Tuesday, December 3

Posted by Laurel Garver on Tuesday, December 03, 2013 11 comments
image credit: wikihow.com
Maybe you're coming down off the high of "winning" NaNo, or you tried and gave up, or you're just doing the usual ___ words-per-day, and suddenly find you simply cannot write. You're stuck. Panic begins to creep in. You think, I'll never finish! I'm a boring, talentless hack. Or worse, you become mired in apathy. Who cares about this dumb story? Why bother?

Here are a few things you should NOT do when this happens:

  • Stick your head in an oven like Sylvia Plath.
  • Delete the entire manuscript.
  • Sell all your possessions and buy a one-way ticket to an exotic locale.
  • Get started on a shiny new idea. Or three.  Or twelve.

Being blocked isn't worth dying for, and if you give up every time you hit obstacles, you'll never finish anything. A change of venue won't solve the real problem--you and your ideas. And many a writer has gotten waylaid in the Forest of Infinite Possibilities (aka Shiny New Idea Syndrome), never to emerge with a single finished manuscript.

Instead, try a more proactive approach to getting back on track.

Determine the cause of the stuckness

Getting stuck in a project is usually a symptom of two common writing maladies:  Writer's Block Wall and Writer's Block Desert. Take a look at the posts I linked for descriptions of the symptoms of each type of stuckness.

Generally, walls pop up when you stubbornly insist on continuing in the wrong direction. Deserts appear when you are burned out, or you need creative "food and drink" -- more raw material.

Pinpoint the wrong turn 

Sometimes we end up stuck because of a wrong turn that led to a dead end, a twisted forest path or a cliff with no guardrails. The only way to get the story moving again is to retrace your steps to where the wrong turn happened. I elaborate the causes and how to go about finding your wrong turn HERE.

If, after reading your manuscript and pinpointing where you think the story stopped working, you still have no idea where to turn next, let a trusted critique partner or beta reader take a look. Sometimes you are too close to the story to see the problem. My wonderful CPs have helped me find wrong turns that happened earlier than I initially thought. Getting help sooner rather than later enabled me to get back on track without having to toss out weeks of work.

Delve deeper

Sometimes we get stuck because we don't yet know the characters well enough to predict how they'd naturally react to story events, or we don't know our story world well enough to develop interesting plots. Taking time out to generate more raw material for your story can get it moving again.

  • Research more deeply the milieu of your story, not only the setting, but also the larger cultural forces.
  • Read up on psychological phenomena likely to effect your characters, from birth order and parenting styles to neuroses and full-blown mental illnesses.
  • Think through and plan the protagonist's inner journey of emotional change.
  • Research and develop associations for each character based on their upbringing, training and interests so you can better create character voices.
  • Develop all the characters, even the minor ones, and not just backstory. Give every character things to do, places to be, relationships, worries, plans and goals that engage them during the "here and now" of your story--even if much of that life happens offstage. The traces you sprinkle in will make every character feel more real. 
  • Experiment with handling a scene several different ways, using visualization first.
  • Practice riff-writing to flesh out an already-written section.

Feed your creativity

Think of your creativity as a pet. Or better as the "good wolf" of joy, hope, kindness, and courage spoken of in Cherokee legend that fights inside you for dominance. It will thrive only if you feed it. Here are some ways to do just that:

  • Spend time in nature. Studies show that it improves mood, increases energy, and reduces stress.
  • Connect with a friend or relative. Talk about favorite memories or traditions, overcoming obstacles, a "stranger-than-fiction" experience, or embarrassing moment. Human interaction is one the the best ways to jump-start creativity.
  • Create a movement journal in which you chronicle observations from people watching. 
  • Watch visually stunning movies. Beauty can be very healing.
  • Develop playlists of music that reflect the core emotions of your stories.
  • Read wonderful books and let yourself be carried away or analyze what you loved and found exciting.
  • Read terrible books and analyze what went wrong or simply be encouraged that you can do better.
  • Pick up resource books to encourage you. I talk about one of my favorites HERE.
  • Journal using writing prompts.
  • Write about your childhood (Anne Lamott's favorite creativity exercise).

What are your favorite strategies for getting unstuck?


  1. Usually my "block" comes up when I didn't plot out a particular scene well enough. It always helps to return to the orginal plot line and start fleshing it out in all the bare places.

    1. Taking time to plan--and to reassess how well you're sticking with a plan you'd already developed--can be a good step toward getting unstuck, especially if you consider where your characters are in their emotional arc at that point.

  2. Haha! #3 is good for other things. LOL Great post! Nature, music, and free writing always help me. Oh, and chocolate.

    1. Well, if your usual go-tos ever fail you, now you have some additional things to try. Happy writing!

  3. Yes, these are great options. I usually have written my self into a corner and have to back up my story a bit. That or "cheat" and jump a bit ahead to where I do have a clear picture of what's going on. Also, getting away from the computer and doing something, running, yoga, or nature really help to get my mind and my fingers flying back into my story.

    1. I'm a pro at writing myself into corners. But sometimes you just have to try things to figure out what will work. Yes, good point about exercise helping recharge the mind.

  4. This is really helpful advice. I've found that pinpointing the wrong turn really does help. I was stuck on a recent outline, and I realized exactly why -- that a particular scene was too forced. By replacing that scene, I fixed everything else.

    1. Sometimes those wrong turns happen from an off-key emotion. And reining it in can help you be able to steer the story in the correct direction (though sometimes the new direction can take some trial and error to find).

  5. Great post. I often end up stuck when I have a plotting issue--took a wrong turn or not sure where to go next--or if I don't know my characters well enough. Sometimes stepping back and talking with a trusted CP or first-reader is the answer. My husband's not a writer, but he's helped me work out many a plot problem. Having someone like that to turn to is essential!

  6. I love every part of this post. It's beautifully written and helpful. I've been getting stuck quite often and have realized that when I dig deeper into my story's themes, I can uncover more potential conflicts and plot points. Thanks so much for this.

    1. Glad you found it helpful. Going deeper is nearly always a good strategy. I've found that it has helped me to pinpoint wrong turns sometimes too. Once I know the characters more deeply, their reactions that are genuinely wrong for the story become more clear, for example.