How to keep writing during difficult times

Woman on a laptop with a book and cup of coffee next to her.

We are finally moving into cooler weather after record-breaking heat. We’ve also had a record number of fires and fire season is just beginning.

While I’d like to think that, because we have the ability to write anywhere, these things shouldn’t affect our writing, it would be a mistake. We are not compartmentalized creatures, and when we have concerns and worries in one area of our lives, it spills into others. Many authors I’ve worked with during this season of quarantine and COVID have struggled to keep up with their writing routines and have even felt completely blocked with writing. And it ran the gamut between new writers and experienced writers.

My advice over and over was to be gracious to yourself. Being angry or upset doesn’t make the words flow any better. Do what you need to do to help yourself deal with your fears and frustrations.

Then begin to look at your writing practice. How does it need to change? What is possible? I’ve even recommended just free writing one paragraph at the writing time you are trying to establish. That’s it. Keep the bar low so your brain doesn’t rebel at the idea of One. More. Thing.

Eventually the words will flow again. Just don’t give up completely.

And that’s good advice no matter what’s going on in the world.

Writer’s conferences: why I love them and why I almost didn’t

Authors Liz Tolsma and JL Crosswhite shivering under a blanket in a cold auditorium.
Authors Liz Tolsma and JL Crosswhite shivering under a blanket in a cold auditorium.

A couple of weeks ago I went to a writer’s conference. I LOVE writer’s conferences. Which may not be a huge surprise, but I am an introvert, so large gatherings of people can exhaust me.

Sixteen years ago, I would not have said I LOVE writer’s conferences. I sat in a hotel room in Houston, wondering if I had made a complete mistake by coming to this writer’s conference. I didn’t know anyone; I had a two-year-old and five-year-old at home. And downstairs, when I had peeked in the conference room after registering, the rapid chatter of voices made it seem like everyone already knew each other. I wanted to run back and hide in my hotel room the whole four days. But the trip had been expensive. And I had a book I had been writing. Finding time to write was hard with two little ones. Was it what I was supposed to be doing? It was time to see if it had been wasted time.

I left my hotel room and continued through the conference. I met some other writers in the same boat I was: knowing no one and feeling alone. I attended my appointment with an editor from my dream publishing house. And she liked my story and wanted to see more of it. And another appointment garnered me a potential agent.

That seemed like confirmation I was supposed to write.

I arrived home with renewed desire to write and improve my craft. Those writers I met? They became critique partners and life-long friends. I was blessed doing what I loved with good friends along the journey. I met Diana Brandmeyer. A few years later she introduced me to Liz Tolsma and along with Angela Breidenbach we have become the Pencildancers. A group of writers that help and support each other.
Liz was with me at the writer’s conference a few weeks ago, and we shared a dorm room. I think we talked nonstop for three days!

Writing is a solo profession. It’s a lot of time in front of a computer by yourself and with your imaginary friends. So when you can come out of that world into a world of others who get you, it can be energizing and refreshing. You’re not weird! There are others like you! It’s an amazing feeling.

So whatever it is you like to do, find your tribe. I’d love to hear about your tribes. Let me know below what kind of special events you like to go to to find your people. 🙂

Creative Brain Versus Editing Brain

Brain full of ideas drawn on a chalkboard

One of the biggest causes of writer’s block is getting the editing brain involved when the creative brain should be working. That happens when the editorial and creative departments of your brain mingle. If you don’t shut off your editing brain while you’re writing, it will strangle you.

The Deep Work Habit

Like any good habit, it takes time to develop the ability to stay in creative brain. In other arenas, this can be called deep work. It’s where we immerse ourselves in the storyworld we have created. Our characters come alive, the scenes spool out in front of us, and we feel like we are merely transcriptionists to what is playing out before our very eyes.

We live in a society that values reachability and instant response. And this is a great way to kill creativity. Turn off notifications on your computer. Silence your phone. Set a time rfor 25 or 55 minutes and don’t look at email, texts, social media or anything else until your time is up. Soon your brain will get used to this and fall into the rhythm when you go into deep mode. But it takes awhile to develop the habit.


Prewriting is one of the best ways to beat writer’s block and to ensure that your scene has all of the great components it needs before you even start writing it. It’s also a way to write more quickly, because when you know what a scene is going to be about, it’s easier to see it play out in your head.

Here’s how it works. Based on your plot and what’s gone on before, decide what kind of scene you are writing. Do you need a goal/conflict/disaster? Or a reaction/dilmma/decision? Jot down some notes of what those components could be. Your previous scene should feed you your starting point for this.

Who’s going to be in the scene? Who’s the POV character? What does she want? Where is the scene set? These don’t have to be perfect or set in stone. You’re just looking for a starting point. The brain freezes up when it has unlimited options. Narrow some of those down and let the creativity flow.

Pre-writing lets the editorial department of your brain do its planning. But then it needs to leave. Write the scene without analyzing it. Just create. And when you’re done, go back and analyze it to see if it meets the flow and structure that it needs to. But don’t think about that while you are actually writing. Pre-writing should give you enough structure to free up the Creative department to write and to tell the Editorial department to shut up.

Write Now, Edit Later

Writing and editing are two different parts of the brain. You want to stay in Creative brain to keep the ideas flowing. Resist the urge to critique or change any actual writing. Jot things down now. Fix things later. Do research later.

I use Scrivener to write, and I love the Document Notes pane. I can pop notes in there about what I need to check out, what I’m uncertain about. It reassures my brain that the idea has been recorded and I won’t forget about it. And it allows me to stay in Creative mode.

When you are done Creating, put it aside and come back to it later. Now you can come back with the Editor brain and start applying structure and analyze and fix things. Don’t mix the two up or you will get yourself stuck with writer’s block. If you can write and edit on separate days, do it.

Your Goal

Your main goal is to write, turn off the internal editor, and know that the first draft will be crummy, and that’s okay. If the rules and structure are getting you down, toss them. Write your story and then go back and use the structure to figure out what’s missing and how to fix it. The more you write this way, the greater of a habit it will become and writer’s block will be simply a bad memory.

Now go write your story!

Jennifer and the other Pencildancers have released Worthy to Write: Blank Page Tying Your Stomach in Knots? 30 Prayers to Tackle That Fear. Jennifer’s latest books~ Protective Custody: A cop burned by love falls for a key witness in a crime implicating the town’s rich and powerful.  Coming Home A strong- willed young woman must discover her brother’s killer before she’s the next victim. The prequelBe Mine, is also available. Can a simple thank you note turn into something more? Get the first chapter of Coming Home and Protective Custody at



Narrative: the Thread that Pulls the Reader through the Story


Little girl writing









A common problem I see in contests or manuscripts I’m editing is that the narrative thread isn’t strong enough to pull us as readers through the story. Here are a few reasons why it fails.

A series of events versus cause-and-effect events

A plot is not just a series of events. That is boring. It’s like me telling you about my day: I got up, I exercised, I read my email, I wrote, I ate lunch… you’re falling asleep because there is no particular reason why these things happened and nothing of consequence resulted. And there was nothing bad that happened if one of these things didn’t happen.

Too often writers hear that they need more action in their stories and they just throw in a bunch of events. What they really need is tension. And tension comes from the domino-like effect of a story set in motion by what happens in the very beginning. Because your character chose this certain path in the beginning of the story, she has now set off an irreversible series of events. That tension between disaster and success is what keeps your readers reading.

Lack of goals

What does your POV character want at the beginning of the scene? Notice I said POV character. Depending on the scene and how many POV characters you have, this could be the hero, the love interest, the villain, etc. Whoever it is, this is their scene. What do they want?

You need a goal to keep your scene moving the plot forward and to make your character proactive. Nobody likes a hero who waits to get rescued. No one finds it interesting when things just “happen” to work out. Even when our villains have goals, it makes us more emotionally engaged because now we’re afraid for the hero.

The more desperately a character wants something, the more interesting and emotionally involving the scene becomes.

Lack of conflict

We talk a lot about conflict because it is one of the hardest areas for writers. We are geared in our personal lives to avoid, minimize, or resolve conflict. It’s hard to just turn that off and revel in conflict. But that’s what we need to do.

This is not just about fighting or arguing. This is better termed obstacle, for it’s really the series of obstacles that stand in the way of your POV character getting her way. You must have this. If your POV character gets her goal without conflict, that’s boring and not emotionally engaging. The value of the goal comes from the struggle. The bigger the goal, the bigger the struggle.

Conflict must come from motivation

And while doing all that, conflict must be believable. We want powerful, original conflicts. But they have to make sense to the reader. There needs to be an underlying logic behind every action your characters take. They need to be motivated by the backstory we have discovered about them.

But, characters don’t always do the smart thing. Everyone has a weakness, a flaw, or something that would cause them to behave irrationally. Maybe an opposing character deceives them into making a mistake, or maybe they deceive themselves and make a wrong move as a result.

  • What’s something your character wouldn’t do under most circumstances?
  • What would force them to do it?

Taking it deeper

  • What ideas about conflict spring naturally or potentially simply from the story idea?
  • List potential internal conflicts you’ve uncovered as part of digging into your characters’ backstories. What external factors could you add to make these internal conflicts even worse?
  • Looks for places where your main characters have desires that compete. How can you sharpen the contrast so that if they get one, they cannot get the other?
  • Can you up the stakes using one of these methods?

o   Creating a deadline to increase time pressure

o   Saddling one of your main characters with an unexpected handicap

o   Revealing new, unexpected information that will make the situation worse

This post originally appeared on Pencildancers. New content to make your writing better posted every Tuesday. Or subscribe to the RSS feed.