Balls of Steel: Unblock the Block

Writer’s block is a writer’s impotency. We’ve all experienced it at some point in our careers. Sadly, there’s no magic pill to cure it.

Films like Misery and Below Zero highlight the mind of a writer void of thoughts, ideas, or the ability to execute. Short of being trapped with Kathy Bates, or locking ourselves in a meat locker like Below Zero’s Jack the Hack, we have to find tried and true ways to combat it.

Why do we get writer’s block? Simple – fear.

We fear the execution won’t live up to the hook. Or fear our characters won’t be as vibrant as they appear when they dance inside our heads. We fear not meeting the deadline, so we procrastinate to the point of panic, needing that pressure of a ticking clock to push us. But mostly, we fear failure.

For most writers, the fear starts with staring at the blank page.

Depending on whether I’m writing an article or a script, I use different tricks to tame the dreaded white sheet taunting me.

For a blog post or an article, I spend ten minutes brainstorming a list of points I want to make in the piece. Once I’m satisfied with the list, I call out a writing sprint on Twitter.

A writing sprint is either 30 or 60 minutes of uninterrupted time to get the words on the page. Knowing other writers are suffering through a sprint at the same time helps my morale. That either defines me as a twisted chick or a competitive freak. Either way, I can live with it.

I’m actually doing a writing sprint right this very minute. See how this works? Pretty damn good.

If I’m working on a script, I take the outline and import it directly into my screenwriting software. Each scene has a slugline and description of what I want to explore both in story and character development. I then give myself a goal of writing either a certain number of scenes each day or a page count.

But what if even with these tricks I can’t produce?

I pick up the phone and call my brainstorming partner. There are many ways to collaborate in this business, but for me, there’s one person who I know will always help spark an idea. All it takes is a ten-minute phone call, and I’m unblocked.

Perhaps I could do the same by talking to myself in the mirror. I might try it someday, but I’m quite certain my teens would have me locked up. There’s only so much embarrassment they can endure.

If my brain is still clogged, I go for a run. No iPod or headphones – just my sneakers, the fresh air, a few squirrels, and me. I take a digital recorder with me though for when brilliance strikes. No doubt I will listen back and pay more attention to how heavy I was breathing than to my thoughts, but 99% of the time, moving my body is all I need to get my brain in gear.

What if you’re not into exercising?

Change your scenery. Put some clean clothes on and go out in public. Live your life. Read a book or go to the movies. Make love. Go shopping or stalk people at Panera.

If voyeurism and sex don’t do it, then maybe today just isn’t your day for creation. Above all, don’t beat yourself up. Instead, give yourself permission to completely walk away.

My experience is if I force myself to sit still and push out the words, those words will be worse than vomit. Nothing worth reading will come of it. When I step away and get in the right headspace, inevitably the writing goal is met in half the time.

Since every writer is different, and no one has the same set of fears, I’d love to hear what techniques you use to unblock yourself. Please share your tips in the comment section, and let’s get the conversation started!

Ironically, while some people think conversation is a procrastination tool, it is a fabulous way to free your mind. Anything that gets your mind moving can spark a nugget of an idea you can run with, even if you’re not a runner.

How do you beat writer’s block to a pulp?

Email jeanne@jeannevb.com questions or topics you’d like addressed in future “Balls of Steels” columns and follow her on Twitter @jeannevb.

38 thoughts on “Balls of Steel: Unblock the Block

  1. Pingback: West Lothian Writers » Post Topic » Unblock the Block

  2. Dennis

    I recently got over writer’s block…twice. I had two projects that I loved. one, a screenplay, and the other a novel, which was a sequel to a novel i wrote some years ago.

    I did all the exercises, bikes, boxing, driving, hunting, smoking, drinking, you name it. But I finally settled on 500 words a day, plus exercise. the 500 words could be anything. A long, long, shopping list. How proud i am of my son. Anything.
    Once the writing juices got flowing I committed myself to a scene a day. Not a finished, polished scene, but a scene in either my novel or my screenplay. and things are moving apace. I’m still drinking, driving, biking, dreaming of hunting…and writing. We’ll see.

  3. Amelia

    Conversation, and sounding out ideas on a friend, helps me to get over writers block and work through a problem.

    Also, a corner overlooking the road, in the cafe down the road from me, is my favourite place to write when I can’t do it at home. Works every time!

  4. Simone

    I have a few things that I inevitably associate with screenwriting because I’ve turned them into a habit over the last years. And when I’m stuck, I turn to these things to trigger some sort of Pavlov reflex, which works most of the time.
    For example, I start almost every weekend with listening to the On The Page podcast and thinking about a script and/or writing a few lines. So, when I’m stuck in the middle of the week, I put on one of the podcasts and I immediately get into the right mood. Self-conditioning works great on the weak-minded like me, lol!

  5. Persephone Vandegrift

    This is where having balls of steel comes in handy in breaking down the ‘writer’s block’ wall.

    For myself, I have access to many other outlets. If one particular project is giving me a creative tantrum, I write around it. I’ll write the end or take a stab at writing the scene backwards or without dialog – basically to free my mind from the ‘tunnel vision’ that can sometimes happen.

    Or I’ll just walk away from it completely – work on a short story, a different script, or help out another writer with their project. It’s similar to reverse psychology because we all know as soon as we put words on a page and dialog in a character’s mouth – that project is ALIVE and therefore can feel and sense when we are giving it the cold shoulder.

    Suddenly it will go ‘oh wait wait wait…’ a day or so after you take that walk. And sometimes when you blindside it with a different approach, it balks and retreats.

    I realize I am being a little flippant, but this has been my experience and observation over the past fifteen years of writing. We are creatives – and what we create, just like children, end up testing our resolve and our boundaries.

    Sometimes it is a wrestling match, but you know you have to come out on top. And you will by doing whatever it takes to make that happen. Think outside the box, cook something, write something else, make something else and they may just lead you back to where you started – with a fresh perspective and a glint in your writing eye!

  6. Rocio

    Hi Jeanne (and everybody else!),

    For me, it normally works to pick up a screenwriting book and read a couple of chapters (if there’s a chapter on the step I’m stuck in, better!). More than once, something has clicked in my brain to go forward with the script.

  7. KIKA STAYERMAN

    I feel movement also helps me. Many times it will be a run in the park, while seeing people, situations, all my senses open. Or sometimes Yoga class and right when we go to Shavasana – I feel enlightened with a spark of idea, scene or dialogue.

  8. Diana Devlin

    Appreciate the tips, tHanks, Jeanne. It’s good to know that others suffer this too. In the past I wrote for commercial projects where I had deadlines that had to be met. Now I am writing my first ! Screenplay and I am stuck on page 67. Yes, it’s fear but also it happened after I read The 1-3-5 Story Structure Made Simple System. Now I’m wishing I’d just have done first things first. Write the damn thing and then worry about selling it! Can anyone direct me to an online source for reading some award-winning scripts?

    As far as tips go bookending has always helped me a lot — until now! By bookending I mean calling a friend and saying, “ok, I’m gonna write for x minutes and then closing the bookend by calling after x minutes and saying, ” ok, I did it. I wrote for x minutes.”

  9. Leona HeratyLeona Heraty

    Hi Brandon, yes, I agree with you, carrying around a little “idea” notebook is a great idea. Also, doing the research is fun and it’s amazing how much information is out there on the Internet on all kinds of things, from historical event to famous persons, etc. My only problem with doing research on the Internet is that I tend to spend more time researching than writing, so I have to start timing myself and giving myself a limited amount of time to research, and then stopping the research and actually doing the writing! :-)

  10. Cara

    A couple of others have already mentioned music… For me, I like to create a “soundtrack” for my screenplay and associate certain songs with certain scenes and create a playlist with all of the songs in scene order. When I get stuck, I put on the headphones, go for a walk and listen to the playlist. So far, it’s worked every time *touch wood*.

  11. Leona HeratyLeona Heraty

    Hi Jeanne,

    Thanks for the great article! Not only are your ideas helpful but it’s good to know that we’re not alone, and all writers at some time or another suffer from writer’s block. Yes, I agree, it’s fear that holds us back, at least that’s what holds me back when I get writer’s block…sometimes I just think to myself, “Who are you to try to write a screenplay?” and then I realize that’s a silly question! I’m asking myself silly questions because I lack confidence in my abilities as a creative writer, and I know the way to conquer the fear is to thumb my nose at it and just write even more and even better!

    One thing that helps me break through writer’s block is to play movie film scores for the genre of movie I’m writing. For example, if I’m writing a film noir-type screenplay, I put on the film score music for one of my favorite movies, Sunset Boulevard, and it energizes me and helps my creative ideas flow more easily.

    Also, for inspiration, I will watch one of my favorite movies over again, such as Sunset Boulevard, and like all great movies, there are so many wonderful details, that I’ll pick up something I missed before and it will inspire me to be creative and add important details such as background scenery that’s important to the scene, or just a word or two in the dialog that can subtly change the meaning of a character’s words.

    Hope this helps everyone! Keep on writing! Happy Spring! :-)

  12. Bill Raddatz

    Great article, Jeanne. I think all of your suggestions are great. As a professional writer, director and producer of TV spots, marketing and promotional videos of every description and use for over 40 years, my work always had a deadline. I learned early on that I could not afford writers block so I would put something on the page, anything, to get the creative juices flowing.

    Many times my first attempts really were not of any value but at least I had something I could expand on, make better or throw away. Envisioning myself as a viewer usually helped and a good dose of naïvety also put my mind’s eye in the proper perspective.

    The words CAMERA OPENS ON A is threatening to an empty or non-productive mind. So, many times I would have to change my perspective by going for a walk, or looking at art, or listening to music. And, like an old mentor of mine used to say, “sometimes magic works, sometimes magic doesn’t work”.

    But, I also found that nothing works like research to put thoughts into the wonderful thing we call our mind in order to get something out of it and onto paper.

  13. Brandon Lee Tippetts

    Listening to music and musical score soundtracks from other movies with the same tone help. I harness my ADD and I usually have about 5 different projects going which I alternate through as ideas come.

    Incubation is key. Once I write down my spew of thoughts I walk away and incubate: go out for a walk or watch other movies, something other than thinking about the project.

    A life experience will usually trigger an idea or give me a new idea that I add to my chain. I keep a little notebook in my pocket and write down ideas as they come. Writing is a lot of fun as long as I’m not forcing myself to do it.

    If I am unclear about a concept I research it and quite often as I’m corrected on that idea it brings about a better idea.

  14. lonelyryulonelyryu

    I have so many ideas, it’s ridiculous. When I start having writer’s block I usually hit another one of my scripts, because they demand my attention. And since my mind works ideas 24/7 for different scenes, endings, fade ins, first five pages, mid point, I just move on to a different project; and it really helps me not stay bored and look for answers. The answers will come, you just have to look a different way til the excitement hits you again. Other than working on another project, reading a good Oscar winning script really motivates me to be the best I can be and get moving.

  15. MonaLiNYCromona r

    Sex and a good walk among squirrel beings have me good and relaxed to organize my thoughts and hit the pages. Good advice that works!

    I also just started doing chores around the house while mouthing dialogue that I wanted to include in my draft…but I wanted to feel like it felt natural…so I de-stressed, cleaned up my house and worked on dialogue all at the same time.

  16. Maria D'Marco

    I find I only encounter a ‘block’ when I’m not sufficiently interested in the project before me. Ages ago the smartass in me took over such situations and would attack the project from a perspective of absurdity. Pushed far enough, the sensible part of me will come to the project’s defense or a unique viewpoint will be revealed.

    I truly believe that any blocks are squarely placed by ourselves and are just as easily removed – it just takes a different part of your mind to do so…

    Humor and the absurd open gateways – and create ideas you might never have considered before.

  17. Louis Pappas

    Music. If I find myself staring at the page, no ideas flowing, I put on my headphones and crank some tunes. Music seems to open up the left side of my brain. I try and craft a playlist that caters to the tone of the scene I am writing. I’ve been told by other writers that music distracts them, and makes it harder for them to concentrate, but it usually works for me.

  18. Nicolas Di Tempora

    A good cafe with good music (a la Coltrane and Miles) and a few people around often unscrambles my mind. In fact, I wrote a whole book in four cafes. But I have to say, meditation is my greatest source of inspiration (and refuge). Just sitting … still … shamatha and vispassna style. I’ve lost count of the number of times I had a great idea just sitting on the cushion. It’s the space between the stream of unending thoughts that light comes through is what I have noticed.

  19. Dan Dollar

    knowledge/research! if you know every inch of that scene location, and every impulse/intent of each character, your choices become much more vast. it sucks to have to use mckee, but the principle of creative limitation really does apply for writer’s block…at least for me it does.

  20. Nat M.

    If it’s an immediate/short-term case of the Block, I run an errand or do some chores.

    For longer, more persistent periods of writer’s block, I turn my attention to another project, preferably not related to screenwriting. Last year I was having trouble with a script for a short, and I was ready to put my fist through a wall. My friend took me on for a short technical writing contract, after which I was dying to get back to my script. Worked like a charm :)

  21. John Shea

    Most of the time when I experience writer’s block it’s because there’s something I don’t know and rather than blunder through making stuff up, I freeze. Most of the time a night spent doing research takes care of that. I like to follow the research up with a long walk or a drive, forcing me to talk to myself and work out what all that information means to my story. The biggest difficulty is recognizing that this is why I’m stuck.

    Sometimes simply changing the method of writing helps. Getting out a notebook and writing long hand seems to help. Usually I do that to jot down random ideas and questions that aren’t meant to be part of the text. Being freed from the physical constraints of typing the script into a computer and the mental constraints of the format helps stir up ideas.

    The rest of the time it’s basic blank page syndrome. For that reason I keep several projects going at once. Switching to another story gets my brain into a good writing space so that I can go back and work away happily.

  22. Jeanne Veillette BowermanJeanne Veillette Bowerman Post author

    Artemisia, that’s hysterical! I mean that in a good way. I wonder if you set off to write a novel next, you’d end up with a screenplay. Do it. Mess with your mind and let us know if it works.

    Jenna, why does none of this surprise me? I knew you’d have some great tips! Thanks!

  23. Jenna AveryJenna Avery

    My #1 favorite way to beat writer’s block is to write before I have time to think, worry, or doubt. For me, this means getting up at 6 a.m. and heading to my writing desk before I do anything else. Works like a charm.

    My #2 trick for dealing with writer’s block is to face the fear I’m feeling and coax myself through it. As a coach, I’ve learned that most of what we tell ourselves is B.S., and if we can change our inner conversations, the battle is half-over.

    Other faves:

    * The more blocked I feel, the shorter the writing sprint I do. Even a five minute sprint works wonders. I tell myself, I can do anything for 5 minutes! And I can.

    * Coming at it sideways. I write titles, jot down thoughts, type in questions I have, note options I’m debating, and then within a few minutes my ideas start to crystallize.

    * Doing anything repetitive where my mind can go on auto-pilot and drift — showering, scrubbing sinks or floors, walking, etc. But I usually have a deal with myself that I’ll do the writing right after.

    * Having some kind of social accountability where people are waiting to hear that I’ve written. Helps tremendously.

    Okay, enough. You got me on a roll! :)

  24. Artemisia Coyle

    I kept getting stuck on my script ideas, so I decided to start a side project that would keep me writing, even if it wasn’t very productive writing. The side project would have absolutely no standards, so I couldn’t stop because I thought a character was wooden or the dialogue was unbelievable. To make sure I set the bar low enough, my opening sentence was “it was a dark and stormy night.” And I just made things up from there.

    A year later, I hadn’t finished a single screenplay, but I had an 85,000-word, extremely cheesy scifi novel. I’m not sure if that’s an actual accomplishment, but it was writing.

  25. Jeanne Veillette BowermanJeanne Veillette Bowerman Post author

    Princess, you are one writer always on the move.

    Renton, you’re welcome :)

    Rachel, I’m curious if you put a time limit on how long you step away for. Like 30 minutes, or is just a few sufficient? Ping us and let us know. Inquiring minds want to know… or maybe just I do.

  26. Sylvain Paquette

    Copy/Paste from a discussion we once had on TSL…

    Writer’s Block? There’s nothing i hold more for granted than that. It’s chemically wired into the brain since birth.
    By the age of about one, you don’t want to step up; Walker’s block. Once you grab a spoon, you don’t want to plunge it in a soup bowl; Eater’s Block.

    It’s the mind at work. Even when you’re down to your last gasp of breathing room, there it comes. It strikes like a ghost and a monster. The fucken wall of boredom – right around your senses. Skin tight like an armor. Heavy like a ton of Iron, glue to feet and hands.

    Of all the ESSENTIAL mechanisms of reasoning – that’s the fountain of decision.

    You MUST use it. You need that block.
    Because, all it does is forcing you into a necessary delay for another quick or careful thought.

  27. Rachel Langer

    Lately I’ve been struggling with how to deal with Writer’s Block on a Deadline. When I find myself staring at the page, getting frustrated with reading the same line of dialogue over and over and not absorbing the fact that it’s typed in what seems to be Swahili, I know it’s time to walk away from my computer. I like to cheat and use my breaks to surf the web and read articles and tell people that leggings aren’t pants via five social media outlets, but I know that won’t help me get back into a groove. (See, I’m doing it right now!)

    I need to walk away, pace the apartment, throw a load of laundry in, go out for a walk, or run, or have a piece of fruit or coffee. If I walk away, when I walk back it’s like a fresh start. So, I’m walking away now. I promise.

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