3 Ways for a Writer to Get Unstuck

Mary Keeley

Blogger: Mary Keeley

You  know the feeling: Your brain seems dull, and you’re overwhelmed, confused, and just can’t come up with that great solution to a manuscript problem. Here are three ways to help you get unstuck:

 

  1. Visit the Scene.  For a novelist, take a virtual—or better yet, physical—trip to the setting of your story with no agenda in mind, but simply for personal pleasure and enrichment. Take time to “smell the roses.” You may be surprised at nuances you missed about the history, economy, weather, and changes in social mores that affect people in that particular area.  Write those observations down for later. When you get back to your manuscript, they can provide insights that lead to ramping up the protagonist’s conflicts, adding depth to the plot, or filling in gaps in his or her personal journey. For the nonfiction writer, revisit your research or reinterview someone whose story is integral to your message.
  2. Step Back. The solution simply may be a matter of giving yourself permission to step away from your computer and to spend extra time with God, your family, and friends. Surprise your spouse with a romantic dinner or watch a game on TV together. Set aside time with your children, one-to-one if possible, doing something they like and catching up with what’s going on in their lives. Spend time in devotions and Bible reading until you feel Christ’s presence with you. When you come back to your computer, your brain will be rested, and your heart will be full, knowing you blessed your important people and pleased God with your time. He will surely return a blessing. One of my clients is reworking backstory and character development in her manuscript. This process can be overwhelming and lead to confusion unless you maintain organized notes about the characters. Fortunately, she does. And it has helped her to step away from the project for a day or two at a time to regroup and pray when she becomes discouraged.
  3. Work on Another Project. Another client has little children who need a lot of her time. Her husband travels for business and often isn’t home to help in the evenings. She’s tired and has been frustrated that she can’t spend more time on her manuscript. We’ve been praying, and she realized this isn’t a season she can work effectively on a full-length book project. Recently though, she was approached with an opportunity to contribute to an anthology. She can handle a project of that length. Her creative juices won’t stagnate, and her writing career won’t be stalled. It’s a perfect short-term solution for her. If you are in such a season of life’s interruptions, your career needn’t be stunted. Continue with the standard alternatives: submit articles to magazines; look for opportunities for shorter projects; read books on the craft and others in the genre you write in as well as others; attend writers conferences or order tapes of the sessions. I blogged on these ideas in a previous post.

What have you done when you’re stuck? What about when life interrupted your writing?

This most important day and weekend of the year for Christians compels us to put all else aside and devote ourselves to worship and praise, thanking Jesus for his ultimate sacrifice and resurrection. I pray you have a blessed Easter and are refreshed spiritually, mentally, and physically come Monday.

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29 Responses

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  1. One thing that has worked for me is this: I write the words I least want to write. What is it that I’m trying NOT to say? What self-revelation am I avoiding. Thanks for this Mary.

    • Mary Keeley says:

      Bill, thanks for your insightful thought. Honest self-awareness translates to characters who are real.

    • I always enjoy hearing your insights, Bill! You inspirte me.

      • Well, Mary, I can see it’s definitely too early for my fingers. (As I cringe at my typo above… 🙂 )

        Your suggestions are excellent! One thing that motivates me is to visit others’ blogs. Michael Reynolds, for example, is always an inspiration to me, along with so many others.

        And of course, I love to pour over my Bible. God’s word speaks something new every time. The Apostle Paul’s words always encourage me to “press on.”

        Happy Easter, all! He is risen!

    • Kate says:

      Wow…thanks for sharing Bill. Should work for fiction too…right?

      • Yes. It’s a way of heading directly INTO the dysfunction/fear that often keeps us blocked, at least as I see it. Write what you’re afraid to write, keep it secret, and give yourself permission to trash it later. But write.

  2. Mary Keeley says:

    Cynthia, great suggestions to help a writer to press on. Happy Easter!

  3. Happy Easter, everyone. It’s a grey, dreary day here on the prairies – a perfect reminder of Christ suffering on the cross for someone as lowly as me. Oh, what a glorious thought that He rose and is waiting with open arms. 🙂

    Mary, you’ve touched on the main things I do when I have writing problems. Getting away can mean anything from a jump in the shower to a long drive. Perhaps it’s the grain fields, open pastures and lack of traffic, but when I drive without the radio on and think of my story, a solution appears out of the blue. I believe it’s because I’m more receptive to His voice and the path He wants the story to go. It may sound silly, but when I ask God to let my stories be a vessel for Him, I have to allow Him to help me tell it.

    When hubby is driving and has the worship tapes on I must zone out or something because invariably, I’ll hear the kids’ whispers of, “Look, Mom’s plotting again.” 😀

  4. Great suggestions on all fronts! I recently discovered that I was becoming stressed and a bit obsessed with “succeeding”–I tend to get tunnel vision–to the deteriment of my marriage (we weren’t spending much time together). So a mentor challenged me to step back and stop working so hard. I decided to read craft books for a few months; that way, I’m still honing my craft without the pressure to produce something. It has been great, and I’ve had lots of treasured moments with my husband.

    Oh, and regarding your first suggestion, I keep telling my husband I need to take a “research trip” to San Diego since my next novel is set there. 😛 So far, that hasn’t worked. Darn.

  5. Mary Keeley says:

    Lindsay, you sound like a Type-A personality. I am as well. My husband gives me the same advice your mentor did…bless them! You have the best of both worlds this way.

    Regarding that research trip, persist! And tell him your portion of the expense is tax deductible. 🙂

    • Yes, my name is Lindsay, and I am TOTALLY Type A! Guilty as charged. A great way to be organized, etc., but it definitely can have its downfalls too.

      And since we live in Phoenix, San Diego is only a 6-hour drive…so I’m sure I can convince him one of these days!
      Happy Easter, Mary. 🙂

  6. Kate says:

    Mary,

    Thank you for your Easter prayer for all of us. A perfect time to discuss “getting unstuck.”

    Releasing a person or a project to the Lord creates a sense of relief and allows me to see and hear a solution.

    I find talking out loud.. to myself.. is beneficial… sounds strange, I know. My Sweet Husband, from his office down the hallway, has answered my musings on several occasions. The side benefit is a lot of laughter!

    Happy, blessed Easter to all!

  7. I like to free-associate journal as the character. That gives me not only what’s in their head, but it’s written in their raw voice. I get to know them better that way.

  8. Excellent advice and great timing. Thank you, Mary!

  9. jane g meyer says:

    Yes, getting out and taking a walk, or doing the dishes, or digging a hole–anything that is repetitive can help to get thoughts flowing that were only a moment ago stuck. I agree that there are seasons, and sometimes you need to move on to a different project or find an alternative something to distract you–or another angle from which to see your book… BUT, sometimes you just have to power through. You have to tape yourself to your chair and just stay there and work. If you’re always looking for another way to get unstuck then that can become a habit and you can perpetually leave your writing space when things get hard. It’s hard to discern when to get up and when to stay, but that’s part of the fun of being a writer 🙂

    • Mary Keeley says:

      Jane, I agree with you. Of course there are times you need to stick with it and stay focused. Discernment about how to proceed comes with time. In those instances when trying to grit your way through to a solution hasn’t been successful, the most productive thing to do is step away to get a breath of fresh air.

  10. Thank you, Mary!

    One thing that I do when I get stuck is to free-write–just write for fifteen minutes with no rules, no worries about finding the exact right word or how to write the scene, etc. I just write whatever comes in my head, including “I can’t think what to write now and it’s driving me crazy!” Strange as it may sound, this tends to work. It gets me away from stressing out about doing the writing perfectly. Often, in the midst of the rambling, scattered free-writing, I will have an ah-ha! moment, which will either give me an inspiration for the writing or an insight into what’s getting in the way.

    One way that I “step back” from the writing is to make music. This helps me be creative and helps me relax.

    Spending time with God, as you brought up, is essential.

    A Blessed Easter to you and everyone.
    Happy Passover as well.

    • Mary Keeley says:

      Christine, thanks for sharing the creative ways you step back to relax and get a breath of fresh air. I’m sure others reading this will want to try them. I don’t make music, but I sometimes have classical music playing, barely audibly. After praying, this helps me relax and stay focused too.

      Blessed Easter

  11. Wonderful post!

    When I’m stuck I like to critique someone else’s work, read in the genre I’m stuck in, or (as someone else mentioned) zone out doing something repetitive and mindless.

    I hope everyone has a blessed Easter holiday and if they are traveling have safe travels.

  12. Mary Keeley says:

    Sharon, great ideas. As with others who have commented, I can tell you recognize when it is best to take a break and exercise your brain with something different.

    Blessed Easter to you.

  13. Visiting the “scene” does help for me, even if it’s only through photographs.

  14. Shawn Spjut says:

    Often when I get stuck, I’ll go an pick up a book by my favorite author in the genre I’m writing from. Reading similar stories often inspires me in the one I’m currently working on.