My experience with Writer's Block

It’s been a few years since I last had a book out, and while some of that is because I changed my mind about how I wanted the next book to go, for some of that time I had a few bad bouts of writer’s block.

I know there are people who say writer’s block doesn’t exist, and/or it’s just your subconscious trying to tell you something about your story or about your own emotional state. I’m not here to debate that. All I know is that I couldn’t write, for whatever reasons, when I hadn’t had bad writer’s block during my time writing for Love Inspired, Guideposts, and Zondervan.

I know that sometimes when I had writer’s block, it was due to stress. There were family issues that came up and I could clearly tell that I was worried and that made it difficult for me to focus emotionally on writing. I personally need a calm heart and clear mind to create fiction, and it’s very hard for me to write when I’m emotionally upset. Some writers rage-write or cry-write to great emotional impact, but I’m not one of them. When I’m emotional, I simply can’t focus my whirling thoughts enough to get words down.

There were a couple times when I knew I was stuck because I couldn’t decide how I wanted my Lady Wynwood series to be structured. I had a few ideas of making the series a trilogy, then four books, then five, then back to three, etc. There were lots of other factors involved in making the decision, and I was waffling. A part of me knew that none of those options were quite right, but at the time, I didn’t know what other options I should try.

But other times, I couldn’t write and I really had no idea why. I did a lot of berating myself for being lazy or unfocused, but that didn’t make me suddenly start writing. I would spend time staring at the cursor blinking on my computer, write something, delete it, stare some more, rinse and repeat. I can usually come up with ideas when I do something tactile, but even when I was knitting or snacking, I simply couldn’t think of anything to write.

So in order to combat this writer’s block, I tried everything. I read lots of articles and tried everything they suggested. I’m going to be listing everything I tried, and how it worked for me. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t.

I never found a magic bullet or a surefire way to beat writer’s block all the time, nor did I find any one method that always worked. I tried lots of things and often struggled and failed—on those days, I just closed the computer and went to do something else.

But I’m hoping that in blogging about this exhausting experience, maybe it will help someone else who is also struggling with writer’s block. If that’s you, my suggestion is for you to also try everything. Some things that worked for me might not work for you, and some things that didn’t work for me might work for you. I found the most surprising things ended up helping me, and some things that worked during one bout of writer’s block didn’t work during the next bout of writer’s block.

So here is what I did. Give them a shot.

1. Ride out emotional issues

I know I clearly had emotional issues due to stress and family issues. The problem is that since I write full time, I can’t let my emotions keep me from writing for any long stretch of time.

My parents each underwent surgery for various things. My dog got really sick and eventually died. One of the last editors I worked for was very difficult to work with, and even after that contract ended, the editor’s negativity made me feel inadequate and constantly second-guess myself. Writers especially are prone to fears about inadequacy or being frozen by a desire for perfection in their art.

I gave myself time to process each problem—and the time I needed varied depending on the situation—but I also tried to get back into writing as soon as I could.

If I were to give advice to another writer also undergoing emotional issues, I would tell them to make sure they have a good social support system, and to get counseling if other people suggest it. I think that we ourselves don’t often recognize when a problem is serious enough to need counseling. I think the best thing a writer can do is give yourself time, and then figure out where to go from there, whether some counseling or talking to a friend/family member or to try to get back into writing.

Having a good social support system will help even after you start to feel back to normal. I spend an hour talking to a writing friend once a week. The conversation didn’t always help unblock my writer’s block, but once in a while it did motivate me to get some words down.

2. Figure out physical problems

I suffered from migraines every so often due to either hormones (I’m in peri-menopause) or sinus allergies. Once a migraine hit, I was out for at least that day and usually the day after the migraine passed, because the following day my head and body always felt kind of fragile, like glass. I didn’t respond well to pain meds because my stomach is rather sensitive, and my usual allergy medicines started working less and less to combat the sinus allergies.

I tried lots of different things (which I’m not going to go into here) but these days my migraines are more under control than they used to be.

Bottom line: I had to take the time to figure out what was going on with my body. I did write a little bit during this time (see below for some things I did) but ultimately, my priority had to be stopping the migraines from disrupting my work schedule.

3. Exercise

Not my favorite thing to do, but sometimes going for a walk while listening to either an audiobook or a playlist helped motivate me to write and gave me ideas. Sometimes this worked, but not always.

Sometimes listening to a good audiobook motivated me. Sometimes listening to a bad audiobook motivated me. Sometimes listening to a writing audiobook worked. Sometimes listening to my favorite music, sometimes listening to music without words. I tried lots of things, and the combination of walking and listening to something was usually one of the first things I tried. It didn’t always work.

4. Tactile stimulation

As I mentioned earlier, usually my creative juices get flowing when I do some tactile activity, such as knitting or even eating. I often either knit or snack when I write, and when I was under contract, this almost always worked.

Then during my bouts of writer’s block, this stopped working so well. I don’t know why, and I shook things up and tried other types of tactile stimulation. It didn’t always work, but I always tried it at least a little.

5. Olfactory stimulation

I don’t consistently have scents in my office when I’m working—sometimes I remember to light a candle or put some essential oils in the diffuser, sometimes I don’t. When I was suffering from writer’s block, I tried every kind of scent I could think of, including ones that were calming or that stimulated creativity.

Essential oils didn’t always make me suddenly write, but I did find that the ones to stimulate creativity absolutely did not work for me. The calming ones didn’t work most of the time, either. The ones that worked the best for me were eucalyptus and peppermint, sometimes together. Maybe something about improved airflow made more oxygen flow to the creative centers of my brain, I don’t know.

Eucalyptus and peppermint didn’t always work, but they did help me relax, and sometimes I did get some writing done when they were in my office diffuser.

6. Change of environment

I tried writing in all kinds of different places—parks, coffeeshops, library, etc. The coffeeshop wasn’t terrible, but I discovered that the ambient noise was too distracting for me, personally, especially because most coffeeshops have music playing.

The best places for me were parks, but I had to either bring my Alphasmart and also my iPad to keep my outline and notes handy, or I was subject to the battery life of my laptop. Also, depending on how busy the park was, the ambient conversations of other people at the park distracted me. I found some small parks that were mostly empty and that seemed to work well, especially if I limited myself to only an hour or so on my laptop before returning home. Any longer and I started getting restless and unfocused and not getting much done.

This technique was probably the most successful for me when it came to battling my writer’s block, but I had to do a lot of experimenting to figure out what places were best for me. Just changing my environment didn’t cut it.

7. Music

Sometimes music inspired me to write, other times it was distracting. This has always been true even when I didn’t have writer’s block, but I tried different types of music to see if it would help me—different music genres, white noise, nature sounds, etc. I never found anything that consistently helped me to write, but I did find that either movie or TV show soundtracks, or silence was my best bet for productivity.

8. Create a daily routine or a strict writing schedule or a completely different writing schedule

Many creative types come up with things they do as part of a routine to get their brain into the mindset of writing. There are tons of different things you can do, and lots of examples if you Google “writing routines.”

Related to this, other people will suggest that to unblock writer’s block, adhere to a strict writing schedule and show up without fail everyday. Do whatever writing routine works for you, and keep to your schedule.

Tried this, totally didn’t work. I’d do different routines and show up to “work,” and just stare at the blank screen. Maybe I just didn’t find the right routine that would work for me, but I also didn’t feel inclined to try a hundred different combinations of ideas and see what might work for me.

Related to this, some people suggest switching your writing schedule to something completely different to try to jump start creativity—for example, if you tend to write at night, write in the morning, etc. I also tried this but it didn’t work for me.

9. Eliminate distractions

Lots of writers swear by apps that allow them to turn off the internet on their laptops, or who use distraction-free word processors like Alphasmart (no longer manufactured, but you can buy used on eBay) or Freewrite. I will admit that there were some days I found myself surfing the web, but there were also lots of days when I’d take my Alphasmart to another room in the house, or to a coffeeshop, or to the park, and just watch the cursor blink. For me, the internet can be a distraction but it wasn’t what was keeping me from writing.

(Full disclosure, if you use my Freewrite link above and buy a Freewrite or Freewrite Traveler, you get a 5% discount and I get a small commission.)

10. Freewrite/Bullet lists/Decisions

Sometimes the writer’s block was related to writing the prose for my manuscript, but sometimes the writer’s block was related to not being able to come up with ideas for the characters or outline, or feeling something about the characters and/or plot wasn’t working. When it was related to characters and plot, I would try freewriting.

Sometimes this worked, sometimes it didn’t. Many times my freewrite ended up being me asking all kinds of questions about the story, which had no answers. Other times, the ideas would flow and I’d get several pages of ideas I could pick and choose from.

I also tried different types of freewriting, like talking to an imaginary friend, writing from a character’s point of view, interviewing a character, etc. There wasn’t any one type of freewriting that worked for me on a consistent basis, and I found that just a rambling freewrite tended to work better for me than any of those techniques.

Related to freewriting, there are resources online for writer’s idea books and websites where you can get random ideas thrown at you to see if any of that sparks ideas for your story. I sometimes used this with my freewrite.

Similar to freewriting, brainstorming ideas in bullet points sometimes worked really well, and other times didn’t work at all. I’m not sure why, but bullet points will sometimes get me to come up with ideas better than freewriting.

There was at least one bout of writer’s block that occurred because I couldn’t decide how I wanted my series to be structured and how I wanted the next book to go. I waffled on this quite a bit because the options I thought of seemed okay but they didn’t really click powerfully with me. I would decide on one option, then change my mind a few days later.

I used lots of freewriting and bullet lists to try to list pros and cons for each option, and then I used freewriting and bullet lists to come up with other, out-of-the-box options, one of which I eventually picked. So I suppose in a sense, freewriting and bullet lists really did break one type of writer’s block that I had, because it enabled me to come to a firm decision about my series and my next book. Once I found the option that felt right to me, I was able to move forward with my writing.

11. Play a game/Try a different medium

Whether Minecraft or LEGOs, any type of creative playing is supposed to help you release inhibitions and unclog creativity. The same goes for trying other types of creative mediums, like playing music or drawing or painting.

Absolutely did NOT work for me. Maybe I’m just too boring a person. Instead of playing with LEGOs, I’d really rather read a book. I tried music and art, and while they helped pass the time, I wasn’t suddenly able to write words when I got in front of the computer again.

12. Switch up your writing tool

I tried other means of writing, including using different word processing programs on my laptop, or using my Alphasmart, and even using a manual typewriter or hand-writing with my fountain pen and a leather bound notebook, but these techniques didn’t work for me. On the other hand, I have a writer friend who writes all her novels by hand with a good pen and pad of paper, so I know this technique can work wonders for some people. It just didn’t work for me.

I also tried dictation, but the learning curve is rather high and I never really got into a good groove with this technique, and so I didn’t spend that much time trying it out. If/when I have writer’s block again, I wouldn’t mind giving this another go.

Another way to switch up your writing tool is to go for a different medium for outlining. Instead of outlining in a document on my computer, I would use sticky notes stuck to my closet doors. Other people use note paper on cork boards or index cards on the floor or a mind-mapping app—it’s the same concept.

Did it work? Eh. The sticky notes did shake things up visually and it did feel fresh and new, but I didn’t come up with any good ideas and it didn’t help me with the writing.

13. Read

Lots of articles suggested reading things to get me motivated to write. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t. I tried reading novels in the genre I was writing, novels not in the genre I was writing, nonfiction books, writing books, online articles on writing, online articles not about writing, inspirational quotes, memes, poetry.

The thing that worked best was, strangely, Japanese light novels that had been translated into English. Light Novel authors write their books serially, publishing a chapter a week in very popular weekly or bi-weekly magazines. Then the publisher compiles the chapters into books and sells them in bookstores. It’s a high productivity literary genre and I am really impressed at how fast they have to write. Some light novel authors, who are not yet published by traditional publishers, will still write a scene a day or a chapter a week on light novel blog sites, similar to Wattpad, where they can reach readers and even get some feedback on their writing.

When I read a light novel, sometimes it would make me think about the author writing frantically to get their chapter done each week, and I’d stop reading and start writing. This didn’t always work—there were times I would simply read the light novel and not feel motivated to write. I didn’t pick up a light novel to read expressly to motivate myself to write, but when I wasn’t able to write and I would pick up a book to read, sometimes a light novel would send me back to my keyboard.

I do want to mention one writing book that really did get me to write, and that was Pen on Fire: A Busy Woman's Guide to Igniting the Writer Within by Barbara DeMarco-Barrett. I personally found the exercises really good for getting back into the swing of writing. When I started the book, I hadn’t written for a few months, and it felt rusty to write again, but the book helped me regain my mojo. There are lots of other writing exercise and prompt books out there, and I tried several of them, but this one seemed to work the best for me out of all of them.

14. Art/Pictures

I did a lot of Pinterest and surfing and looked at a lot of pictures and art on the web, but I guess my creativity isn’t fed by visual stimulus. However, I know other authors who rely heavily on visual stimulus, so give this one a shot.

Instead, I found a lot of pictures of Japan on the japanpics subreddit, and they actually inspired me to write flash fiction (see below).

15. Flash fiction

I hadn’t written much flash fiction or short fiction since I first started writing seriously many years ago, and so it felt awkward and brand new to write flash fiction to try to break through my writer’s block.

But it actually worked really well for me.

You can find prompts everywhere online, and there are some good prompt books and prompt apps. I tried lots of different story prompts, but I found the prompts I liked the best were photos from the japanpics subreddit. I would pick a photo and then come up with a short story about it. I found myself, strangely, writing a lot of fantasy, which was really fun since I hadn’t written that since high school. I never limited myself on genre, and just wrote whatever came to mind when I looked at the picture.

16. Try a different writing style

I was a seat-of-the-pants writer for maybe my first 3 or 4 manuscripts, but once I discovered the Snowflake method of plotting, I became a die-hard plotter and never looked back.

When I was mired in writer’s block, a writing friend suggested I try pantsing the book for the first time in years to see if that will shake things up.

In some ways, it worked. I let go of my outline and just wrote. I wrote a total of 90,000 words … and I wasn’t even at the 25% mark of my general plot. I stopped there because I couldn’t stomach writing another 270,000 words knowing that in the revisions stage I’ll have to eliminate about 270,000 words from the book to get it down to around 100,000 words. The thought of the time and effort of writing all those words only to cut them out was depressing. I have writer friends who are pantsers and they typically overwrite, and need to cut words in revisions, but never by that much.

I also ended up not using most of those words when I eventually revised the manuscript, so it was a lot of effort for low efficiency.

17. Skip it/Start over

There were times when I had writer’s block while in the middle of working on an outline, and sometimes the block was related to not knowing where the story was going to go from there. The fix for this was relatively easy—I either skipped over that part or I started over from the beginning.

18. Writing Sprints/Pomodoro Technique

This technique didn’t always work to unblock writer’s block, but there were times when I would start a sprint and suddenly have several hundred words done before I knew it. Other times, I’d start a sprint and stare at the cursor.

Now that I have pushed past my most recent bout of writer’s block, writing sprints have become my go-to technique for getting the most words done. I started a log of when I started/stopped and number of words written. After doing several writing sprints, I sorted the entries by total time of the sprint, and I was able to figure out that I’m most efficient and productive when my sprints are between 15 and 20 minutes—my average words per minute is higher than any other writing sprint time.

In conclusion:

No, I didn’t find a sure-fire way to conquer writer’s block, but I did eventually push through it with a combination of methods. Each time I had writer’s block, different methods would work better than others.

The next time I have writer’s block, I intend to go about it a bit more methodically and journal everyday, writing down what I tried and how I feel. If anything, the journalling is cathartic and will be a good record of things that work and don’t work that particular time.

If you’re reading this, you’ve probably struggled with writer’s block or are struggling with it right now. I sympathize. I’m not going to say there’s a cure-all, but you don’t have to give up. There are things you can try, and it will take trial and error and time, but you can push past it and get back into writing again. I hope this article has helped you.