Tuesday, May 20

Posted by Laurel Garver on Tuesday, May 20, 2014 8 comments
image by penywise at morguefile.com
What happens to your writing projects when you just can't write? Maybe your day job is suddenly demanding 80-hour weeks, or a family member is in crisis, or this week is the charity fund raiser, or you've been hit hard with an illness (that's me--bronchitis, very slow recovery). Most of the time, one abruptly drops the projects and runs to the crisis du jour. That's natural and sane. Running yourself into the ground does no one any good.

Yet, your writing project can stall. And when you come back to it, you don't know where to pick up.

When this happens, it can take weeks to get back on track--weeks of deep doubt and fear. You worry your inertia is because the story idea is stupid; you can't remember why you ever liked your characters. You write 1,000 words and delete 780 of them, day after day.

Don't let this happen to you. There are some simple ways to stay connected with your project, even when you can't dedicate hours (or even half hours) to writing.

My friend, author Heidi Willis shared this powerful idea on her blog a few months ago, and I've found it encouraging, because it's both strict and permissive: Touch it every day. (I can hear you all sniggering like middle schoolers. Grow up and let's move on.)

"Touch it every day" means find some way, daily, to keep checking in on your project, whether or not you're able to add pages. Here are some things I've done and some additional things I plan to try:

"Reel it" 

Imagine possible permutations of a future scene, playing them through in your mind like a film. This is especially good for when you are sick or stuck driving people all over town. More on this technique HERE.


In Story, Robert McKee says, "No matter how talented, the ignorant cannot write. Talent must be stimulated by facts and ideas. Do research. Feed your talent. Research not only wins the war on cliche, it's the key to victory over fear and its cousin, depression."

Research is often more portable than creative work. You can read books and articles while sitting in a hospital room with an ill loved one, or while the kids are at soccer practice, or while standing in line at the grocery store. Smart phone owners have an advantage, but even those without portable Internet can have research materials on hand--articles you print and set aside, books you download onto your ereader.

The key here is to stay curious about everything that touches your story world. Read about birth order and regional food traditions and interior design and pop culture and your characters' hobbies. Read about politics and economics and history and scientific discoveries. Never stop learning, never stop feeding your mind: STAY CURIOUS.


Keep your radar attuned to people you meet who might know something about your story world and bravely ask questions. I once got some amazing research done while at a church luncheon. I was seated by a friend who is a speech-language pathologist, and realized she might know something about speech problems in stroke patients, an element in my story. So I said, "I'm working on a story in which a grandparent has a stroke. What kind of speech problems might he possibly have?" That short chat was more focused and helpful than hours of reading. She knew in practice, not just theory, how patients behave and what the stages of recovery look like. That kind of information is pure gold.

This technique is great for those socially-demanding seasons when you shuttle from wedding to graduation to baby shower. Think about how your story might connect to every person you meet. Tap their knowledge and expertise as a family member, volunteer or professional. People love to be considered experts.


You can also take advantage of socially demanding times to people watch. Look for interesting gestures, ways of moving through space, fashion sense. Listen for opinions, attitudes, great catchphrases and slang. Always have a few index cards stuffed in your pockets or handbag, or use my guided journal Emotions in the Wild to jot down your observations. You never know when the embodiment of one of your characters will suddenly wander onto the train platform, sit at your table at the reception, or pass you on the convention floor.


Think through any and every part of the story yet to be written, or parts you want to revise. Brainstorming is a great umbrella term for all kinds of creative thought processes that can fit any writer's style.

  • Make big, sprawling, messy mind maps
  • Neatly write notecards with individual plot points you can later sort and order. 
  • Interview your characters. 
  • Write journal entries in a character's voice.
  • Write out discussions with your characters about your revision ideas. 
  • Jot ideas to research.
  • Develop backstories for everyone, even if only slivers or hints will be used in the story.
  • Preplan scenes and what will change in each one.
  • Doodle maps of your locations, including home interior layouts.

Brainstorming can be very portable and you can do it even when you're too feverish to hold a pen. Those fitful hours in bed can be rich with imagined conversations with characters and imagined walks through your fictional spaces. Love and inhabit your story world every day.

How do you stay connected to your story when you can't write? Which of these techniques might you try?


  1. I try to write little snippets of their life before the story took place. They'll never make it into my books, but it helps me know them a little better.

    1. Backstory brainstorming and freewriting is a great way to stay close to your characters, and I find it often opens ideas for plot.

  2. Ha! This is so funny because I saw the title of the post and couldn't wait to hear what tips you had, only to have you refer to me! :) Thanks for the shout out.

    Your tips are great. I so identify with how easy it is to get pulled away and how hard it is to get back into it... the doubts and all that rush in. Staying in it, even if just mentally, really makes a difference.

    Last night my daughter saw me working on the computer and said, "Are your writing on your book?" And the truth was I'd stalled and wasn't writing, but I WAS researching something that needed to be fleshed out. So writing? No. But was I working on it? Absolutely. And today, that chapter is done. :)

    1. I took your idea and ran farther with it, because it has been powerfully helpful to me. Whenever you begin to doubt the importance of research and whether it "counts," look at the Robert McKee quote above. Research is fuel that empowers fiction. Congrats on finishing your problem chapter!

  3. Hi Laurel -

    I've had one of those weeks where every effort to sit down and write was thwarted by some commitment or crisis. Thank you for these tips and links. I'll be linking to this post in the near future.

    Happy Weekend,
    Susan :)

    1. You never know when a crisis will actually help you understand a character or give you plot ideas. Henry James said "A writer is someone on whom nothing is wasted."

  4. This is so helpful I'm printing it off and posting it next to my bathroom mirror! I get distracted so easily, but I find if I am "touching" my manuscript regularly, keeping it simmering, that helps so much. I usually do this by reading at least a couple pages a day, even if I don't write. But sometimes I get too distracted to even do that. So I love these other descriptions!

  5. Glad you found them helpful. As the physicists tell us, a body in motion tends to stay in motion, so even a tiny step forward daily will keep you going.