BLOCK-BUSTING: 14 Never-Fail Tricks Every Writer Needs to Know

by Ruth Harris


Can’t get there from here?

Something’s wrong but you don’t know what.

You’re chasing your tail in an endless loop with no off-ramps in sight.

You’re stalled out at a dead end in a dark, scary forest.

Happens to every writer and no one knows why, but your book—and you—have come to a screeching halt. You’re out of ideas, out of gas, and you and your manuscript are stranded in a dead zone.

The (boring) characters zombie-walk through the plot. Oh! There’s a plot? What plot? You can’t make sense of what you’ve created or, if you can, you wonder why you thought having your MC fall into a cootie-infested tar pit on the far side of the Planet Ding-Dong was a good idea in the first place.

You look in the mirror and ask yourself Now what? but you have no answer. Despair and panic set in. Self doubt gnaws. Maybe like Stephen King throwing away the manuscript for Carrie, you’re poised to Select All and hit the delete button.

Get a grip.

The book is your book. The characters are your characters. The plot is your plot. You created this mess—which means that you have the answer. You just don’t know it. At least not right now.

Whether it’s a glitch or a gully, here are are fourteen ways to get that book—and yourself—going again. Some are quick and easy. Others take time and effort. Some are probably familiar. Others might be new to you.

In my (long) experience, at least one of them will help get you going again so think of this as a punch list. If one strategy doesn’t work, try another. And then another. Don’t give up until you find the one that gets you moving again.

1. A body in motion is a mind in motion. 

Get up, move around and do something physical. Almost anything. Old advice but, time and time again, movement jolts the fatigued brain and gets it moving again.

Lots of writers including me find that mild diversion combined with a physical component that gets you out of your chair and away from the computer screen allows that blocked thought or idea to emerge from the dark pool of the unconscious.

2. Brainstorm. 

With a trusted friend/colleague/partner. On the phone. Via email or even twitter. Over dinner. With a glass of wine or a verboten calorie-dense dessert.

Chances are in the course of conversation, either you or your friend, cyber or otherwise, will come up with a clue or maybe even the answer and at least nudge you closer to making forward progress.

3. Begin at the beginning. Again. 

 The beginning is often where the problem resides. Perhaps you’ve told too much (often my own problem)—or not enough. Re-read carefully, more than once if necessary, question everything as you read, make notes, and the solution that was out of reach might reveal itself.

Maybe you need to move a scene, a paragraph or delete some dialogue if, like me, you’ve told too much and have left yourself nowhere to go.

If, on the other hand, you’ve skimped on the set up, you might need to add material that you know but your reader doesn’t.

4. Reverse Outline. 

 Steve Jobs said that you can only make sense of thing when you look back. SJ was right about a lot of things (Gee. Really?) and his observation certainly applies to writers and manuscripts-in-trouble.

The online writing lab at Purdue University offers a useful guide to reverse outlining which will help you clarify the weedy tangle in which you’re enmeshed yourself.

5. Mini changes-big results. 

Maybe all you need to do is see your book in a different font or on a different screen or in a different place.

If you’ve been working on your laptop, read your manuscript on a tablet. Or vice versa.

Work at home? Go to a coffee shop and take another look at that ms. Work in a coffee shop? Go to the park and give it another shot.

Write in Times Roman? Switch to Helvetica or even Comic Sans. Increase the font size or decrease it because sometimes the simplest change up makes all the difference and will let you see the stumbling block in a way you didn’t before.

6. Analyze your characters. 

You don’t need to be Dr. Freud, but perhaps there are too many and some of them need to be combined. Or maybe there are too few or too sketchily presented and require expansion and amplification. Do you need new characters or do the existing ones require a makeover?

Do you need an antagonist? A buddy? A helper? A mentor? A liar? A betrayer? A shape-shifter? A dog, a cat, a robot, a refugee from another century?

Does the good guy suddenly do a switcheroo? The bad guy turn out to have a heart of gold? Maybe a male character should be female (or vice versa)? (That particular trick bailed me out of a big-ass mess in Brainwashed.)

We’re talking fiction here so you are free to invent whatever/whoever you need to energize your book and yourself.

7. Plot Rehab. 

If too much happens, you have a clutter problem that will confuse your readers (and maybe yourself) and needs to be streamlined and clarified.

Not enough happens? Add incidents and possibilities. Don’t worry about going too far because you can always modify later. The point is to get from not enough to just right.

A mind-mapping app like Scapple (Mac only, $15, 30-day free trial) or FreeMind (FREE and available for Windows/Mac/Linux) can be useful and help you see connections you might have missed. For more choices, LifeHacker lists the five best mind-mapping apps.

To take another, more structured approach, a beat sheet like Blake Snyder’s Save The Cat can help you bring order to the chaos. The ever-inspiring Jami Gold lists solutions to plotting dilemmas that will help whether you’re a plotter or pantser.

8. Take a second look at the setting. 

Is your setting, real or invented, working for you? Victorian London, contemporary Shanghai, a remote planet in alternate galaxy all have their place in fiction and should be thoughtfully exploited. 

If your setting is meh, your book will be, too.

Downton Abbey wasn’t a raging success just because of the plot and characters. Mad Men didn’t hook viewers only because of the booze, cigs and sex. Ditto Game of Thrones and Scandal.

In all of these super successes, the setting is as important as the characters and, in a way, becomes a character itself. Make sure your setting is doing some of the heavy lifting for you.

9. Do some more research. 

Some writers hate research, others (like me) love it. I couldn’t have written A Kiss At Kihali without the Internet. Newspaper articles about poaching and the near-extinction of rhinos and elephants initially triggered my interest but I needed much, much more info to write the book.

Thanks to Google, I got the scoop about African animal orphanages, criminal poaching gangs, wildlife conservation, Kenyan weddings, elephant and rhino veterinary, animal psychology and communication.

Whatever you want to research, odds are the Internet can come to your rescue. No more trudging to the library—everything available in the comfort of your own computer.

Live sources are invaluable. People love to talk about what they do. All you have to do is ask. Tap your network, pick up the phone and introduce yourself, send an email.

Research is a goldmine of info and inspiration, often invaluable when you find yourself stuck. Use it.

10. Rethink genre. 

The book you started as a romance has somehow veered off into darker territory and all of a sudden you’ve run out of gas. Or else you began what you thought was going to be a mystery but suddenly it’s giggles and guffaws and you’re lost and have no idea what to do next.

No wonder you’re stuck. Lots of times writers don’t know what they’re doing until they do it and books have a way of taking on a life of their own no matter what the clueless, lowly writer might have in mind.

If you step back and reconsider, you might realize your romance is really Gothic Romance or Romantic Suspense. If that’s the case (and it’s entirely possible), the book will come into sharp focus again and you will have a route out of the doldrums.

If your mystery turns into a giggle-fest, you might have a comedy-mystery instead of the complicated puzzle you originally had in mind.

Be flexible. A rose is a rose is a rose until, all of a sudden, it’s an orchid. Or even poison ivy. For a writer, roses, orchids and poison ivy all come brimming with possibility.

11. Write the blurb and/or log line. 

Both require concentration and, at least IME, need to be constantly reviewed, rethought and rewritten. The blurb and log line will strip your book down to essentials. In the process, you will gain a clear focus and perhaps even a renewed perspective on your work.

At minimum, you will come away with an elevator pitch. (For more on how to write loglines and blurbs, check Anne's post on Hooks Loglines and Pitches and Ruth's Tips for Writing that Killer Blurb.)

12. Writing prompts. 

They’re all over the net, they’re free and they can jolt you out of your doldrums. Just the right word or push in a new direction can make the difference. Choose from random subjects, first lines, random dialogue and quick plot generators.

Writer’s Digest lists hundreds of prompts to help get you out of your funk.

For an irreverent approach, there are writing prompts “that don’t totally suck” to help you get moving again.

13. Sleep Perchance To Dream. 

If you’re stuck, chances are you’re preoccupied or even obsessed with your dilemma. You’re running in circles and getting nowhere except frustrated. Why not let your unconscious do the work while you sleep?

I’m still surprised at how often I wake up with the answer to a block that’s been bugging me. I’m also often surprised by how shockingly obvious the solution is in retrospect.


How come I didn’t figure it out a week ago? How come the answer came to me when I was asleep? Maybe a psychiatrist could explain it but my own conclusion is that’s just the way the unconscious works.

Take advantage!

14. Run A Spell Check. 

 I know this might sound weird, but sometimes seeing words—your own words—in isolation and out of context can trigger new ideas. 

I have no idea how or why this works. 

Perhaps it’s the repetitive aspect or maybe the alternate suggestions spell check kicks up but the simple act of going through your manuscript in this disjointed way can give you a new perspective and a new idea.

What about you, Scriveners? Have you tried any of these tricks to get a book's momentum going again? I've done the spell-check thing and it works for me too! ( I thought I'd invented it myself.) And getting outside for a walk always helps. I think I do most of my writing when I'm walking around Los Osos. People see me chanting the stuff to myself so I won't forget, and I'm sure my neighbors think I'm totally nuts. What works for you when your WIP is stalling out?....Anne 


Based on secret, real-life psychiatric experiments conducted by the CIA. Zeb Marlowe, a scarred survivor of the experiment, and Jai Jai Leland, the beautiful widow of a man who didn’t survive, must stop a nuclear threat that puts the world's security at risk. 

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With a plot that hurtles forward at electric speed, BRAINWASHED takes place on the beautiful islands of the Caribbean, in Damascus and Ireland, the Philippines, Canada, Washington, DC--and in an underground torture chamber located on Victor Ressid's secluded private estate.

"BRAINWASHED delivers the goods: thrills, gut-churning suspense, nightmarish terror. Ruth and Michael Harris have delivered another great read and sure bestseller. I dare you to put it down!" --Bob Mayer, former Green Beret and million-copy bestselling author of AREA 51


SCHNEIDER FAMILY BOOK AWARDS: NO ENTRY FEE. These awards honor an author or illustrator for a book that embodies an artistic expression of the disability experience for child and adolescent audiences. Three awards of $5000 each will be given annually in each of the following categories: birth through grade school (age 0-10), middle school (age 11-13) and teens (age 13-18). May be fiction, biography, or other form of nonfiction. Deadline December 1, 2014. 

TENNESSEE WILLIAMS LITERARY FESTIVAL SHORT FICTION CONTEST $25 ENTRY FEE. Submit a short story, up to 7000 words. Grand Prize: $1,500, plus airfare (up to $500) and accommodations for the next Festival in New Orleans, VIP All-Access Festival pass for the next Festival ($500 value), plus publication in Louisiana Cultural Vistas magazine. Contest is open only to writers who have not yet published a book of fiction. Deadline November 16th.

For NEW WRITERS! THE FICTION DESK NEWCOMER'S PRIZE ENTRY FEE £8. First prize £500, second prize £250. Short fiction from 1,000 - 5,000 words. Writers should not have been previously published by The Fiction Desk, and should not have published a novel or collection of short stories in printed form. Deadline October 31st.

GLIMMER TRAIN VERY SHORT FICTION AWARD $15 fee. Maximum length: 3,000 words. 1st place wins $1,500, publication in Glimmer Train Stories, and 20 copies of that issue. 2nd place wins $500 (or, if accepted for publication, $700 and 10 copies). 3rd place wins $300 (or, if accepted for publication, $700 and 10 copies). Deadline October 31.

Writer's Digest Popular Fiction Awards. Choose from Romance, Thriller, Crime, Horror, Science-Fiction and Young Adult. 4,000 words or less. The $25 entry fee is steep, but the grand prize is $2500 plus a trip to the annual conference, and the prestige is awesome. Deadline October 15th.

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