This bestselling author explains how taking these easy actions can help you plow through even the most severe bout of writer’s block.
by Stephanie LaVigne
You are sitting at your desk, proverbial pen at the ready. Then, crickets. Worse than crickets. Bored crickets that won’t even give you an inspiring chirp. You are stuck, and the words just won’t come.
Whether it is the first sentence of the opening chapter of your new book, or midway through a scene that had been going swimmingly until you hit a wall, here are five easy tricks to jolt you out of your dreaded writer’s block.
1. Stand up and walk away from your computer. It’s time to re-set and re-center. You have a few choices here, but the objective is the same. Give your stressed-out, shutdown brain a chance to reboot. Find a way to move—whether that’s a walk around the block or jumping in your car for a drive, movement is key here. You have to jostle yourself free from the stagnation of writer’s block.
As a personal anecdote, I was once stuck for weeks on a plotting conundrum that seemed to have no path forward until I was forced away from my computer and onto an afternoon pontoon boat ride up and down the intracoastal. Suddenly it all made sense. I sat scribbling notes like a madwoman on a tiny scrap of paper. I needed the change of scenery and the chance for my conscious mind to focus on something else while my subconscious continued to figure the story out for me.
Depending on the severity of your particular case of writer’s block, this mental refresh can take anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours, to even a few days.
Here are a few options for a mental reboot:
- Take a walk around the block. Try to intuit what you need here, but consider leaving your phone behind and listening to the outdoor sounds. You can also put on your headphones and listen to some music as you walk.
- Go for a neighborhood bike ride. This also combines the benefits of both movement and the outdoors, while also giving your brain something else to focus on. As you keep yourself safe by paying attention to road signs and making turns, you are actually allowing your thoughts a chance to focus on something other than your story.
- Roadtrip to nowhere. Jump in your car and drive. If you are short on time, drive to the closest place that makes you happy, or a place you’ve always been curious to see. If you live near nature, like the mountains or the beach, try to take in a quick view of it. Conversely, pull up a fancy house on a real estate website, pop the address in your GPS, and do a drive-by. Or if you have the time, set your destination for a quaint nearby town or other destination within driving distance that you’ve always wanted to check out. For some people, like myself, the act of driving can work almost like meditation. You are using your motor skills, prefrontal cortex and the like to focus on driving, allowing your thoughts the space to drift and problem solve. Solo drives can work wonders for answering tough questions. This works especially well for high energy or ADD- or ADHD-brained people.
- Drop to the ground and do ten push-ups, sit-ups, or crunches. (They don’t have to be pretty, you just have to do something that resembles the exercise.) If you are bouncier than I, do twenty-five jumping jacks. Alternatives, like going for a run or doing yoga, work equally well.
- Do a DIY project around the house. Have you been wanting to paint your dining room? Are there lightbulbs out in your entryway fixture? Could your house use a fifteen-minute tidy where you run around, make the beds, and do a quick clean of the bathrooms? Doing a special project, whether big or little, can clear your mind and also help you to feel accomplished. Go outside and water all your plants, then come back inside and finish your chapter. Be mindful not to let this exercise become a form of procrastination. This is a creativity unblocking project, not an excuse to reorganize your garage. The task should be relatively mindless so that you can do it without thinking too much about how to do it.
After you’ve forced your mind and body to focus on something else for a while, you may feel ready to give your story another go. Take a big stretch, get yourself a special beverage (water, coffee, iced tea, etc.), take a few minutes to clear off your work space, then sit down and dive back into your writing.
For some people, like myself, the act of driving is almost like meditation. Solo drives can work wonders for answering tough questions.
2. Change it up by dictating. When I was a young writer, I thought I could only write with pen and paper. Eventually I learned to type creatively on a computer because it took way too long to transcribe my handwritten prose. Many years and a few kids later, I found that my schedule made it so that I only had ten-to-thirty-minute windows of free time. Worse, these times were when I was in my car. Writing on my steering wheel proved inefficient, so I finally forced myself to try dictating scenes into my phone. Using your phone’s recording ability can prove priceless to your writing routine if you get used to it.
Here’s the writer’s block–busting drill: Pick up your phone, open your notes app, take a breath, picture a scene or characters from your story, press the little microphone button, and start talking.
It’s perfectly fine if you have no idea what you are going to say. Sometimes I talk slow and stilted. That’s okay, my little recorder can wait. It’s not in a hurry. Sometimes I start the sentence over three times. Often what I say starts out clunky, or I immediately realize that I won’t use it in the book. But that doesn’t matter for this exercise. There is no judgement here. The point is to force yourself to talk. So what if it’s awful or doesn’t work? You can just delete it later. More likely, though, you will quickly fall into a groove of some sort and find that you’ve dictated a few intro sentences, or a section of dialogue, or maybe even an entire chapter!
This exercise also works great for me when I’m beginning on a new book and I just need to “start.” If it’s the first chapter of your book, you may want to go back later and revisit what you wrote. As the story develops, you may want to change or fine tune the intro. However, if you are doing this within the body of a story that is already moving along, you will likely find that dictating aloud either jolts you out of the writing funk you were in, or causes you to go back and know what to write.
If you get into the habit of using this feature, you may find that you naturally start to dictate an entire chapter in one go! When you go to copy the dictated words into your manuscript, you will be thrilled by the word count that you can get from talking aloud.
(Warning: you will have to edit a dictated scene because the phone likes to make up all kinds of unintelligible things that it thought you said.)
Voice commands that you can say to help make the transcription better:
“New line” (to skip down one line)
“New line, new line” (to make a paragraph break)
“Period,” “comma,” “semicolon,” and ” dot-dot-dot” (to add grammatical punctuation)
Software and/or apps you can use:
Notes app: The little app on your phone can really be a powerhouse. If your phone doesn’t have a notes app, just find any app that allows you to open a blank document. Make sure you can access the document later from your computer, or that you are able to share it with yourself via e-mail, Dropbox, or similar means. Microsoft Word, Google Docs, and Apple Pages all have apps as well.
JustPressRecord app: An amazing app that does a very good job of transcribing what you record. This allows you to have a voice recording to compare the written transcription to. You can e-mail or download the transcription to yourself through the app. When I am doing a lot of story dictation, this is the best app I’ve found.
Dragon Dictate (by Nuance): This is widely used dictation software. I’ve used it, even though it hasn’t become a mainstay for me yet. It’s considered one of the best though, so worth checking out if you do a lot of dictation. There are also several other dictation software brands out there to look at if you become a devoted dictator.
The key to choosing what software or app to use for this exercise is the path of least resistance. I’ve found that it is super easy for me to open up my notes app, start a new note, and begin talking. Afterwards, I can access it from my computer’s notes app which is linked in iCloud, where I then copy and paste it into Scrivener or Word. Similarly I can e-mail it to myself and access it that way.
Slight variation: You can also dictate on your computer, if you prefer. Look up or google “How do I dictate in Word for Mac” to get instructions. Make the online search specific to whatever writing software and computer you use. Similarly, there are ways to do this online if you are working on a Google Doc. On my Mac computer, in Microsoft Word, I double-tap “Fn Fn” (press the Function key twice) to bring up the recording microphone. That is the default shortcut on many Macs. Once you find your computer’s shortcut, it will become easy to use.
There’s a saying: “Kill your darlings.” Your darlings could be anything from a prized sentence to a favorite chapter—but sometimes we are so in love with the idea, the thought of removing it feels downright impossible.
3. Take three minutes to refocus your mind and visualize your story. This is a trick from famed author-helper James Scott Bell, and it just might change the way you go about your writing practice. It is a great way to devote intention to your writing.
- Start by getting comfortable. Then close your eyes and begin slow, deep breathing.
- Next, count down from twenty to zero. Do this with your eyes closed by visualizing the numbers (ex: picture them on a movie screen, on a lighted scoreboard, or as if they are appearing in the sky). If your thoughts wander, stop and start over again from twenty. The point is to get from twenty to zero with a quiet, clear mind.
- Now, with your eyes still closed, step into your story. Walk into the movie of your novel. What do you see? Watch awhile and let the images play out without controlling them.
- When you feel ready, open your eyes. James suggests taking notes with pen and paper about what you’ve seen in your visualization. This can be free association, mind mapping, or whatever comes naturally to you. It is a moment to freely play on paper. Have fun jotting down ideas, words, or images.
- Now you are ready to write. Think about the scene you are getting ready to work on. Allow it to take shape using the direction you received during your visualization.
After you’ve done this visualization, crack those knuckles, stretch out your arms, and give your scene another go.
4. Refill the well (a.k.a. plop yourself down and watch a TV show). Sounds counterintuitive, I know. But you can use media, like a television show, podcast, book, or even the news to get your creativity crackling.
The point to this one is that sometimes we need to put info in, in order to get info out. We spend so much time conjuring up ideas that we exhaust the well. Give yourself a little time to brainstorm with some other creators-by-proxy.
This can be a passive or active exercise, depending on what mood you are in.
- Audiobook or podcast: Throw on your shoes, put on headphones, and head outside for a walk around the block while you listen to a podcast or audiobook. This works especially well if you listen to something on writing craft, or creativity. I like to listen to Save the Cat! Writes a Novel, one of James Scott Bell’s writing books, or any new writing craft books out there. There will usually be some tidbit that will spark your “aha!” response enough to go back to the scene you were stuck on and try to apply it.
- TV show: Put a TV show on your phone and place it above the sink while you do the dishes. Conversely, lounge on the couch with a notepad. Take notes on how the characters interact, the pacing of the episode, or how the story unfolds within a three-plot structure. Or ditch the notepad and simply enjoy the show.
- Book or magazine: Settle into your couch with a book and just start reading. Set a timer for twenty-five to sixty minutes if you are worried about getting sucked in.
- News headlines: Scroll on your phone’s news feed and randomly read articles that catch your fancy. This can be especially good for mystery, thriller, and suspense writers.
- Book blurbs: Read through book blurbs online in your niche or genre. This is a tip from a successful writing friend of mine. If you use this tactic with your business hat on, it can be really beneficial. Bestselling authors all do some version of writing to market. Check out what “the market” currently is. You don’t need to copy, but see if any of them spark an idea. If you read umpteenth dragon, or royal, or enemies-to-lovers blurbs, your creative muse may find their own unique spin that may help your book come to life. This can be especially good for romance, romantic comedy, and women’s fiction authors.
I can’t tell you how many times I am reading a news story that is truly stranger than fiction when, next thing you know, I’m thinking about how I could turn one small element into a book. Soon my own characters arrive, I put my own spin on it, and a new story is born. Other times I’m burnt out and decide to unwind for a bit. Low and behold, my overthinking mind is allowed to rest a bit, when suddenly, “Eureka!” I figure out what my character needed to do and I race back to my computer to write.
Writing a novel is like deciding to go for a walk on a gorgeous, sunny afternoon—until you are surprise attacked by a swarm of bees who are angry at you for no apparent reason.
5. Tell, don’t show. Gasp! Sacrilege! Our entire job as writers is predicated on learning to show, rather than tell, a story. Hear me out on this one. If a scene is feeling like drudgery, but you feel like you have to get it done, consider “telling rather than showing” in order to get through it. Ideally, you can highlight the section and come back later to fix.
Here is an example of this: I was writing a chapter and got to a part in the scene that required two of the characters to bond over something. I was emotionally exhausted from writing at that point, but I was also determined to get the chapter completed. So I took the wrong way out and I “told” what they did. Something to the effect of “The two of them talked late into the evening, bonding over their shared love of cheap wine and bad choices.”
I was able to move on and finish the chapter so that I could get to the next one. Later on, I went back for a read-through and took that section of the scene and turned it into dialogue. When I had the proper energy and was in the right mood, I “showed” the reader, and the scene was much better for it. But honestly, I couldn’t have gotten there when I was feeling burnt out. Sometimes we simply need to get the basics on paper and give our creativity a break.
Bonus Tip: Are you seriously stuck on a chapter, a scene, or your story in general? Ask yourself a few hard-hitting questions:
- Is this scene or chapter useful? Is it truly even necessary?
- What can I add to this scene that is unexpected?
- Do I like this character? If not, can I change something about them?
- Finally, do I like this story? Do I need to completely re-think the plot, the characters, and what I am writing?
There’s a saying that sometimes you have to “kill your darlings.” This is when you get rid of an element that simply doesn’t work as well as it could for the overall story. Your darlings could be anything from a prized sentence to a favorite chapter to a main character, and even as far as the entire storyline. Changing direction is surprisingly hard. Sometimes we are so in love with the idea, or the writing we’ve already done, that the mere thought of removing those elements feels downright impossible.
However, if you are really at an impasse with your writer’s block, it may be worth stepping back and re-looking at the story you are writing. Radically changing things may end up allowing you to come at the story from an entirely new direction. Once the story is on track, you will find that exercises and tricks like I’ve shared above will work. A few minutes of jogging in place or a quick walk in nature will be all you need to jump back into that troublemaking scene.
In summation: Writing a novel is like deciding to go for a walk on a gorgeous, sunny afternoon. On that walk you are suddenly hit by a rainstorm. You seek shelter from the storm under a forest canopy. You frolic in the lovely woodlands until lightning suddenly strikes and a tree begins to fall on you. You run from the raging wildfire until you eventually enter a magical field of flowers. To your relief, the sky clears and you dance in the field under a newly-formed rainbow. You twirl happily until you are surprise attacked by a swarm of bees who are angry at you for no apparent reason. In a panic, you dive into a lake and miraculously swim across it in a single breath. When you emerge, you’re at a lakeside resort where you’re handed a congratulatory cocktail and told to relax in a hammock. “You’ve made it,” they say. You look and feel like a confused, elated, beaten-up swamp monster. But you did it, and you survived.
It’s one heck of a journey. It takes tips, tricks, support systems, and grace with yourself to make it to the end. But make it to the end you will. And it will all be worth it.
I believe in you. Shake off that creative writer’s block and bring that story to life today!
Stephanie LaVigne writes mainstream mystery and romance fiction. She is a consistent Amazon bestselling author under her own name and her pen names. She frequently appears on media, including podcasts, TV, magazines, and online author interviews. She is a cheerleader for writers, publishers, and creative people. Connect with her on Instagram, Facebook, and sign up for her newsletter to hear about things going on in her part of the world.
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