Get Unstuck

It happens to the best of us.  Despite our best efforts, our noble aspirations, we get derailed from our writing track. 

I’ve got two projects that are going feral on me at the moment.  Part of that is because of deadline-related, contracted work, but I must be honest, dear reader…both these other spec projects are simply stuck.  Stuck!

So what do I do?  I try not to panic, and then I run through my bag of little tricks.  Here are my writer’s tricks designed to get me unstuck:

(1)   No floggings allowed (unless they work).  The first rule is to be kind.  Berating myself, cursing my laziness or my lack of inborn talent – all, alas, useless.  My first step is to get a good meal into me, and at least a couple of decent nights of sleep.  I’d say at least 75% of my stuck-ness in writing has stemmed directly from physical exhaustion, sickness or a lovely combination of the two. 

Only one memorable time did fury work,  to push me through a very difficult scene for a manuscript that was due the next day.  I used all my panic, rage, and fear and hurled it at the page.  The editor liked it – all those nasty emotions blasted through to the page and did a pretty good job.  But this is the exception, not my general rule.

(2)   Start a new project.  I know, I know…the common wisdom is to finish what you start, never abandon work or you will end up as I began, the queen of the 30 page novel.  But rules and tricks evolve over time, and now that I know how to finish things, I use the momentum and enthusiasm I generate at the start of a new story to infuse the stalled out project.  Like a jump from a fresh battery to a dead one.

(3)   Get back inside the story.  When a story goes feral, I mentally cannot enter the country of the story.  The story seems outside, far away, like a newspaper from two months ago that you find stacked up next to the cat box.  Who wants to explore something musty and dusty like that?

I have my methods for re-entering the country of the story and finding the thread again – I interview characters (especially minor characters who sometimes can tell me things about the protagonist that she doesn’t know herself).  I take lots of naps, and when I start to dream about the setting again, I’m good to go.

(4)   Instead of trying to reignite my passion for writing, I go for reigniting my passion for anything and everything.  I read fantastic books by people writing about stuff that fascinates me.  Biographies of fearless, entertaining people.  I eat really, really good chocolate. (Now, I really should list chocolate as a trick all its own …I’ll get back to chocolate in a moment).  I go for long walks alone by the ocean and watch the gulls swooping through the howling winter wind.  And that infusion of life jumpstarts the stalled project – see #2 above.

(5)   Chocolate.  As I mentioned, kindness usually coaxes much more out of me than the harsh lash of discipline.  Bribes work, and they must be liberally administered, before during *and* after the work.  Huge rewards work too, for a job or a story completed.

This is my short list of favorite, all-purpose tricks.  I have specialized ones that pertain to particular projects – I watch movies set in the historical settings I’m working on, for instance.  And I love to write on trains, for some unknown reason, and will travel to write sometimes.  Sometimes it’s the process of trying new tricks itself that gets me jaunty and unstuck again.  Doesn’t matter how you get there, only that you find the way to the story again.

 What do you do when you are stuck?


7 Responses to “Get Unstuck”

  1. February 8, 2010 at 4:25 pm

    Very timely advice. Thanks! I’ve found that sometimes when I’m stuck, it’s because I’m trying to push the story in a wrong direction. As you say, giving yourself some space really helps see what’s wrong. Feral stories. Love it!

  2. 2 Terri-Lynne
    February 8, 2010 at 9:03 pm

    If I’m stuck, it’s because I’m in the wrong POV, or veering off into a tangent that just doesn’t belong. One time, that tangent took me 60 pages to realize. That sucked, yanking out all that work; but I did, and that did the trick.

    Wrong POV? I give it three days. If after three days I’m still struggling with a section, I’m in the wrong POV.

    I’ve learned to recognize tangents and POV flubs earlier these days, thank goodness.

  3. February 8, 2010 at 10:29 pm

    Lynn — You are quite welcome 🙂 I used to think letting my stories go fallow was the kiss of death; hence, the 30 page novel syndrome. I thought if I got stuck and stopped that the fault was in the story and that it could not be saved. That is true sometimes, but I find now that often the stuck state of the story has to do with *me* and my preconceptions about the story, not the tangents I’ve taken, or even POV mistakes.

    I have tried forcing stories with very bad results But often my failure is to not accept the story as it is, which may be another way of saying the same thing. If I just remember to eat a sandwich, get a good night’s sleep, and get back to my will to live I often find to my surprise that the story is just fine, and it was me that was out of whack.

    Instead of dead stories, I now have feral stories. Wild stories, with furry faces and racing hearts of their own. Much less pressure that way…I only have to corral them now, not animate them all by myself.

    Terri-Lynne — Argh, a 60 pp tangent. They say no writing is ever wasted…I dunno. I have a nice “deleted scenes” file for the WIP and some of them are pretty good and ended up getting cut through no fault of their own. When the time is right, I’ll put some of them up for readers, to see the forks in the road the story didn’t take. Me, my worst mistake is often setting. I’ll pick the wrong century or the wrong planet…it’s kind of funny, actually, but it seems so serious when I’m floundering. “Argh — the story should be in 1700s Paris, not Buffalo New York in 1989!” LOL

    Thank you both for your thoughts 🙂


  4. February 9, 2010 at 8:43 am


    These are great suggestions. When I get stuck, I just open a blank word document and start writing. Anything. It usually helps me break through.

    If that doesn’t work, I read — or sleep. 🙂


  5. 5 mlronald
    February 9, 2010 at 9:28 am

    1) No floggings allowed. Oh HELL yes. I can get stuck and unstuck without too much trouble, but the one thing that will inevitably get me mired in a “this story sucks and I suck and everything sucks” spiral is if I start berating myself for not writing. It took me ages to learn that the energy I was burning to beat myself up over the work I hadn’t done was taking away from the energy I could use to do the work.

    Also, chocolate is a mighty motivator.

  6. February 11, 2010 at 5:17 am

    Dear Abbi — I love your suggestion. Very courageous, very Zen. If you are writing, you are by definition Not Stuck. Rock on 🙂

    Hey ml — Thanks so much for your comment…I think I am going to write an entire post about the floggings. Vicious self-criticism has shut me down more times than I want to admit. The funny thing is, the more violent the inner censor, the better the stuff the inner killers are trying to suppress. Usually the arrival of the Secret Police inside my head is the first clue that I am onto something important, something dangerous and true.

    Thank you both for the awesome comments!

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