Posted On June 29, 2012 by Print This Post

How to Get Past Writers Block by Larry Bjornson

Please help me welcome Larry Bjornson for his first ever visit to RU!

Frustration, Self-Doubt, and Inspiration walk into a bar…

“What’llyahave?” says the bartender.

“Whiskey,” says Frustration. “Make it a double.”

“Gin,” says Self-Doubt. “A triple.”

“Mojito,” says Inspiration. “Extra mint, please.”

The three find seats at the nearest table.

Closing his eyes, Frustration rubs his forehead and groans. “My novel is driving me crazy.”

Self-Doubt folds his arms on the tabletop and drops his head into them. “Maybe I’m just not cut out to be a writer.”

Inspiration looks around the room and sees a patron spill part of his drink onto a heavily traveled area of the floor. “Ah-hah!”

Frustration and Self-Doubt look up. “Ah-hah what?”

Who knows? But whatever it was, a random spill and a suddenly slippery floor were just what Inspiration needed to resolve some writing impasse. And Inspiration was waiting and watching. The small event of the spill did not pass unnoticed or unexplored for usefulness.

Writing is an essentially mysterious process, and that is fertile ground for insecurity. Why? Well, what does a writer say when someone asks “How do you write a book? Where do you get your ideas?” In other words, “How did you do it?”

I suspect the question is essentially unanswerable. My book, Wide Open, is 100,000 words. In writing it, I probably made over a million decisions large and small. So, how did I do it? To a disturbing degree, looking back, I have no idea. Even more disturbing, I have no idea how I’ll do it again. And that’s where the insecurity arises. In the end, I simply have to have faith. If your supply of faith is insufficient, your supply of insecurity will multiply impressively. Many of the story elements in the book I like the best simply popped into my head, seemingly out of nowhere.

Is it all as random and uncontrollable as that? Are writers simply dependent on chance synaptic connections that have the byproduct of an “idea”? To some extent, yes, but not without qualification.

There’s a saying attributed to Thomas Jefferson – “I find that the harder I work, the more luck I seem to have.” For writers that might be paraphrased to read – “I find that the more alert I am to the world around me, the more inspiration I seem to have.”

So what do you do if you’re plagued by “writer’s block”? Or, perhaps you aren’t blocked; you’ve gotten something written, but it just seems lacking. Or, what if you think you’ve written something great, but you discover that others don’t share your feelings of greatness. How do you extricate yourself from these dilemmas with a minimum of teeth gnashing?

Beats me. All I can do is tell you what I do under these circumstances. And my methods work – for me.

The first thing I do when I get stuck is to set it aside. And set it aside early, before I get obsessed, frustrated, and filled with self-doubt. None of these emotional states turn out to be wellsprings of creativity. I don’t necessarily step away from the entire project, just the part that’s giving me trouble. I work in historical fiction, so I may go do some research. Or maybe I’ll proofread or polish earlier parts of the work that I’m happy with.

But, I don’t just forget my impasse. On a conscious and unconscious level, I’m now in a state of alert. Anything that I see, hear, or read becomes a potential solution. My conscious efforts are being bolstered by unconscious activity. And the unconscious stuff is pretty potent, assuming I’m not all bound up by frustration and self-doubt. It’s the unconscious that gets you up in the middle of the night to write down an idea that materialized out of the blue. You have to have faith that your brain is doing more than you know.

Isolation is another counterproductive place. Bad ideas and emotions fester. Isolation also severely limits your inputs, the raw materials you have to work with, and at a time when you need to maximize inputs.

What if you can’t set the problem aside? Maybe you’ve got a looming deadline. What can you do to break out? One method is to start combining things, things that might not seem connected – except you find a connection. In my current book, which is set in 1871 Kansas, I found a way to smash two facts of prairie life into each other with explosive results. One fact was a peculiar construction characteristic of the sod houses that settlers often built. The other was that cattle herds driven up from Texas during the summer were often held in close proximity to settler farms while awaiting sale. Putting these two elements together resulted in a surprising scene of terror and violence and altered the course of the novel.

Introduce a new element. You don’t have to work with what’s already in the scene. You’re the boss of your written world, so toss in something new or unrelated. It can be a person, a thing, an event, a sudden realization, anything at all. Just something that will supercharge the dynamic of the situation. While writing Wide Open, I began to feel a loss of momentum with the hero’s (Will Merritt) life at home and in his town, his interaction with his friends and parents. I resolved the issue by moving Will’s love interest, Anna, into his house. She was a settler girl who had been severely injured and was brought to town to be closer to the doctor. Introducing Anna opened up a raft of dramatic possibilities that hadn’t previously existed.

My final creative enhancer is an odd one (I’ve wondered if it occurs with other writers). The right music at the right time will bring on a flood of ideas, a creative storm. I’d recline on the couch in a darkened room with one particular song playing over and over in the background and write an entire chapter in my head. One of my chapters was conceived while repeatedly playing Shakira’s Whenever, Wherever for over an hour. Another was sketched out while endlessly replaying the theme music from Will Smith’s golf movie, The Legend of Bagger Vance. Go figure.


So tell us RU writers – what do you do to break writer’s block?

Join us on Monday for author Christina Brooke – you won’t want to miss it!


Bio: A long term resident of Southern California, Larry Bjornson grew up on the beaches and in the now vanished orange groves of south Orange County. In time he graduated from the University of California with degrees in history and political science. Despite this educational background, Larry says, “In college, I toyed with youthful notions of becoming a racecar driver, a karate instructor, or a writer. So, one out of three ain’t bad.”

Larry’s Icelandic great grandparents immigrated to America in the 1870s after a volcanic eruption buried their farm in ash. They settled in North Dakota and began a new life on a new farm. Larry’s family currently owns and operates a different North Dakota farm purchased 70 years ago by his grandfather (who once played a violin piece for Buffalo Bill Cody). There are powerful echoes of his family’s farming history in Wide Open.

Currently, he does marketing for a yacht dealer in Newport Beach, but storytelling has always been his true love. “Wide Open required an extraordinary amount of research (my folders of notes stand two and a half feet tall when stacked), but I think it may be one of the most accurate pictures of day-to-day life in a Kansas cattle town that you’re likely to read. To say the least, they don’t make towns like 1871 Abilene anymore, and that’s what fascinated me about it.”

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17 Responses to “How to Get Past Writers Block by Larry Bjornson”

  1. Morning Larry!

    Writer’s block is a PITA! =) But something always seems to jar it loose. This past block I’ve struggled with has been 2 weeks long, until finally it hit the other night about an hour after I’d been asleep. I know myself well enough now to keep a notebook by the bed! No matter how many times I’ll tell myself “I’ll remember that in the morning!” I know I really won’t!

    Thanks for the great post!


    Posted by Carrie Spencer | June 29, 2012, 5:29 am
    • About 15 years ago, I had a particularly brilliant middle-of-the-night idea (or so it seemed at 3AM). It was so marvelous that I was sure I didn’t need to get up and write it down. By morning it had vanished. I still grit my teeth every time I think of that lost idea.

      Posted by Larry Bjornson | July 2, 2012, 4:32 pm
  2. Larry – I LOVE this! I relate to so many things you mentioned, primarily everything related to self-doubt.

    I’m so glad you mentioned the Jefferson quote – it’s a favorite of mine!

    “I find that the harder I work, the more luck I seem to have.”

    I’m looking forward to reading your book!

    Posted by Becke Davis (Becke Martin) | June 29, 2012, 6:31 am
  3. Hi Larry,

    To break writer’s block, I read. Someone else’s work can inspire me because I start to edit. My brain plays ‘what if’ with another story.

    Mary Jo

    Posted by Mary Jo Burke | June 29, 2012, 7:41 am
  4. Very helpful article, especially the suggestion to walk away for a while. Also found it very reassuring to read that you did so much research for your novel…..since my WIP requires lots of research, and since I also suffer from dreadful bouts of doubt, to turn to research sounds like the perfect solution for me!

    Posted by Edith | June 29, 2012, 8:27 am
  5. Betta readers! When I find myself stuck, I ask someone to read my WIP. Just tackling the list of questions I get back makes me look at the story in a new light. I also ignore the novel while I wait for the other person to read it, so that helps too. When I read my WIP after the hiatus I tend to fall in love with my characters all over again.

    Posted by Patchi | June 29, 2012, 1:04 pm
    • Stepping away from the problem can seem counterintuitive. Many of us tend to want to work even harder at solving it, and also counterintuitively, that can lead to getting even more stuck. Odd how the human mind works.

      Posted by Larry Bjornson | July 2, 2012, 4:44 pm
  6. Larry – I tend to do something else for a while and let my subconscious work through it. I also read – I write contemporary category romance but I love to read male/male romance. Total genre shift but it does loosen my brain and get my fingers itching to write.

    Great post!

    Posted by Robin Covington | June 29, 2012, 1:05 pm
  7. Larry – I forgot to mention, I loved reading your bio. That would make a fabulous book in itself!

    Posted by Becke Davis (Becke Martin) | June 29, 2012, 1:14 pm
    • The story is even more stunning than what I detailed in my bio. Around 1875, my Icelandic great grandparents arrived in Canada with their four children. Soon after, a diphtheria epidemic swept through the area and killed all four kids. They then moved away from that sad place to North Dakota, where they had four more kids, all of whom survived to old age. This was the inspiration for the background of one of the characters in my book WIDE OPEN.

      Posted by Larry Bjornson | July 2, 2012, 4:55 pm
  8. Hi Larry,

    Writer’s block is like having a migraine that lasts for days. I usually step away from the ms and work on something else.

    At times, it helps to listen to music. I’m partial to Broadway show tunes. The phrasing of the lyrics to the music trips a switch in my brain. My problem is that I tend to over think things…plots, adding unnecessary details, and stuff I might care about but doesn’t move the story forward.

    Thanks for joining us today.

    Posted by Jennifer Tanner | June 29, 2012, 2:37 pm
    • I think it’s extraordinary the creative effect music can have on me. It seems to turn the lights on in the idea generating are of my mind. for you it’s show tunes. For me, it’s most often theme music from movies.

      In my historical novel, WIDE OPEN, I did constant battle with the desire to shoehorn too many historical facts into the story, facts that I thought were fascinating in and of themselves, but as you said, didn’t move the story forward.

      Posted by Larry Bjornson | July 2, 2012, 5:03 pm
  9. I think it’s extraordinary the creative effect music can have on me. It seems to turn the lights on in the idea generating are of my mind. for you it’s show tunes. For me, it’s most often theme music from movies.

    In my historical novel, WIDE OPEN, I did constant battle with the desire to shoehorn too many historical facts into the story, facts that I thought were fascinating in and of themselves, but as you said, didn’t move the story forward.

    Posted by Larry Bjornson | July 2, 2012, 5:02 pm

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