Writing Strategies

Writing Strategies: Breaking through writer’s block, keeping your butt in the writing chair, and rewiring your brain

The Kill Zone is a goldmine of advice and insight on all aspects of writing and publishing, from how to write and ways to publish, to creating characters, embracing story structure, and much more.

Getting to the keyboard to write, and once there, continuing to write is a challenge for many of us, especially with the internet ready to provide endless distractions. Today’s Words of Wisdom shares three excerpts from the KZB archives that provide ideas and strategies to help get past writer’s block and keeping motivated. You can read the full post for each excerpt via the date links. It’s also an entirely unintentional, serendipitous follow-on to James Scott Bell’s Reader Friday post yesterday entitled “Setting Yourself on Fire.”

So, the table has been set for today’s discussion. Feel free to comment and engage with other readers on any, or all, of these topics.

I was feeling uninspired in my writing (which probably explains why I was surfing the Internet and reading about placebo studies). So I wondered: If a placebo can cure cranky bowels, could it help me break through a minor case of writer’s block?

I decided to run my own unscientific study. I didn’t have any sugar pills on hand, so I reached for the next best thing: my daughter’s jelly beans.  I figured that labeling and ritual had to be part of the reason why placebos work, so I poured the jb’s into an empty prescription  container. (And I have to report that jelly beans look extremely potent when they’re staring up at you from a bottle of blood thinner medication.) Then I put a nice label on it marked “Creativity.”

As part of my morning ritual I started taking two “creativity pills” with my coffee. As I solemnly popped the beans, I paused to meditate for a few moments about my writing goals for the day.

And by God, it worked. I blasted right through that writer’s block. I wrote four pages that day, and haven’t looked back since.

The only thing is, now I’m afraid to stop taking the beans. I think I’m hooked. For my next batch I’m thinking of getting those special-order M&Ms–the ones you can order with little messages written on them. I’ll get them labeled with something like, “Writing is rewriting,” or whatever fits.

What about you? Do you have any silly rituals that help you get your creativity engine going?

–Joe Moore, January 11, 2011

I like to reexamine what tips I would give to aspiring authors, or even experienced authors, when I get a chance to speak to a group. Invariably the question comes up on advice and I’ve noticed that what helps me now is different than what I might have found useful when I started. Below are 8 tips I still find useful. Hope you do too, but please share your ideas. I’d love to hear from you.

1.) Plunge In & Give Yourself Permission to Write Badly  – Too many aspiring authors are daunted by the “I have to write perfectly” syndrome. If they do venture words onto a blank page, they don’t want to show anyone, for fear of being criticized. They are also afraid of letting anyone know they want to write. I joined writers organizations, took workshops, and read “how to” articles on different facets of the craft, but I also started in on a story.

2.) Write What You Are Passionate About – When I first started to write, I researched what was selling and found that to be romance. Romance still is a dominant force in the industry, but when I truly found my voice and my confidence came when I wrote what I loved to read, which was crime fiction and suspense. Look at what is on your reading shelves and start there.

3.) Finish What You Start –  Too many people give up halfway through and run out of gas and plot. Finish what you start. You will learn more from your mistakes and may even learn what it takes to get out of a dead end.

4.) Develop a Routine & Establish Discipline – Set up a routine for when you can write and set reasonable goals for your daily word count. I track my word counts on a spreadsheet. It helps me realize that I’m making progress on my overall project completion. Motivational speaker, Zig Ziglar, said that he wrote his non-fiction books doing it a page a day. Any progress is progress. It could also help you to stay offline and focused on your writing until you get your word count in. Don’t let emails and other distractions get you off track.

–Jordan Dane, August 7, 2014

Rewiring the brain

In an article published in WD in 2012, Mike Bechtle argued that mere willpower is not the most effective solution for breaking through writer’s block. He suggests that we rewire our brains to get back into the “flow”.

Here were my major takeaways from Bechtle’s article:

  • Write first thing in the morning, when alertness and energy levels are typically at their highest. (My note: If you can’t write first thing in the morning, try to write at the same time of day every day. Your brain will “learn” to kick into gear at its regular writing time)
  • Fuel your brain with a nourishing breakfast (Think eggs and fruit, not an apple fritter)
  • Limit distractions (Don’t check email or messages before writing, and don’t read a newspaper, turn on the TV, or listen to radio, either)
  • Keep writing sessions short (The brain can focus intensely for only short periods of time, according to Bechtle)
  • Apply glue to butt (Stay seated while writing, that is!)
  • Don’t set your expectations too high

Other strategies

In my first foray as a fiction writer back in the 90’s, I was a contract writer for the Nancy Drew series. The schedule for those books gave me little leeway for writer’s block. As soon as the chapter outline was approved, writers were given six weeks to complete the novel. Six weeks! I had to write those stories so fast, I felt as if I was hurling words at the word processor. Every project was a race to the finish line. “Writer’s block” was a foreign concept.

Then my editor left, and the publishing landscape changed. I stopped writing NDs and began to vaguely contemplate writing something on my own. Inertia quickly set in. Months became years, and I hadn’t written anything new.

15 minutes a day, that’s all we ask

I happened to read an article by Kate White, who is an author and former editor of Cosmopolitan Magazine. Her advice to getting started? Write 15 minutes per day, first thing in the morning. No. Matter. What.

To act on Kate’s suggestion, I had to set my alarm for five a.m. instead of six. That extra hour gave me enough time to down a cup of coffee and generate 15 minutes of quality writing time, before I headed off to my day job.

White’s advice worked for me. Fifteen minutes of writing daily eventually became an hour. Soon I was producing a minimum quota of a page a day.  (Yes, I know: a single page a day isn’t impressive as a quota. See the last bullet point of the previous list about lowering expectations.) A few months later, I had completed the first draft of my new novel.

Kathryn Lilley, June 16, 2015


Now it is your turn.

  1. Do you have tips for breaking through a minor writer’s block?
  2. How do you keep yourself writing?
  3. Do you have a routine you use, or a ritual?
  4. Any advice on keeping your keister in the writing chair?
This entry was posted in #writing, creativity, motivation, Writing rituals, writing routine by Dale Ivan Smith. Bookmark the permalink.

About Dale Ivan Smith

Dale Ivan Smith is a retired librarian turned full-time author. He started out writing fantasy and science fiction, including his five-book Empowered series, and has stories in the High Moon, Street Spells, and Underground anthologies, and his collection, Rules Concerning Earthlight. He's now following his passion for cozy mysteries and working on the Meg Booker Librarian Mysteries series, beginning with A Shush Before Dying.

26 thoughts on “Writing Strategies

  1. Do you have tips for breaking through a minor writer’s block?
    I’ve heard, and believe, that writer’s block is caused by writing the wrong book/story/etc. Recently, I put aside my DPDR brain treatise and wrote a sonnet. Soon, I had enough momentum that I could return to the DPDR project for brief intervals.
    How do you keep yourself writing?
    I write every day. I pick up ideas on “social” media and tweet about the Guardienne Hypothesis. (The main monograph has been read over 2000 times.) Other than that, and church, and a few social events, I write.
    Do you have a routine you use, or a ritual?
    No routine. Probably would be better, if I did. At rare intervals, I wake at 2 or 3 a.m. and write something. Sometimes I forget having written and discover it on another night.
    Any advice on keeping your keister in the writing chair?
    Actually, I must get up and walk around the block at least once a day. I mention any writing milestones to various people. ResearchGate gives me an attaboy every so many reads.

    Another motivation: Alcoholism is probably a result of an oversized Guardienne. Even a small advance in our understanding of alcoholism might yield improved clinical treatment methods for between 5% and 12% of the population subject to this condition. Several dozen other conditions, such as Bipolar Disorder, PTSD, MPD/DID, road-rage, and DPDR, may have the same cause.

    • Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts and approach, J. Interesting take on writer’s block, too. You obviously have little difficulty keeping yourself writing. Glad to hear that you take exercise breaks–I’m a big believer in that, too. Have a wonderful weekend!

  2. 1. Do you have tips for breaking through a minor writer’s block?

    N/A. Mechanics, plumbers, cabinetmakers, etc don’t get mechanic’s block or plumber’s block or cabinetmaker’s block. They just show up and do their job.

    2. How do you keep yourself writing?

    I’m an adherent to Heinlein’s Rules, especially 1–3. Writers write. I’m a writer.

    3. Do you have a routine you use, or a ritual?

    Not really, though most often I write on a separate “writing ‘puter,” a little 11″ HP. It’s a subliminal signal to my creative subconscious. It knows we’re about to drop into a story and race through it with the characters as it unfolds all around us. Nothing is more fun.

    4. Any advice on keeping your keister in the writing chair?

    Again, Heinlein’s Rules 1–3. Sometimes, after I finish a novel, I spend a day or two deciding which character(s) or world or storyline I’d like to visit next, but not writing is miserable.

  3. I like Kathryn’s tip about writing first thing for 15 minutes. It doesn’t even have to be related to your WIP. Bradbury would wake up and immediately record whatever was going on in that fertile imagination of his.

    Re: Kathryn’s last point. A page a day is a book a year, and that ain’t bad.

    • Thanks for your comment, Jim. It’s a great point. A page a day has really helped me in the past start and stay writing after a dry spell. It’s great advice. Have a wonderful weekend!

  4. Good morning, Dale. Great topic for discussion, and wonderful nuggets of wisdom from the archives.

    I liked Joe’s jelly bean placebos. I mix my jelly beans (sugar) with caffeine (coffee) for an extra boost.

    I liked Jordan’s rule #4 (also Kathryn’s third bullet point) about establishing a routine and avoiding distractions. I would add that there should be one exception to staying offline. I read the TKZ post after breakfast, and when I first reach my writing room. The advice and conversation here often help to increase my motivation.

    And as for your questions #2 – #4, like Harvey, I have a small computer (a laptop) that I reserve for writing. I grab that and lean back in my recliner. (coffee mug on the mug warmer beside me), and my brain knows it’s time to get creative. My problem is not staying in the chair, but getting out of it. It’s the most comfortable place in the house, and a whole lot more comfortable than leaning over to do yard work.

    Off to the recliner and jelly bean coffee. Don’t they make coffee jelly beans?

    Have a wonderful weekend!

  5. Good morning, Steve. Thanks for weighing in! I like the idea of jelly bean placeboes or similar. For coffee lovers I would think coffee jelly beans would be a terrific block breaker 🙂

    I’m with you about TKZ being a morning essential. I use an internet blocker called Freedom to block out many distracting websites, TKZ is not included in that list 🙂

    Happy writing!

  6. Chocolate covered coffee beans are good too. The great difference between writing on the computer and using a typewriter or longhand is the smorgasbord of distractions that are right at your fingertips. I’ve never had a problem writing, it’s just that the quality and relevance jumps up and down

    I aspire to write a bit every day but much of my “writing” time and research and thinking about my craft I count as a component of writing.

    On that subject, how about inspiration as compared to imitation? I’ve been greatly inspired by an Irwin Shaw story, “The Girls In Their Summer Dresses” and my WIP is about a dysfunctional couple sitting in an airport lounge. The tentative title is “Lush” which tells you where one of the characters is going. I know that’s a little off topic but it bothers me.
    Sometimes I’m on that borderland. I rationalize it by thinking that the old masters had students whose job it was to copy the works of their teachers, until some day, if ever, they could stand on their own reputation. This would be a good future topic.

    • Great comments, Robert. Thanks for sharing them. “Smorgasbord of distractions” is an apt expression for what waits us at the computer.

      Inspiration versus imitation, I’ll put that on the list as a requested topic. Thank you! Hope you have a fine weekend.

  7. Dale, good nuggets for this morning.

    Joe’s jellybeans cracked me up. Ah, the things we writers do to convince our recalcitrant brains to cooperate.

    Jordan’s advice is always solid, esp. develop a routine/habit.

    Kathryn is right about deadlines. There’s nothing like an editor tapping her foot waiting for your work.

    But what if you don’t have a deadline? Create one. You need to submit XX pages to your critique group by Tues. Nanowrimo, coming in November, can kick start the writing habit. Find a contest to enter and meet that deadline. Enlist an accountability partner who will check in daily or weekly to crack your butt about achieving your word count goal.

    I’m apt to fudge on self-imposed deadlines but I always meet deadlines set by others.

    • Thanks so much for your comments, Debbie. I’m with you about creating your own deadlines. Nanowrimo or a contest deadline can definitely provide motivation.

      I have the same issue around fudging my own self-imposed deadlines, but a deadline with an editor or cover designer is something I find much more motivating and nearly always meet.

      Have a wonderful weekend!

  8. Thanks everyone for all the comments so far. I’m heading out on a day trip so won’t be replying until late today, but welcome more comments and thoughts by the KZB community in the meantime.

  9. How do you stop with two jellybeans?

    Writer’s block is a symptom, not the disease. Simple writer’s block usually means you’ve screwed up in your writing recently, and you are heading in the wrong direction. Your brain won’t let you continue until you fix the problem.

    Soul-destroying writer’s block is extreme depression usually centered around your career more than your writing. If you’ve had your stuffings knocked out of you too many times by a career going nowhere, editors who leave dumping your book in the pipeline garbage on the way out, publishers going belly up, etc., etc., it’s about impossible to keep moving forward. Some of us just stop at this point.

  10. Good morning all!

    My tip (which isn’t new to these halls) is to not worry about writing perfect words and sentences in the first draft. Just vomit the story onto the page.

    When I wrote my first books I tried to make everything perfect the first time around BEFORE I sent it off to my editor, which seriously compromised my productivity. I remember one time spending around 45 minutes searching for a better way to say a now-forgotten word (Did you catch that? I’ve forgotten the word, so how important could it have been?). Oy!

    Just write, Deb!

    Happy weekend to everyone . . .

    • Deb, thanks so much for sharing your tip. It may not be new, but it’s timeless. The perfect is the enemy of the good, especially first drafts. Just write is great advice. Hope you have a wonderful Sunday!

  11. How do you keep yourself writing?
    By giving up (for now) most sage writerly advice. While I totally love the concept of writing every day, and writing in the morning at my peak, neither are realistic for me. Work & chores take up most of the waking hours of my life, & what little time is left has to be divided up over many things–including writing. I already get up at 4 a.m. to cram in everything I need to do each day but I won’t get up earlier. 3:59 a.m. and earlier to my body clock is “the middle of the night” so rising earlier isn’t an option.

    I started a new writing project in mid-May and my mantra has been “Write something each week, even if it’s only 2 sentences–even 2 sentences advances the story.” Sounds pathetic. And some weeks I literally only was able to write 2 sentences. But in that 5 months, I’ve racked up about 32k words so clearly some weeks I’m able to squeeze out more words.

    My absolute frustration right now is that research is an impediment to story development and writing. We’ve talked here at TKZ about just making a “research note” in your manuscript and moving on, and coming back to research that item later. And often times that works out fine. But sometimes there is research you absolutely must have in order to know how to move the story forward. This morning I went to a digital archives site that I have used in the past to search old newspapers. Much to my dismay they have revamped the site. And for reasons I cannot fathom, they have made the site ten times WORSE to search and navigate than it was before. (so much for the wonders of glorious technology)

    So now the quandary is, I can make stuff up and just blunder forward, which virtually guarantees the necessity to rewrite large portions of the manuscript. Or I can put it on hold while I try to get my research answers elsewhere. Neither choice is optimal.

    But I am bound and determined to see the first draft of this manuscript done by the end of the first week in December, so blundering forward wins by default. It’s going to be a red hot mess, but I’d rather have a mess than nothing at all.

    • Research can definitely be a challenge, BK. Sometimes, like with historical fiction, you have to do it upfront. But you also have to get the draft done, like you note. Pulling for you to get that first draft done by your deadline.

  12. I liked all of these articles to overcome that feeling of being stuck. I especially identify with Jordan Dane’s advice “Plunge In & Give Yourself Permission to Write Badly.”

    Similar to Joe’s jelly beans, I find a few swallows of a sugary soft drink will pep me up and get my brain going.

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