Weathering a Dearth of Ideas

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsToday we’re pleased to welcome Rachel Hartman, currently on a blog tour for her newest work Shadow Scale, the sequel to her very well-received Seraphina (I loved Seraphina and chose it for one of our favorite books of 2012). Today she’s writing about a problem many writers encounter at some point in their careers — writer’s block. More precisely, how she overcame hers and managed to finish Shadow Scale. As someone who has been greatly looking forward to this sequel ever since I fell in love with Seraphina, I for one am happy she found a solution (and those who’ve read Seraphina won’t be surprised at what that solution was). Shadow Scale goes on sale March 10. Thanks to our friends at Random House, we’ve got print copies of both Seraphina and Shadow Scale for one lucky commenter with a U.S. or Canadian address. (Also, please notice that Seraphina is currently on sale for $1.99 on Kindle).

“Weathering a Dearth of Ideas” by Rachel Hartman

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviews

Currently $1.99! Click for info.

I used to compare ideas to cockroaches. It seemed like for every one I saw, there were a hundred I hadn’t glimpsed yet, waiting to jump out at me. I’ve always had more ideas than I could possibly use.

While writing my second novel, Shadow Scale, however, my ideas suddenly stopped coming. It was terrifying.

A drought can happen to anyone, but I had foolishly considered myself immune and had no strategies for dealing with it, no irrigation networks, no wells dug, no saving up for a non-rainy day. I was more than half convinced my brain was broken, which led me down a hole of depression and anxiety. I did have a strategy for dealing with depression and anxiety: I usually wrote myself out of it. But what do you do when your usual therapy becomes the source of stress?

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsI won’t narrate the months of agonized trial-and-error. It’s much pleasanter to skip to the solution: I took up singing. I joined a community choir and a madrigal choir, and I taught myself overtone singing. I sang while cooking, riding my bike, and walking the dog. Music was a completely ego-free art for me, unburdened by expectations. No one cared if I was any good at it, and I enjoyed it so much that I didn’t care either.

That’s what writing had felt like, once upon a time. That was why I had started to write in the first place, because I loved doing it and didn’t want to stop. Singing reminded me of that original joy, and it enabled me to go back to writing and fall in love with it all over again. Only when I was finally enjoying the process again were my ideas willing to poke their little feelers out of the cracks and then scuttle out into the open.

I highly recommend finding some kind of auxiliary artform, but of course that’s not the only possible answer. Have you ever been desperately stuck for ideas before? How did you solve it?

About Shadow ScaleSeraphina took the literary world by storm with 8 starred reviews and numerous “Best of” lists. At last, her eagerly awaited sequel has arrived—and with it comes an epic battle between humans and dragons. The kingdom of Goredd: a world where humans and dragons share life with an uneasy balance, and those few who are both human and dragon must hide the truth. Seraphina is one of these, part girl, part dragon, who is reluctantly drawn into the politics of her world. When war breaks out between the dragons and humans, she must travel the lands to find those like herself—for she has an inexplicable connection to all of them, and together they will be able to fight the dragons in powerful, magical ways. As Seraphina gathers this motley crew, she is pursued by humans who want to stop her. But the most terrifying is another half dragon, who can creep into people’s minds and take them over. Until now, Seraphina has kept her mind safe from intruders, but that also means she’s held back her own gift. It is time to make a choice: Cling to the safety of her old life, or embrace a powerful new destiny?

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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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  1. This is so great, Rachel; I love singing (especially choral madrigal style singing) and I can relate to the feeling of losing one’s voice and then finding it again, a different way. It’s funny how the arts (or any interests, actually) are connected in our subconscious.

  2. I would never have thought of singing as a way to overcome writer’s block. That’s fascinating. But I suppose the point is really to do something you LOVE, not necessarily singing. Singing is just what worked for Rachel because she loved it. I think I can take this concept and apply it to something I struggle with.

  3. I’ve never really had to struggle with writer’s block but I can definitely understand how one part of our life can affect another. I discovered (through much trial) that when my day-to-day existence is bleak, I cannot craft (beading and painting mostly). I need to be happy and want to share in order to create anything of any worth. I haven’t yet figured out how to un-bleak a life but I can say that reading good stories (like Seraphina, which I enjoyed) helps me forget the bleak bits.

    Singing, unfortunately, makes me cry (I think this is related to dry eye but not sure, ghost stories do it too). I’ll stick with reading and crafting!

  4. I absolutely cannot wait for #ShadowScale. I also appreciate the fact that more authors are addressing the issue of Writers’Block. It’s a real problem that can be difficult to overcome. Thanks for the awesome thoughtful Thursday post!

  5. When I get stuck for ideas, I find that I have to do something COMPLETELY different in order to shake my brain out of its rut. That means playing video games, trying new cookie recipes, going for walks–anything that doesn’t involve the printed word!

    To put it another way: If I want to feed some birds, I can’t chase them and force them to eat the bread/seeds/whatever I have for them. (They will fly away, or perhaps bite me, and these are not good things.) I have to sit still and ignore the birds so that they come to me. It’s not an exact metaphor for writer’s block, but to me, it’s a useful way to think about it.

  6. Thomas L Walcher /

    This sounds like a series I would like to try. Thank you for a chance to win copies.

  7. E. J. Jones /

    I love singing too and do it a lot when I’m stressed. Maybe I should try it when writing makes me want to bang my head against a wall. Thanks for the tip, Rachel! I’m a huge fan!

  8. This is an interesting topic to me. I usually go out and take photos. Usually, if I stop trying to lasso ideas, they come to me at randoms times like when I’m driving or out walking. Anyway, yes, exploring another mode of creative expression seems to help.

  9. Thank you for sharing. I found this account very interesting.

  10. Tanya T /

    I can’t wait to read Shadow Scale! When my writing gets stuck, I switch crafts: quilting and baking seem to work best (not at the same time!).

  11. Ruth Elizabeth /

    This sounds like such an interesting story, my sister loves Seraphina I can wait to try it! Thanks for the chance to win!:)

  12. Adriyanna zimmermann /

    I can’t wait for Shadow Scale! That’s an interesting way of seeing all the ideas writers know and don’t know, I think it will stick with me. So then that writers block must explain the differences in publication year of Seraphina and Shadow Scale.

  13. Jenn Beanlands /

    I’m in grad school studying astrophysics and I’ve gotta say, one the biggest time consumers I have is writers block! I spend so much time trying to put my research into words for papers and publication, it’s incredibly frustrating sometimes. I’ve actually taken to painting to get myself out of these ruts! I can completely turn my brain or for a little while, and emerse myself in something that comes from a different place. I can’t say that I’m very good, but I always go back to work feeling like I can tackle a section.

    As an aside, Seraphina is one of the few books that I’ve read so many times, it’s starting to fall apart (the only other is HP#3). It’s just wonderful :)

    • Yes! Get the creative juices flowing by jump-starting our love of life and life-force by engaging in activities that we love and that stimulate those very things. Thank you for the reminder!

  14. Jocelyne T /

    I loved reading Seraphina after I got it in 2012. Didn’t know how I would survive the wait for Shadow Scale but now here we are! So excited for Shadow Scale next month :) Rachel taking up singing is such a wonderful and lovely parallel to Seraphina and her musical talents!

  15. Great to hear about a solution to writer’s block that doesn’t include more writing! Really looking forward to reading Shadow Scale, Seraphina was wonderful!

  16. Great article. I believe creating some other kind of art is a good way to unblock oneself.
    Oh how I’ve waited on this sequel! Can’t wait to read it!!

  17. Julianna /

    Love this! Thanks for sharing, and for the opportunity to win these books!

  18. badzphoto /

    Great food for thoughts. Thank you. I enjoy Seraphina and look forward to Shadow Scale, only 11 days to go.

  19. Seraphina was so magical it is hard to believe the sequel didn’t just fill you up and flow out your ears! Somehow, the struggle makes you more human and reachable. When I am stuck for ideas I call some random family member or another and just talk about life. None of us have minds that run along traditional tracks and conversations lead to the wildest places imaginable, from Alera to the forest moon of Endor. Sometimes we take the Tardis.

  20. Yoga. I put myself into a very dark place in my mind while holding an easy plow pose. If I am lucky, ideas result. Sometimes, the results are more concrete and less pleasant.

  21. I have been dying for Shadowscale ever since I finished Seraphina. I’m so excited!

  22. I’ve never had writers blocks because unfortunately I can relate to the comment of being half convinced that her brain is broken. I feel like that about writing. I have no idea how writers manage to do what they do. Rachel Hartman did such a beautiful job with Seraphina. I know I will be a fan for life.

  23. So interesting to read this, because singing is one way I gauge my own happiness level––if I’m absent-mindedly singing around the house, I know that I am happy about life! Boy am I glad she found a way out of her block. I’m so excited to read Shadow Scale.

  24. Karina D. /

    While writer’s block is no fun, I’m glad the author was able to find a different creative outlet to get her ideas flowing again. I read Seraphina in my junior year of high school and I cannot tell you how excited and privileged I feel to be given the chance to read it during my junior year of high school.

  25. Jessica /

    I can not wait to read Shadow Scale! (I didn’t read Seraphina until this past year and it was easily one of if not my absolute favorite book for the year and I’m glad I’ve not had too long to wait for this next installment.) It’s always great to get some insight into how writers work and address their obstacles. I’m not a writer, but as a graphic designer I also find that having multiple creative outlets can be really helpful when struggling with my design work.

  26. So glad that you were able to recapture your love of writing through music. I find that playing the piano works similarly for me– it helps me to centre myself and just enjoy doing something creative, without any pressure to perform.

    Seraphina was such a stand-out read for me. Very excited for Shadow Scale. Thanks for pushing through the hard times for us readers!

  27. I would never have thought of singing, but I can definitely see the value in taking up a hobby that requires your attention. Distraction away from a source of stress is relieving.

  28. Thank you for being so open about your writing process. I struggled with a similar problem over the course of the past few years — but I’m a student, not a bestselling author. :) I tried (what felt like) everything: reading more, writing more, reading less, writing less, studying art, studying history, moving my focus away from the humanities altogether… To my surprise, traveling helped more than anything else. While abroad, I didn’t keep a journal, and the only book I read was a drugstore romance. I think this separation helped, as did the understanding that English is a tool. The people I met — most of whom speak English as a second or third language — couldn’t care less about my diction and syntax as long as I could communicate. That felt liberating. I came to value writing more, not less, and it lost some of its anxiety. I also prioritized celebration over evaluation; every success deserves attention, even if it’s accompanied by a wealth of mistakes. (All of this sounds incredibly corny, I know — part of the fun has been embracing the corniness, because typically it = sincerity.) Seraphina is one of my favorite books, and I can’t wait to celebrate Shadow Scale. Thanks again, Mrs. Hartman.

  29. This solution makes sense considering how important and transformative music is for Seraphina in the first book. I can’t wait for Shadow Scale.

  30. Singing! That’s so great. I used to love singing when I was younger, and sometimes it’s still something I resort to when I can’t express myself any other way. I was in the (school’s) choir for three years also :~) I’m really glad she/you found an outlet!

  31. Kwynn /


  32. Allison Krein /

    Even famous authors get writer’s block :) I’m glad Ms. Hartman found such a great way to overcome hers, and I am looking forward to reading Shadow Scale (I read Seraphina last year and loved it)!!!

  33. Allison /

    I’m glad Ms. Hartman found such a great way to overcome her writer’s block. I read Seraphina last year and thought it was amazing! I can’t wait to read Shadow Scale!!!

  34. I always find moving to another project helps me get over drought phases, but it’s so wonderful that you took up music to get through this one. Learn anything Seraphina might mention in the next book?

  35. Fatima /

    LOVE <3 I feel that it's best to just leave it all and walk away when writer's block hits. That usually works for me. I have to ignore What I've written for a couple days before I can get back and look at things differently! I often distract myself by getting out of the house, going for walks or just seeing my friends. :)

  36. Fatima /

    (this is a random comment because I forgot to check the box earlier for entering the giveaway :P)

  37. Dana /

    I’m so excited for this book!

  38. silvia melesio /

    Can’t wait!!

  39. Sandra /

    Thanks for sharing such and interesting idea!

  40. Delightful post! I love how we have a tendency to never imagine that we might encounter a problem, like writer’s block, ourselves. Then it always happens someday. I also love how different forms of art inspire each other, like writing and music. Life is good when all the parts support each other. Keep up the excellent authoring, Rachel!

  41. P Webb /

    I love Rachel Hartman and I love this post. Her books are so extraordinary and different and wonderful and magical. It is so helpful to learn about the processes of authors, and how they cope with such problems. It encourages me to keep trying, even when I come up against something I think I will never overpower.

  42. It is so encouraging to hear about writer’s block from writers i look up to. I felt immensely encouraged when I read somewhere on the interwebs that Seraphina took 10 years to write and rewrite, because the result is fantastic. I love reading about Rachel’s methods to overcome writer’s block here — doing something else is probably my best way of overcoming it, too. I feel guilty for not working on my writing project at hand, and try to tell myself oh, don’t go looking for distractions, but “auxiliary art” really does help me move past my inhibitions, too.

  43. (ps. i would love to enter the giveaway. i hope i’ve checked all the right boxes!)

  44. C –, if you live in the USA, you win a copy of Seraphina and Shadow Scale
    Please contact me (Marion) with your US address and I’ll have the book sent right away. Happy reading!


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