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For writers — When You're Stuck

When I’m Stuck
I often get stuck when I’m writing a book. I’m not talking about writer’s block — that’s something quite different, more like stage fright or performance anxiety. (It’s funny how people feel free to mock the idea of writer’s block, but totally accept the notion of stage fright or performance anxiety, which in my view is exactly the same thing. But more of that in a future post.)

I’m talking about just being a bit stuck and not knowing how to go forward in the story. It’s a normal part of writing, especially if you’re a “pantser”. 

Reasons for being stuck are many and various. There are several approaches you can take. Here are some suggestions:

1) Go back and read over your last few scenes. 
Consider them in the light of your premise. Have you taken a wrong turn? Forced an action on your character that suits the plot but not the character? Or vice versa. Have you introduced a character or an action or situation that is now taking the plot in a different direction—and do you want to go in that direction or not?

The other day a brand new character popped up in my current wip (work in progress) and I wrote a few scenes with her in it. And then I stopped, full of doubt. Did I need this character for the plot? Not really. What did she add to the story? A small surprise and an unexpected bit of humor. But was her character necessary? Probably not. But her role was necessary — it was a matter of Regency-era manners. So I decided to bland her down and keep her in the background.

I was telling this to a writer friend, and she said “Nooooo, this is one of your classic minor characters and readers will enjoy her.” So now I’m having another think about her and her role, and whether I can let her be herself without hijacking the plot.

2) “Interview” your character(s). I often do this one. I look at the last couple of scenes and I ask the character concerned questions like:

a) What did you (the character) want at the start of the previous scenes?

b) What did you do just now? Why?

c) How do you feel about what just happened? 

d)  What do you want now? (Has that changed, or refined, or become more specific?)

e) What is your problem now? (ie How has the problem changed as a result of the action?)
     What are worrying about now? 

f) What are your options? — brainstorm them, and see if the character reacts to any in particular. That’ll be your subconscious throwing up suggestions.

I ask and answer these questions in my writing notebook, in handwriting — my “scribble” book — because quite often in the process of answering my questions, dialogue will start to happen, the character explaining in his/her voice, and before I know it, I have the beginning of a scene.
It might be  a dialogue exchange with another character or it might be internal dialogue — the character thinking to himself. But whatever, it usually throws up something I can work with.

For instance, I just grabbed an old scribble book at random and this is what I wrote after Flynn and Daisy’s first kiss (The Summer Bride). As you can see, it’s nothing fancy — just clarifying where Flynn’s head is now. I also did Daisy’s reaction to the same kiss, and what follows is the beginning of part of her backstory. (See below)

3) Force yourself to push on.  
I take myself to the local library with pen and  my “scribble” notebook and I force myself to push on. My rule is that I can’t leave until I have 3 handwritten A4 pages. 

Often I will start this process by interviewing my character (see #2, above) but I can’t count that as “writing” so I keep asking and answering questions until something loosens and I’ve started a scene. And have 3 pages. Sometimes that’s like pulling teeth, other times it’s a like a freed log-jam and I write heaps.  (You can also see why it’s called a scribble book. My writing isn’t neat.)

4) A man with a gun?
If you’re really stuck and can’t see where to go next, consider Raymond Chandler, famous hard-boiled crime writer, who said whenever he was stuck he had a man burst into the room brandishing a gun. Of course you don’t need a man with a gun — it can be a new opponent, a complication, a surprise that gives the story a new twist. This is where brainstorming comes in. 

The point is to find a way to unsettle your character, and give him/her a new set of problems to deal with. In romance this is harder than in crime or urban fantasy or suspense — where the man with the gun has all kinds of parallels, but if you think hard about what will unsettle your main character(s) most, I’m sure you’ll come up with something good.

5) When you’re brainstorming, force yourself to list at least 10-15 possibilities, and don’t discard ones that at first glance look silly or crazy. The first few will be the more obvious options, but the further down the list you get, the less used ideas, the crazier ones can sometimes spark an idea (or a version of it) that you can use, and you’ll be off and writing.

6) Maybe your story doesn’t have enough substance?
You might decide/realize that your story does not have enough substance, and you’re facing the possibility of having to add in more “same old” scenes just to make the word count. Padding? Don’t do it!

Try going deeper — deeper into the character’s backstory, deeper into the problems they’re facing, or exploring the theme of your story in a deeper way.

You don’t have a theme? Start thinking about it. Most good books have some sort of underlying theme. Stephen King said his theme doesn’t emerge in his consciousness until he’s finished the first draft. Then as he’s editing the book, he strengthens the theme. For me I’m usually somewhere near the end of the book, and I’ll suddenly realize — “Oh, this book is about trust,” or “This is about forgiveness” or whatever.
(Theme is on my list of future posts.)

If your story is still a bit thin, consider the possibility of weaving in another story — a subplot — that enhances or contrasts with your main story. TV series do this a lot — they have the main A story, but they also have a B story, a C story and sometimes more. (Another on the list of future posts.)

7) Try writing your back cover blurb, or even a short synopsis. I know, I can hear you groan, but there’s nothing like trying to boil down your story into half a dozen pithy sentences to help you clarify what your book is really about.

I have usually finished a book and it’s off with my editor before I have to try to come up with a back cover blurb. My editor, my agent and I then work on it and as they highlight and discuss different aspects that they consider important, it’s  sometimes a revelation to me. I come away from those sessions resolving to write a back cover blurb when I’m about half way through the book . . . but I usually forget. (Makes note to self — write a back cover blurb now!)

8) Refresh your brain. 
Take a walk, a shower, go for a swim, do some housework or gardening — or sleep — and let your subconscious mull over your problem. Often focusing on something else will help free up the solution that’s lurking in your brain.

I hope this post helps you if and when you get stuck.
Feel free to ask questions in the comments section and I’ll do my best to answer them.
Or make suggestions for future posts.

Added note: I was just referred by Catherine Bilson (On the Romance Australia FB group page)  to this post by M/M writer KJ Charles, talking about what she did when she got stuck.
You might like to compare. She goes into a bit more detail than I did, but it’s interesting to see that it’s normal to get stuck. And that you can work your way out of it.

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Robyn Aldridge
Robyn Aldridge
2 years ago

Great post, Anne.

2 years ago

I love this! Printing to save because I think it will help. I have my characters returning to a place, the return is pretty important to the story, but the impetus for them to return just isn’t there. I might have to ask them why they’re returning instead of trying to figure it out myself :)

2 years ago

Anne, your nuggets of writing wisdom are priceless. Thank-you for the time you put in. Even from your comments to Theo below I have learnt so much!

2 years ago

Sounds like dealing with depression… Love your insight.

And, before you know it, the secondary character has demanded her own book, series, television program and Facebook page.

I begin to understand why authors resort to killing people.

2 years ago
Reply to  Marianne

LOL Marianne — yes, secondary characters can be very pushy.

Liz Fielding
Liz Fielding
2 years ago

Such an interesting post, Anne. Just yesterday I realised that I had a problem. I have quite a detailed plot outline – rare in my case – but I’m writing something different, so it’s necessary. I realised that there was a moral dilemma about the ending and I started to write an email to my support group asking for their opinion. Even as I finished the email the answer was beginning to be clear – and later, after several exchanges, was sorted. It’s a bit like talking out loud to yourself, but I have often found that writing to a… Read more »

Anne Gracie
Anne Gracie
2 years ago
Reply to  Liz Fielding

Yes, Liz, that setting out the problem clearly is so helpful. Sometimes my writing friends will talk over a writing/plot problem on the phone, and often just the exercise of explaining makes things come clear — without any input from me except maybe a question or two.

Vicki Milliken
Vicki Milliken
2 years ago

Enjoyed your insights as I usually do. I normally do 3) – but am going to experiment with 4)
cheers Vicki

2 years ago

A little late to the party. I don’t handwrite my novels. But I do handwrite all my notes from writing workshops (whether I attend in person or through video). And I still handwrite letters to relatives and friends. I love the personal touch it adds and the anticipation it builds waiting for the postman to arrive!