Handling the “I don’t know what the pirates do” Moments

“When the going gets tough, the tough…I don’t know what the tough do. I don’t know what the pirates do. I don’t know what anybody does.”

Joan Wilder, anyone? I admit I love Romancing the Stone! This quote comes from its sequel, Jewel of the Nile, when romance novelist Joan Wilder is bemoaning her writer’s block for a scene in her latest book (Involving pirates. I know, shocker, right?). She’s worried her career is over.

“I don’t know what the pirates do” moments describe that gut-clenching fear that comes when:
            a) You have no idea what happens next
            b) You realize you’ve lost all interest in your characters
            c) You’ve discovered a gaping plot hole and don’t even know
                where to start fixing it
            d) Some variation on one (or all) of the above

Raise your hand if you’ve ever felt that way. *raises hand*

So how do we pick ourselves back up and find our mojo again? I’m guessing most of us won’t be traipsing off to the Nile to do a documentary piece on a psychotic zealot like Joan did. Here are a few more down-to-earth tricks we can try:

When the muse disappears and self doubts rear their ugly heads, you’ll want to cry or scream or throw things, and that’s fine, good even. Let it all out. Just don’t forget to breathe, too.

Go for a Walk
Getting outside does three excellently helpful things during “I don’t know what the pirates do” moments: 1) gives you fresh air, 2) gives you exercise, which gets the blood flowing and can spark inspiration, 3) gets you away from the computer where you might be evilly tempted to press delete on your momentarily-stalled Work of Awesomeness.

Do Something Outside Your Comfort Zone
There’s something to be said for the shock factor. If you put yourself in an unknown situation, not only does it pull your mind completely away from writing, it also gives you a new venue for ideas. Plus, you’ll probably have fun doing it, and fun leads to mojo…it’s a proven fact. So strap on that parachute, go to a movie alone, visit that new museum exhibit, whatever puts you in fresh surroundings.

Put on Your Favorite Tunes and Sing Along
Um…you don’t want to know how often I’ve pulled out the Bon Jovi air guitar during Livin’ on a Prayer. There’s something about music that acts like a salve. We connect with the lyrics, sing them at the top of our lungs, and suddenly all seems right in the world again.

Read a Great Book…Outside Your Genre
Nothing revitalizes my love for writing more than reading. Curling up with a great book flexes my imagination, heightens my emotions and energizes me! The key is to steer clear of anything that’s too similar to what you’re currently writing. I’ll still read fantasy, for example, but if I’m writing in third person, I’ll generally pick a fast-paced, first person novel to relax with. That way, you avoid all those nasty comparison traps we writers are so tempted to fall into.

Have Faith
A few years ago, I was in the midst of a crazy busy, frustrating time at work. I hadn’t written in weeks (a sure-fire way to make me uber cranky), and I couldn’t pull inspiration out of my ass if my life depended on it. One night, after staring at a blank screen for what seemed like forever, I sank to my knees in front of my laptop and sobbed, “It’s over.” I could just feel that dream slipping away from me. Within a week, I heard back (after 7 months) from a publication that accepted one of my short stories…my very first one. That was exactly the boost I needed.

This is a wacky business, but with a little trust, a lot of work, occasional wine breaks and good friends, we can beat the “I don’t know what the pirates do” moments. Never doubt it!

How do you handle your toughest writing moments? Bonus points for anyone who adds a favorite quote from Romancing the Stone or Jewel of the Nile!


  1. This is a great post!

    This happened to me in the worst way with the first novel I ever wrote. It lacked direction and I put it on the backburner when I lost interest in it (even the characters weren`t doing it for me anymore).
    Fast forward to six years later and now it works perfectly as a sequel to another book I wrote. Yay!

    Sometimes, moving on to another project is what you need to do in order to keep the creative juices flowing. :)

  2. I like your list and listening to music while walking my dogs always seems to get the ideas flowing once again. I'm not sure which is worse for the dogs - me singing or me discussing plot points with them. At least they don't complain out loud either way ;)

  3. Thanks Sara! Isn't it funny how things work out? We just have to be tough enough to get to the other side.

    T.L. - If your dogs ever DID talk back, I bet you'd get a great story out of it. :)