Greasing the mental wheels: What to do when you’re stuck

Being stuck mid-story is a miserable feeling. Taking some time off seems like the natural solution, but it can misfire, badly. A walk around the block and a cup of tea is a break that may help you, letting your laptop get dusty for three weeks while you avoid the problem will only make things worse. If you’re not letting a completed draft ripen in your desk

Despite all my rage, I'm still just a drunk moose in a tree...

drawer between full revisions, taking more than a day away from your work is a mistake.

And when we get stuck, what is really going on? We’ve written ourselves into a corner and have become inflexible, unwilling to toss the work we’ve put in, even if it’s not working for us. We’re trapped in our own heads, unable to see a solution. All we see is the problem.


TALK TO SOMEBODY. You are frustrated. Get it out. Talking aloud will engage a different part of your brain, allowing you to examine your problems in a different light. Find someone who is a good listener, willing to tolerate frustrated rambling, someone who will be sympathetic, who may ask open-ended questions about your problem instead of trying to offer solutions. You do not want someone else to offer you solutions, no matter how well-intended. You do not want someone else to try to write your story for you. What do you want is someone who will listen to you spin your wheels until you get yourself unstuck naturally. If you don’t have anyone like in your life, you can be that person for yourself. Here’s how.

Open up your notebook or word processor and start writing about the problem. Express your negative feelings. Vent like a madman. And then… go past that and begin brainstorming. What else could happen in your story that would cut that knot? A new character? A different locale? Should your protagonist make a different decision earlier in the story? Could you cut that broken scene altogether without losing anything? Could you start at a different place in the timeline?

What do your characters want? Invite them into the conversation. Let them speak in their own voices about the story. Give them the opportunity to explain themselves- you’ll find if you prod them they’ll open up to you- mine are always vocal once I give them the mike.

Don't let the voices in your head be shy...

Above all, don’t allow yourself to be limited by what you’ve already written. Cutting can be scary, so don’t do it just yet. Instead, open up a new document and write something new: try out a scene from a different point of view, look for unexamined points of conflict and explore them. Allow yourself to riff and play, noodle around and jam out. Be free, have fun. Remember why you started doing this in the first place and just enjoy the sensation of creating something new. When the dust settles, you just might have a new scene that solves your problems. It’s hard to cut, unless you’ve got something awesome sitting in “ALT THIRD SCENE.DOC” just waiting for you to paste it into the manuscript.

If you’ve discussed your problems and tried some zero-pressure rewrites and are still thwarted and uninspired, it might be time to let go of that story and start another project. That’s okay. Not everything works. The worst thing you could do is stop writing altogether- that’s how writer’s block is born.