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Monday, March 17, 2014

Getting Unstuck

I love going to author panels. Seeing a favorite author and learning about his or her writing process is always fun. Most authors seem to enjoy appearing on panels, too, though I am starting to realize that writers on panels often are asked the same questions. "Where do you get your ideas?" "How did you start?" “How do I get published?”

Last week I attended a panel with four Agatha-nominated and -winning authors at the Kings Park Library in Burke, Virginia.  Donna Andrews, Barb Goffman, Sandra Parshall, and Art Taylor answered these questions and more with aplomb.

Then one aspiring author in the audience asked two questions that struck a chord with the panelists: "What do you do when you’re writing and you get stuck? How do you get unstuck?" The conversation that followed was full of useful advice.

Sandra started the conversation by getting to the essence of the problem. She said that writers get stuck because the subconscious mind is telling you that something is not right in your story. Listen to that feeling, she said, go back and you'll find where you've taken the wrong turn. This feeling is telling you you've gotten off track, and you can only proceed when you figure out how to fix the troublesome story element.

Art shared that he was stuck on one story and struggled to put it right but he couldn’t figure out where he had taken that wrong turn. He put the story aside and started on his walk to work at the university. By the time he got to his class he had figured out what the problem was and how to fix it. When he had stepped – literally - away from the manuscript, his unconscious mind was freed to find the problem.

Barb mentioned that a good night's sleep gives her unconscious the chance to formulate ideas and fix sticky problems. She often reviews work before bedtime because she knows that the morning will often bring solutions. Also, she said, time in the shower works wonders for coming up with writing ideas!

Donna had an unusual suggestion. She talked about the often-unrealistic demands of a copywriting job she had once held. She was expected to jam dozens of brochures worth of information into one brochure. How could she even start? Donna said she wrote whining memos to herself about her sticky writing problem, complaining about what was wrong with the project. In that way she gained insights into what was wrong, what approaches she could take, and solutions that could work.Voila! Writing complaints and questions about the work helped her discover ways to get unstuck and finish her project.

What do you do when you get stuck?


E. B. Davis said...

Donna's solution was to say the least, unique. My best bet is to do something else. I'm not one to sleep and wake up with a Eureka moment. But, I think getting stuck is a symptom of pressure. You say to yourself, "I have to write the most brilliant story. The entire industry will sit up and take notice." That's where getting stuck and nightmares are born.

Focusing on something else allows my logic to kick in. When I'm stuck, it means that I'm in myself and in my emotions. The story isn't about me--that's the problem. Getting stuck is all about the author, not about the story. The story is there--out there--unlock it by getting out of yourself.

It seems easy, but I know it isn't. It's like telling yourself you're eating emotionally. Yes, but if you weren't emotional you wouldn't be eating. The answer is stepping away, diverting your attention, and refusing to think about yourself.

Warren Bull said...

I used all of the panel of authors' idea except for memos. I'll have to try that. One thing that often works for me is to let the story "simmer" by working on something else for a while or doing something totally unrelated to writing. When I return to the story, it is easier to continue with it.

Shari Randall said...

EB, I hadn't thought about the "why" of getting stuck the way you and Sandy did. Keeping the focus on the work instead of the self inflicted pressure is good advice. if only it were easy!
Warren, I do the "simmer" or "back burner" thing too. It's good to step away. Distance from the manuscript can be really helpful. I've pulled some manuscripts out of the drawer after years and had some bit "YIKES" moments!

Gloria Alden said...

Like both E.B. and Warren, I let it rest and do something else. It might be another writing project or it might be routine chores of some kind. This happens more often with a book than a story, although I do have some started or half finished stories in my files I mean to get back to some day. I'm betting now they'll flow for me.

My best place to work on a stuck place is walking in the woods. The only thing that will distract me there is when Maggie, my collie, comes up asking for another treat. If I'm deep in planning what will happen next in the plot, she gets more treats in places that aren't set treat places because I'm too distracted with my thoughts to realize it's not where she's to get a treat. Because she never forgets where she once got a treat - quite small ones - she'll continue stopping at all my distracted stops and won't move until I fish in my pocket for another mini treat.

Kara Cerise said...

When I get stuck I "talk" to my characters and ask them what they think should happen with the story. I can't remember who suggested this unusual technique of interviewing characters, but it works for me. Just don't let anyone see you talking to an empty chair.

Linda Rodriguez said...

I do a variation of what Kara does. I take the character who seems most centrally involved and freewrite in first person from that character's viewpoint, as if the character were writing a journal or talking to a trusted listener. Usually after a while, that puts me in a position (and in possession of information I didn't have before) that lets me move forward.

Sandra Parshall said...

Recently I read about research into the unconcious mind -- what one pioneering psychologist in the field calls "dark energy." This is the source of all those solutions that seem to come out of nowhere when we're doing or thinking about something else. There's nothing mysterious about it -- it's your own mind working out the problem in the background and bringing the solution to the foreground. Psychologists are beginning to believe this is the source of much of our creative thinking. So "sleeping on it" or doing something else for a while really can help you come up with a solution when you're stuck.

Sarah Henning said...

I go for a run! Totally clears my mind and helps me see what I can do to get my work moving in the right direction.

KM Rockwood said...

I'm of the "let it simmer for a while" school of thought. In the mean time, I do other things, although unless I am willing to abdandon the project for a while, I don't work on other writing projects. I often try to go over sticky points in my head as I'm going to sleep, because I do have great faith that my mind really does know the answer to the problem, and I have to give it a chance to work on a solution.

Art Taylor said...

Thanks for covering this, Shari! Stepping away--for a walk, for a shower, for a short amount of time or a longer one--always helps to open up my thinking or broaden my perspectives a little bit on a draft-in=progress, and I'm glad other folks agree.

I also think (and didn't mention) that sometimes going back into a manuscript from a fresh angle can help too: freewriting or clustering instead of drafting, or stepping back to fill out a character inventory, or sketching out a different scene. Sometimes it's just a matter of distance and different approaches.

Thanks again for including me here!

Peter DiChellis said...

Good ideas, thanks for posting.

When I get stuck, I like to make a long, semi-random list of 'What if' options for that part of the story. What if this happened? Or that instead? Or the complete opposite? And then what would happen in turn and what else would that affect?

Sometimes an option from the list works, and other times something completely different jars loose. I imagine many writers do something similar while seeming to be just walking around, thinking.

Shari Randall said...

Wow, thanks to everyone for sharing their thoughts - I feel like I have so many more tools in the tool box for tackling stuck manuscripts.
And Gloria, what a smart cookie Maggie is!

Jim Jackson said...

They key is not beating yourself up about “being stuck,” but as the panelist said, recognize there is a problem. I put that writing aside and let my unconscious work on the issue while I work on something else. Sometimes the answer comes quickly; other times it make take quite a while.

~ Jim

Paula Gail Benson said...

Shari, thanks for providing this summary of the program. I wish I could have attended. Movement, like walking or riding, helps me. I don't know if it's what I see going by or the fact that I've shifted focus that brings the ideas!

Sherry Harris said...

I was in a class John Dufresne was teaching. He said when he gets stuck he just starts writing everything that his character can see, hear and smell. I've used this technique many times and it almost always works.

Shari Randall said...

Sherry, that is another great idea! Thank you!