Thursday 7 November 2013

When words won't come: advice for the stuck writer

by Teri Terry
The Cry of the Stuck Author: I'm all impatient now because I started off so well! I want to have the whole plot worked out in a day! Damn it, this story telling malarkey is difficult...
Isn't it just.

I get asked all the time: what do you do when you hit the wall: the dreaded writer's block? There seems to be
Could this help?
an assumption behind the question that because I'm published now I've got it all figured out.

If only! Could there be one sweet, secret answer?

I'm not sure I believe in writer's block in the way this term is often used - I see it more as writer's procrastination. Or fear: of not finding the 'right' way. Of not being good enough.
Or this?
But staring at a page and not knowing what happens next, or, more usual in my case, knowing where I want to end up, but not being sure how to get there - that happens, all the time. 

This came up recently with a group of writing friends:
Caroline Green: What do you guys do (the ones who plan in advance) when you have a great idea and are all fired up and a synopsis is pouring out...and then you hit a brick wall and can't see around it at all? Write a chapter and see where it goes? Draw some sort of exciting graphic thingie? Cry?
I was fascinated at some of the answers. Some are things I've learned to do, some are new to me but I'm very definitely going to try them! 

So here they are:

1. Incubation: patience, grasshopper...
The pie of destiny may be just around the corner...

Hilary Freeman: Leave it a while. It'll come to you.

R.M. Ivory: Sleep/dream on it, like Hilary says it will come to you but sometimes you need some time and space away from it. In the meantime you could write a chapter or a scene from it and see what happens.

Maybe wisdom is hiding in a few of these?

Ruth Warburton: It depends on the brick wall. If it's something that happens further down the line in the plot, quite often I start writing and let my subconscious sort it out while I write - and often the key is in something to do with their characters which only becomes apparent while I write. Usually by the time I get to the wall it's solved. If it's something more fundamental about the shape of the book or something closer then I agree, it's a sign that it needs to grow a bit more in its egg before it hatches. Pop it back for some more incubation time.

Bryony Pearce: I give it time. My brain always works it out in the end. Did for me today in fact - had been stuck for weeks.

2. Slip into neutral: do something else,leaving your brain time and space to muddle things through

Teri Terry: write a blog. Have a very, very long shower.
 Make cookies. Or polish your ducks. 
Definite problem solvers, these ones
Addy FarmerI go for a walk. It works pretty much every time. Everything unsticks or unknots and I find good ideas flow free. I always take a notebook with me, ready!

Candy GourlayWhen I'm stuck, I read until I'm back in the mood to write. The rule is that the book must be in the same mood, genre, general world, emotional place, as the scene I'm trying to write.

3. Make things up as you go along

Michelle Harrison: Blag it. I hit a wall with the synopsis of the book I'm writing now. I hate giving away everything anyway, even though you're *supposed* to, so I write it in a way that I call the extended blurb which doesn't give all the answers.

Dive in...!

Eve Harvey: I get my favourite pen out and an A4 notebook and just write any ideas I can think of, no matter how shite. I scribble and doodle all over page after page and eventually I write the solution. My pen and imagination seem to work well together.

4. Attack the problem: be analytical

Cath Murphy: I'm very analytical so I ask myself a lot of questions about what exactly the problem is and try to find an answer that way. Or sometimes I write backwards from the end (if I know what the end is). Or sometimes I give up and open a bottle of red wine.
A woman after my own heart

Emma Haughton: Like Cath I use questions. I use a fresh Word document and ask myself questions around the problem and write down all the possible solutions. Sometimes I use mindmaps too, to brainstorm all the possibilities. The answer always seems to emerge.

Sally NichollsLook at the things you've already given your characters - hobbies, relations, friends, skills, places. Often one of those turns out to be the solution.
You could even see it as a challenge - my main character needs to find her mum, and she's only got a love of art, a grumpy granny, an obsession with Facebook, two brothers, a cat, a D in maths, a holiday in France last year and a dream to be a ballerina to help her. Set it out like that and you discover she only really needs Granny and Facebook.

And me?
I was really fascinated by all of this, as I'd hit a wall recently in my shiny new thing, too. I knew the shape of the story, but there was an event that was crucial, with a specific result, and I couldn't work out how the event took place. The original way I'd envisioned was flawed and I needed a new way. And I tried writing down all the possibilities; I tried making it up as I went along. Nothing was working.

The wall of fear
One thing I've learned about myself more and more? Incubation really is key. No matter how much a deadline is looming, there's no point in barrelling ahead if the story hasn't cooked enough in my imagination.

In this instance I woke up from a sound sleep at 2 a.m., and the answer was just there, in my mind. How that I happens sometimes, I don't know! Both incubation, and letting my mind think/dream about it while I'm doing other things, seemed to play a role in this instance. In this case - and this happens to me a LOT - the problem was this: I was focusing on something specific (how to write a scene) when the problem was more general (there was an aspect of the story that needed to tie in, and I hadn't realized it yet).
The gingerbread of hope
I just thanked the muse for the gift, and got up in the middle of the night to write it down.

The trick for me is working out when I'm stuck because I need to stop and think, and when I'm just being lazy. Sometimes just writing and going for it and seeing what happens can work. And I love tackling the how-to-get-from-a-to-b problem by scribbling all the possibilities I can think of with pen and paper: it is surprising how often this makes the answer blindingly obvious. I haven't attacked the problem in an analytical way so much, and I'm intrigued to try that.

But most of all - I'm just surprised nobody mentioned cake.


  1. Fantastic post. Wine was mentioned, but no chocolate? Whenever I am stuck, I find it's often because I haven't figured out something more fundamental. Yes, cooking ideas. Who wants to eat a soggy half cooked sponge cake after all? Thanks for the great advice here.

    1. thanks - I felt it very important to insert random cake and chocolate photos. Isn't that what we all *really* do when we're stuck?

  2. I'm with Addy on this one. Walking the dog is definitely a great thinking space.

    1. I haven't got a dog but I get this also. Cycling, too. Though writing flashes of inspiration down whilst cycling is a little dangerous along canals

  3. I think I gained two kilos reading this post

    1. Magic internet calories?
      Candy I must admit I was really intrigued that you read things around what you are writing - I don't read a lot when I'm doing a first draft, and what I do I always make sure it is very, very different to what I'm writing. I'm scared of osmosis creeping in and colouring what I'm doing.

  4. All those images are making me hungry! Love this post. I find I use a mix of the techniques above. I let my subconscious work on the problem while I do something else. I go walking and take photos and let my mind wander. I try to analyze by writing lists or just scribbling a load of rubbish until something useful comes out. It's great fun. Oh, and I'm about to start reading 13 Secrets by Michelle Harrison, so very excited to see her on your list of writers!

  5. Brilliantly reassuring and helpful post Teri! Thank You

  6. Thanks for the inspiration - you've made me realise I need to make more cakes!
    I've learnt that the best thing to do when I get stuck is anything that isn't writing related. Walking, gardening, housework and shopping are all good. I also have several writing projects on the go at once so if one isn't going very well I switch to something different.

  7. Twice this happened to me recently and I realized in both instances that it wasn't me that was stuck, it was my characters. They were stuck because I was telling them to do something they couldn't possibly do, they needed help. Once I realized this I was able to write the missing scene to get the characters the help they needed.

    Also, going for a walk or bouncing random ideas off other people.

  8. This is a great post! I'm with the "Go for a long walk" solution as well. I also find a good soak in a nice hot bath works very well. I start to relax and then my mind begins to free-wheel. It's amazing how often you get new plot ideas popping into your head just by letting go and day-dreaming about the characters and situations in a story. Just don't drop your notepad in the water!


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