It’s inevitable—at some point in every project I get stuck. Not just a little stuck, but hopelessly, depressingly, this-story-is-a-stupid-mule-that-refuses-to-move-forward stuck. So I thought I’d write a bit about how I go about getting unstuck in the hopes that some of my ideas will help other writers out there.
Now, just to clarify, I don’t believe in writer’s block. I think that—along with believing in a muse—it’s just a cop-out that makes working or not working something outside of the writer’s control. Real writers don’t sit around waiting for inspiration to distill down upon them like dews from heaven. Real writers work. And getting the juices flowing again is completely within your control. Here are some ideas that work for me.
I’m convinced that nothing makes you a better writer than being a voracious reader. Nothing. Not a class, not a workshop, not a book on craft. So if you’re stuck, read a great book and try to see how the author built the plot, raised the stakes and developed the characters. Or read a terrible book and try to figure out where the author failed to deliver. Read inside whatever genre you write and also read way, way outside it. Read everything. The ideas will come.
Listen to music
I don’t generally listen to music while I’m writing, but I find it extremely helpful in the pre-writing, brainstorming and being stuck phases. But, you can’t just turn on music and tune it out. Listen mindfully. Absorb the lyrics. Imagine each song is a part of the soundtrack to your book (no fair saying it doesn’t fit—make it fit.) Where would the song play? How do the lyrics change what you know about your characters? This works especially well with music you enjoy, but aren’t overly familiar with, so buy something new or ask a friend for a recommendation. You’ll find all kinds of surprises and twists with this technique—often the words of a song will take on new meaning if you imagine them playing in the background of one of your scenes. Or if you imagine the words coming from one of your characters mouths. Give it a try.
Shake it up
Routine is a writer’s best friend. Writing at the same time, in the same place each day signals to your brain that it’s time to work. It can help you shift gears from your day job/family/life into whatever part of your brain is responsible for creating stories. In general, when I follow a routine, I find that I’m far more productive. However, this same principle can work against you if you’ve been stuck for a few days. Suddenly your home office (or coffee shop, or kitchen table) can start to signal the place where the ideas won’t flow, the place where you’re struggling with your story. So if you’re stuck—move. If you usually write at home, try going to a library, café or park. If you write at desk, try piling pillows on your bed and writing there. Change up your routine, get a different view and see if that helps.
Go back a step
Sometimes I get stuck because I’ve taken a wrong turn somewhere and I’m trying to force the story in a direction that doesn’t fit. If you suspect that might be your problem, go back to the last part of the story that was working and make a different choice with the plot or the characters. Often that’s all you need to start the story moving again.
Don’t just sit there
I’ve struggled with insomnia for most of my life. Especially in times of stress, my brain rebels against me and refuses to quiet down and let me fall asleep. I’ve learned (and medical research backs me up) that, ironically, one of the worst things you can do when you’re struggling to sleep is just lie in bed and try to sleep. Instead, good sleep hygiene (yes, that’s a real thing) dictates that you should to try for 30 minutes to fall asleep and then if you’re not successful, get up. Take a bath, read for a while and then try again. I think writing can be the same way. Don’t just sit and stare at an empty screen. It’s counterproductive.
If you’re stuck, there are two approaches.
1) Start typing something—anything. Write about the story, write about what you’re struggling with, write about your dreams for the story—how you want it to feel, what you’re trying to accomplish. Or you could try the second approach.
2) Take a walk while you mull over the story and decide what your next step will be. Keep walking/brainstorming until you either figure out what you’re going to write or have built thighs of steel. Either way it’s a win. But don’t just sit at your desk and be frustrated. Writers write.
Those are the ideas that work best for me. How about for you? How do you get unstuck?