by Roger Johns

For those of us who tend to write long-form works—novels and novellas—managing the emotional challenges that go along with such big projects is as important as handling the creative and logistical ones. Novels, especially in the early stages, can be sprawling, messy, and intimidating. Even carefully conceived storylines can become stubborn and uncooperative.

Sometimes it seems as if there’s no way to move a story forward or (just as daunting) there may be too many choices, each offering an appealing trajectory for the story, but collectively requiring too much time to properly explore.

More is more … fun

Stepping away from the page can be a useful option, but it can be counterproductive if the thought of being away from the keyboard produces its own guilt.

So it helps to have a way to get some distance from the problem without breaking the spell of being in the writing mode. My “hair of the dog” remedy is, instead of not writing, write more … but different.

I keep a toybox of ideas to play with during tough stretches. Some are notions for short stories I have no interest in completing. And some have no obvious value as a whole story—such as figuring out how to describe the expressions or mannerisms of a character in the grip of a rare or subtle emotion. Others are fanciful what-if questions that vector my thinking off into unexpected places.

Playtime for writers

Common to all of them is their ability to get my head out of what’s troubling me and into something where the stakes are very, very low. It’s important that the stakes be low because often it’s the high-stakes expectations attached to a project that produce momentum-killing anxiety.

So, while these toys keep me at the keyboard, the stress of wrestling with a publishable project is absent from the outset. And the guilt of not writing never materializes because I’ve got my hands on the tools of my trade.

It works the same as a musician playing scales, or a basketball player practicing free-throws.

I’m getting something out of it, but nothing is riding on success or failure. It’s the writers’ equivalent of unstructured playtime for kids.

The stakes are low, but the payoff can be high. After fooling around in the toy box, I often find the solution to the problem I had been facing was there all along.

What’s in your writer’s toy box? Let’s chat on Facebook.


Roger Johns at Career AuthorsRiver of Secrets by Roger JohnsRoger Johns is a former corporate lawyer and retired college professor, and the author of the Wallace Hartman Mysteries, Dark River Rising (August 2017) and River of Secrets (August 2018) from St. Martin’s Press/Minotaur Books. He is a native of Louisiana and, since 2004, a resident of Georgia. Roger is a member of the Atlanta Writers Club, Mystery Writers of America, International Thriller Writers, and Sisters in Crime. You can visit him at