I'm thrilled to have as my guest today CJ Lyons, bestselling author of three medical thrillers. As a pediatric ER doctor, CJ Lyons has lived the life she writes about. In addition to being an award-winning medical suspense author, CJ is a nationally known presenter and keynote speaker. Her first novel, LIFELINES (Berkley, March 2008), received praise as a "breathtakingly fast-paced medical thriller" from Publishers Weekly, was reviewed favorably by the Baltimore Sun and Newsday, named a Top Pick by Romantic Times Book Review Magazine, and became a National Bestseller. LIFELINES also won a Readers' Choice Award for Best First Novel. Her second novel, WARNING SIGNS, was published by
CJ is graciously giving away a free copy of WARNING SIGNS to one lucky person who leaves a comment!
By CJ Lyons
Thanks, Kelly for having me here! Your books are such a wonderful resource for writers!
When I teach my writing workshops, the problem of "writer's block" often arises. Personally, I don't believe in some magical force that suddenly removes a writer's ability to create—I see writer's block as a signal that I need to pay heed to.
After all, if your brain is shutting down the creative flow, be aware that there's probably a very good reason for it! Pay attention to that nudge the muse is giving you, or suffer the consequences.
There are many ways to overcome a block—just read Kelly's book!—but here's one I developed that not only is easy to do, but can work for anyone!
It's based on a scientifically proven method used by elite athletes and performers suffering from performance anxiety. I call it CJ's 4-R method:
Step one RESIST:
First, don't disregard the spinning your wheels and banging your head against the wall phase, as painful as it may be. By struggling with a problem, working it through, engaging all your focus, energy and attention on it, you release the hormones (norepinephrine in particular) that get your brain ready to solve the problem.
You have to be fully engaged here—really, really, trying, not just marking time until your next coffee or email break. Stay actively engaged in your work. If the scene isn't flowing, try doing some research or a character sketch. Maybe write a snippet of dialogue. Anything to keep you connected to the story.
So, first step: Resist.
This is the Apply Butt to Chair part of the equation. And sometimes, that's all it takes. Once you get going and focus, the words just fly.
But if they don't, go to step two: RELAX.
Take a break, indulge in some physical activity, take care of yourself and those around you.
A little creative volunteer work (reading to kids or the elderly, etc) can do wonders to free up the imagination. By giving back, you often expose yourself to new people, new opportunities that might break you out of your normal routine. And release endorphins (more good brain hormones!)
Repetitive activity such as running, walking, sports, repeating a word or phrase (mantra), meditating on rhythmic breathing, even drumming, can also release endorphins.
Break out of your normal routine—leave your work area and go take a shower or soak in a warm tub. Meditate or take a nap in another room. Go to an art gallery, indulge your other senses. Again, the idea is to break out of your usual routine and let your mind wander in new directions.
Whatever you do, try to fully engage in it—don't try to think about your "writing problem" or anything else. If you're listening to music, give yourself over to it—wave your arms like you're conducting an orchestrate or sing along.
If you're taking a walk or exercising, concentrate solely on the exercise—watching TV while riding an exercise bike is great, but it's not the kind of relaxation we're talking about here. But running and listening intensely to music would be because the two activities reinforce the repetition that allows your brain to re-boot.
Pick one activity and pour all your focus and energy into it. Eliminate any other distractions.
Put a time limit on this phase—fifteen or thirty minutes is fine. You want to get back to your work while those endorphins are still flowing.
(Note: studies have shown that volunteer work creates endorphins that flow for a prolonged period of time, days even, so no need to put limits on that!)
When you see someone like Venus Williams absently bouncing her tennis ball before a crucial serve, she's using a quick Relax phase to get her into her "zone" and prepare her for the next step: Release.
Step 3: RELEASE.
Return to work. Usually, if those endorphins are flowing, you'll feel a sense of total release, as if you simply don't care any more. The problem will be solved or not, it's out of your hands. You're simply going to relax, give it one last try, and do the best you can.
This is that all-powerful zone that athletes talk about. That feeling of freedom, effortlessness, where you aren't sure if it's really you hitting that home run or the universe letting it happen. Everything seems in synch, like it was meant to be.
Begin to work, try to simply free-write, no conscious direction or planning. Tell yourself you're just going to write 100, 200 words, you don't care what they are, even if they're nonsense.
You can even type with your eyes closed (if you're accurate enough to read it afterwards!) or turn the monitor off. You don't care. You promised yourself you'd get some work done and so you'll keep that promise, but you really don't care what you write.
Surprisingly, all those good hormones will often take your brain in a direction that solves problems you didn't even know you had—or send you in a new direction that's better than the old one.
Many times you might find yourself writing something that doesn't seem to apply to your current work. A poem or piece of flash fiction or a blog post. Don't fight it, go with it—often you'll be surprised and the piece will turn out to be something you needed to write, even if it has nothing to do with the work you've been struggling with.
But don't get too distracted or sidelined. Put a time limit on this step, fifteen minutes or so. Again, you want to associate those good feelings, that sense of pride and accomplishment with writing (writing anything!).
Then go to step four: RECONNECT.
Reconnect with your work in progress. Immerse yourself in it, using those endorphins to help you focus. Often you'll discover where you went wrong—and it won't seem like a catastrophe but rather an opportunity because now you suddenly know exactly how to fix it.
Don't limit this step—write as long as you like, let the ideas pour out, don't try to edit or constrain them as long as they have to do with your work in progress. Stay focused. Fully engage with the world of your story.
Many times you'll look up, feeling exhausted, and notice you've been writing almost effortlessly for hours. You're in the zone.
Remember this good feeling! Use it the next time you hit a stumbling block to remind yourself that you have overcome obstacles and that you can do it again!
Sometimes just that memory will be enough to propel you forward, a shortcut bypassing the block entirely.
To recap, CJ's 4-R block-busting method involves:
Resist—feel free to struggle and work through the block
Relax—get away from work for a short time, build up some endorphins
Release—return to work, not worrying about the block, just free write
Reconnect—resume your project, letting the endorphin rush carry you past the block!
Repeat as necessary.
Do you have a Block Buster that works for you? Please share! One commenter will win a copy of my second novel, WARNING SIGNS.
Thanks for reading,
Note from Kelly: I recently tried CJ's 4-step method for block busting and it works! Thanks for sharing such great insights into writing, CJ.
Please leave a comment and check back often to see CJ's responses and to find out who wins the book! I'll post the winner tomorrow morning.