Sunday, February 17, 2013

What Happens When You Get Stuck?

I have a confession to make.

I rarely, if ever, have writer's block. I know, right? You're sitting there asking yourself, "What kind of writer are you if you don't get a little blocked up from time to time." Well, let's just say I keep a steady flow going right through the old noggin on a regular basis.

Yep, you could call me regular!

So, back to that question -- How is it that I don't really struggle with any writer's block?

First, let me confess to something else. I do struggle with whether I like my stories or not. I mean, I get the story on the page, let it sit for a while, ruminate about the characters, their needs, their wants, wonder if I've figured out if the story is going in a good direction, but then I take a step back and realize I don't really care for any of what is going on on the page.

How do I change that?

I make sure that I'm always taking notice of what's going on around me, whether it's short articles I come across online, novels I've delved into, or heck, there's been a strange-but-true couple of stories on the nightly news that make me stop what I'm doing and jot them down in my idea book. However you choose to find inspiration for your writing, make sure it keeps that constant flow of information open and running through your mind.

I'd like to share my top five ways of making sure I'm not like E.L. Doctorow staring at a wall (although, Ragtime is now one of those classics everyone wants to read).


Since my chosen genre is historical, the first thing I do to get my juices flowing is by wondering what was really going on during certain historical periods. My ideas usually come from unwarranted and unneeded research. For instance, for S and Gs, I checked out a documentary on Ellis Island from the library. Sure, it was a little dated, with a much younger Mandy Patinkin narrating the film, but I found it to be incredibly fascinating. And before I knew it, the wheels in my head were turning. And guess what? The whole idea for a new novel metamorphosed out of those four hours I spent with Mr. Patinkin.

But this just doesn't pertain to historical circumstances. When I decided to write about forest fires in the 1940s, I really had to figure out how a forest fire is created, what causes it to burn in a certain direction, and why certain ones are deadlier than others. Did you know that a prairie fire burns a lot faster than a forest fire, and that it's deadlier if one gets stuck in a prairie fire? But through my research I learned an extremely fascinating way to save yourself in one. Who knew?


I'm a little obsessive about this one. When I get online to check email or do a little research, I almost always find myself scanning daily news articles. And I always make sure to bookmark the strange-but-true ones, because I'm never sure what I could use later on.

Here are just a few interesting headlines I've gathered over the past couple of years (I've stuck in one fake headline just to show you how crazy some stories are. Can you figure out the fake?):

  • "Doctor Turned Serial Killer in WWII Paris"
  • "Reformed Skinhead Endures Agony to Remove Tattoos"
  • "Fugates of Kentucky: Skin Bluer than Lake Louise"
  • " 'White' Slaves Used for 1860s Fundraiser Propaganda"
  • "Asian Gunslinger Finally Gets His Name in the History Books"
  • " 'Godmother of Cocaine' Gunned Down in Columbia"
See? You can never go wrong with a good news article!


Some of you might not agree with me on this one, but I love a good prologue. A good prologue knows how to encompass the flavor of the novel and gives a hint of what's to come. If you already know you're good at writing good openers, then this task should be a breeze.

Think of some sort of action you'd like to see happen at the opening of your novel. You don't necessarily have to have the main character in this scene, but it's always good to see a glimmer of who that person might be. For instance, if your MC is not there physically, then perhaps there's a photo in the room, or someone is pregnant with the MC, or a death has occurred and it has something to do with the MC, etc. Just try to place a little slice of how your main character will be involved with that first scene.

And make it gripping!


Have you ever come across a random collection of words and the first thing you think is, "Wow! That would make a great title!" I've had those moments. Actually, my research usually coincides with the title. Going back to Mandy Patinkin's tour of Ellis Island, out of that documentary, not only did I come up with a new story to write, but the title presented itself to me through vivid description of a certain place on Ellis Island. The first thing I did after the film had finished was to stop by Amazon and search the titles to see if anyone else had published a book under that name. Quite honestly, I was shocked nobody else had, because it makes for a great title. And, of course, I'm not about to give it away! You'll just have to wait until the book gets published! ☺


When I was writing my first novel, a movie reel kept playing through my mind with the main character. She was a runaway slave and I kept seeing the back of her, running through the woods, trying desperately to escape her pursuers. I didn't know why, but I really wanted to understand why she was fleeing and who was after her. Why did I care so much about this one girl? And that's how the cycle of the story started for me. I sat down with this character, fleshed her out, visualized where she was going and with whom, and tried very hard to come up with a good ending.

My first ending was a flop.

But I persevered and continued to look into the life of this one person. Eventually I found her, found where she was going, discovered what made her so complicated, and realized I actually liked her even though it took several drafts for me to see all the layers. But that's why starting your story by fleshing out a character can be so rewarding -- you figure out what makes them tick, plus they've been with you on this journey all along.

I hope that, in some small way at least, I was able to encourage you to move on from that place where you feel like you're only staring at a wall. It can be easy for some of us to get stuck, but if you learn little tricks that help you move on and write something that could potentially grow into a fantastic story, then you're time won't feel so wasted.

Are there any ideas you have for getting past writer's block? Or are you a little like me -- so many stories you don't know what to do with them?


  1. Those are good tips! I never really struggled with writer's block until fairly recently, and I also looked askance at those who did. I had, and still have, any number of story ideas in my head. My problem has less to do with ideas than with patience. I get to a part where the plot doesn't make sense, or a character is doing something unnatural but necessary to the plot, or some other glitch, and I stop. I used to work very hard at fixing those mistakes, but I poured months of labor into at least two manuscripts that ended up unfixable. That is a horrible, horrible feeling.

    I also struggle with artistic impatience. I know enough now to spot my own amateurishness, but I'm not always good enough to fix it. Ten thousand hours: that's what it takes to reach expertise, and that's just A LOT of time.

    Third reason for writer's block: the chaotic nature of the publishing world right now. Everything is changing, and what a writer needs to do to get published seems to shift from one day to the next. How does one keep up enthusiasm in the face of that chaos?

    You do seem a wellspring of ideas, though! I can't wait to see your amazing title in print, MM. :)

  2. Here's my guess: the fake headline is "Godmother of Cocaine Gunned Down in Columbia"???

    I agree with you that research is a great source of inspiration and isn't it funny how new ideas are born when you're trying to research something else? That's how my second novel was born. I have to say that the hardest thing for me is to come up with a good title, but I have noticed that you have a talent for that :-)

    Good article!

  3. Must be a slow week for us!

    Steph, you mention how fluid the writing world is right now, and I couldn't agree more. It seems the rules are changing daily, everyone has advice from about every corner of the publishing realm, and this makes it completely impossible to know or understand what advice an aspiring writer should follow. I think, in the end, that we individually have to chart our own courses. I've tried writing, submitting, querying, etc. according to so many individuals' advice that I seem to have just gotten confused and muddled in the process. My hope is to get back on track and find my own footing.

    Lorena, No it's not "Godmother of Cocaine Gunned Down in Columbia." She actually existed and was gunned down this last year. But, yeah, crazy, right? My false headline was the one about the Asian gunslinger. My husband gave me that idea and, of course, it got the wheels in my head turning! Thanks for your compliment about my titles!

  4. Just keep writing, that's how I get over it. Currently I'm writing 365 Inspirations on my blog. I've committed myself to blogging everyday, so that keeps me from getting blocked. In 2010, I blogged 365 Lessons and wrote a book at the same time. It was published in 2012. The regular blogging actually helped with the book writing! Nice to find you here!

  5. Katherine,
    That's quite impressive with the 365 Lessons blogging! And getting a book finished all in the same year! Good for you! Finding something that keeps the mental juices going daily is what all writers should be doing.

    Thanks for dropping by!

  6. Looking at the image next to the passage about your first novel, my thought was, 'Wow, Hope is pretty.'

    Hey, all of a sudden I'm remembering how your male protagonist had really nice blue eyes ...


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