Stuck in the Mud

Writer’s Block. The Wall. That general Ugh feeling. Everybody hits a point where their writing gets bogged down, refusing to move forward.

Maybe you don’t know what should happen next.

Maybe you do, but can’t get it to sound right. You might have the next scene known, but don’t know how to end the current scene. Your characters need to discuss a vital plot point, but every take sounds like they’re reciting a grocery list. You might have inadvertently exhausted all of your character’s escape routes, leaving them in an impossible situation. Sometimes you just don’t have the words you need so dearly.

The usual advice for this is to write something, anything, and remind yourself that it’s just a draft.

The reality is that this won’t always work. There’ll be cases when you are able to move past, begrudgingly so, and be happy to come back to fix it later. I can do it sometimes. Honest. There’s nothing like a deadline to get a draft out. Accountability is an important part of a deadline though, so it can be difficult to enforce one if there’s no repercussions to missing a target, or benefits to reaching one. Many people need incentives. You’re not somehow less of a writer because you need an extra dose of motivation. Writing a novel isn’t a sprint, and sustaining enthusiasm for something that you feel isn’t that great while you’re in the moment, that’s difficult. If you can put a reward up, or promise a beta reader that they’ll get your draft by a certain date, or say if you don’t finish off a chapter soon, you’ll put yourself in social lockdown until it’s done.

Doing that means it’s not merely about finishing that thing you swear is your life’s ambition and the yardstick by which you want to be judged, but you also get a chocolate pudding! Yay pudding!

There is no shame in working out an alternative to gold stars and raps on the knuckles, especially if its gets you focused. Being responsible to someone other than yourself is great too, because we’re much more open to failing ourselves than we are to others.

With an assumption that you do want to get through the scene, and that the added incentives haven’t led to you moving along, what can you do?

One of the problems I most frequently run into is rewrite-itis. I try writing a scene, and it doesn’t feel right. I edit it, and it’s not quite there. New approach, and no, it still isn’t working. A reader might not see it that way, but it’s hard to argue with your own perspective on what you’ve written. I get stuck, and what invariably happens is that instead of each new attempt feeling fresh, my mind is so familiar with those other failed attempts that they seem to all blend into one. None of them feel right once that happens.

It’s not that nothing in the scene works. I had a scene yesterday that took an unexpected turn, where I had an idea for a secondary character to mention something that had happened much earlier in the story. It fit well with the scene, to the point that it looked like I’d intended that to be the outcome all along. As an aside, it’s something that does happen to me a lot, and I put it down to taking time to build up a world. It still wasn’t enough to save the scene, but it’s a critical scene. It has to happen.

Well, bits of it had to. It’s a scene where character W discovers something, and character P does the little nod to an early part of the story. I had P trying to be the sounding board for W, but it continually fell flat. There’s no real emotion between those characters, and that’s a problem for the scene. Enter character K. Instead of having W and P try to talk through some exposition, the use of K allowed me to charge the scene with emotion (borne from K’s frustrations with W), which in turn makes the scene run differently and feel differently. P can still do the same thing, the little puzzle-solving plot-nod, but they don’t need to be a major part of the scene.

Stripping a scene down to the vitals is great, because you know what must happen. If there’s no vitals in a scene, then the scene doesn’t need to be in the draft. A vital moment in a scene (or collection of such) can take on multiple forms. If it’s vital that a character discovers they’ve been robbed, and an early morning discovery isn’t going smoothly, you can change how they find out. They could come home to a broken window, get a call from the police/alarm company, or stumble by an intruder on a midnight stagger to the bathroom. Whenever something isn’t working, break it down and rebuild.

Changing the focus is another way to breathe life into a piece. A city-wide chase between two international spies might fall flat, relying too heavily on action and explosions – where a measured game of them waiting each other out in a small location, like a bar or restaurant, could build great amounts of suspense or intrigue.

If you’re really desperate, change everything. New supporting characters, a name change for the mains, new locations, or an unrelated sub-plot. If you’re uncertain on how to get from point A to point B, and feel that a simple transition isn’t smooth enough, then plod across what comes between the scenes. Don’t want to go from the peak of a mountain to the base while off-page? You can explore what happens, yet still cut scenes if they don’t work. They won’t always, but sometimes they’ll give great characterisation, or enhance the depiction of the relationships between characters.

If it’s down to finding the right word, write the near-enough explanation in capital letters. If a character is taking painstaking care in creating something and you’re searching for a word to describe it, you could write Nancy SPENT A RIDICULOUS AMOUNT OF TIME ON THE TINIEST DEALS while putting together the model ship. You might think of the word meticulous later, and the capital letters a) tell you that you intended to change it and b) tells readers that your inner editor doesn’t see the need for inside voices.

If you have any personal methods you use to work through or around these sorts of blockages, post them in the comments!

One thought on “Stuck in the Mud

  1. Wish I had such nice methods. Honestly, sometimes I just have to step away for a while. And it’s hard. I just have to wait until things happen again. Or work on another project. And then BAM random inspiration for my story or how that scene CAN work hits me. I have stepped away for a month to finally find that things are working and I just may be able to do something now!

    But I may just have to try some of the things you have mentioned. Very nice.

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