by Tiffany Yates-Martin
You know that feeling—like you were coasting along on a greased golden road through your first draft (or second…or twelfth), and suddenly you come to a bone-jarring halt, like Wile. E. Coyote sent an avalanche right smack into your creative pathway.
Ka-pow, as the coyote would say: "writer’s block." I use quotes because I think getting stuck isn't the big scary monster it's often painted as—not a condition like a disease that must be cured, but rather a symptom of an underlying problem, the way a stuffy nose isn't your core problem when you have a cold.
Reasons writers get stuck—whether in drafting or revising—contain multitudes…but I’ve found that often when characters are resisting and refusing to perform, it’s because the author (or sometimes the editor) is forcing them to go where they don’t want to go—pushing the story into a corner it doesn't want to be in. And, like the tantruming toddler who goes completely dead-limb when a parent tries to force him where he doesn’t want to go, your story can throw a resistance fit and go limp.
Writing is such a mystical process—an unlikely partnership of right and left brain, a delicate balance of inspiration and intention. Sometimes when the left brain takes the lead, the right brain rebels. A plot line or character arc may seem fantastic on paper…but as the story and the players begins to take shape they may change direction. If you keep slavishly trying to cleave to your original idea, inspiration often dries up.
I am a believer that you can't force a vision on a story--if you've created real, vivid characters and a juicy situation for them to live in, eventually it takes on a life of its own, and if you try to impose your will over the will of the characters they will freeze up. They will boycott you. Stephen King put it in a way I love in On Writing: You create the stage and the players, and then if you have done it well, the characters will get up there and perform the play in front of you. "What should happen next?" King asks. You will find out—they will come onstage and tell you. It’s miraculous, otherworldly, transcendent—and yet sometimes it’s hard to let go and let the muses have their way.
First, give yourself some mental distance. I'm guessing you've heard this before, but if you’re stalled in a blind alley, stop driving forward. Get your brain out of that world for a while—distract yourself so your creative mind can take a step back, out of the maze, and recalculate.
Don’t just go work on another manuscript—that just keeps the screws turned on your poor overwrought mind. Studies have shown that “pushing through” mental strain is counterproductive.
Give your brain a break and let your body take the lead—go for a walk or a run or play Putt-Putt; take your dogs to a dog park (they will thank you); do yoga. Or wake up another part of your creative mind: paint; cook; garden; throw something on a pottery wheel. Or relax everything and de-stress: take a soothing bath; get a massage; meditate. One of my favorite ways to open up new ideas is by taking in someone else’s—read a book; go see a movie; binge-watch your favorite show.
The point is to force yourself away from your story—physically as well as mentally—so you can jostle yourself out of the track that keeps leading you into a dead end. But the magical thing is that while you’re ostensibly taking a break from the story, your characters are still bumping around on their own in the background, whether you realize it or not. Often once you come back to the desk, you’ll find they’ve solved the problem in your absence, and all you have to do is let them come onstage…and just watch.
If you come back and find things stalled right where you left them, here’s an exercise I love and often suggest to authors:
Write a scene—even just a throwaway scene—where, whatever you had planned for your characters, the exact opposite thing happens.
Do you want your protag to leave her husband and run away with her lover? Make her find out she's pregnant and can't leave. Make her husband get a terminal illness and she can't abandon him. Make her lover find out his ex is pregnant and he still loves her. You get the idea. Take the thing that ruins the story you are trying to tell—directly flies in the face of your intentions—and write the scene that way.
Notice that this is similar to the idea of torturing your characters. There's a reason that advice is so universally given: Conflict is juicy—and the bigger, the juicier. The scene that results may not be where the story ultimately goes--it probably won't be, because as you see I used extreme, bodice-ripping, melodramatic examples. But that's the idea—take the craziest, most completely opposite thing you can think of and write it, just as an exercise. More often than not, even if you don't use that actual idea it will jostle something loose, and you'll see an avenue out of your blind alley.
Just don’t keep banging your head against that same dead end and expecting something different to happen—for inspiration to suddenly descend. Because that, at the risk of clichéd writing, is the definition of insanity.
What do you do when your writing gets "stuck?" Please share your tips, tricks and woes in the comments!
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Tiffany Yates Martin is privileged to help authors tell their stories as effectively, compellingly, and truthfully as possible. In more than 25 years in the publishing industry she’s worked both with major publishing houses and directly with authors (through her company FoxPrint Editorial), on titles by New York Times, USA Today, and Wall Street Journal bestsellers. She presents editing and writing workshops for writers’ groups, organizations, and conferences and writes for numerous writers’ sites and publications.
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You are absolutely right about stepping away. My characters whisper in my ear when I'm in the car, in the shower or taking a walk. They're living my story so they often know best. Always, it's magic. Thanks for your supportive post.
It's weird how they keep living while we go about our business, isn't it? Glad the post was helpful, Mary.
Thanks for reminding us that everyone gets stuck and stepping away is a powerful tool.
Sometimes the best thing to do is nothing. 🙂 Hope it helps!
Just last week, I'd stalled in my work-in-progress because something felt off. I wanted to keep going through the book and fix what was amiss, but I ended up having to take breaks because I had a problem with one eye (long story, irrelevant). Anyway, it was while I was puttering around the house doing other things to get breaks from the screen that I made the epiphany that fixed the core issue. So yeah, you're spot on! I need to remember that taking those breaks doesn't mean I'm not working on the book. I'm just not writing words in the book at that moment. The story's still percolating in my brain. Thanks, Tiffany!
Great story! It's amazing how often the characters will offer the answer if we're quiet enough to listen and let them figure it out. Thanks for sharing this, Julie.
It's good to know that 'pushing through' isn't always the best way to go. Sometimes in a world where we seem to have to be busy, all the time, it's actually hard to say that you're going to take a break for a bit. But now I can say my ice-coffee breaks are good for my work.
Happy to help justify some downtime. 🙂 Seriously, though, sometimes pushing through is just counterproductive, and you have to step back and take a break--and get some distance. Thanks for the comment!
great and timely advice--thanks!
Glad it helped, Denise--thanks for the comment!
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Thank you so much for your post. Keep sharing
When I'm stuck, it's always because I've made a mistake, and my brain is trying to get me to see it. It took me a long time to learn that because I'm stubborn!
That's fascinating, Laura. I did not know that.
That's exactly what I experience. It's because there's something fundamentally wrong somewhere, and it's caught me up but I can't quite put my finger on what it is. Once I find it, I'm not usually blocked anymore.
I think a lot of us are conditioned to PUSH THROUGH IT!!! Which works in almost no pursuit, I think. The cosine waves are as necessary as the sine waves. (Oh, my husband would be so proud of that reference...) But especially in our culture in the U.S. we feel guilty if we're not JUST DOING IT all the time. It's hard to remember that the "idle" times are not just idle--they're part of the process so the "busy" times are productive. Thanks for the comments!
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Loss of inspiration is yet another reason why some people experience writer’s block. So if you are feeling uninspired and lazy, then you should actively look for new sources of inspiration. Don’t stay inside and mope about your lack of creativity. Go out into the world and experience life. Meet new people, have long and meaningful conversations or just read a new book. Do whatever gets your creative juices moving. Just remember that the more inspired you are, the less chance you will have of developing writer’s block.
Thank you for sharing this post.