Maneuvering Around Obstacles

Ways I Cope with Writer’s Block

By Jeff Salter

I don’t think I’ve ever done the stereotypical bit where I just stare at a blank page / screen for long periods and can’t come up with any words. [And I hope I never do!]

But I have been through phases where I can’t seem to concentrate, or just don’t feel like putting in the effort required to think creatively (within the demanding structure of a novel). And, of course, I procrastinate. [I’m far too easily distracted by social media, email, and some of the time-consuming lolly-gagging that has – unfortunately (in recent years) – become part of my daily routine.]

But let me mention something that was similar to writer’s block — in the sense that SOMETHING was keeping me from returning to a fully-drafted novel to get it into publishable shape. That something was – and I was basically aware of this at the time – purely emotional.

My third novel – its first draft just completed as my loved and respected father-in-law was dying in the hospital – featured him as one of the prominent secondary characters. I’d been killing myself to complete a readable draft because I wanted him to read it… so he could see how he was depicted and how several of his relatives and friends had inspired other characters. But his soul departed this earth before I could complete my draft. That left me feeling frustrated and hurting — I had failed in my effort to share with him my tribute to the greatest generation (of which he was a part).

I think it was that grief and sense of failure that basically froze me for the next 14 months and kept me from returning to that draft and whipping it into shape. A 14-month dry spell!

Oh, I don’t mean I wasn’t writing anything, because I wrote some family history and had ‘starts’ on eight other novels (since beginning that third one). But I wasn’t working on the revisions to my third novel… which, I believed, had the most potential for publication.

So I began worrying again. You know, about that dark procrastinating cloud of not being able to finish something. Then, one Saturday, instead of doing what I had planned [visiting a local trade show]… I pulled out that third novel and determinedly began my re-writes. During the next three months, I completely overhauled it. [That manuscript was still far from “ready” however. It went through another complete overhaul before I slashed some 55,000 words and got it into a publishable length. It was released by Clean Reads in May 2013, just over five years after my F-I-L’s death, and about four years after I’d finally forced myself to dive back into it. NOTE: during those same four years, I also wrote five other novels and got two of them published!]

Blocked? Or just re-routed?

Now that I’ve detailed this example of my 14-month impasse – and the emotional reasons for it – let me get to the actual topic for this week: Ways that I cope with writers’ block.

Notice that I’ve titled this blog post, “Maneuvering Around Obstacles.” I worded it that way because there’s a difference between being BLOCKED (as in “halted”), and merely being forced to find an alternate route to your destination.

Though I’ve never possessed any of the computerized “map” gizmos – and hope I never will – I’ve been a passenger in vehicles which were being directed on the desired route by a determined automated voice. In one, which I believe was called Garmin, I remember it repeatedly stating, “Recalculating route,” or some-such. You could almost sense the frustration in that computer programs’ voice… that its initial directions were not being followed and the driver had exerted some independence or initiative.

Well, I took that brief detour with Garmin navigation simply to say that its programmed voice never said, “you are blocked and you cannot move forward.” Inevitably, it was programmed simply to find you a different route — take a detour (if necessary) but then get you headed back toward your original destination.

As writers, we don’t – at least not YET – have a program telling us, “in 1000 words, bring Character A back into the scene” or “in 50 words, make an immediate POV shift.” And if we did have such a program, I doubt many of us would use it. [Because many authors I know – myself included – tend to let their characters run fast and loose!]

How to cope

Bet you thought I’d never get back to the topic at hand. When things have been tenuous at my writing keyboard, I have resorted to things like these:

* working with my hands at something (assembling a chair, building shelves, mounting brackets somewhere, re-working the handle of a hunting knife, etc.). These breaks are good for multiple reasons: they tend to cleanse my writing palate and they check things off my household to-do list.

* exercise and/or communing with nature. Since Jan. 2005, I’ve gone to exercise approximately three times a week, usually for an hour or more each time. It’s not by choice, it’s by the express orders of my then-rheumatologist. But it’s surprising how many story threads, plot ideas, or character notes I can come up with while I’m pedaling a stationary bike for 40 minutes.

* nap / rest. I’ve had – since spring of 1974 – non-stop, chronic fatigue. I don’t think it had a name back then, but just imagine being totally exhausted all the time — from waking in the morning until sleeping at night, never feeling rested. Sometimes, at my keyboard, I realize that I’m simply too tired to concentrate. So I nap. Every day.

Question:

What about YOU? If you’re a writer, have you ever been blocked? Did you figure out why? How did you work your way out of it?

[JLS # 545]

About Jeff Salter

Currently writing romantic comedy, screwball comedy, and romantic suspense. Fourteen completed novels and four completed novellas. Working with three royalty publishers: Clean Reads, Dingbat Publishing, & TouchPoint Press/Romance. "Cowboy Out of Time" -- Apr. 2019 /// "Double Down Trouble" -- June 2018 /// "Not Easy Being Android" -- Feb. 2018 /// "Size Matters" -- Oct. 2016 /// "The Duchess of Earl" -- Jul. 2016 /// "Stuck on Cloud Eight" -- Nov. 2015 /// "Pleased to Meet Me" (novella) -- Oct. 2015 /// "One Simple Favor" (novella) -- May 2015 /// "The Ghostess & MISTER Muir" -- Oct. 2014 /// "Scratching the Seven-Month Itch" -- Sept. 2014 /// "Hid Wounded Reb" -- Aug. 2014 /// "Don't Bet On It" (novella) -- April 2014 /// "Curing the Uncommon Man-Cold -- Dec. 2013 /// "Echo Taps" (novella) -- June 2013 /// "Called To Arms Again" -- (a tribute to the greatest generation) -- May 2013 /// "Rescued By That New Guy in Town" -- Oct. 2012 /// "The Overnighter's Secrets" -- May 2012 /// Co-authored two non-fiction books about librarianship (with a royalty publisher), a chapter in another book, and an article in a specialty encyclopedia. Plus several library-related articles and reviews. Also published some 120 poems, about 150 bylined newspaper articles, and some 100 bylined photos. Worked about 30 years in librarianship. Formerly newspaper editor and photo-journalist. Decorated veteran of U.S. Air Force (including a remote ‘tour’ of duty in the Arctic … at Thule AB in N.W. Greenland). Married; father of two; grandfather of six.
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11 Responses to Maneuvering Around Obstacles

  1. I can certainly commiserate with procrastination and being to wrapped up in family emotions to push yourself to write, BOY,CAN I! I know that I have addressed this sveral times. I am glad that you never got stuck and also hope that you never do. I have not, either,but I will address it tomorrow with my own theories and those of a former guest here who handles writers with blocks all the time.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jeff Salter says:

      Writers are, I believe, even more emotional creatures than our non-creative brothers and sisters. What allows us to see things others don’t notice… can also make us more vulnerable.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. jbrayweber says:

    I can’t say I’ve ever had full-blown writer’s block. I absolutely, most definitely, without a doubt find myself stuck with a scene or story direction. Probably most non-superhuman authors do. For me, writing is a commitment, and like any commitment, I will see it through. Unfortunately, sometimes it takes a long time. (Like with my current WIP.) It’s usually life that gets in the way, and yes, it’s sometimes an emotional detour. An excellent example of that was last year’s pandemic. While it would seem I had more time on my hands, I emotionally didn’t have it in me. Both my children’s worlds were turned upside down and inside out, and that took a massive toll on me. (Not so much for my husband since he is considered an essential worker—we never really “shut down”.) Being away from writer friends and having that mutual accountability also hurt my productivity.

    And that leads me back to your question of how to work around writer’s block. Brainstorming with friends. Even better if you can meet in person. An open conversation about your story with constructive aid and encouraging words can do wonders in kick-starting back into gear.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Jeff Salter says:

      I agree, Jenn, that brainstorming with friends — or beta readers — can dislodge us if/when we ever get stuck. Or even if we simply need some fresh air in our creative noggins.
      Yes, the year of covid should have been that glorious time many of us dream of — few commitments, almost zero external obligations, all the time in the world. And while I did finish one novel and work another on through edits (during that “year”), I never really got a rhythm going so that I use best utilize all that “free” time.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Patricia Kiyono says:

    Grief will definitely zap creativity, or at least the motivation to be creative. And I can commiserate with you in not finishing the manuscript in time for your father-in-law to read it. My first romance was published a year after my father died, so he was never able to see my pen name (which is a derivation of my maiden name) on a book. As I mentioned on Monday (and as Jenn verified), brainstorming with friends often helps to see possible paths your characters might take. I meet virtually with two groups, and in person with another.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jeff Salter says:

      Sorry that your dad never got to see your published fiction.
      In the case of my dad, he lived to see publication of two non-fiction books by my brother and me, plus some minor success of mine in poetry… but I think he would have been thrilled to see one of my novels. [But my first novel was published in 2012, nine years after his death.]

      Like

  4. As you indicated in your blog, Jeff. There’s always a path to get around a road block in driving. We, as writers should take that example to heart. If the road is blocked in front of us, follow the detour, wherever it may lead.

    Also, like you and Jenn, brainstorming with friends, critiquers, or whoever is around can stimulate your cells into action and bring a possible solution to your stall on the story. Our group forum is invaluable in this way, along with my critique group at Scribes/ACFW.

    Again, I’ll say I wish whoever thought of that expression…HADN’T. Just the sound of it is enough to freeze a writer’s brain cells. You had a wonderful description of the problem, Jeff. How about calling it “Writing Congestion?” It’s where a lot of things are vying for your mind’s attention. You have to sort everything out and put everything into its own place before you can proceed. Sometimes, just relaxing for a while will let everything fall into place.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Elaine Cantrell says:

    Your napping strategy reminded me of an office I had a few years ago. It had a small bed right beside the computer so if necessary I’d take a little break. I agree that grief can block your writing. My father died as I was writing Turnaround Farm, and that book stayed on my computer for over ten years until I picked it up again. During that time I published a good many novels, but it took a long time for me to find my passion for Turnaround Farm.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jeff Salter says:

      yes, the death of a significant loved one can certainly link itself to a writing project in-progress. Glad you were able to return to yours, even though it took a while.

      Like

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