Getting through a Creative Dry Spell

Mary Keeley

Blogger: Mary Keeley

Our greatest desire for this blog is to provide fresh information and perspective on the life and business of writing. It’s no small task to do this consistently. Occasionally, okay speaking for myself, more often than you might think I struggle to come up with a topic. We all have times when we struggle with getting through a creative dry spell.

My most productive means of generating creative ideas is to go back to comments on previous blogs or ruminate on my clients’ issues and successes, or research recent happenings in the industry. This works to inspire ideas for my purposes, but when dryspellwriters experience a dry spell in the midst of writing a book, the way to get through it often isn’t that easy. Some methods from this list might help you.

Put your WIP aside for a few days. Sometimes resting your mind from all external stimuli during a break from your work allows your mind to quietly continue to create scenes or chapters that will be ready for you when you get back to your computer. Other times listening to beautiful music, viewing extraordinary art, reading great literature, or watching an inspiring movie can rekindle the creative flame.

Maybe you picked the wrong subject—or the wrong place to begin your book. Many writers say the hardest part of the process is getting started. If you’re struggling to get the first words on the page, pay attention to reasons for your angst. Perhaps you need to approach your nonfiction topic from a different angle. Or maybe you’re having trouble creating a compelling hook for your novel because you’re starting in the wrong place.

When the complexities begin to overwhelm you, break them down into small bites. This method works for so many tasks in life and may also help you to overcome a creative block when you’re overwhelmed. Take one portion at a time to get something written down in your first draft. Then add another small portion until your creativity begins to flow again.

Get in the habit of ending your writing day when it’s going smoothly. You will always know where and how to get started the next day. It’s hard to stop when the writing is flowing well, but I can attest from personal experience this method works.

Perhaps there is a problem that needs to be fixed. Ask yourself, is what I’ve written boring? Is it not well thought out? Step back to assess where there might be a problem before you lose time and increase frustration on a wrong path. Get help from writing partners or a paid professional critique.

Buck up and get it done. Opinions vary about this method. It works for some, but it isn’t the right approach for everyone or in every situation or for every book.

Take a poll of your social media followers about what they’d like to see happen. When you’re unsure how to solve a crisis in your plot or want to know how best to influence readers with a conclusive argument, consider asking your Facebook fans. It’s an opportunity to demonstrate you value their input and to engage them in your book, which also will motivate them to purchase your book when it’s published. But remember to qualify your invitation upfront by letting them know it’s possible their suggestion might not work in view of the larger plot.

Personal or family crisis drains creative flow. I read a well-known author’s opinion that when professional authors find themselves in a difficult circumstance, they should just plow through and get the work done. Easier said than done. Either they’ve never experienced a crippling emergency or they found a way to disassociate from them. Fortunately, most of us aren’t able to do that. How can an author show characters’ emotions effectively or be sensitive to readers’ emotional response to your topic when he’s emotionally divorced personally? The point is you should grant yourself grace at times like this. If you are experiencing an extraordinary circumstance in your life, the best way to free your creativity might be to release yourself from self-imposed writing demands until the crisis stabilizes. However, authors who are under contract deadline for a manuscript must try to write through a difficult personal season or involve their agent to negotiate a new due date. God knows about your circumstance, and you’ll see his timing is perfect.

What causes your writing well to dry up? What did you do to get past it? Which of these methods do you think would work in getting through a creative dry spell?

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59 Responses

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  1. Sometimes I watch a movie, hang out with normals, do housework, or go outside. Or like today, drive 13 hours. (Coming home from vacation)
    Next week, I start my annual antique re-finishing project. Due to arthritis in my hands, I can only work on it on alternating days. I do quite a bit of thinking while doing the grunt work of stripping and sanding. Then I can attack the stalled parts of my MS.

    My point is, I back away from the laptop. Change the scenery. Make the view a little different.
    Although, I bet nobody dusts. I mean, that’s just crazy talk. 😉

  2. Lisa Turner says:

    I like your suggestion to finish writing when it’s going smoothly. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sat down to write and had no idea where I was going!

  3. I just write anyway–even if it’s terrible. I guess you’d call it the NaNoWriMo Method, and it works for me. Just this week I reached my 100 days in a row of writing daily on my WIP.

    There were days I was tired or uninspired and thought, I’ll do it tomorrow, but my heart reminded me of the streak I had going. Even just writing five minutes counted, so the get it done method works for me.

    And some of the stuff I wrote when I didn’t feel like it made for decent rough drafts. I’ve been able to revise-revise-revise when the dry spell ended.

    • Mary Keeley says:

      Melodie, congratulations on 100 consecutive writing days! That is something to celebrate. You make a good case for plowing ahead on the first draft. That way you have something to work with when the dry spell ends. Thanks for sharing.

    • Melody, this is such a good plan. I’m kind of doing the same thing with the first draft of my WIP. It’s not quite like NaNo since I allow myself to edit. But I’m not going back to the beginning (except to add little notes) until I’ve gotten at least 1/4 or 1/3 of the way through. I believe Ayn Rand said you can’t revise a sentence you haven’t written. Congrats on 100 days!

  4. Interesting question, and I’ll be looking forward to following the comments.

    I start by reminding myself that “it’s not about me”. The story was placed in my heart by the Almighty, and the characters are “individuals” that serve His purpose. I’m the scribe, and as such, I am a servant to the story – not the master.

    Next, I look at the type of problem.

    If it’s character development/motivation, I return to the Old testament. Most of my characters are based on one or more OT people, and by re-reading their stories I can find a clear way ahead.

    The Psalms help, too. Most of the roadblocks that my characters run into can be found there.

    If the problem’s conflict development/resolution, I go back to the 10 C’s, and then to the Parables. Jesus weaves a skein of tiebacks that can be very useful to a writer, just as I’m sure He intended.

    If plotting and pacing are the issue, Paul’s Epistles do the job. He talks about developing and promoting the faith, and what’s helpful to a writer is that he enumerates steps that must be taken. Plotting is likewise a path, and there are discrete points that can be identified, and which have to be “touched” to build a plausible story.

    I never stop a writing day on a “bad” note. The problems have to be resolved in some way before the file is closed for the day. Even if it will require an extensive rewrite, my thought is “don’t let the sun go down on lousy writing”.

    Likewise, I won’t walk away from a problem, because the intimate knowledge is lost in a surprisingly short time. The problem may be solved; but the characters become “different”, and I feel that it’s something of a betrayal of their purpose and path to accommodate my convenience.

  5. These are all wonderful ideas. When I hit a dry spell, I usually get alone and pray. I ask God for direction. I often accompany that with praise music … the “I want to seek you” kind. I usually get up off my face to run out of my quiet place to scribble my journal full. God always delivers.

    And sometimes God says to me … you need to quit concerning yourself about pouring out, and pour Me in more fully, instead. His Word is a wealth of ideas. I heard that this week.

    Sometimes I talk it out with my family. We brain storm together. That’s fun! 🙂

  6. Jim Lupis says:

    Discouragement dries my well. When I become discouraged, I lose my zing. Thank God it doesn’t long.

    I agree with what Andrew said, we have a greater purpose. I’m learning to enjoy my dry seasons. It causes me to push into God. Which I should have been doing to begin with.

    “All things work together for good To them that love God, and are called according to His purpose.” Romans 8:28

  7. You have some great ideas here, Mary. Like Jim mentioned, my creative well also dries up when I’m dealing with discouragement. When I am going through a stressful time, creativity is in short supply. And when I take too much time away from my story, it takes time for the creative juices to begin flowing again.

    When I am stuck on an aspect of my story, I have to look at what’s causing it. Sometimes, asking myself what the opposite result would be spurs me on to find a desired fix to a problem. For example, I was having trouble seeing how to end a story happily. When a friend suggested my characters wouldn’t get a happy ending, it got my brain thinking about how to create that HEA for them. I find taking a walk and praying refreshes the story in my mind.

    Brainstorming with a friend also rejuvenates creativity. I love your idea of getting ideas from social media friends. I haven’t tried that often, and certainly not with something I was stuck on. 🙂 I’m gong to have to try it.

    • Mary Keeley says:

      Jeanne, you are blessed to have friends who will brainstorm with you. I’ve even known non-writer friends who have come up with the freshest ideas because their minds are clearer than mine at the time.

      Your social media friends who offer suggestions will feel a part of your book project and may become your best influencers.

  8. Good Morning, dear Mary!

    *waves* *passes you chocolate*

    I love your ideas! So helpful!

    Due to a death in the family I had to step away from writing over the summer, but when I returned to a project I was able to view it in a new light. And what you said above resonated… “Maybe you picked the wrong subject–or the wrong place to begin your book.” Place. Yes. *lightbulb moment* (And I don’t miss those additonal pages at all. And I’m sure my agent won’t either. ;))

    I offered some easy/fun suggestions on kick-starting creativity during dry spells: http://authorcynthiaherron.com/passion-15-tips-to-kick-start-our-creativity One of my personal faves is to take short research trips. There’s just something about stepping away from my office for a time and remembering there IS life beyond the four walls. And… there’s always chocolate somewhere. And coffee.

    Go get ’em, everyone!

    • Mary Keeley says:

      Cynthia, it’s so good to see you back here after faithfully being available for your family this summer. Your perpetual encouragement surely is a balm over them, as it is to all of us.

      I encourage everyone to read your 15 tips on your blog link. Interestingly, those work for me too. Environment and atmosphere are big influences on my creativity. And then chocolate and coffee, well…enough said.

  9. Lori Benton says:

    I tend to skip a scene if it’s giving me fits, pray about it, and move on to something in the story that is speaking to me–the next scene or chapter or if I’m really desperate a scene I know will happen later in the book. God is always faithful to spring the answer on me (it always seems out of the blue but it’s not. I’m continually praying about it, waiting for it, reminding myself to expect it) when I’m not stewing on it. Some may say it’s only my subconscious finally working out the issue, but I think otherwise. 9 times out of 10 the answer comes during morning devotions and time in scripture. That’s no coincidence, I believe.

    That’s for a specific creative issue. For the general feeling of burn out that sometimes overtakes me, I do step away from the work for a day, see a movie, read part of a book, get absorbed in something on line that interests me, bake or cook something complicated and challenging while listening to an audio book.

    • Mary Keeley says:

      “…skip a scene if it’s giving me fits, pray about it, and move on to something in the story that is speaking to me…” I love that idea, Lori. And waiting expectantly for God to “spring the answer on [you].” I agree with you it’s no coincidence after praying and seeking him for the solution.

    • In the area of airplane-building, one will find parts on the blueprints marked “fit on assembly”.

      It means that you should wait to build that particular part until the stuff it’s attached to is built, because other fits and tolerances will affect it.

      One that comes to mind is a canopy latch (the thing that holds the transparent roof on, to keep your airplane from becoming a convertible at 220 miles per hour.

      The latch has to engage positively and securely, and you can’t “preplan” it; even a couple of pencil-line thickness errors in measuring parts built before will throw it off, and either prevent engagement, or allow unacceptable looseness.

      I can make the “blank” of the latch now, but the final holes will have to wait until assembly. Frustrating – I want a ‘finished’ piece, so I can feel that much closer to the end of the job.

      Scenes can be like that. They’re needed, but you have to write the context around them before you can actually fit them in.

      • Lori Benton says:

        Yes. Sometimes other stuff needs to develop before I can see certain scenes clearly. How lovely it would be if every story came forth in perfect linear revelation. I also hate to leave behind a spot unfinished, but sometimes needs must, and I’ve done this long enough to know it’s often the best approach.

    • Confession time, Lori!
      When I get overwhelmed by rewrites, I step away to read a beautifully written story.
      This week, I took up Burning Sky.
      Inspirational. Memorable. It filled my sails, so to speak.
      Thanks. 🙂

      • Lori Benton says:

        Jenni, I’m honored Willa’s story did that for you! So many writers have done so for me, so to be able to pass on that refreshment that way, it’s a beautiful blessing.

  10. Time is a bigger problem for me than inspiration–great ideas come to me during my daily commute (almost 2 hours) and are hastily scribbled in the notebook I keep in the car. So I have a stash of ideas, once I get home to the keyboard.

    A dry writing spell is likely attached to a dry spiritual spell. Spend more time with the Creator, and I am more creative. No surprise there. The hard part is getting off my dusty duff and heading for the oasis.

  11. I tend to dry up when I feel overwhelmed with how much there is to write, Mary. I mean, 55,000 words? That’s a big number when I’m staring at a blank page. Possible first lines for books or chapters are endless, and many times it feels impossible to come up with anything that makes sense. However, just like you suggested, when I break it down into bite-size chunks, it becomes possible. If I set the day’s work as simply 1,000 words and not the entire book (an impossible task, anyway!), my eagerness to get words down returns. Thank you for so many great suggestions.

    • Meghan, my hubby always repeats the old saying: How do we eat an elephant? One bite at a time! 🙂

      And support. At the zoo yesterday, there were about four elephants getting rubbed and scrubbed. Loving it! When it was time to leave, they all formed a perfect line, held tails, and walked in together. 🙂 Sweetest thing.

      • Shelli, we were at the zoo years ago watching an elephant getting “rubbed and scrubbed.” While the zookeeper was otherwise occupied, the elephant snatched the hose and sprayed the crowd. The zookeeper got right in the elephant’s face, smacked it’s forehead and yelled, “Bad elephant.”

    • Mary Keeley says:

      So true, Meghan. It’s more productive to tackle “bite-size chunks” that we are able to wrap our minds around. You have a good habit going.

  12. Sheila King says:

    Pretty much all the time I have a book I am reading on the craft of writing. So I pick up the book and when I see a hint that I know I should follow, I go back to my WIP and just edit those areas. With that, I usually jump-start my new chapters.
    Or I will tell myself, “well, we know there has to be a chapter about ____, so why not start that now and make it pretty later?”

  13. So many wonderful suggestions today. I write historical fiction, and when I’ve hit a dry spot, and my creativity feels sapped, I love visiting historic sites. We have so many in Minnesota (and five here in our little town), so it’s easy for me to find somewhere to go. I also get inspired by reading old journals, reading other books in my genre, and watching old movies. One of my other sources of inspiration is the Mississippi River. Thankfully I live on the shores of the river, so my inspiration is just outside my back door.

    I recently heard another author share the tip about leaving a scene half-finished, right when you’re in the midst of creativity, so you have something to pick up the next day. I tried it and love it!

    • Mary Keeley says:

      Gabrielle, it sounds like you don’t allow yourself to feel creatively sapped before you do something about it, even if it’s simply walking outside for inspiration from the mighty Mississippi. For a historical romance writer, your surroundings are a perfect fit for refilling your creative tank. You are blessed.

  14. I’ve been in the personal crisis boat and it was NOT fun. Didn’t write a single word for nearly a year.

    God led me through it, though, and on the other side of it I switched genres and markets. Now there’s no stopping me, I’m writing on my sixth novel, and have decided to go indie with this particular series. Release Day is sixteen days away. He’s led me into so many places where I can announce it, and I have a spot in a Coffee Time Romance release party. YAY!!!!!!!!!

    My other times when creativity has dried up was because I wasn’t listening to my characters. The moment I start listening, things start flowing again.

  15. Becky Jones says:

    Great post.

    I like to bake, vacuum, go for a walk, read something that rattles me deep down. As long as the task is small and concrete…something that I can start and dependably finish…that will help recharge my batteries. It’s healthy and empowering to be reminded that you can start and finish things.

    Sometimes, if I’m feeling empty…like there’s nothing left to say…I remind myself I’m mere mortal and that I have to walk away from the work a little bit. It’s usually a signal that my soul is thirsty—that I should be drinking in words, rather than stringing them. I know the popular advice is to be firm about “showing up” to write, a little every day, but I think there’s also something to be said for letting the field lie fallow. Not forever, but for a short season.

    • Mary Keeley says:

      Thanks for your wise words, Becky. “Showing up” to write when you are dry works for some authors, but there are times when “letting the field lie fallow” is the best choice while we take a break to fill our tanks spiritually. The right direction and creativity always seem to follow.

  16. Melodie Starkey says:

    Last week I “gave myself permission” to shelve my novel for awhile because I was so frustrated with a chapter that just had me stuck for ages. I put it in a drawer and announced to my writing group that I was moving on to something new for now. The very next day the solution to what had been blocking me came to me; it was like as soon as I stopped trying to force it and fight it, my mind was able to get back to the creative process and work through it naturally.

    • Mary Keeley says:

      “…as soon as I stopped trying to force it and fight it, my mind was able to get back to the creative process…” That’s a helpful message for all of us. Thanks, Melodie.

  17. Kathy Schuknecht says:

    Thank you for the suggestions, Mary. I zeroed in on “perhaps there is a problem that needs to be fixed”. In my case, there definitely is … I’m stuck on identifying my WIP’s genre and want to nail it before starting on the first revision.
    I’m happy to say that I did seek advice from both my critique group and a freelance editor, and they were all hooked by the first few chapters that read like suspense. But when I transitioned to the heart of the story, which is how the heroine is impacted by the traumatic events of the first few chapters, they said it was like emotional whiplash — the pace slowed too much. The consensus seems to be that my ‘suspense’ voice will keep them turning the pages. So I’ve been toying with the idea of weaving more threads of suspense into the story.
    This was very helpful. I think I know the direction I need to go… 😉

    • Mary Keeley says:

      Kathy, you have the kind of critique partners every writer needs, confirmed by your freelance editor. If your first chapters were that successful in hooking them, perhaps suspense is natural for you. It’s definitely worth investigating.

  18. Kathy Schuknecht says:

    I appreciate your perspective, Mary. Thinking back, the “suspense-full” chapters flowed easily for me. (And it’s a definite advantage to have a detective in our family.)
    As for my crit partners, I have been blessed! We often laugh so hard the tears flow…it’s definitely one of the decompression highlights of my week.

  19. Cindy Brown says:

    Although I never run out of topics to talk about, I have had a dry spell with my blog recently due to the fact that I focus on humor and kept wanting to address serious things, so I just didn’t write. I finally did as you suggested and polled my readers and got encouraging response to just be myself and write anyway. Love my readers!

  20. Anna Labno says:

    If you don’t know what to write about, pick up Bible. It works for me.

    I get a dry spell when I read a boring book. And to get in a mood of writing, I will pick up a dictionary or look over my favorite words that create vivid images to create different moods.

  21. Elaine Manders says:

    What a great post and I appreciate the suggestions in the comments. I think pansters would have more trouble with dry spells. I usually have a scene-by-scene outline before starting, but with my current wip I decided to just start. I know how it’s all going to come out but not sure how I’ll get there. I’m on chapter 5, and the characters have taken off, dropping hints of what’s to come, so in a way it’s more fun to write this way. My daily word count has been a lot lower, though. The best thing I do to get started is to get on the treadmill and set up the scene, picturing it like a movie playing in my mind.