Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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November 12, 2018

How Writers can Breakthrough Being Stuck

Tasha Seegmiller

Whether you are a participant in NaNoWriMo or not, all of us have (most likely) experienced what it is like to hit the middle of the story and . . .


Some call it a brick wall, others talk about being stuck in the muck, and still others may not have a name for it but simply refer to the weeping and wailing that happens when the story is just stuck.

There are probably others who have written about why we get stuck in the middle, but I want to suggest some tips for getting out, based on how I FINALLY emerged from a draft that took me three times as long as anything else I’ve ever written.

1.    Stop letting your desire for perfection become a form of procrastination.

I think all of us know that the really good writers are really the solid editors and revisers, but a lot of times knowing something and believing something is really far away from each other. There is a temptation to get so caught up getting the setting and the characters and the emotional impact and the pacing just right that knowing we aren’t makes us spin our wheels – or worse – stop writing in the first place.

Dear writer? It is okay to leave yourself notes. It is okay to suggest to yourself that double-checking a research point or the emotional chords you want to play even if at the time you are writing them, you aren’t in the headspace or the heartspace to write that during that draft. Remind yourself what you want to the reader to feel or experience at a certain place, and continue with the parts of the story that you know.

2.    Write the story out of order.

Chances are, twenty years ago, this would have been really difficult. I had a professor who realized, after he’d written his doctoral thesis, that things were in the wrong order, so he cut it up, a paragraph at a time, and took over the living room, placing different thoughts where he thought they needed to be realigned. He also told everyone not to open the front door.

Now? Whether you are a Word writer or a Scrivener writer, moving scenes around, or even whole chapters can just be one more step in the revision process. In the case of my most recent draft, I knew how the story ended. I wanted, so much, to wait to write those as a dessert for the work that I was doing, but I couldn’t move on. So, I wrote the last two chapters (it’s a dual narrative story). I made the theoretical tangible and it absolutely unlocked something within me. (I didn’t write THE END then. That’s a mental celebration that I knew wasn’t authentic yet.)

3.    Readjust how you think about the remaining work.

When I got really stuck, I was at 67,000 words. Most of my first drafts are right around 90,000 words, so I knew the math I was shooting for. (Okay, I may have double checked it a few times with the calculator – don’t judge me.)

Then I was having a conversation with a colleague who is also a writer and asked him about his current WIP, asking how many words he had left. And what he answered fundamentally shifted how I think about my work.

He said he didn’t keep track of how many words were left, or even how many words he’d written (not all the way). Instead, he’d blocked out how many scenes were left, and he knew how many of those he needed to write.

I plotted how to get from where I was to where I knew I needed to be in sense of chapters, and I discovered I had 18 left. That’s a lot easier to think about than 23,000 words. And the work became simply to write that chapter.

4.    Create boundaries to protect yourself.

This is one of those pieces of advice that I am really good at giving to other people, and less than stellar at following myself. I was involved in lots of conversations that would occur throughout the day, and I didn’t realize how much emotional and mental energy I was tossing out to all sorts of people, thinking it was my job.

Yes, there are certain boundaries I don’t get to set on my own. I have three teenagers, I work full time, I’m married to an entrepreneur, I’m about to start an MFA program, I’m running unopposed as president of my favorite a writing organization. I signed up for those things, I need to follow through with the various obligations that come with them.

But what I realized recently was that I have also been taking on a lot of things as obligations that just aren’t. Part of this aha came at the same time that my primary religious leader issued a challenge to participate in a 10-day social media fast. I uninstalled all social apps from my phone and started to feel the weight of all kinds of things lifting from me. I saw the ways I could sneak in little things that could allow me to nurture the writing part of me, and I even allowed myself moments to sit and be still. This last part is essential for my mental health and allows me to better connect with the creative side of me.

Social media is back on my phone – it’s how I engage with some of my dearest friends who live all over the place, but I don’t get notifications for any of them. Not a little badge, not a banner, nothing. I have declined to help some people with things that I previously would out of guilt, and allowed myself, instead, to use that time to write. This is not to say that I live a fairy tale writing life with inspiration and opportunity and rainbows and unicorns. But I am done breaking promises to myself (inspired significantly by this book). I am done violating the trust my creativity has placed in me. And I’m slowly working on having less guilt for isolating myself to pursue the writing that I love.

Do you have any suggestions for how to negotiate inspiration or motivation when your book feels stuck?

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Tasha Seegmiller believes in the magic of love and hope, which she weaves into every story she creates. She is passionate about helping women nourish their creativity, is a member of the Women’s Fiction Writers Association,and trusts in the power of Diet Coke. The former high school English teacher now assists in managing the award-winning project-based learning program (EDGE) at Southern Utah University. Tasha married a guy she’s known since she was seven and is the mom of three teens. She is represented by Annelise Robey of Jane Rotrosen Agency.


26 comments on “How Writers can Breakthrough Being Stuck”

  1. No motivation or inspirational tips unless you think this is one...my CPs were always telling me "You have to finish the book first", which I thought translated into Chapter 1, Chapter 2, etc., and finally (after five years) the light bulb ignited. Whether I write it linearly, hopscotch-y, or the ending first, just write it! No chapters, you can figure those out in the rewrite. This has freed me up to tell my story without the boundaries or thoughts of "getting it right the first time." Being stuck is the pits.

    1. That’s stellar advice. Funny how thinking in chapters frees up one person and inhibits another. Thanks for sharing!

  2. I'm wired differently. "Stuck" usually means I'm not sure where the book is going, or how to get there (I'm NOT a plotter.) But I look at my list of publications and realize it happens every time, and every time, I've gotten to "the end."
    I can't write out of order. Doesn't work for me.
    Deadlines help. I promised my editor the manuscript for early January. I looked at how many words I'd written, ballparked how many it would take to finish, then divided that number by the days left and used that as my daily goal, knowing some of what I wrote would be garbage, but you have to get words on the page before you can fix them.

    1. I hoped a pantsed would jump in, because I know that process is so different. Thank you so much for sharing.

        1. I call myself a "planster" because it's not just throwing random words on the page. There needs to be a plan, be it for the overall book (genre expectations and all that!) or the scene I'm working on.

    2. What Terry said! Pantser here, too. If I'm stuck it's because I don't know what's next, or, I've made an error in the last scene that's going to mess me up down the line. It's figuring out which is which that's maddening!

      Funny, I think our brains know what they're doing -- where they're going, but they're not talking!

      Maddening, I tell you.

      Because, if you can't control it, it could leave at any time! Pantser nightmare.

  3. Thank you,Tasha, for the great post. Just last week I tossed the first two chapters, and made their contents into a one page prologue. (not acceptable to some). Now chapter 3 is chapter one. I feel great about it and much more motivated to keep going.

  4. I always get stuck in the middle but that's because I'm a pantser, but I'm learning more how to plot. Here is my thing I get paralyzed with fear when revision time rolls around. I have been trying to edit a MS that's been done since last Feb I've litterally done nothing since the beginning of the summer. I have entered it in a few contests and received good feedback, but still can't seem to do it. How do I get over that? I'm so sad and frustrated.

    1. Sometimes we just need a break. Have you written anything else since? I like to keep a "playground" folder where I can dabble in writing or editing or revising but it's not my serious project, just to get the mind working. Also, maybe it's time to get another set of eyes on the whole thing and see if where it is going is what is authentic to the story. It's truly so hard, but a little bit of playing around could help with the break through. Good luck!

  5. I love the "How many scenes are left" idea. That is an awesome one, because I do the same thing--Oh no, I have such and such words left. I'm going to try that with my current WIP that I'm drafting for NaNo.

    1. Writing out of order is pretty much the only way I can keep moving forward. It gives Laura hives and it's tough sometimes to be my critique partner, but writing out of order has saved my sanity.

  6. #1 - Stop letting your desire for perfection become a form of procrastination. I just realized that the feeling that my writing sucks is the main reason I procrastinate. I have to force myself into the chair. Must work on my self-confidence and give myself permission to write my drafts "good enough." Thanks for this excellent post, Tasha!

  7. Tasha, thank you for a thoughtful, timely (for me) post. All four of your tips resonant with me. Like Laura, I'm a pantser and looking back, I can see how these tips would have made my life easier and my first draft faster.

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