Stuck or blocked? How to keep writing anyway

2558534957_b675fe77a3You’ve got a gap in your story. Or you’re revising and it’s clear a drafted scene won’t do.

Usually, the best remedy is to give up and do something else.

But Charlotte Rains Dixon reminded me in a comment here a few weeks ago that sometimes it’s good to push through. Even if you’ve run the tank dry. And sometimes deadlines mean you don’t have the luxury of a break.

Here are some ways I get my muse to pick up.

Seek inspiration

Behind your pesky page there’s a seductive internet. And you’re sitting there, annoyed with the way your creative day is going.

Do not open your browser. Surfing turns so easily into skiving.

If I’m trying to break a block I go to my reference bookshelf. Not the dictionaries, although The Fontana Dictionary of Modern Thought can provide a surprise or two. But beside these sensible titles I have a collection of oddities that friends have given me (probably because it’s easier than guessing what fiction to give a fussy novelist). Thus I am the lucky owner of Never Hit A Jellyfish With a Spade – How to Survive Life’s Smaller Challenges. The Z to Z of Great Britain. And Mirror Mirror on the Wall – Women Writers Explore Their Favourite Fairy Tales.  Any of these, consulted at random, can provide a wild card to astonish the imagination.

Poetry collections are handy too, to remind me to look beyond the surface for deeper significance. Especially if I’m asking myself if I’ve missed the real reason why a scene or event has to be in the book.

nynfiller2Diagnose the problem

It also helps to define a few parameters.

  • Work out what can’t happen – both for this individual story and for the readers of your genre as a whole. Then you know where you should be heading.
  • Ask yourself what matters in the scene. Why it’s important to the story and to the characters. (If it’s not, job done.)
  • Quite often if you’re stuck, your brain is telling you you’re trying to write the wrong thing. Are you forcing the characters to say and do things they would find unnatural? Should you listen to what they would rather do?
  • Are you stuck because the scene repeats an idea you’ve used elsewhere in the book? Now you know to make it different.
  • Are there hidden significances or issues you’re glossing over? That ‘stuck’ feeling might be your helpful writerly subconscious telling you you’re wasting an opportunity.

Still stuck? Push on anyway

Now this is what Charlotte was talking about. Write anyway. Yes it works. Sometimes you’ll be surprised by what comes out. It’s like having an interrogator refusing to let go.

‘What happens now?’

‘Bah, I don’t know.’

‘That’s not good enough, I don’t believe you don’t know. Tell me again – what happens now?’

When I do this, my first attempts are risible, and I keep deleting. But after a while I find the scent. I’ve often resorted to this in revisions, and written some of my best scenes because I stayed stubbornly in the saddle.

Desperate measures

You could follow the lead of science fiction author A E Van Vogt. When he was stuck, he would move to the spare room for the night and set the alarm to wake him after an hour and a half. When it went off, he would force himself to try to solve the problem, inevitably falling back asleep. He repeated this all night and in the morning, voila.

Which just goes to show what it can be like living with a writer sometimes. You can find other less unsociable tips in Nail Your Novel. :)

Thanks for the cat pic turkeychik

Tell me what you do when you get stuck and time off isn’t an option. Share in the comments!

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  1. #1 by DRMarvello on January 27, 2013 - 9:17 pm

    When I get stuck, I start working on back story or world building. At those times, it is much easier for me to write *about* the story rather than *for* the story. I don’t feel the pressure of writing for publication.

    I often have a character I need to develop for a future scene, so I’ll work on fleshing out the details of the character’s appearance, personality, and history. Going through that process always gives me ideas for new scenes, new sub-plots, or nuances in how the character behaves. It often re-energizes me for the work at hand that I’m avoiding.

    Locations can also be a source of inspiration. I love to draw maps and design the set for a scene. It helps make the scenes I eventually write flow more logically and it helps me avoid continuity problems.

    World building can be a time sink, but it can also keep things moving.

    • #2 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on January 28, 2013 - 10:27 am

      Hi Daniel
      I love that suggestion. Writing ‘about’ the story keeps you connected with it but as you say, it’s without the pressure. Designing sets for future scenes is also a great idea – and gives you reassurance that you have somewhere to go once you’ve sorted this problem.

    • #3 by Grace Robinson (@StorytellerGRL) on February 1, 2013 - 4:41 pm

      I often use this technique, too – writing “about” the story. Or doing other story-related creative things, like drawing maps, surfing online for images that fit my world (although that can easily turn into just a time-waster). Right now, I’m developing a language (written only, not spoken) for my fantasy trilogy, so that’s something I can work on if I get stuck with actual writing.

    • #4 by DRMarvello on February 1, 2013 - 5:16 pm

      Hi Grace! Nice to see you again. Developing a language? Awesome!

      I spent some time building a system of runes for my series. That was a lot of fun. I also designed a “symbol of sorcery” and had a graphic designer “pretty it up” for me. I ended up using it in the chapter headings of my first book.

      Writing fantasy gives us lots of opportunity to “waste time” productively! ;-)

      • #5 by Grace Robinson (@StorytellerGRL) on February 1, 2013 - 5:33 pm

        Productive time-wasting – I like that idea! ;-)

        My language is for sorcery and spell-casting – specifically, for the writing down of spells. It’s not a spoken language primarily because spells aren’t spoken – they’re either sung, or played on musical instruments.

        Next step for “productive time-wasting” – actually writing some music for the spells.

      • #6 by DRMarvello on February 1, 2013 - 5:42 pm

        Roz is going to dig the idea of spells that are performed musically. When I listen to music I love, I sometimes feel like the performer has cast a spell over me. I can imagine how magic could be more powerful when the spells are sung or played. It sure sounds like you are having fun with it!

        • #7 by Grace Robinson (@StorytellerGRL) on February 1, 2013 - 5:50 pm

          A little too much fun sometimes – I find myself listening to music instead of writing. :-P

          Music really is like magic, the way we can fall under its spell. If I believed in reincarnation, in another life I might have been a musician. ;-)

        • #8 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on February 1, 2013 - 8:32 pm

          Big grin. Reincarnation and music? Whatever put that into your heads?
          The novel I’m working on right now has musicians, and Husband Dave has made a dangerous suggestion. ‘You’ll have to write some of the songs,’ he said.
          As I spent my teen years trying to be Kate Bush, he has no idea what he might unleash.

  2. #9 by courseofmirrors on January 27, 2013 - 9:33 pm

    When my story gets stranded in an oxbow I sleep over the lull. Sometimes I ask for a dream, the unconscious likes to be consulted :)

    • #10 by acflory on January 28, 2013 - 8:59 am

      Great minds! That’s exactly what I do as well. The interesting thing is that when I’m working on a map or struggling to visualize which sun of a binary is meant to rise first, suddenly I’ll realise that character X is stuck in location Y because X would never have gone down path Z in the first place.

      I’m not saying I can immediately ‘fix’ the problem, but simply knowing what it is helps me focus better and I usually see the obvious direction/solution soon after.

      And when all else fails I go out into the garden and swing a pickaxe. It’s amazing how good that is for de-stressing and letting the mind relax. :)

      • #11 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on January 28, 2013 - 10:31 am

        AC, sometimes we don’t know what the real problem is until we step back – it might be a logical step that’s impossible in the situation. Careful with that axe…

        • #12 by acflory on January 28, 2013 - 11:53 am

          Not to worry! I’ve still got all my toes. :D

    • #13 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on January 28, 2013 - 10:28 am

      Ashen…. With or without regular 90-minute awakenings…..?

      • #14 by courseofmirrors on January 28, 2013 - 10:55 am

        Without this torture :) I sometimes set my alarm to go off ten minutes before I naturally wake. In my experience it’s a matter of initiating communication with the unconscious in whatever way works.

  3. #15 by Viv on January 27, 2013 - 10:07 pm

    I don’t so much get stuck with a story as stuck with myself. Sounds odd but I could always keep producing, but would be questioning whether it was worth bothering with.
    Dream incubation helps as long as you can actually sleep & dream. My long spell of serious insomnia last year meant I felt like I had completely lost a vital sense.

    • #16 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on January 28, 2013 - 10:35 am

      Hi Viv! Stuck with yourself… that’s an interesting way to put it. I can’t imagine what it must be like to not be able to sleep, to not have that way of closing all the files at the end of a day. Makes you appreciate these simple things our bodies do for us.

  4. #17 by edmartinwriter on January 27, 2013 - 11:09 pm

    I do my best mulling in the car. So if I’m stuck on something, I’ll drive around the countryside for an hour or so, hashing through the part I’m stuck on.

    In inclement weather, or when it’s late and dark and cold out, a long hot shower works well for me too.

    • #18 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on January 28, 2013 - 10:39 am

      I love mulling in the car. I put the radio on and channel-hop, stopping when I find either a song I like or a programme that grabs my attention. This random input plus the responsibility of not killing other road users seems to shrink my story problems to manageable proportions and I can get on with solving them. Running with my undercover soundtrack works well too.

    • #19 by Viv on January 28, 2013 - 10:40 am

      Insomnia is hell. My husband is usually asleep within 30 seconds of lying down. Right now I consider myself doing well to sleep after an hour or so. Last year it took four or more hours, then waking constantly. nearly lost what little remains of my mind. I am therefore so glad of the 7 or so hours I get of sleep interrupted by maybe 4 awakenings. Insomnia is like banging your head against a wall, when it stops EVERYTHING feels like an improvement.
      I think that, among other things, contributed to my breakdown last March.

  5. #20 by Freddie Remza on January 27, 2013 - 11:12 pm

    I grab a bowl of ice cream. Then I read over the last few chapters I’ve written to jump start the process.

  6. #22 by Erika Marks on January 28, 2013 - 2:38 am

    Oh boy, Roz–the timing of this post is uncanny. I’m doing battle with a scene on the eve of my deadline and your thoughts were just the balm. Thank you–and now I’m climbing back into the saddle!!

  7. #24 by John P Kealing on January 28, 2013 - 5:33 am

    It’s great inspiration Roz! Thanks.

    When I get stuck I sometimes go back to my character profiles and expand on some aspect of their personalities that is a necessary part of the scene. Doing this often highlights something about the characters I hadn’t noticed before and can be the source of fresh ideas.

    Cheers, John

    • #25 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on January 28, 2013 - 10:41 am

      John, that’s a brilliant tip. Everything comes from the characters – and that’s where the answer might be found. Thanks for sharing!

  8. #26 by colbymarshall on January 29, 2013 - 2:34 am

    Great post! I love the tips on how to get unstuck, particularly the figuring out why it can’t happen. I find jotting down questions I can’t answer gets my brain moving to think about the plotline enough to figure out even the hardest questions. Thanks for this- I’ve put in my “blogs to save” folder for next time I’m stuck!

    • #27 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on January 29, 2013 - 11:13 am

      Jotting down the questions that are too tricky to answer…. great idea! I’m putting that on my list!

  9. #28 by cydmadsen on January 29, 2013 - 11:07 pm

    Geesh, wish I’d had time to read this earlier, but I was stuck with an impossible deadline. And surprised by the corners I’d written the story into. These are great suggestions. I do believe in writing through the block, a lesson well-learned from doing NaNoWriMo. Sometimes it’s not a matter of writing through the block but rather writing through the garbage that’s heaped at the front of your thoughts. All the answers are in there somewhere, it’s the shovel you use getting yourself out of the way that matters.

    • #29 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on January 30, 2013 - 10:36 am

      Cyd, that’s a wonderful way of putting it. Get the rubbish out of the way until you work out what you actually think. Some days I feel like I have a headful of rubbish.

  10. #30 by Gyula on February 3, 2013 - 1:15 pm

    When I’m stuck I do brainstorming. I create a list of possible solution, I write down everything that comes into my mind, even if it seems stupid first. I do it until I run out of ideas, then I push it a little further. Then I go back, and read the list, and pick the one, which will do the trick. Sometimes the solution is not on the list, but comes while reading it back.

    The other method I find useful is that I walk the dog. It means a different state of mind, and usually it sparks my creativity. I think about the scene I’m stuck with, and ask the ‘what if?’ question. I work out several scenarios in my mind, and pick the one I like the most.

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