Barbara Dee is the author of 14 middle grade novels, including Violets Are Blue and Maybe He Just Likes You. In her essay for PW, Dee reflects on her creative process and her forthcoming book, Unstuck, about a girl who struggles with anxiety and writer’s block.

Every writer knows the feeling: you’re sitting at the computer, or your writing notebook, staring at the same blank page as the day before, and the day before that. So you force yourself to write a sentence, but it’s terrible, so you delete it. Then you write a single word and delete that too. Now your head is buzzing and your heart is racing. You’re starting to panic, because what if you never write anything again?

For me that sort of paralysis—writer’s block, to use the technical term—came as I was writing my second book. My debut middle grade novel had done reasonably well; PW had even given it a star! So I told myself that my next MG should be bigger, more literary, more ambitious.

To make a mental break with my debut, I decided to switch from the first person to the third. And, to give the story intellectual heft, I buried myself in research, reading book after book about all sorts of esoteric topics: secret codes, the Enigma machine, decoding Mayan hieroglyphics, amphibian ecosystems. The more I read, the more I realized how much I needed to know before I could even think about starting my story. And now, as I was finally ready to write... nothing.

One day my son asked me what my book was about. I launched into a description of all my research.

He blinked at me. “Okay,” he said. “But what’s it about?”

I couldn’t answer that question. All I knew by that point was that I felt like a complete imposter.

But then it hit me: I should use that—the feeling of being an imposter, a fake writer, convinced I had no real talent—as the way to connect to my main character, and to her story. So while I did use some of my research, Solving Zoe mostly ended up being about a kid who suspected she wasn’t as “gifted” as her peers, until eventually she discovers what makes her special.

My middle grade novels tend to be about tough topics like sexual harassment, mental illness, and climate anxiety. As background for these books I’ve researched a wide range of subjects, including special effects makeup, crayfish, and Greek mythology. I’ve just finished writing my 2025 novel, Tear This Down, about a seventh grader who wants to remove the statue of a local historical figure who didn’t believe women should vote. Because I didn’t know much about the suffragette movement, I needed to spend many hours in the library.

But these days I’m careful not to let myself go down bottomless rabbit holes of research. I also don’t wait to complete my research before I begin writing; I write and research simultaneously, figuring out what I need to know as I go along. This way I’m not merely procrastinating, or pressuring myself to do justice to the copious notes I’ve taken.

We often hear “write what you know”—but sometimes what you “know” is simply information, not the basis for a story. Writing tough topics means my focus should never stray from the protagonist’s emotions. I’ve found that staying in the first person helps me connect the character’s emotions to my own, and to go on a journey with her.

Of course, sometimes writing anxiety still flares up, and I end the day, or the week, with a negative word count. So it probably won’t surprise anyone to hear that I feel a strong connection to the protagonist of Unstuck, my 14th middle grade novel with S&S. Unstuck is about Lyla, who is struggling with writer’s block as she attempts to write a fantasy novel for her seventh grade ELA class.

Part of Lyla’s problem is that, as a voracious reader of fantasy fiction, she feels compelled to engage in overly detailed world-building. She tells herself she’s not writing to compete with Rick Riordan or Kelly Barnhill, but she desperately wants her story to be worthy of the genre, so she can’t stop drawing maps and lists and family trees. Fortunately, Lyla has Ms. Bowman, a fantastic teacher who supports her need to “gestate,” but also tells her: “Pre-writing can be helpful... but at a certain point it’s good to jump in with both feet. I always find that ideas come as you’re working. You really don’t have to have it all figured out before you begin.”

Another powerful bit of advice Ms. Bowman shares with Lyla: Write your feelings. At first Lyla is writing her story from her head, not from her heart—but as she comes to see parallels between her fantasy story and her real life, the words start to flow, and she discovers her own feelings, as well as her voice.

Whenever kids ask me for advice about how to get their own stories “unstuck,” I share some of my go-to strategies: I read screenplays of my favorite movies and TV shows (for example, Succession, which has some of the best dialogue ever written). Or I take my dog for a long walk and listen to a podcast. Or I eat cookies.

But I tell them those are just my strategies. In Unstuck, I suggest “Twenty-Five Ways to Get Unstuck,” which I collect in the back of the book (for example, writing a scene in verse, or as a play). As Ms. Bowman tells Lyla, not all of these strategies will work for every writer; the goal is to find the strategy that works for you.

Although for any writer struggling with writer’s block, it might help to start with this question: “Okay, but what’s your story about?

They might describe their topic or their research—but really, I think the answer is an emotion.

Unstuck by Barbara Dee. Aladdin, $17.99 Feb. 27 ISBN 978-1-534489-86-8