What to do When Your Writing Stalls

English_door_blue_223130_lYou're sitting at your desk, staring at your computer.  Maybe the chapter of your current project is up on the screen.   Perhaps you don't have the freaking slightest of clues what to write next. 

Your brain is empty.  It's like there's a brick wall between it and what comes next.  You simply can't figure it out.  Your writing is stalled.  We won't go so far as to call it blocked, as in writer's block, because that term is big and scary and implies people burying their heads and not writing for years. 

But, you are stuck.

And you don't know how to get yourself unstuck.  

However, I do.

Because, over my many years of writing, I have figured out a thing or two about getting stuck. Namely, that there's always a reason.

Always.

So all  you have to do is figure out the reason, and voila, you will be writing again!  

I know.  It's not always that easy.  What follows are some suggestions for discerning why your writing progress is stalled.  

1.  Look at location.   This is the first thing to check.  Is the scene set in the right place? Sometimes moving a scene makes all the difference and it is an easy, quick fix, which is why I say to look at it first. Can you move the scene outside and make it more active? Does it need to be in the bedroom rather than the kitchen, or vice-versa?  You'd be surprised at how much insight looking at setting can bring when you're stalled.

2.  Is the scene necessary?  This week, I was working with a client who'd gotten stalled.  We looked at the beginning of her next chapter with an eye toward moving the location (see #1) and realized that there was no reason for the scene.  Everything that came out in the first part could be fed in later in flashbacky dribs and drabs or through dialogue.  Sometimes you are blocked because you're trying to make something work that simply doesn't need to be there.

3.  Do you know everything you need to know about the plot?  I got stalled on my WIP novel at the start of the summer.  I'm a believer in having lots of irons in the fire, so I moved over to working on some shorter pieces and continued to ponder.  And as I pondered, things started popping.  A new character introduced herself, as did a crucial plot element in the form of a rolling pin.  (It makes sense in context, truly.)  My main character confided a deeply-held desire that changed everything. And I realized I had needed to take a break in order for this information to come through.  I likely wouldn't have thought of any of it without the mental bandwidth stopping working on it gave me. This might be the case with you, as well.  

4.  What about your characters?  I write somewhat on a "need to know" basis.  I'm a big believer in planning, but I abhor over-planning.  So I start out writing character dossiers, figuring out what I need to know about my characters to get rolling.  And then, as I write, I'll realize I'm in a place where I need to learn more about a character and I go back to my dossier or character backstory and fill more in.  So maybe you need to get to know your people better if you're stuck.   Use prompts and freewriting to uncover their secrets.

5.  Do you need to do more research?  Maybe you don't know enough about something important to the novel.  Do you need to study rocket science? Practice tying five different kinds of knots? Learn more about the genre you're writing in?  Find out what kind of grass grows in Louisiana? The smallest of things can trip up a writing session.  Learn what you need to know and it will enhance the novel.

A couple bonus pieces of advice:

6.  Trust the story.  You're stalled for a reason, and the story knows what.  It's also trying to tell you, if you'll but listen.  Look at all the elements and see which one wants changing.  Trust your story. Which leads me to the reminder that:

7.  What you resist, persists.  So if your writing stalls, be Zen.  Go with the flow.  Move over to working on something else.  Let thoughts percolate.  Sometimes you just can't rush the creative process.

What's your favorite way to get unstuck? 

Photo by val-j.


Guest Post: 15 Fixes for Your Worst Writer's Block

Please welcome guest poster Julie Duffy today.  Julie and I connected on Twitter and I'm glad we did!  She is a writer and also the creator of A Story A Day--the extreme challenge to write a story every day in May.  (And guess what--you can start any time.  If you get going now, think how many stories you'll have by the end of the month.)  Please join me in welcoming Julie, I think you'll like her ideas for overcoming writers' block.

15 Fixes For Your Worst Writers’ Block JulieDuffyHeadshot200x300

by Julie Duffy

 Writer’s block can come out of nowhere. It can be temporary and related to one project, or it can be chronic, stopping you from writing anything creative. Sometimes, it’s important to figure out the underlying problems that are contributing to the block. Is it a technical problem with the work? Have you lost the plot? Do you hate the characters? Finding out the root cause allows you to start forming strategies for tackling the block. But sometimes you just need to knuckle down and do the work. For those days, here are 15 fundamental fixes to help you work through your worst writers' block.

1 - Lower Your Standards

Don't strive for greatness. Go for entertainment. Especially on a first draft. And a second. Save the sixth revision for making it perfect. For now it's enough to ask: is it fun to read (by that I mean enjoyable and entertaining, even if it's sad)

2 - Rewrite Something

Take a look at something you've written before. Don't waste time worrying about what doesn't work. Start it again, rewrite it  (or sections of it, if it is a longer work) without the use of 'cut and paste'. Just take another stab at it. Or retell a classic story, just to warm up.

3 - Start

Sometimes you literally have to put the pen on the paper and start making shapes. It doesn't matter what you write, but putting something -- anything -- on the page will snap you out of your terror. Keep the pen moving until you're thinking only about the story and not about yourself. Put your pen on the paper. Put your fingers on the keyboard. Make some words.

4 - Free-Write

If you are horribly blocked, don't try to write a story as soon as you sit down. Free-write. Write about anything: about what you want to do, about why you hate your project, what you're trying to do with this story. You should either solve some of your problems or get so sick of listening to yourself whine that you decide you'd rather be writing a story than complaining any more.

5 - Turn Off Distractions

Turn off the Internet. Yes you can. Unplug the router, if you're home alone, or turn off the WiFi on your laptop. If you can't pull the LAN cable out of the back of your computer without upsetting your techies, do the next best thing: turn off email notifications, Twitter pop ups and Facebook, IM or any other chat windows. Ignore your calendar. Set a timer or a word count and go. If you have an old busted laptop, use that and store your work on a USB key. Turn off your phone if it gets email alerts. Do whatever you have to do to kill all the distractions.

6 - Write From A Different P.O.V

If a scene or a story is not working for you, try writing it (again) from a different character's point of view, or in a different voice. Even if you decide not to use the piece, writing it from a different point of view may show you why it wasn't working before, or why you were resisting working on it.

7 - Work On A Different Part Of The Project

Here's a tip: you don't have to write your story in the right order. If you can't get excited about the scene right after the opening, leap over it and get into a meatier part of the story. Then at least, you'll know exactly what you need to set up in that ho-hum scene that you don't want to write today.

8 - Accept that Writing Is Hard Work

If it wasn't everyone would be doing it (and they're not. Trust me. Even though you know a lot of people who write, there are actually a larger number of people out there who aren't writing. Weird, but true.) Every professional writer who ever gave an honest answer in an interview has said some version of, "I just have to sit down and write, you know? It's a job." You have to take it seriously. No matter how much you love your job, there are days when you'd rather not be doing it. The same goes for writing. But you have to turn up anyway.

9 - Change Projects

It is OK to be working on more than one project at once. Now, don't go crazy because you'll never finish anything if you keep abandoning projects when they get hard. But it is OK to switch between a project or two when you need a change.

10 - Write A Little Then Stop

If you're having trouble writing a lot, then don't worry about writing a lot (unless you have someone standing over you with a contract and a stop watch). Write as much as you can. Write a little bit more, then stop. If you can get away with it, don't make yourself sick of a story by pushing too hard.

11 - Edit Something Out

If your story is stuck, maybe it's because your characters can't take that road trip you've been setting up. Even if you really, really wanted to write about a road trip, maybe you need to accept that this is not the story where it happens. Trying to write something when you know it's not working is a sure route to writer's block.

12 - Write First

Make writing the first thing you do, before the distractions of the day get their claws into you.

13 - Write Every Day, Even If It's Twitter Fiction

The act of writing every day proves to yourself that you are serious about this writing business. Writing something as small as Twitter fiction (140 characters) on a busy day at least means that your imagination knows it can’t go to sleep. If you know you HAVE to write something today, your imagination and your subconscious will keep looking around for ideas. In the process you will pay much more attention to the world around you -- something that will pay off later, when you are working on another piece.

14 - Don’t Be Fancy

Use simple words. If you are trying to write something and it’s giving you trouble, just say it as simply as possible. Don’t worry about saying it in a beautiful way.  You can get hung up on searching for the perfect word and it can stall your whole project. Come back and change it later if it needs changed (it probably won't.)

15 - Write What You Love

Maybe you've got high-flown ideas about writing what you think you 'ought' to be writing. Or maybe you've heard that a certain type of fiction sells better, or is better regarded, or is more likely to get you an agent. Maybe all these ideas have got you writing work that isn't you, that you don't love. Take some time out and write something with no thought of publishing. In fact, promise yourself you won't show it to anyone, that it's just for you. Above all, keep writing. Even if it's bad, even if it's just OK. Words on the page can be fixed. So stop worrying and write something!

What about you? What tricks do you use to jumpstart your writing?  

Julie Duffy is a writer and the host of StoryADay May (Storyaday.org), a creativity challenge for short story writers.  This article is an excerpt from her ebook Breaking Writers' Block: A StoryADay Guide.


7 Ways to Use Writing Prompts With Your Current Project

Writing prompts...love 'em or hate 'em.

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Some people swear by them, while others shudder at the thought of using a writing prompt in their work. Because, too often, using random writing prompts can lead you astray.  And let's face it, most prompts are a bit on the random side, aren't they?  Those books of prompts are great, but they have about as much as common with your novel in progress as flying to the moon does to a wedding dress.

Say you're stuck on your writing project, so you open one of your books of writing prompts, choose one and begin writing.  All well and good.  Except that you're just writing, not really writing about anything of much interest or use to you.

Now, I'm a great one for writing something, anything, on a regular basis.  And I often exhort people to do just that--particularly when they are stuck.  But writing mindlessly for any great length of time can be as frustrating as not writing.   Writing aimlessly is bad for your creative morale, because your heart and soul won't be in it.

The trick is to find a way to make your writing prompts relevant to your current project, so that they are enhancing your writing, not taking away from it.  When used in this manner, writing prompts can be wonderfully helpful in a couple of ways:

  • To generate actual writing
  • To get a flow of ideas going
  • To get yourself unstuck

And, remember, the best way to use prompts is as freely and loosely as possible.  Take your prompt, write it at the top of a sheet of paper, and set a timer for 15 to 20 minutes.  Then write.  And write and write and write, without stopping, until the timer goes off.

If you want to use writing prompts with your current project, here are some suggestions:

1. Take the last line of the previous scene or chapter and use it as a prompt.  Or take the first line.  Using a sentence from your work is a great way to drive deeper into the writing.  Because you are writing freely and loosely, your inner critic is silenced and you may be surprised what you come up with.

2. Put a location from your book into a sentence and use it as a prompt.  You can do this for the city or area your book is set in, or do it on a smaller scale, using a building such as your character's workplace or his home to write about.  This technique can help to uncover details you'll later use in description, or even ideas your character might have about her surroundings.

3. Put your character in a sentence.  Of course, this is sort of the whole point of writing a novel, but do this in a random way, having your character do either something unexpected or completely mundane and then write about it for 20 minutes.  You'll be amazed what you'll learn.

4. Use a line of dialogue from your project. 

5. Use keywords as prompts.   Quick, tell me three words that describe your writing project.  Now use those words as prompts--either one at a time or putting them into a sentence.

6. Use theme as a prompt.  Maybe you don't know what the theme of your book is--don't laugh, it takes many a draft to figure it out sometimes--or maybe you have a vague idea of it.  Make a sentence out of what your don't know or that vague idea and use it for a prompt.

7. Riff on the title.  Most works-in-progress have a title, even if its only a working title.  Use that for a prompt and see what comes up.

Those are some ways I've used prompts with my work-in-progress.  Any more suggestions?


Giving Up, Or Why I Should Once In Awhile

Friday I hit the wall.   Brick_wall_orange_222239_l

As is my usual wont, I woke early (6ish), grabbed my coffee, and went to work on my writing.  Lately I've been thinking deep thoughts about my novel rewrite and writing them down, which leads to more deep thoughts and more writing.  I'm writing about characters, trying to get to know them better, and pondering plot points.  All of this is intense work.

On Friday morning, I wrote a couple paragraphs and stopped, because I knew I was done.  Just...done.  My pen wouldn't move.  I couldn't form any more thoughts connected to the novel.  Nothing.  Nada. Zilch.

My brain, however, seemed to have plenty of room for thoughts about, oh, the missing child in my city, Kyron Horman.  Or the oil spill in the Gulf.  Or the World Cup.  (No, I'm not really a soccer fan.  I'm trying to be.  I have this idea that it would be really fun to buy season tickets for the new pro soccer franchise that is coming to Portland.  But first I have to learn to enjoy the game.  And that seems to be slow going.) 

In other words, my brain wanted to focus on anything other than writing.

My brain, poor thing, needed a break.

What I should have done was recognize this right away and take some time off from thinking and writing about my novel.  Lord knows I've got tons of other things to work on.  Or, if I didn't feel like writing, I could read.  Or take a walk.  Or go look at art at a gallery. 

But did I do any of those things?

Of course not.

Instead, I soldiered on.  I was determined, absolutely determined, to get more done on the novel rewrite.  So what if my brain didn't want to work on it anymore?  "Pathetic, lazy brain," I told it, "buck up and let's get going here."

And you can imagine how well that worked.

Yeah, right.  About as well as....well, I can't think of a metaphor so provide your own.  And so, instead of intentionally deciding to take some time off and give my brain a rest, I kept at it.  And ended up reading endless updates of the Kyron Horman case and pondering all sorts of interesting websites I'd never seen before.

This kept up all day Friday and Saturday.  Finally, by Sunday, my brain had had enough rest, the dam broke, and off we went again.  However, I suspect if I had just taken the time off on Friday morning, I'd have probably been back at it by the afternoon.

Lesson learned: it is not always a good thing to soldier on.  Though the prevailing point of view in this society would have us believe otherwise, which is one reason I think it is so hard.  In the future, I'm going to do my best to pay attention when my brain rebels and give the poor hard-working thing some time off.

What about you?  How do you know when you've hit the wall?  What do you do when you splat against it?