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When the well is dry…

When the well is dry where do you go for water?

You know I have spent many years mishearing songs and making up what I thought were the lyrics. Sometimes they’re a great deal more meaningful than the real thing – or at least to me.

I heard Peter Sarsted’s ‘Where do you go to my lovely’ as ‘where do you go to my lovely, when you’re alone in your head’ (not bed)…

To me, anyway, as writer who tells himself stories, whether he intends to or not, with the different characters speaking their dialogue and thinking their thoughts… being alone in my head is a very frightening thing.

Where did they all go? Why did they leave me behind? Was it something I said?

Or was it something they said, and I forgot to write down?

Look jokes aside, this ‘empty well’ is something that hits all of us – yes me too, from time to time. Crisis, unhappiness, fear, stress … I recall some of my Left wing acquaintances and friends bemoaning that they couldn’t write after the last elections (they got over it, mostly it seems by writing forms of the Handmaiden’s Tale, featuring a lead villain with an orange squirrel on his head. The problem now seems to be finding customers.) I came home after dealing with a fairly tragic Ambo case (no one died, it was just tragic and avoidable) and being unable to get it out of my head to make space for the characters for days – I kept going back to it. Barbs or my kids being sick hurt or in danger does the same.

It doesn’t have to be anything important or deep or profound, though. Several authors – myself, Sarah, and other friends, have found ourselves at ‘battle fatigue’: you’ve worked your guts out for years and years, jumped through every hoop the industry sets you, coped with zero support, non-existent publicity and marketing by sheer effort, written at least as good (if not better) books than have got their authors plaudits and, more importantly, real rewards… and got a royalty check riddled with errors, late, and for a derisory sum – man, it’s not that there’s no water in the well, it’s just some bastard stole the bucket, and you’re dipping the end of the rope in, hauling it up and sucking it.

But… well, if this is your career – you have to find that water, or watch your career die. Now, there is no one easy answer. The problems causing this drying up are varied, so the solutions are too.

Not all of them work for me all the time, and I very much doubt that any two people have precisely the same ‘cures’. I suspect, however, that all of them START in the same place: in the head. That’s where the story come from, that’s where the characters talk. For me, anyway, that’s a very small brain, and that means it only has space for one primary focus. When I start calling my wife by the heroine’s name (because if you’re a heterosexual male and you aren’t at least a little in love with your heroine… you’re not doing this right) I might be in trouble (not as deep as if it was the villainess’s name) but I’ve got my bucket right down into the well and its full. I will probably have it poured over my head, shortly, but that goes with the territory.

When I forget a character’s name… I should write something else. Or go back to the start. But that’s a tangent, merely a symptom… what I need to do is clear the head-space. This may vary for you, but if something is really preying on my mind only either sorting it out or purge-distraction (something that takes ALL my concentration. Diving. Climbing. Shooting – for me. I can imagine skydiving or surfing or driving really fast might work for someone else.)

Inbetwixt… I find a good book, preferably something my conscience can call research, but sometimes just a straight comfort read is a good move. A walk or a defined period of gardening (defined, with alarm – or it could just go all day) both work if I am stuck, but not dry. I noodle away at the story during that down time. But if my mind is too pre-occupied… it spends that time thinking about something other than the book.

If it is something minor (FAR more often the case. I am too easily distracted) I have a simple ‘zone’ ritual. One game of freecell in a fixed time – the time it takes my chosen ‘book-song’ to play – about 3 minutes in general. As fast as possible is the target. It’s a stupid ritual – but it works for me… provided I follow through with step 2.

Step 2: As soon as humanly possible, read the last page, and start typing – even if that means skipping ahead to a scene which I planned for later. Getting rolling, getting back into the story is what counts. That’s – for me – easier if it is an action scene, or repartee. Action works well… but repartee- fast moving dialogue – gets the characters talking in my head.

That’s about it. The water IS there. Sometimes reading something I enjoy brings it bubbling to the surface.

Of course there is always the issue of ‘dealing with it’ – especially if it’s frustration with the industry, or your own ability that is worrying you. I tend to stay away from Amazon reviews (although mine seem to be generally positive) and the money side can seriously disheartening. Some of the accounting practices are… interesting, and it is quite hard to assess – and if you bust your publisher (who could well be being done over by the distributor)… you may get the money, but you probably won’t sell to them again. What I do do is put the books in big glass front cupboard in my office. That is part of my ‘motivation’ – because it is something solid and tangible. I did that. I can do it again. Going Indy – and seeing sales has also helped. And so has… well, anger. Because sometimes the only way to find that water is the sheer determination to prove the bastards trying grind you down…

Wrong. Nil carborundum illigitimi!

So: what works for you? Dowsing twigs? Tantric sex? Whippings with a liquorice bootlace?


  1. paladin3001 #

    Still exploring what works for me. My current lifestyle is … interesting. As in the the Chinese curse interesting. For a couple months I was able to hammer out words words and more words. The past month though I have been struggling with even reading things. The words are slowly returning though. I have been doing a lot of “me” time when I get the chance. Usually means I am gibbering quietly in a corner.
    Writing down ideas that pop up helps as well. Unfortunately the ideas have nothing to do with what I am working on at the moment.

    September 18, 2017
    • Advice – which you are free to ignore. Write them down anyway.

      September 18, 2017
      • paladin3001 #

        Oh, I do write them down, because “Shiny”. All ideas are good ideas until they are not. 🙂

        September 18, 2017
  2. Draven #

    See, that directly touches on a point of disagreement i have with Larry…

    writer’s block is *real*

    Yes, he apparently doesn’t get it. John Ringo gets around it by going off and writing something else. But both of these two are very prolific examples to use. Yes, writer’s block can come from other things, but its still there. The funk of depression since January, in my case. I’ve managed to scribble some notes but not do anything complete as far as fiction goes. My nonfiction stuff continues but that’s because it has a paying outlet…

    September 18, 2017
    • thephantom182 #

      Holy Basil and L. Theanine might work on the depression a little. That combination seems to make the world a little less annoying, and it is anti-inflammatory as well. Get it at the vitamin store. Go there today.

      Writing will not make you feel better, is my guess. It never makes me feel better, anyway. Going for a bike ride will, and then you can write.

      September 18, 2017
      • We’re all different; I find writing fiction to be a great antidepressant. Since I started writing again, the difficult times are between books, when I need to do some research and plotting before diving into the next book. Like right now. I ought to be collecting scattered ideas into a story, or at least reviewing point set theory, but my brain is going, “La, la, la” and suggesting that I watch a documentary on Scott’s doomed Antarctic expedition instead.

        September 18, 2017
        • thephantom182 #

          You know what works for me sometimes? Painting. As in, painting the bedroom. The mindless repetition of brush-and-roller works wonders on the imagination. The annoying little voice shuts up for a while, and peace descends.

          September 18, 2017
          • SheSellsSeashells #

            Weeding works for me. Fortunately, I have a very, very large and veggie-filled canvas on which to work.

            September 18, 2017
      • Draven #

        don’t have a bike, and pedaling a bike at any load higher than zero makes my legs unhappy. Pretty extensive leg damage that was started by me being in the Army.

        September 18, 2017
        • thephantom182 #

          Condolences. My knees. Turns out kneeling for 30 years painting baseboards is hard on you. Who knew? ~:D

          Tried wading in the pool? The water pressure pushes fluid out of your legs and back up where it belongs, and the reduced weight makes it nice on the joints. Lots of old bastards like me swear by it.

          Personally I find going to a pool to be a huge pain in the butt. However, I can still bike, kind of. When the knees get bad enough, I bet I’ll be making that pool run twice a week.

          September 18, 2017
          • Draven #

            the drag on my legs from being in water for too long eventually makes them hurt too. bone damage.

            September 18, 2017
    • Mary #

      Writer’s block can be interesting. Gaiman’s experience:

      September 18, 2017
  3. I haven’t found it. Sometimes Matilda the Muse goes at it like she was on espresso, but other times she crashes and there’s nothing. Then there’s when real life comes in. We finally got all our customers’ lights back on yesterday. Now I’m, thinking about the best way to handle the large debris at my parents’ (they made it fine, but were without power several days). There’s no reason for me not to write before then, but … shrug.

    September 18, 2017
  4. I had a few things that happened that blocked me from writing for years, which I think I’m finally getting over. Knock on wood.

    It didn’t help that the counselor I was seeing kept giving me prompts of things to write in my journal. It’s probably fine for most people, but I kept freezing, and saying “She’s telling me what to write in my journal. She’s telling me what to write in my journal.” Which kept me from even having the comfort of writing in my journal for a couple of years. (And had to start a new one after that.)

    Which is doubtlessly more information than anyone n🎧eeds.

    But one character, who I had in mind well before my block, is a big, blustery fellow, with orange hair. I’m starting to wonder if some people are going to assume he’s based on Trump. If I ever get the thing finished, of course.

    September 18, 2017
    • Whenever I was assigned a book to read in school–even one I was allowed to assign myself–I stopped liking it. If I had to read it, it just died on me. The Mote in God’s Eye was one of those books. I was reading everything I could get my hands on my Niven, but then I decided I’d do my next book report on Mote. Win, win, right? No. It wasn’t quite like reading the Scarlet Letter, but it was pretty close. I can’t even imagine having a journal assignment.

      September 18, 2017
  5. thephantom182 #

    My characters seem to need time off to fool around. A lot. They need to go for a run, or have a sword fight for a laugh, or confess undying love to the latest object of their desire. If I don’t let them, they pout and won’t do anything.

    So the latest has five chapters of people making out rather indiscriminately, because they -really- needed to get laid, and now I’m finally back to the action. I suppose I can edit later. 🙂

    September 18, 2017
  6. “So: what works for you? Dowsing twigs? Tantric sex? Whippings with a liquorice bootlace?”

    Dowsing twigs is ‘well’ thought of, I suppose.

    Tantric sex? You just try wielding a pen, or typing, when that’s going on!

    Whippings with a liquorice bootlace? Well, licking’s part of tantric sex, I’m told, so lick-orice is kosher, but a bootlace would leave me fit to be tied . . .


    September 18, 2017
  7. morrigan508 #

    for me the issue is “brain dead”. I am now developing curriculum and teaching full time, instead of being an electrician myself. Much of the time I come home with my mind to numb to come up with anything more than “food good. emails now. go bash people with sticks”. It’s not that the well is dry, it’s that the rope’s broke.

    September 18, 2017
  8. Prior to a stressful patch in my life, going low carb and getting off caffeine so I’d sleep better worked. Now that the stressful patch is over, I’ll have to give that a try. The ideas are popping up, but the sustained writing isn’t happening and I can seem to write long and complex just yet.

    September 18, 2017
  9. Going through my Little Black Idea Book, pulling one out, and playing with it. Or reading more history and geology. Novels are fun but don’t seem to kick Ye Muse like non fiction does

    September 18, 2017
    • Zsuzsa #

      My problem with the “ideas” file is that they aren’t stories. I have three what I consider interesting ideas, but I haven’t managed to find characters or shape a narrative around any of them.

      In fact, I may have four. The phrase “featuring a lead villain with an orange squirrel on his head” got me thinking, “Maybe it would be interesting if told from the perspective of the squirrel…” but that isn’t a story either.

      September 18, 2017
      • So I write a scene, or the setting of the idea. That’s usually enough to kick loose things for me. YMMV, IANAL nor did I stay at Holiday Inn™ Express overnight.

        September 18, 2017
      • One of the hardest things for me is to figure out what the problem is, what challenge the character faces.

        Well, that and researching something I’m not otherwise interested in.

        September 19, 2017
  10. kaflick #

    I find that if I am having troubles I just work on my mundane job (the one that pays the bills). A couple hours of that and I’m ready to get back to my world. Whether I should be spending time there or not. 🙂

    September 18, 2017
    • (stares at the PL/SQL code on the other monitor)
      I can relate.

      September 18, 2017
      • snelson134 #

        I feel your pain, man…..

        September 19, 2017
  11. BobtheRegisterredFool #

    Well, for some reason I’ve been having a lot of story ideas lately built around n-dimensional vectors for large values of n, or finding the hyper-volume of complicated geometries in eight dimensions, with FTL as an excuse to wrap the math around.

    Mostly story ideas are a matter of inputting data with have the time and sense available to process. I don’t know about good or useful story ideas.

    September 18, 2017
    • What are you doing with n-dimensional vectors and 8-dimensional geometries? Sounds interesting!

      September 18, 2017
      • BobtheRegisterredFool #

        In RL life? Finding out how long it has been since calculus, refreshing my mathematical toolkit, and wondering about extreme uses of the tools. In fiction? Two ideas that are entirely separate, except for being about recovery from extremely severe damage to an FTL spaceship. In one, quite a bit of the instrumentation is shot, and they have just enough math on board to navigate home after making repairs. The other is vaguer, but feels like one where the surviving machine tools in the shops will need a great deal of engineering ingenuity to get a working set of widgets.

        September 18, 2017
        • Tell me about it… Calculus and quantum physics here. Working in several different areas during the IT career was undoubtedly good for my “breadth of knowledge,” but why couldn’t at least one of them been where I had to use those?

          (A funny, and sad, experience was when five of us developers were standing around trying to remember the quadratic formula. Two of them, the ladies, with Masters degrees. Before you ask, we were using the very latest Internet browser technology – IIRC, it was Netscape 1.3.)

          September 18, 2017
          • Oh, yes. I got hired to do programming for a little West Coast think tank on the basis of “She has a mathematics degree, she’s probably not stupid,” but on the very first day I was warned, “Don’t think you’re going to get to DO any interesting math here, whenever a juicy problem turns up the senior managers grab it.”

            What did I get to do? Spherical trig. Pfui.

            September 19, 2017
            • At least YOU got to play with your sines and cosines. Most “mathy” thing I got to do was a very few moving averages. Which all too often had various suits freaking out – lots of fun explaining to them that the latest decline of goodness or increase of badness was WAY less than even one standard deviation.

              September 20, 2017
  12. Dan Z #

    I have a few different strategies for dealing times when I get stuck in my writing. Doing a task that doesn’t require much thought, like going for a bike ride, or a walk, or even cleaning up around the house is one strategy with the added side benefit of accomplishing something else I should be doing anyway. Another thing I have found useful is reading, or re-reading, stories by authors whose writing style and stories put me in a writing mood. Lastly, and this one is tricky because if you aren’t careful it ends up being a major timesink, I might play an RPG of some sort and imagine that it is my main character going through the quests or missions and try to imagine how he or she would feel or react to them.

    September 18, 2017
  13. If Life would stop lobbing things to the top of the list which require my pitiful daily allottment of brain power NOW, I could get back to writing. With brain, nothing can happen, so it doesn’t.

    When I get my brain back, it has to be reloaded, so I read all the notes that pertain to the scene, anything I’ve already written, the previous scene, and the previous scene of the pov character – and it seems to come back. Process – how I usually do each scene – is a funnel toward writing, so getting into any part of the process will get me back. It wastes some time, but is very reliable.

    September 18, 2017
    • The blocked writer became a zombie. ” Brainzzz…. must have brainzzz.”

      September 19, 2017
      • I refuse to write that way; there are plenty of people? zombies? hmmm? writing that way already.

        September 19, 2017
  14. Like Paladin above, I’m still finding what works for me. Sometimes it helps to have a concrete queue of stories all impatiently tapping their feet at me. Sometimes it helps to world build. Sometimes it helps to switch projects for a bit. Some of it depends on WHY I’m stuck. This WIP has been a lesson in ‘well that didn’t work as a process, let’s try something else.’ with slow forward motion.

    September 18, 2017
  15. Getting down to work is my main problem. When I am working – doing the dishes, prepping a dinner, cleaning the bathrooms, chopping out weeds in a section of the yards, those will get me out of a sticky place. (Sometimes when I’m only half done, though, so I rush in to get it down. Then have to remind myself that I had something else started that has to be finished.)

    September 18, 2017
  16. I’m at a point in my career now where people are approaching me to ask me to submit stories for short fiction projects, which is great for the ego (if not for the pocketbook.)

    It’s also pretty much done away with my writer’s block. I am currently stalled 40+K words into a novel that might never get finished,so I have been concentrating on short stories. At any given time I usually have 3-4 short story projects going. In certain circles I have a reputation for a particular type of story (surreal, New Wave, a bit of a sideways approach to the theme) and my name is well known enough to get me a sympathetic first reading from the anthology editors. (Trust me, that is a huge advantage when a project is getting a half million words of submissions.)

    Having a structure imposed from without (word count, theme, genre) and a set deadline makes all the difference in the world.

    September 18, 2017
  17. Mary #

    I circle around to other works. Raises the dreadful peril of never finishing anything, but I’ve never been blocked on everything.

    September 18, 2017
  18. S.D Antoine #

    I like to go swim laps until my limbs are jelly. Then I just float on my back and look at the sky. Doesn’t work in and indoor pool unless they have windows in the ceiling. There’s something about floating and watching the clouds move for twenty minutes while you have that post workout blank space. Whenever I run away to the pool or the lake I always come back with an idea for what to do next, even if its a bad one.

    Conventions used to do this for me too. Sadly most of the local ones are anime cons and I feel like I’m aging out of that crowd. I still have one comic con that I like, mostly indie creators with a few well known commercial artists and no celebs. Hate the big ones that are all about the famous faces. Doesn’t have the same vibe.

    September 19, 2017
  19. No one’s mentioned this, and maybe it’s an “artist-with-a-deadline” thing, but in addition to the “wrote anyway,” advice, I’d add this.

    Embrace the suck.

    Yes, what you produce when you’re getting unstuck has a really high probability of being terrible. Keep on anyways. You’ll find that you both get better (skill) and do better (art) down the road anyway.

    September 23, 2017

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