Construction Zone: Getting “Unstuck”

I used the phrase “writer’s block” in my newsletter to describe this post, which I suppose is the correct term, but I never really call it that. When I’m working on a web site problem I don’t call it “coder’s block” or anything like that – I generally just say I’m “stuck” on something.

Whatever you want to call it, it’s the reason last Friday’s chapter of Indelibly Inked got cut off mid-sex scene. There are normally two reasons I personally get stuck writing: either I can’t find the “play” button on that movie in my head, or I can’t “feel” the characters. In the case of the cut-off chapter, it was the latter…which is annoying and frustrating, to be sure. Here’s what I normally do to get “unstuck” when one of these two things happens.

Can’t find the “play” button.

When the movie stops, it’s because I have no idea what happens next, and for some reason, my brain has decided not to “imagine” anything further. I can muscle through this problem, normally with a pen and paper (though I can do it on screen if need be). “What if” is my friend here, and I don’t go for just any old scenario. I ask myself what the absolute most outrageous thing that could happen right then is. That’s not normally what I’m actually looking for, but for me, just the very act of envisioning a completely off-the-wall scenario gives my mind a jolt, and gets the juices flowing again. That’s not to say I can start moving forward again, but I keep asking myself more “what if” questions, writing them down, and writing how the answer would affect each main character in turn. I generally find the “perfect” direction as long as I just keep my mind whirling with outrageous possibilities long enough. When I can “see” the scene start playing itself out in my head again, I know I can get back to work. It’s a technique I picked up from NaNoWriMo…when the going gets tough, add ninjas. Or pirates. Or actual live plot bunnies. Anything odd enough to stimulate the imagination again.

Can’t “feel” the characters.

This is a much harder problem for me to get “unstuck” from. When I’m writing, I’m normally very much “in” both of my main characters’ heads at the same time. I can feel what they’re feeling, confusion, sadness, joy, love, lust…I’m right there in the moment with them. I *need* that emotional connection, because every little movement my characters make, not just facial expressions but body position, dialogue and how they move about the room depends completely on how they are feeling from moment to moment. If I don’t know how they feel, any actions or speech I write from them is cold and lifeless.

In order to fix this problem, I have to immerse myself in the characters. I have to read back through the last few scenes, and then really consider their motivations, both shallow (what they want *now*), and deep (what they ultimately *need*). This often requires a pen and paper as well…sometimes it takes me awhile to really start “feeling” them again. Far more often than I’d like, I end up deleting a good portion of the scene and starting over…because where I stopped “feeling it”, it generally went off in a wrong direction.

Needless to say, the movie has turned off by this time as well (my mental pause button only works for so long), so when I’m finally able to reconnect with my characters, I then have to go through my “defibrillator” process outlined above to get the movie started again.

Thankfully, neither of these scenarios happens often, and I’ve developed these processes to help me work through them. Of course they won’t work if it’s really late and I’m tired – I have to be somewhat alert to work my way back to writing. A lot of people find that just walking away helps, and I occasionally do that, but the problem is normally waiting for me when I get back. I’m not good at waiting for things to happen. I’m really more of a “make it happen” type of person.

What do you do when you get stuck? Do you walk away? Wait for inspiration to strike? Fill out worksheets? Do research? Share your secret.

4 comments on “Construction Zone: Getting “Unstuck”

  1. Meg

    I’m horrible, I just walk away and wait for inspiration.

    Not the best method and it doesn’t really work. I may have to try the NaNoWriMo just add crazy stuff method.


  2. Carol

    Being the lazy-bones procrastinator that I am, I prefer to just set it aside and work on something else until I’m inspired again. However, the Nano method works much better for when the going gets tough. 🙂

    When I lose my connection with my characters, I have to sit back and think about what their motivations are. And, yes, I’ve also resorted to using a pen and paper to jot down the steps to their ultimate goal. When all else fails, I bribe them: “You do this and I’ll let you have sex.” 😉

  3. Jamie DeBree

    Meg, NaNo really does help you learn to just work right through the tough spots. Though it doesn’t work for everyone, I find it quite handy as a discipline tool. 😉

    Bribery! LOL I knew I was missing something, Carol – I should try that! 🙂

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