Thursday, August 31, 2006

What do you do when you're stuck?

Like all writers, I occasionally reach a point in a story where I stop moving. I won't call it writer's block because I know people who have suffered from the real thing, and this is nothing like as severe. For one thing, I rarely come to a complete stop, I just slow down a lot. For another, the duration is usually pretty short, somewhere between an afternoon and a week. It generally depends on how long it takes me to notice that I'm really not getting anywhere and figure out why. For me, it's always the same reason—I don't know what happens next.

Once I've identified the problem, my traditional method for solving it is to lie on the couch on my back porch and stare out the window and daydream while occasionally mumbling to myself. (May I just note that I love that part of my job involves daydreaming and talking to myself) A particularly vexing problem might involve me wandering around the house, pacing and talking aloud to whichever cat I happen to pick up.

Then, when I know what's coming, I write it all down in mental shorthand and start moving again. Or, if it's a really big issue, I write it all down, call up another writer friend and rant about what happens next for a while, and then start moving again. Usually Lyda is the person who hears these rants, but occasionally it's Sean or Shari (S.N. Arly). It's always someone who has read at least some of the story to date.

So, I have a system that works well for me, but lately I've been trying out a new variation. My friend and fellow writer, Philip Lees (we were at Writers of the Future together) often goes for a long walk when he's stuck, refusing to turn around and come home until he's got it. This is a twofer–not only does he get good exercise, but he puts himself in a position where he has plenty of time to think past the immediate issues as he's walking back. And he usually arrives at the keyboard not just ready to write, but eager to do so.

So, lately I've been adopting Philip's method, which is really quite close to mine, and it's been fabulous. Yesterday I got a four mile walk in along the beautiful Red Cedar river, solved my immediate writing problems, arrived home eager to work, and didn't have to feel in the least bit bad about dessert.

What about you? What do you do when you're stuck?


Muneraven said...

What do I do when I'm stuck?

--Surf the net and then feel guilty
--Whine more
--Tell my partner I am a total hack and I am giving up on writing forever because I hate it and I've been fooling myself for years and wasting my time for years and years and its time to just settle down and be a good American capitalist and just buy and sell shit like everyone else does, dammit.
--Listen to music that gets me revved up
--Sit down and start writing again, writing ANYTHING, until something falls into place.

(I should note here that I'm writing big fat novels right now and so getting stuck makes me a bit more hysterical than I get when I get stuck writing a short story, lol.)

Mari Adkins said...

I had true block a few years ago - lasted two years. I didn't even write any poetry during that dry time. I was in misery. :( And honestly, I don't know what I did to become "unstuck". I just sat up one day and said, "Ah-ha!" and moved forward. I've bled words since then. :flexes muscles:

Sean M. Murphy said...

Hard to say. There are so many ways of feeling stuck. Sometimes it's energy or focus, sometimes its that I don't know what happens next, sometimes its that I have something going on in the wider world that just saps me, and no matter how good my ideas are, n omatter how much I love a story, my writing is crappy.

Music is very good for bumping energy up, and the sound walls I use certainly have the dual advantage of improving my energy and streamlining my focus.

When I don't know what happens, I do what Kelly said, and call someone else (read: Kelly, Lyda, Heather Johnson, Timothy Matos) to rant for a while. That conversation invariably presents questions and potential outcomes that generate a new understanding or a reinvestment of my mental energy, and generally works to un-gunk the gears.

When life intrudes? I'd like to have a kitsch phrase of how I get around it, but the truth is, life can bushwhack you pretty completely, and that can be exceedingly difficult to work around. 'Wait it out' is what I've done. I'm a writer, and I write. Eventually, even after a stretch of three years without writing, I find that I need to get going, to be working again. The only thing I can do then is trust that I am still myself, and that my identity as a writer will carry me through.

tate said...

This is going to sound like such a GIRL answer, but I tend to journal. I like to do my brainstorming on actual paper, so when I get stuck I pull out my favorite pen and paper and start writing. Like Jack (from Stephen King's "The Shining") sometimes I write cryptic notes to my self not unlike what munraven does outloud, little whiny notes like, "Plot! I need a damn plot!" or "Why does my writing suck so much?"

Eventually, I settle on something that works and I can go back to writing.

This may also explain why my butt is much larger than Kelly's.

Naomi said...

If I'm stuck, it's usually because I took a wrong turn somewhere, and I need to back up.

This had me paralyzed with fear before I wrote my first novel (what if I took a wrong turn on page three and had to THROW AWAY THE WHOLE BOOK?) Lyda assured me that this wouldn't happen, and she was right. I never screw up THAT much. But usually if I'm stuck, it's because I've made a mistake I need to fix somewhere, and once I've fixed it, I can move forward.

Anonymous said...

Read blogs and write comments.


Stephanie Zvan said...

When I get stuck, I do one of two things. I'll either write a scene that I know will need to be later in the story whatever I decide to do in the sticky spot, or if my decisions will affect everything from there on out, I generally decide I'm done writing for a bit. Since I write in 1-2 hour, 400-1,200 word chunks, this isn't too traumatic an admission.

Then I get on with life. I try not to immediately go do something that rewards stopping writing. This is a great time to fold laundry, weed the yard, scrub cat boxes, or make applesauce. The key is to do something that takes none of the part of my brain I use for writing.

There are two things I can't do if I want to make progress: listen to music or work on a jigsaw puzzle. Both use the same bits of my brain that writing does, which tells me I'm a spatial writer (take this bit from here and put it over here; this should move that direction).

Then I don't really think about writing. I take little peeps at the issue out of the corner of my eye now and again, but otherwise, I let my hindbrain work on the problem.

After all, it's the reason I started writing in the first place. It kept building these imaginary structures that were too big for it to deal with and shoving them into my forebrain for safekeeping. The only way to be able to use my own consciousness again without all the interruptions was to start writing it down. Getting better at it was just a matter of pride.

At the end of all that, I'll usually have some answers. Lest this make my writing sound really easy, those answers are usually things like "You need to make a decision about this thing, knowing that it will echo here and here and that you'll have to foreshadow it by at least here" or "You need something that resonates with this and causes your protagonist to do that" or "You need a new character, because none of your existing ones are going to accomplish this." Then the fifty decisions a minute of writing can start again.

Eleanor said...

I tend to remain stuck. When I was younger, this was often because I genuinely did not know where to go next with a story -- or if I was between stories, I didn't know how to begin the next one. In those days, I wrote fiction the way I wrote poetry -- start with a line or an image and feel my way from there. Now, I usually have a pretty good idea of where I'm going with a story, but I can't get through a section. The prose sounds dead to me. What I'm writing doesn't interest me, seems boring or false. So I give up for a while. I don't think this is a good plan. The best way I know to get unstuck is to sit down and write and discard and write and discard and write and....