How do you get the sap flowing?

Spring has arrived in coastal Maine. No, nothing’s flowering (or even growing). Yes, it’s Sap_plastic_tubingfreezing out. But the sun is higher in the sky. The dog leaves her bed by the woodstove to snooze outside on the deck—sometimes even in the shade. This Saturday, my little town will gather in the school gym for the annual town meeting, where we elect officers and vote budgets.

The earliest sign of spring appeared in late February/early March, when maple trees all over town suddenly sprouted lengths of blue plastic tubing, looping from one tree to the next. Larry, a lobster fisherman who lives down the road from me, had started collecting sap. This Sunday he’ll hold an open house so we can buy his maple syrup.

Wish I could get the sap moving in my brain. But sometimes you just clog up. In honor of this month’s “Spring is in the Air” theme, I thought we could share our techniques for getting the flow going.

My favorite is the character journal. If I get stuck in a story, I choose a character (often the protagonist, but it could be anyone) and just start noodling in her voice. I jot down what the character would write if he kept a journal: What was for breakfast, the weather, the plan for the day. Inevitably, the discussion of eggs and bacon turns to more important matters, not because you force it but just because that’s the way diaries tend to go.

After page or two of this—sometimes just a couple of paragraphs— the brain jam generally clears. I will have gotten to know my character better and she will repay me by at least hinting where her story should go next.

In her indispensable Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott suggests something similar: Write a letter about your character or your history or whatever has you stymied. The letter can be addressed to anyone—she cites an example written to her young son. “The letter’s informality just might free you from the tyranny of perfectionism,” Lamott says.

She’s right—sometimes the enemy is our expectations. Sometimes it’s just thinking too much. Playwright John Cariani has a bunch of techniques for catching yourself unawares. His workshops consist of a gazillion short exercises—some ten minutes, some three—that impose arbitrary rules. For example, you write a dialogue in which the first line is one word, second line is two words, and on up until ten or so. Any instructions will do—the point is to get your brain so concerned with beating the timer and following the rules that it forgets to freeze up.

I know other writers who do sprints: Write a thousand words in an hour, or even a half-hour. The words don’t have to be good—they just have to flow.

You can always boil them down later.

So . . . help us out here. What are your favorite techniques for getting unblocked when you’re writing?

This entry was posted in Ellen Booraem, Uncategorized and tagged , , by Ellen Booraem. Bookmark the permalink.

About Ellen Booraem

Ellen Booraem’s TEXTING THE UNDERWORLD, a middle-grade fantasy about a scaredy-cat boy and a determined young banshee, comes out August 15, 2013 (Penguin/Dial Books for Young Readers). Her earlier middle-grade fantasies are SMALL PERSONS WITH WINGS (Penguin/Dial BYR, 2011) and THE UNNAMEABLES (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2008). She lives in coastal Maine with an artist, a dog, and a cat, one of whom is a practicing curmudgeon. She's online at

8 thoughts on “How do you get the sap flowing?

  1. I’ve been dealing with this problem in my current WIP when a character suddenly started changing in a direction that was not only different from how I originally conceived him, but made him unlikeable. I opened up a new document and started writing down what I know about him, and it helped me figure out how to go back and re-introduce him when he enters the story. I may keep some of the new aspects of him, but I have to figure out how to integrate them with his original personality.

  2. Ooo, the unlikeable main character. Been there. I also have a form I fill out periodically for each character, asking questions ranging from biggest fears to what they keep in their pockets. Amazing how more information helps!

  3. Arghh–the sap is still frozen in my veins. I’m waiting for the warmer weather to thaw it out and flush away all the other things clogging up my brain. Great, great, post Ellen!

  4. If I’m blocked (verbally speaking of course–I have all sorts of remedies for the peristaltic version), I usually try and do something physical or mundane, like take the dogs for a walk or brush my teeth. Indeed, some of my best ideas have come when I’m drooling Arm and Hammer into the basin. Great, but frustrating as I never have a pen handy just at that moment, and my wife objects to me scrawling ideas with my finger in toothpaste drool on the bathroom mirror (Sheesh–some people, I ask you).
    Something to do with freeing up the old right side of the brain, I believe. So, next time you’re word jammed, give it a go. Grab the dog and head for the park armed with toothpaste and a handy bathroom mirror. Never fails.

  5. When I’m in a creative rut, I have one tried and true remedy: I go for a walk by myself. In real life, I’m a mother to three year old twins, and a behavioral health claims analyst, along with being a writer and marketing coordinator. Sometimes, I just need ten minutes outside so I can hear what my characters are telling me. Well, thirty minutes would be nice, but I try not to be greedy 🙂

  6. each time i used to read smaller articles or reviews which also clear their
    motive, and that is also happening with this post which I
    am reading at this time.

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