Lynette M. Burrows
You’ve been there. We all have. You have a story idea. You’re enjoying the discovery of what happens next when everything screeches to a halt. You can not write another word. Don’t just throw your hands up in the air and give up. Don’t wail and gnash your teeth. Don’t beat yourself up over getting stuck. Try one of these easy solutions.
Are you ill? Stressed? Exhausted? Burnt Out? Caught in an emotionally charged situation? Take care of you first. Like they say on the airplane, you can’t take care of anyone (or anything) else, if you don’t take care of yourself first.
Seriously. Stress and tension cause us to tighten up and breathe more quickly and more shallowly. Take a break. Stand tall and take a deep breath in. Hold it for a count of three and let it out slowly over a count of three. Do that three to five times. It will help clear your head.
Our bodies are 60% water. Why do we persist in thinking we can feed it coffee, tea, carbonated drinks and such? But you don’t like the taste of water? So add a splash of lemon or lime or a frozen strawberry or other fruit. It’ll refresh you.
Did you know that the first symptom of dehydration is fatigue? One of the next ones is hunger. The next time you’re feeling tired, run down, or hungry and an hour after you ate, drink eight ounces of water. Your body will perk up and thank you with more energy.
No, other liquids don’t count toward your 8 glasses of water per day. Your body works harder to get the benefits from drinking coffee, tea, or carbonated beverages than it does when you drink water. Give your body what it needs. What it craves. Water.
Stretch and move those muscles. Humans aren’t meant to sit for hours upon hours. Yes, modern man has adapted to a less strenuous lifestyle, but sitting for long hours still causes damage to our bodies. Tendons and muscles shorten, especially in the hips, knees, shoulders, and elbows. Our posture suffers. Poor posture compresses our inner organs, which causes decreased blood flow. It also causes pain, poor digestion, breathing concerns, and misalignment of your spine and possibly your shoulders.
Yes, there are a thousand and one things to do, but you won’t do them to your best ability if you’re exhausted. The duration of your sleep matters, but the quality of your sleep is as important.
Take a nap. Even ten or twenty minutes can be helpful to some people. Try it. Go to bed an hour earlier. Experiment with your home’s night time temperature, the firmness of your mattress, and the right pillow. Time of day may matter as well.
Keep a sleep journal. Note when you go to bed, when you wake up, and what your energy levels were throughout the day. When you find the number of sleep hours right-for-you, you’ll have more energy and accomplish more things throughout your day.
Nutrition is important. If you’re on a diet, great. But be certain you are still getting the recommended amounts of proteins, carbs, fiber, and healthy fats on the average. See this tip sheet on the CDC.
Supplements might help, but they can hurt, too. Check with your medical provider or pharmacist, before starting any supplements or vitamins. This is especially important if you are on prescription medications or other supplements.
You had fun for a while, immersing yourself in the world and characters you created and now something’s gone wrong. Frustrated, you don’t know what to do and trying to figure out if you have what it takes to be a writer. Stop. Take a breath. Maybe two or three.
Now, repeat after me, “writing is hard.” It takes a toll on you—physically, mentally, and emotionally. It’s okay to feel you can’t do it. That’s your emotions talking. Allow yourself to feel all that. But don’t let your emotions rule you or ruin your day. Give yourself 10-30 minutes. Then turn those non-productive emotions into productive ones. How?
Do affirmations seem a little too woo-woo for you? There is neuroscience behind this practice. MRI evidence suggests that the neural pathways involved in positive valuation increase when we practice positive self-affirmations. There are few studies specific to creative pursuits. But there are studies involving the general population and student populations. These studies suggest that positive self-affirmations decrease stress, increase healthy behaviors, and positively impact academic achievements. The benefits of self-affirmations are most effective when this is a daily practice.
One way to practice a positive self-affirmation is to give yourself a pep talk. Remind yourself that everything is as it should be. Writing is hard, but you are up to the task.
If giving yourself a pep talk doesn’t work for you, try creating a reset ritual. This can be anything that helps you reframe your work energy. For example, you shut down your computer and walk away. Get a candle in a scent that relaxes you. Say some affirmations aloud when you light the candle. What affirmations? You can say, “I am a writer. My words Matter. I can let go of my writing obstacles; I can work around them. I don’t have to wait for inspiration. I just have to show up.” Make up your own affirmations. Create positive phrases or statements that challenge your negative or unhelpful thoughts.
Use as many or as few as works for you. Once you’ve finished, go back and restart your writing day.
If affirmations aren’t for you, try writing sprints. If you’re stuck, try a five-minute sprint. Sit down at the computer and type for five minutes without judgement of the quality of your words. Don’t stop, just keep typing. At the end of five minutes, check-in with yourself. How do you feel? Can you keep writing? Great. Do it. If you still feel stuck, walk away from the computer for 30-50 minutes. Come back and do another five minutes.
Maya Angelou wasn’t comfortable using the term “writer’s block.” She felt it gave the phenomenon too much power. But she got stuck sometimes. Her solution was to just write words she would show no one. She’d write even if what came out wasn’t her finest words, even if the words that came were words she’d burn at the end of the day.
The value of very short writing sprints is that it’s doable even on bad days. If that’s all the writing you do all day, that’s okay. You wrote something. Tomorrow’s another day.
Take a step back from what you’re writing. When you’re in the flow of creativity, you are writing something that’s true. It’s true to the characters, and it’s true to you. Being stuck in your writing usually means something is not right. You might have physical needs. It can mean you need to take care of your emotional self, but it can also mean you have followed an idea down a path that doesn’t ring true. Think about why what you’re writing is off track.
Ray Bradbury said that when he went blank in the middle of writing something, he took it as a warning that he was on the wrong track. Orson Scott Card adds that whenever he’s stopped on a project, it’s because he is doing something false or weak.
Write a list of ten things your protagonist could do next. Write whatever comes to mind. Nothing is impossible or out of character for the list. The idea is to generate new ideas. Often one of those ideas leads in a new direction for your writing.
Write her journal, write her a letter, write a letter to you in her voice, Write simple “did this” sentences. Jane did this. She did that. Then she did this. Just get her moving around the setting. Soon you will add in other stuff, too.
Describe your character’s living spaces. What’s in her underwear drawer? What does she put next to her bed every night? What is her favorite room and why? Sometimes you simply need to know your character better in order to understand what choices she will make when you throw story obstacles at her.
Argue with yourself aloud. Argue why what you wrote is the right way to take the story, then argue the opposite. If you find doing this alone to be too awkward, talk it out with a writing friend. This argument may help you see what to write next.
Yes, I see the irony of writing advice about writing and telling you to ignore writing advice. Yet if you’re stuck because you’re trying to write a story using a specific method, it might be the method you’re using. Don’t take anyone’s writing advice as THE way to do it. Your way will be different. Your way will be a little of this and a little of that. And that’s okay. If you’re stuck, give yourself permission to write the story YOUR way. You can always apply different techniques and methods during the editing process.
You had planned to write all day, to get in your word count. Sometimes, your creative brain needs a break. It’s okay to take a break.
Try a brief break. Try a day-long break. Don’t just sit in a chair and stew about not writing. Go for a walk, get a coffee, clean a room, take a shower. Actively doing something that is non-writing related allows your creative brain to work in the background.
Sometimes our emotions trick us into pretending that the difficulty doesn’t exist. Your brain whispers, “if you don’t go back to your computer, you won’t feel bad for not writing.” That kind of thinking is avoidance. It can lead to staying away from the computer for days or months or forever. Don’t give in to avoidance. Give yourself a specific amount of time for your break, then go back to writing.
Maybe your creative well has gone dry. If so, it’s time to refill that well with activities that restore you. Some people find a walk in nature will do that. Others go shopping. Visiting a museum or expressing yourself with another creative method can work. Madeline L’Engle would play the piano when she got stuck.
Most of the time, you’re advised to read the genre you write. If that’s inspirational to you, read away. If your brain needs more of a break, read something non-writing related. Something not about writing. Nonfiction is a good choice, but a genre you do not write is another good choice. Feed your creative brain so it can recharge.
Re-read your notes about the story. Re-read what you’ve written so far. Sometimes you’ve gotten lost in the details and need to pull back to look at the big picture.
If you normally work on a computer, try writing in a notebook. If you normally handwrite your story with a ball-point pen, try crayons.
Skip a scene. You can come back to that one later.
Normally work in silence at home? Go to a coffee shop to write. Or turn on some music. Go to a park. Change the environment where you write. This can allow you to temporarily “forget” all the things you should do instead of writing.
Dictate. Dictation can be daunting for many, especially if you haven’t tried it before. Try it. Most computers have dictation in the software you can use. If you have a smart phone, that may have dictation capabilities. Speak the story out loud. Your words don’t have to be perfect. You’ll go back and edit those words. Just get the words out.
When you’re stuck and you don’t want to “waste time” with a total break from writing, try doing marketing. Write a blurb for your story. Analyze which ads are doing well and which need to be shut down. Do research for a different book or work on your social media platforms.
Catch up on your bookkeeping. Open those spreadsheets. I don’t know about you, but a spreadsheet is an instant idea generator (because I don’t want to do that boring but necessary work.)
Writing the next story is your primary task, but there are a lot of others that need tending. Give yourself permission to work on those things for an hour or two, or even for one day. You’ll still feel productive, but you’ll also allow your creative brain the time it needs to gestate the next idea.
You aren’t alone. Every writer has their moment when they get stuck. Just remember, when the writing gets difficult, it’s time to keep it simple. The more you stress about your difficulties, the more difficult they become.
Sometimes, your life situation is such that you can't do the "best" thing. That's okay, too. Take a breath. Remind yourself, you'll get back to writing when you can.
If you can do more to solve your difficulties, check-in with yourself. Then, look at why you’re stuck. Often the why will tell you which of these easy solutions will work best. You can do this!
What helps you when your writing gets difficult?
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Lynette M. Burrows is an author, blogger, creativity advocate, and Yorkie wrangler. She survived moving seventeen times between kindergarten and her high school graduation. This alone makes her uniquely qualified to write an adventure or two.
Her Fellowship series is a takes “chillingly realistic” alternate history in 1961 Fellowship America where autogyros fly and following the rules isn’t optional. Books one and two, My Soul to Keep, and If I Should Die, are available everywhere books are sold online. Book three, And When I Wake, is scheduled to be published in 2024.
Lynette lives in the land of OZ. She is a certifiable chocoholic and coffee lover. When she’s not blogging or writing or researching her next book, she avoids housework and plays with her two Yorkshire terriers. You can find Lynette online on Facebook, or on Mastodon @LynetteMBurrows@wandering.shop or on her website.
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