On Getting Unstuck

What do you do when you’re stuck in your writing? When you know you have a beautiful swan of a story, but there are messy, muddy parts you don’t know how to fix, or maybe even how to finish? What then?

There are excellent compilations of quotes by world-famous writers on overcoming writer’s block, but for this post (and for a panel I was asked to be on at a recent workshop), I wanted fresh material. So I turned to some of my equally wise and wonderful author friends, who’ve written everything from the hilarious to the serious, fiction and non-fiction and poetry, kid favorites and even a Newbery Honor. Here’s what they had to say:

Ruth McNally Barshaw: Take a walk. Look through magazines. Make a zillion lists. Exercise. Go someplace you haven’t been before. Go to an art gallery or museum and look at art. Commune with nature — walk in the woods. Talk with someone who inspires. Read a good book. DRAW.
Edith Thornton Cohn: Usually if I’m stuck, I’ve taken a wrong turn in the manuscript. So I back up & rethink it.
Anna Staniszewski: I second what Edith said. I go back to where the story was working and try to figure out went wrong. I also close the document and brainstorm on paper.
Janet Sumner Johnson: A blogging friend of mine once suggested making a bullet list for what comes next and go from there. That’s always really helped me. But I agree with all the other suggestions too!
Cynthia Levinson: For me, it’s insufficient research. But I’m a NF writer. Yet…it might still apply.
Kristin Wolden Nitz: I often make forward progress when writing by hand in accordance with Natalie Goldberg’s strategy she put forth in WRITING DOWN THE BONES. The short version is that you “rent” a table at a coffee shop for office space. Then you sit down and start writing without stopping for the next hour or more. No editing. Sometimes I call this Thinking with a pen…I used to get my best ideas when I was mowing the lawn or shoveling snow when I lived in Michigan. There was something about the long straight lines of snow or grass.
Kami Kinard: Usually I switch projects for a while… hours or days… or I read. So far, those two methods haven’t failed me.
Maggie Moris: A couple of things: I just got the book, “Around the Writer’s Block. Using Brain Science to Solve Writer’s Resistance,” by Roseanne Bane. Several writers recommended it. Also, if you physically move your body for a short series of exercises where the left hand taps the right shoulder/side/knee/toes – pick one, and vice a versa, this apparently lights up the brain’s cross wiring. I also agree with painting, or playing with modeling clay, or other forms of making art.
Margarita Engle: Scribble! Don’t expect perfection. Just let the pen flow, knowing that you can make corrections later.
Susan Hill Long: Setting a timer and writing till it goes off. Over and over. On the rough days, that’s what it takes for me. I love my timer.
Peggy Harkins: Take a walk. Somehow when my body gets moving, my brain does, too.
Tracy Holczer: Usually I get writer’s block when I’ve made a wrong turn somewhere in the narrative. It’s my brain’s way of telling me I’ve hit a dead end. The only way for me to break through is to go back and figure out where I went wrong. Sometimes that means taking a break from the writing and doing research, reading craft books or brainstorming with writing friends. The answer always comes and then the writing flows again.

Louise Galveston: I get blocked when I’m dreading a scene, especially if it involves a new world with lots of description. So I focus on dialogue on the first pass. Also I use the same playlist for a project so my brain hears the music and is conditioned to be productive-helps me, anyway.
As always, I’m overwhelmed by the wisdom and generosity of my fellow writers. Thanks to all who contributed to this post. And readers, what advice would you add?

Elaine Vickers is the author of LOST AND FOUND (HarperCollins, 2016) and loves writing middle grade and chapter books when she’s not teaching college chemistry or hanging out with her fabulous family. She’s a member of SCBWI and represented by Ammi-Joan Paquette of EMLA. You can find her at elainevickers.com on the web, @ElaineBVickers on Twitter, or generally anywhere there are books and/or food for her consumption. 🙂 

Getting Over Writer’s Block

We are delighted to welcome a new monthly contributor Emily Manwaring!

I broke up with my novel at the beginning of the year. I had thought it was “the one”—I’d worked on it in my spare time for six whole years [writing and rewriting and changing things so many times, I could write a book about how not to write a book], riding the roller coaster of “this is working” followed closely by, “this isn’t working,”  “I have chills,” and “what rubbish.”

I felt thrilled and validated when a publishing company accepted it.  But when the time came to sign on the dotted line (think of me at the altar ready to make my vows) the deal fell through.

What surprised me most was how un-devastated I was. (I suppose this is a good indication I wasn’t in love with my manuscript anymore).  After shelving it for good, I was also surprised to find myself full of writing drive, but empty of new ideas (it was like being thrown into the dating pool again with no clue of what I wanted).  I hadn’t experienced writer’s block before—there had always been something to fix, rewrite, or retry. Starting from scratch had been so long ago . . .

Knowing I needed to try something different [and also because it was late winter and I desperately needed to get out of the house], I signed up for a writing course—specifically a memoir writing course. At the very least, I figured it would be good for me to record some of my life’s events for my family.

This is what I learned:

-Writing groups/classes are fun. This is kind of obvious, but it’s important because it was a good reminder to me that writing should be fun and engaging—why do we write if not to entertain, uplift, share and/or help people think deeply?

-Everybody has stories, secrets, and really difficult things they go through.  But we can still relate to each other. I learned things about my memoir group I would never normally know, and we all have very different lives. By the end of the six weeks, I loved and respected every one of them deeply.

-Sometimes you have to dig deep.  The first in-class assignment was to write the story of our lives from our birth to that day in ten minutes. After reading our rush-writes aloud to one another, we repeated the exercise without rewriting anything we had already written. By the third rush-write, I was remembering things I had forgotten, details I hadn’t thought about in years. Which leads me to my next point:

-Everyone has experiences they can pull from.  I spent my childhood in a Welsh village full of characters—like my best friend’s mum who was beautiful but had crooked front teeth (hello British dental care), or the crazy old lady we called Mrs. Spitfire because she walked in the middle of the road and spat on the cars of the drivers who honked at her, or the friend I lived with as a missionary who would sigh dreamily and swoon a breathy, “Thank you, Heavenly Father,” to the sky anytime anything remotely lucky/good happened to us.  These characters are practically begging to be written about!

-I need to live in order to write. Writing is generally a solitary experience. There are times I want to just lock myself in a room and write. But I’m no Emily Dickinson. I need to get out and try new things, meet new people. Aspects of my writing have to come from my life, my experiences, and my ideas, otherwise I feel like a fraud.

Memoir writing was great for my writer’s block. And working on my craft with others was good for my soul.  It was like therapy.

But enough about me (and my therapy).

What do you do to combat writer’s block? 

Emily Manwaring spent her childhood in Wales, her adolescence in Utah and the time since in England and New Hampshire respectively. She has a degree in English Literature from BYU and currently lives in Northern Utah with her husband and children.  She likes to sleep [mostly she just misses it], read, and write [this makes her sound very lazy].  She is currently working on a picture book series.