Last week I bemoaned my lack of progress on various projects, and though this past week has seen a dramatic up-tick in productivity, it’s also found me continuing to think about the subject, from various angles. I’ve been asked recently, too, for advice on breaking through writer’s block. I’ve managed to do that myself in the past, and have written about it here from time to time. But this week, let’s look at six different ways you might be able to unblock yourself and get back to writing.

In no particular order . . .

Writing prompts.

I’m currently working on a short story based on a picture. This might wind up in an anthology with that painting on the cover, and it might not. Anyway, it got my creative juices flowing and I’m writing, and having fun doing it. What other prompts can you find for yourself?

There are books and web sites out there devoted to writing prompts: little nuggets of text meant to spark an idea and set you off writing. Writing prompts can be fun, and the farther afield from your normal sense of what it is you do, the better. A writing prompt that gets you writing a mystery when you usually write fantasy can help get you thinking, and ultimately that’s the way out of writer’s block: thinking.

You can find prompts all over the place. Pick a random headline or tweet and make it the title of a story. Stick your finger in a book ten times, find ten random words, try to arrange them into a sentence, and make that the first sentence of a new story. You probably won’t actually finish that prompted story, by the way. The point is to spend an afternoon (or whatever time of the day) writing fiction unrelated to the currently-blocked work-in-progress. You may well find that that exercise unlocks some new idea that will get you back to the floundering project, even if it ends up changing that story in some significant way.

Enter from the farthest door.

Try to get as far away from the blocked project as you can, while still remaining in a sort of outer orbit. If you’re halfway through a novel and are stuck, pick a secondary, or better yet tertiary character—even better, a character that doesn’t even warrant a name in the novel itself (a gate guard, a passerby on the street, etc.)—and start writing his or her life story.

This process of discovery might help you realize that you’re stuck because you haven’t done that sort of detailed thinking about your major characters.

Or do the same thing with some kind of minor locale. What is the history of the place? Who built it and why?

Or try re-writing the first chapter in an entirely different genre. Maybe looking at the characters and situations from an entirely different angle will help you find the holes that are stopping you.

Make lists.

Pixar storyboard artist Emma Coats, in her “22 Rules” suggests: “When you’re stuck, make a list of what wouldn’t happen next. Lots of times the material to get you unstuck will show up.”

That’s a great idea.

You can also make a list of words that you’d never use in that book, and thinking about why your characters would never say the f-word, for instance, can help you get back into their heads.

I once started making a list called “100 Titles of Stories I’ll Eventually Write.” I think I got about forty down and eventually lost the file on an old computer. I stopped thinking of titles at 40, by the way, so I could get back to the book I was writing at the time. That book was finished.

Write a list of plot point—fast, sentence fragment/bullet points of what has happened so far in the book, even if that doesn’t match up with your outline at all, then try to keep going from where you’ve left off. Stripping out detail can help you get to what’s essential about your story and characters.

Devils of the Endless Deep

Devils of the Endless Deep

Spill your guts.

I’ve written here about how sitting and talking to, not with, Cat Rambo helped me get unstuck on Devils of the Endless Deep. Do you have someone who’ll be as patient as she was, and not actually tell you what to do, but like a good therapist, let you talk your way to where you need to be? I still feel as though I was terribly annoying and whiny at that coffee meeting, and hope Cat’s forgiven me, so this is a hard one to knowingly engage in without warning your would-be “therapist” ahead of time. But it helped me. Who knows?

Play Media Roulette.

If the only cure for a bad woman is a worse one, the only cure for your bad writing is someone else’s.

That came out wrong.

Every once in a while I like to play a game I call Random Streampix. Streampix is Comcast’s On Demand movie and TV service mostly inhabited by older, B-list movies, presented in alphabetical lists. I close my eyes and hit random up and down arrows until I settle on a movie—I have no idea what it is—and refuse to open my eyes until the movie has started and the little title bar disappears. I end up watching some odd stuff, and only maybe once have I discovered a movie I’ve never seen and ended up really liking it. But the idea is to surprise yourself.

A lot of writers block is caused by a lack of surprise. You know where your story is going, and somehow it’s shifted from an act of passion to work. You freeze up.

If you can get your mind in a surprised state, you might find that everything starts to seem a little surprising. And that random movie, randomly selected book, etc., could offer a surprising new idea that leads to a surprising new idea for your book.

Walk it off.

I don’t exercise nearly as regularly as I should, but sometimes you need to get the blood moving. A little regular exercise is as good for you mentally as it is physically. When I worked at Wizards of the Coast I used to take walks in the afternoon. It was when I stopped doing this that I started to lose touch with what I was doing there, got into a combative and angry mode, and that didn’t help anybody. Get your blood moving. And when I say go for a walk, just walk around for half an hour or an hour. No iPods, no cell phones, and for God’s sake, no laptop. Don’t walk and write, just walk.

And think.

Remember, what Yogi Berra said for baseball is just as true for writing: “Half this game is ninety percent mental.”


—Philip Athans



About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, ( is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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