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For Writer’s Block
and Other Creative Maladies

Copyright © 2009 by Deborah M. Hale

This article first appeared in the Romance Writers Report, April 2006.

There are few things more devastating to a writer than when the words just won’t come. In the course of writing over a dozen historical romances and two fantasy novels, I’ve experienced a number of blockage episodes – sometimes short, sometimes longer, always worrisome, potentially career-threatening. I’ve also helped nurse others through their bouts of writer’s block, suggesting many possible remedies, some more effective than others.

I’ve come to the conclusion that writer’s block is not a single, uniform condition that affects everyone the same way. Rather, it is an umbrella term for several creative ailments – each with unique symptoms and requiring different remedies. While I know from experience that writer’s block is no laughing matter, I also believe humor can be potent medicine and a valuable teaching tool. In that spirit, I hope writers at every stage of their careers will find some useful suggestions to prevent, self-diagnose and treat these common creative ailments.

Motivation Anemia

This disorder can strike any author, though published and unpublished veterans often build up their immunity. The main symptom is a writer’s inability to keep his or her butt in the chair, despite plenty of ideas and confidence. Other symptoms include distracting rashes of email, message board posts and spider solitaire. The key to combating motivation anemia is a supplement of Vitamins G (goals), R(rewards) and S (support).

A group of fantasy authors from the Luna on-line community have set up a cyber-meeting place, The Enchanted Scribe, that dispenses these supplements. “ Just having a place to post your weekly accomplishments isn't enough,” says founder Aline de Chevigny. “We also have incentives, weekly cyber rewards and major accomplishment awards. Not to mention the personal encouragement our Scribes give each other when they start to doubt their talents. Anything a Scribe needs to stay motivated is offered (within reason of course!) from a personal pep talk, to a motivating kick in the pants e-mail.”

Idea Itch

This condition tends to attack newer writers and may be caused by an underlying Manuscript Completion Allergy. The main symptom is a distracting rash of new ideas that clamor to be written, making it difficult for the author to concentrate on and finish the story in progress. Susceptible authors may want to build up a tolerance to manuscript completion by writing shorter stories at first, gaining confidence and reinforcement to finish increasingly longer ones. 

The Book In A Week program can provide a type of creative calamine lotion to soothe the itch of new ideas and help the writer decide which ones to focus on. Coach, author and teacher, April Kihlstrom says, “ BIAW is great for finding out in short order whether an idea will work for a book. Another alternative is to use the 10, 20, 30 minute approach. If the author has several ideas in mind, take 15 minutes for each one and write as much as possible, as fast as possible. If the author forgets to stop after 15 minutes with one particular idea, odds are that's a good one to focus on. If not, take a break then go back and read what was written. Which of the pieces really resonates with the author? Which one says: Write me now!? That's the one to work on.” Authors wanting more information about these techniques should visit Kihlstrom’s website.

Overactive Editorial Gland

Some authors have more highly developed editorial glands than others. Increased knowledge of writing craft may aggravate this condition in affected individuals. Untreated, an overactive editorial gland can slow productivity to a trickle as the writer struggles to find the perfect word or craft the ideal sentence before moving on with the story. Treatments for this condition include writing in timed bursts and using a portable word-processor, which only displays a small window of text.

Margaret Moore, prolific author of over three-dozen historical romances, experienced this problem while writing Hers to Command (HQN, Feb 06). “ In my case,” says, Moore, “it was brought on by an extreme case of Resistent Revisionitis . Having had to do a major revision, I lived in fear that I would have the same problem with the next book, which meant I did too many preventive revisions and had a terrible time moving forward. It was cured by Contractual Deadlineamin. Basically, I had no choice but to finish the book because I had a contract and a deadline. Intensive finger therapy was the answer.”

Project Paralysis

Two variants of this condition can affect writers at different stages of their careers. Newer writers may be intimidated by the idea of producing a whole book, while published authors may freeze when confronted with increasingly tight deadlines. Symptoms include a sense of panic, which makes it impossible to proceed.

Cheryl St. John, whose 26th book, Almost a Bride, is out this spring, says, “ We’re conditioned to think big, but in a panic situation thinking smaller can be beneficial. Focus on just this scene, just this chapter – concentrate on the immediate section of the story, and don’t look to the rest of the book looming ahead of you. You’ll get there eventually; looking ahead at the size of the project can unnerve you.”

A third type of paralysis – arth-writis may strike when an author starts working again after a significant break. I experience this type of inertia whenever I’ve been away from the keyboard too long. Getting started again can be like an old locomotive pulling out of the station with lots of rattling, creaking and black smoke pouring out my ears… at least that’s how it feels! To prevent my writing muscles from seizing up, I try to write between contracts, even if it’s only a page a day. When a sudden sale makes it necessary to get back up to speed, I try to set less ambitious page goals at first, gradually increasing them.

Method Sclerosis

This disorder is most common among veteran writers. Symptoms are similar to Motivation Anemia but the remedy is different – a dose of variety tonic. Ann Collins, a published author of both fiction and non-fiction says, “ Some days I just can't get myself to sit at the computer in my office. When that happens, I write longhand or use my Dana word processor in the living room. If I can't get myself to do that either, I leave the house, taking my pen and notepad to a restaurant--treating myself to lunch in the process.” Regency author Elizabeth Rolls (The Chivalrous Rake) suggests a distraction physic. “Working in the garden is good,” says Rolls, “and walking the dog.”

Rearranging your writing space, especially decluttering, can be another effective treatment, as teacher/author Pat Thomas showed my local RWA chapter during a recent educational session on feng-shui. “ Just changing the facing of the desk can change the face and ideas of the writer too,” says Thomas. “It doesn’t really matter if you believe in the philosophy behind it. If you rearrange your writing space with the intention of increasing your creativity, it’s likely to work – mind over matter.”

Scene Sprain

The main symptom of scene sprain is a painful aversion to writing one particular scene – transitional scenes are most vulnerable. When I’m hit with scene sprain, the remedy is often as simple as rest. I type “stuff happens here” then move on to a part of the story I can write without banging my forehead against the keyboard. When I return to the scene later, I often find it easier to write. An application of POV lineament can be another effective treatment. After I switch the point of view character for the scene, ease of writing movement may be immediately restored.

Other times, I need a structure splint to support my weak scene. I construct this splint by identifying the scene’s purpose and POV, then brainstorming ideas for setting, motivation, action, dialogue etc. This temporary transfer of weight from the creative side of my brain to the analytical side gives it needed rest and boosts energy flow.

Plot Fracture

Plot fracture is often misdiagnosed as Scene Sprain, Routine Sclerosis or Motivation Anemia but remedies for these conditions provide only temporary relief. When a plot fracture is present, the writing of each successive scene becomes more labored and painful, until it is impossible to continue and the author may consider the drastic step of amputating the story.

When Margo Maguire, multipublished author of historicals for Avon and Harlequin (Saxon Lady, Apr 06), suspects a plot fracture, she says, “ I get out the good ol' synopsis and read it over. I usually have a more detailed one than the one I gave my editor (gasp!) and it helps to get me back on track. However, sometimes deviation is a good thing. You just have to use your judgment on whether you're getting where you want to go, the way you want to get there.”

My remedy for Plot Fracture is a painful but necessary form of story traction, during which I immobilize the manuscript, then go back and locate the point where my plot broke down. Once I’ve found and repaired the fracture (perhaps a character’s inappropriate reaction to events or conflict that is resolved too quickly) healing is usually immediate and my story is soon on its feet again.

Muse Atrophy

This condition most commonly afflicts veteran writers, published and unpublished. Symptoms include a lack of fresh ideas and restricted energy flow to the imagination. A course of research therapy may help. Cathryn Fox, who writes erotic romance for Avon and Ellora’s Cave, says, “because I write at least four or five love scenes in one book, I sometimes struggle to find ways to make each love scene exciting, fever inducing, and unique to my characters. Let's face it there are only so many ways to insert object A into slot B! So for inspiration I like to do research. I like to surf sites that sell "love products" and give tips on how to use them. This research helps me get my juices flowing…creative juices that is.”

Environmental Poisoning

Also known as Contagious Discouragement Virus, this condition mostly affects unpublished authors. PRO Author Heidi Hamburg says, “Environmental poisoning arises from the knowledge or perception that friends and family believe the author should be doing something worthwhile, something that brings in money right now.” This toxic mixture of guilt and lack of support can leave the author vulnerable to a creatively-fatal Perforated Ego.   One powerful antidote is an RWA inoculation.  The support and encouragement of other writers, particularly at the chapter level can go a long way to counteract the negative effects of this energy-draining ailment.

Perforated Ego

Veteran unpublished authors are at high risk for this condition but it can also strike published authors who experience career setbacks. Symptoms include an acute sense of discouragement that saps creativity. The most effective treatment I’ve found for Perforated Ego is some form of confidence balm. While I was struggling to break into publication, whenever discouragement struck, I would reread an encouraging score sheet from an early contest entry. It usually helped restore my spirits and got me writing again. Since then I’ve filled a scrapbook with contest certificates, fan letters, positive reviews, etc. A few minutes leafing through my scrapbook will often ease my self-doubt.

Bestselling author Suzanne Brockmann (Hot Target, Ballantine paperback, Dec 05) says, “ it's my experience that writers are generally a very self-abusive bunch. <g>  With every book I write, I go through an "Oh, my God, this one sucks.  No, really, this time it *really* sucks..." phase.  From listening to other writers talk about their process, it seems I'm not alone.  So it's important to step away from that craziness, take a deep breath and go down a list of my strengths as a writer to try to regain a little balance and perspective during those dark times. It’s important to be able to look at your own writing objectively – to identify your strengths (as well as your weaknesses).  It's not ego to recognize that you write particularly good comedy and snappy dialogue – and to conclude that writing an angst-filled book where your heroine is alone on a deserted island with no one to talk to for 350 pages isn't such a good idea.”

Brockmann believes women are at a disadvantage when it comes to identifying our strengths because we've been taught it’s not ladylike. “We’re taught to demure when given complements -- and that includes self-complements!  I've given motivational workshops where I tell everyone to jot down what they believe to be their biggest strength as a writer.  Then, I'll have them all say (aloud, in unison)  "My name is (name) and my biggest strength as a writer is (and they fill in the blank)."  Saying this aloud is important -- they learn that they can say something good about themselves and the sky won't fall!”

Pervasive Malaise Syndrome

This condition affects more than just the author’s work and usually has a physical cause. Multi-published author Victoria Bylin recalls, “ It happened about a year ago when I was in the middle of the third book in a three-book contract. It turned out to be health related. I'd tell anyone suffering from brain fog and malaise to get a physical. Check your blood pressure and blood sugar. I was diagnosed with reactive hypoglycemia which is related to diabetes but isn't the same. By managing my body, I got my mojo back. What a relief! I spent three months in a state of burnout that had a physical cause. It wasn't easy to fix. I had to give up caffeine and clean up my eating habits. No more Oreos. Not ever. Not even one. But healthy eating and no caffeine worked wonders for my creativity.” After treatment, Bylin was able to complete her manuscript for Midnight Marriage (Harlequin Historical, Jan 06) in just three weeks!

Seasonal Affect Disorder can also trigger this syndrome. Triple Golden Heart finalist, Norah Wilson, experienced SAD’s effects while writing Lauren’s Eyes (Leisure Love Spell, Aug. 04). “With the onset of fall,” says Wilson, “I fell straight into hibernation mode, complete with carb-loading, craving for sleep and antisocial feelings. The biggest handicap to my writing was apathy. If I couldn’t feel my own feelings, how could I feel passionately about my characters? Fortunately, I found two tools to help me win what's become an annual battle – a light therapy lamp and a carbohydrate-restricted diet.  Beef jerky, anyone?”

For other authors, regular exercise can be the key to maintaining both physical and creative wellbeing. New Zealand author Helen Kirkman says, “I actually managed to unlock the plot flaw in Destiny (HQN, Mar 06) while attempting sit ups with an oxygen-starved brain solidly parked in neutral. I just wish I had a taut stomach.”

Life-Crisis Attack

While this type of blockage can affect writers at any career stage, published authors are most at risk for career-threatening complications. Symptoms include intense preoccupation with a personal upheaval (marital or financial problems, family illness) or world events (911, Hurricane Katrina) and difficulty concentrating on the work-in-progress. 2005 Golden Heart finalist, Ruth MacLean, describes the disorder this way. “I have so many extraneous factors in my life that impact my writing, I find it hard to keep everything on an even track.”  Ruth seems to have figured it out, because she recently sold her first book to Harlequin Everlasting Love . Under her pen name, Stella MacLean, Heart of My Heart will be released in time for Valentine's Day 2008!

Regency historical author Janet Kendall agrees. “ Concentration is definitely a problem, but add to this the need to travel to address the current crisis, and things at home just pile up. Once I'm home, this need to gain control of my life seems to overshadow the need to write. Surprisingly, the writer in me hasn't disappeared, but instead the Life-Crisis Attack has created a Menopausal Muse, which during a hot flash, the muse will fire up. I take advantage of these moments and write.”

Authors must take care that Life-Crisis Attack doesn’t worsen into Chronic Malignant Burnout. Check with your editor if it’s possible to postpone an upcoming deadline. If not, use whatever combination of therapies will help you complete the contracted manuscript. Don’t aggravate your stress level with guilt over slower than usual writing. The first chance you get, take a break to nurse your ailing muse with rest and chicken soup in the form of pleasure reading.

Chronic Malignant Burnout

Misdiagnosed or untreated, other forms of writer’s block can deteriorate into this most incapacitating of writer’s afflictions. With Chronic Malignant Burnout, the writer feels devoid of all inspiration and is unable to take any pleasure from the creative process. Since recovery may take years, prevention is the key to combating this disorder.

Creative Well-being

I know you’re probably sick of medical metaphors by now, but bear with me for a few more lines, okay? Like physical illness, the first step toward combating any creative ailment is to recognize you have a problem – that means being in tune with the ebb and flow of your muse energy and trusting your instincts when they tell you something is out of whack. Then it’s important to seek help and support from your fellow writers, especially those who have overcome their own creative ailments. Finally you need to try the remedies they suggest, even when the therapy sounds difficult or the medicine tastes bad. Take your artistic temperature now and then, watch your workload diet, exercise your imagination, and I hope you’ll enjoy many years of glowing creative health!



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All text within this site is Deborah Hale. Reprinting without permission is prohibited.