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!