Knotted Brainwaves

On October 16, 2020, Katie W. wrote, What do you do when you just get stuck? Like when you know what needs to happen next, but not quite how to get there? In my WIP, I need to clear up a question the characters have, then write about a few battles before setting up a major plot twist and doing something with a subplot that’s been lurking in the background. I can explain what I need to do, I just can’t quite actually make myself do it. (Which was probably a big part of all the rambling in an earlier version.) Any advice?

In solidarity, Melissa Mead wrote, I’m in the same boat.

I’ve been on that leaky raft many times too, and sometimes the water is up to my chin before I get to dry land.

And Christie V Powell wrote, When I’m stuck, I usually switch to paper. Something about writing on paper often sparks my creativity again and gets me going. Sometimes it’s the scene I need, but usually I end up brainstorming or short-hand “blocking”. It gets pretty messy. Maybe it’s just that I know there is no way any but me will be able to read it anyway.

I like that! I’m a keyboarder all the way, but many writers swear that using the hand and arm engages the brain most wonderfully.

Urgency is not a writer’s friend, not my friend anyway. I found this lovely quote from a Wall Street Journal interview with mystery/crime/humor (and more) writer Lawrence Block: “When I’m working on something, and can devote myself entirely to it, I’ll put in a long stretch of hours.  But much of that time I don’t really seem to be doing anything.  I check email, I surf some websites, I check my Kindle sales several times an hour, I play computer solitaire, I play non-computer solitaire, and somewhere in there a couple thousand words get written.”

Look him up on Wikipedia and gape at the number of books he’s written, both under his own name and under pseudonyms, which he probably uses because his publisher can’t keep up with him. His books are fun—high school level at least.

I’m not that relaxed about writing, and I rarely put in a long stretch, either. When I check emails or play solitaire, I take myself off the clock. But I agree with the principle, that being tense doesn’t help. We distract our mind with other stuff, but our story still lurks in the background, which may be why ideas come when we’re hiking (especially if we forgot to bring a pad and pen) or in the shower, etc.

Lately, I remind myself that I’ve been stuck hundreds of times and gotten unstuck, so I’ll almost certainly do so again. Katie W., I see by consulting the blog dashboard that you’ve been commenting here for over two years and, I’d guess, have been writing for longer than that. You, too, can use the refrain: I’ve done it before.

Here are some strategies I use when I’m stuck:

My main go-to is my notes. Some of what I write there is about my story and why I can’t seem to write it. A lot is whining and worrying, as in, What if never write another book? or I should know what I’m doing by now. Whether I’m whining or story-speculating, though, my time is on the clock. I’m writing, so it counts. (This is one reason my daily goal is in time rather than words or pages.)

In my notes, I often write lists of what might happen next. A list may yield something surprising and unexpected and may be enough to get me moving again.

I may take a walk in our beautiful backyard, where the flowers in the warm seasons or our glacial-era rocks in the winter smooth out my knotted brainwaves. Or I may walk on our treadmill. If on the treadmill, I don’t consider this exercise. I set the speed at super slow, like two miles an hour, and keep redirecting my slippery mind to my writing problem. Sometimes it works.

Being stuck often makes me sleepy. I take a short nap, twenty minutes, max, and wake up refreshed. Sometimes that works.

(No single thing always works.)

As I’ve said here more than once, my mystery Stolen Magic gave me the worst and longest case of Stuck of any book. In despair, I decided to take a month off writing to do other things and recharge, which felt weird. I was sure this would do the trick. It didn’t. I was exactly as stuck when I returned to my manuscript as I had been before. But this may work for you, and you may have heirloom silver cutlery you’ve been meaning to polish for years.

Sometimes, revising my latest five-to-ten pages gets me moving again.

A good remedy more than once has been to find the spot in my story when my fingers started to feel mired in mud. I interrogate myself about what’s going on there. Did I accidentally solve a problem I need to keep unresolved? Did I start a tangent that will send me writing in circles and doesn’t have much to do with my main conflict? Did I make a minor character too important? It’s like the knots that seem to knot themselves when I sew on a button or repair a seam. Work stops. If I can’t untangle the knot, I have to cut it out and start with new thread from that spot. If we can identify the source of the evil, we can delete it and keep going.

Or I may interrogate myself about what’s coming up. Am I stuck because I see trouble ahead? Katie W. writes: I need to clear up a question the characters have, then write about a few battles before setting up a major plot twist and doing something with a subplot that’s been lurking in the background.

We can ask ourselves what interests us most in our plot to-do list. For me, if it were the major plot twist, I might jump to that part—in my notes—and write it. If I’m happy with it, I’ll copy it into my story. Then I’ll see what light it casts on everything else in my list. Maybe the plot twist itself answers the question or sheds new light on it. I can ask myself if I need the subplot. If yes, I may be able to reveal it quickly or wrap it in with the pot twist. I can ask myself how I can use the battles to develop or resolve my major conflict so that they’re integral to my plot.

Katie W., since you asked your question a long time ago, what’s happened? Where does your story stand right now?

Here are three prompts:

  • Your MC has stepped into magical quicksand. It’s below her ankles but it’s gluey enough to hold her. If she struggles, she’ll sink faster. Even not sinking farther isn’t good enough because a squadron of enemy soldiers are approaching. Write how she frees herself—or fails to.
  • Your MC is the innkeeper’s daughter who’s stuck to the golden goose. She had a reason for touching the goose, and it wasn’t greed. (You can refresh your memory of “The Golden Goose” fairy tale—the Brothers Grimm version—by googling it.) She needs a feather and to not remain stuck to the goose in order to save the life of the princess who never laughs. Write the story.
  • In this conception of the Camelot story, Guinevere is your MC. As a child, she studied with Merlin, and he foretold for her the downfall of Camelot, which she has sworn to prevent. She contrives to meet King Arthur in order to change the trajectory but gets sucked into events—and stuck. Write the story.

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. I managed to ramble enough that the story started to progress (very slowly), but now I’m stuck 1) with yet another explanation of why the occupying army is there 2) trying to figure out how someone could prove documents weren’t forged, and 3) because a completely different, extremely urgent project came up and I just don’t have the time. Mostly the third one. At least I hope it is, because that’s an actual reason instead of an excuse. Isn’t being a writer FUN? 😉

  2. I love that quote by Lawrence Block. I definitely relate! I’m pretty sure I do every single thing on his list during my long stretch of hours–and I do end up with a few thousand words in there, so I guess I shouldn’t feel too guilty.

  3. I'dratherbewriting says:

    Such a great post! I’m in the exact same situation, so this helped me a lot.

    I have a question about research, and about sensitivity. In my current WIP, one of my characters has Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Because it’s a fantasy novel, it wouldn’t make sense in the plot to actually mention the disorder by name, but in my planning and my character descriptions, he is going to be canonically autistic. I myself am not autistic, and have not to my knowledge met anyone with autism. With no firsthand experience with autism, I’m worried that I will write the character poorly and create a character that is insensitive or offensive. I have been doing a lot of research on autism, particularly on writing blogs that talk about how to create a character with autism and which harmful stereotypes to avoid, but I still feel paralyzed by the fear that I will end up writing him wrong and contributing to offensive character stereotypes. How do I, a non-autistic writer, write an autistic character while being sensitive and accurate?

    • I think you’re already taking some great steps with all your research.
      There are sensitivity readers who can help you. Ask around, and I’m sure you can find one. Some charge. Some don’t. You can also use social media to contact people who have autism, or who are parents of autistic children. Or how about your local special ed teachers? Most experts in any subject are pleased to share their expertise, especially if you’re polite and respectful.

      • There are some writers who self-identify with neurodiversity. Check Amazon and Goodreads with that search term. My fav MG book about the syndrome is The London Eye Mystery by Siobhan Dowd in which the main character explains himself cogently. Robin Stevens wrote a sequel where the characters visit relatives in NYC (unfortunately Dowd died of cancer).
        My own writing problem relates to Gail’s comments about whining. When my MC has many internal dialogs, I feel he is unsympathetic to the reader and there is too much whining and questioning. It’s still a first Draft, so is this common for you all? Beth

  4. Silver Raindrop says:

    My friend and I are writing a story together, and I got stuck while writing a part with one of my characters. They suggested that I look at this, and wow! This helps.

    I’m new on the blog, but will definitely be coming back here for more writing help. It’s especially helpful since I’m writing several books; or at least trying to. In my mind, the plot is planned out, the characters contribute to the story excellently, and the setting fits the plot perfectly. Problem is (and my friend can confirm) that whenever I write or begin writing a story, I end up deleting it and starting all over. I’ve gone through some of the blog and took note that the story’s beginning can be changed after the story is finished– or if it’s a little ahead. I’ve become aware of this tip, but still can’t seem to get my characters to the point of the story of which I’ll keep. How do I start off the book and feel comfortable coming back to remodel the beginning without changing the rest of the plot? Sorry if this question, or something similar to it, was already asked.

    • Gail Carson Levine says:

      I’m searching for a metaphor, and this is what I’ve come up with: Suppose you have a lump of clay, and you roll it out to be almost as thin as spaghetti? You can cut off a bit, and the beginning can start later; you can add a little, and the beginning can start earlier. You can reshape it so it’s tube pasta, if you want to. It will stay malleable and changeable until you’re ready to cook it or publish it. You can move on along the clay because you can go back to it as many times as you like or need to.

      Welcome to the blog!

    • You could try writing the story out of order. If you have a clear idea in your head of what’s going to happen, you could tart by writing the climax or another interesting scene, and fill the story out from there.

      We have discussed beginnings several times. They’re all on the link above, if you missed any. I’m with you–I have to write chronologically, and it really bugs me to move on when I’m not satisfied with the beginning. With my current story, I kept a document of all the endings I’d tried that I didn’t like, and it’s several pages long.

      “Save the Cat” (a story structure system made into two books) suggests that you start with an “opening image”. KM Weiland (who does a blog on story structure, among other things) calls it the “Characteristic Moment”. In either case, the idea is that you figure out a picture in your head that represents your main character and who he/she is at the beginning of the story. For my current project (The Spectra Crown Tales), I started with a picture of my main character sneaking through mist to deliver a message to the front lines of war. It changed into him standing at a farmhouse destroyed by the war. Then I added internal thought that shows more about his character (what he thinks and feels about his situation). KM Weiland talked about how the movie Iron Man did a great job at this and how we can immulate it. I’ll add a link to that article in another comment.

  5. Is anybody doing NaNoWriMo this year? I’m planning to write the Aladdin/Beauty and the Beast mashup Gail suggested in one of the prompts a while ago.

    • With me, that’s usually a sign that I’m procrastinating and need to just go ahead and write the next plot element already. If you don’t know what the next plot element should be, 1) welcome to life as a pantster, and 2) make a list of anything that could possibly come next and write the most interesting one. If that means your characters get chased around by a madwoman wielding a plastic flamingo, then they get chased around by a madwoman wielding a plastic flamingo. Maybe one of them gets stabbed by the stake on the bottom and has to go to the ER, where they overhear a conversation between two of the villain’s henchmen that gives them a clue about what the villain is planning next. Or whatever you decide. The important thing is breaking out of whatever rut you’ve gotten yourself stuck in and on to the next thing.

  6. Gail, please feel free to delete this if it’s not appropriate, but I think someone was asking about markets for younger writers a while back, and these guys are good (They published my story “Luchadora.”):

    Cast of Wonders will open for general submissions from November 15 to December 20. It’s a Young Adult Fiction Podcast. They’re the broadest reaching Escape Artists podcast in terms of genre: they accept Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror, but keep in mind that they aim for a 12-17 age range. They’re particularly interested in stories from younger writers (under 18).
    Pay: 8c/word for any length, including flash.
    For reprints: $100 flat rate for Short Fiction, and a $20 flat rate for Flash Fiction.
    Length: up to 6,000 (query if your story is up to 7,5k).
    Multiple: not allowed. Simultaneous: allowed.
    Remove your identifying info from the manuscript. Read through their guidelines as they have many tips.

  7. Hi Gail, a few weeks ago you were very helpful in pointing me towards the Kerlan collection archives for answers about Ella Enchanted. I was able to learn a lot from them but also came back with more questions! If you don’t mind, how was it that you met your agent? I know you’ve written a lot about the subject of agents here and said you met yours at a conference but is there anything more to the story? My professor was curious. Thank you for all your help!

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