarled plot problem? I lay in bed (lie? I'll NEVER get that right!) and ask a small question about it...sometimes I get the answer then - but sometimes, when I wake up in the morning, the answer is there!

    Like when you're stuck on a math problem, walk away, come back, and the answer is staring you in the face! Haven't you wished that would happen more often? I swear if you try this - and use small questions, it will!

  4. Fantastic!!! Really enjoyed this and think it'll be very useful. I tend to be grand and all "out there" so keeping it small will be new to me but I think will work wonderfully!

  5. Great post. It always works for me to start with a small goal and move up from there -- that way I trick myself into feeling good about my accomplishments, no matter how small.

  6. Interesting. I've been going back and forth between the novel that's on submission and the new one I'm starting, and I've had a hard time with the WIP. Looking forward to trying these tricks!

  7. I have to work hard sometimes for positive thinking and I really adore this post. I've started focusing on tiny steps rather than large ones over the last year and it's paying off well for my writing. Who knew, eh?

  8. Very interesting. I usually find when I'm stuck, the question is: "What can I make happen next?" According to Sandra Brown, throw a major problem at your h/h. Torture always works for me. I liked what you had to say.

  9. Glad you all are finding this useful. As we worked up this blog, it was a great reminder for us as well. We've both had to take a break from writing for a couple of weeks to organize moving some of our furniture out because we're starting a remodel. Whenever we take a break, it's always good to go back and re-read a little of the WIP (just a little!), and then start by thinking about what question really needs asking at that point. Sometimes its about character, sometimes it's about plot. But spending a few minutes thinking about what the right question would be can be really productive.

  10. By the way, one thing I've noticed is that people who write without an outline or synopsis, (pantsters) tend to ask different basic questions than people who do have a synopsis. Carrie, I'll bet you are a pantster. You are asking about what will happen. People who write with a synopsis tend to focus on why a character would do this or that thing, or how to get from one point to the other. I used to be a pantster myself before my editor at St. Martin's wrote into my contract that I had to submit a synopsis in order to get paid. So I've seen both sides, and each has their pluses and minuses. Of course, after the basic questions, we all get to the refined questions equally--i.e., how can I put in more tension? How can I make this scene serve more than one purpose? Almost every writing craft class you take can give you ideas on good questions to ask. Over time you develop a reperatoire of your favorite questions--the ones that help you most in making your writing the best it could be, based on your personal writing tendencies....


  11. What a fantastic post! Thank you--I rarely read "how to" blogs, mainly because I haven't got a clue how I do what I do and I'm terrified of fixing something that's not broken (mainly just slightly damaged?) and screwing up whatever process I have that seems to work, BUT, this article makes such excellent sense and explains things to me in such a rational manner that I really think it needs to be shared.

    Thank you for writing it, and thanks to author Susan Lyons Fox for sharing the link. It's going on my Facebook page.

  12. What an insightful post! Thanks for the great information. I believe that is always my problem, trying to tackle the big question instead of doing it in baby steps. I'm going to apply your theory to my scene I'm working on this weekend. Happy New Year!

  13. Fabulous. Great concept which makes oh-so-much sense to me. Sigh. I KNEW this, and recognized the steps when I read this post, and think it's SUCH a good idea for everybody else, but - I usually don't apply such good ideas to me (I'm no good as a writer, who do I think I am anyway, when will I ever learn to ... etc). Thank you so much for this very practical reminder. I'm sitting with my pad of paper and will set out a few small steps for the coming week. Cheers!

  14. This is great stuff and right on time for me. I am going to print out a list of those small, manageable questions for writing my scenes and post it above my desk.

  15. I am so going to try this! You'd think three or four months to complete a short story for OCC's anthology would be a no-brainer, but since I have a brain and an over-active fear factor, I didn't complete it. I got scared. My writing isn't good enough, rejection would kill me, look at all those fabulous published authors who will be submitting their stories. Mine wouldn't have a chance. I let my negativity paralyze me. I'm going to review my goals, take baby steps, and I'll let you know how it turns out. This is one of the best posts I've read on overcoming fear. Thanks!

  16. This is an excellent article and I thank you for writing it. It seems counterintuitive -- Think Small -- but it's so simple it's genius. I have one question: Can the mid-brain feel more than one strong emotion at once? In other words, if you find a way to bring a positive emotion in (through finding a concrete small step to take) will the fear get drowned out? Again, thanks so much for the post!

  17. Well, I had to think about this one, Jennifer. Harry and I decided that we don't really know enough about brain function to answer it definitively as experts. Bob Maurer probably would know. But my personal experience is that my brain can entertain two emotions at once. And you don't really want to get rid of fear entirely. It's healthy, and it keeps us on our toes, as long as it isn't debilitating in its scope. A LITTLE stage fright gives an actor a peak performance. I used to search out projects I was a little afraid of, just to make sure I was pushing myself to do better. I remember that switching from historical settings to write BODY ELECTRIC, (a near-future sci fi romance) was scary. But it also kept me interested and engaged. I still like that book. Setting a lot of ONE WITH THE DARKNESS in ancient Rome made me afraid my research wouldn't be good enough. Same result.

    So I don't think you have to banish fear. I think you have to keep it within boundaries that don't paralyze you. By realizing when your fear is getting outside productive boundaries, you can redirect it with self talk and resolving to think smaller. When I hear myself thinking, "I know I did good books in the past, but I'll never be able to do that again. This one sucks," (this thinking often occurs about page 100 in the first draft) I try to call myself on the negativity. I remind myself that the girls in the basement (my creativity) always come through if I let them. And I try to do some small things, like write down character traits or back story, or just recite why I wanted to do the book I'm working on in the first place. That seems to help.

    You'll find your own solutions, of course. But don't try to get rid of fear entirely. Just be able to wave as you go by, rather than get stuck with it.


  18. Another piece of encouragement I offer new writers is this:
    Almost no book is ever written without what I call the "dead rabbit," as if you're trying to make rabbit stew and you look at the inside of this dead rabbit and say, "What IS this mess?"
    It's that moment in the middle where the author doubts herself. For every book ever written, with the exception of those channeled from Seth while on meth, the author hit a spot where she screamed, "I suck! I hate this book! What was I thinking? My career is over!"
    The difference between the published author and the unpublished author is that the published author writes through that spot. Finish it. You'll feel a lot better when you get past that dead rabbit.

  19. This was absolutely fantastic. I love logical, scientific explanations for why we do what we do, and more importantly, how to overcome our own shortcomings. Thanks for this tremendous article!

  20. "An interesting side fact about the brain is that mammals can’t be fearful while they’re eating. Now doesn’t THAT explain a lot about why we just show up at the refrigerator during stressful times?" This quote totally explains my Oreo cookie binge on Saturday night. Sigh. I let my fear drive my actions. And I had to wrestle to wrangle back my heart for writing. Thanks for a great post. I am going to start small and ask the small questions for my WIP. This really helped!

  21. I am also a big fan of small steps and just focusing on one thing. I'm about to start editing my second book and the reminder is timely as I look at this stack of pages that needs some major tweaks!

    My other favorite piece of advice comes from an old episode of 'Magnum P.I.'. In the scene he was being chased down by dobermans and a locked door stood between him and escape. He pulled out his lock pick tool and chanted to himself ,'Pick the lock, don't look at the dogs.' I find myself muttering the same thing under my breath, 'Pick the lock, write the scene, edit the file...don't look at the rest of the list.'

  22. Harry and Susan, this was fantastic. A friend of mine insists that "positive visualization" improves her chances of success, in matters both mundane and life-altering. It seems such a simple thing (I really want to use the term "no-brainer" here, but I'll refrain, LOL), and yet so difficult in practice. I love how this explanation of the functioning of the cortex makes "positive visualization" not pie-in-the-sky wishing but rather constructive action. Thanks for writing about it.

  23. I loved your class, Susan and Harry, and I love this post! All condensed down to easy-to-remember steps. I downloaded the sample of the book you mentioned, too. I've loved the concept of Kaizen since I learned about it in business school, but I never applied it purposefully to my writing. I'm even more excited now about how great 2012 is going to be than I was three weeks ago! LOL!! Thanks so much! I'm passing on the link to this article to all the writers I know! 🙂

  24. [...] self-destructive.   A similar idea is discussed in the article  by Harry and Susan Squires “Talking back to your brain”, although with a different slant the principle applies in my [...]

  25. Great article! And now I know why I can't eat when I feel nervous... Apparently I'd rather be nervous than full? Lol!

    My best ideas come when I'm taking a walk. Writers' block? Hard scene? Pack up my gear and go hiking in the park!

Subscribe to WITS

Recent Posts





Copyright © 2024 Writers In The Storm - All Rights Reserved