Stuck in a Corner

Photo by Keith Lyndaker Schlabach

There’s a kind of fear most writers have that can inspire a clammy feeling even faster than waiting to hear if a book’s been accepted by an agent or a publisher. It’s the blank mind, particularly when there’s a deadline looming just ahead. Some people call it writer’s block, as if there’s something sitting in our heads that stands between our keyboard and creative brilliance.

It happens to all of us, no matter how long we’ve been writing or how successful we’ve become in our writing careers. However, I have learned a few tricks to remove the blocks and get going so that I don’t go sliding past a deadline and just make myself, and everyone else, feel worse. Even better, occasionally a reader will point out that very spot in a book as their favorite, and I marvel, once again, at how important it is to just keep going without expectations or attachments.

First Tip: Be gentle with yourself. Berating, digging around in your past for reasons, imagining a bleak future, or even waiting for the muse are not helpful. A walk might be, though. Also follow the HALT rule. Are you hungry, angry, lonely or tired? Take care of those first and then get back to work.

Second Tip: Pull out your character descriptions you hopefully wrote out before you started the book, whether it’s fiction, nonfiction or a memoir. Reintroduce yourself to all the idiosyncrasies, some of which you’re not even using on paper, and even add a few if you feel so moved. If you haven’t done this, do it now. We’re the driver on this literary trip, and we need to know all of the passengers in order to see where it’s going.

Third Tip: This one has gotten me out of more than one corner. Write the words, “Once upon a time,” and then let your imagination go. Write whatever comes up and follow the trail. You can delete those four little words later along with anything else you needed in order to get the left side of your brain going again. Most of us were read a fairy tale or two as a child, and those words can often create a sense of wonderful anticipation of what might be coming next. Our brain recognizes that too.

Fourth Tip: Pull out the description you have, however brief, for the arc in the story. That’s the place that’s most climatic, where everything changes. Is the arc still satisfying? Does it need beefing up, more research, more details? Is everything still pointing to that arc? That may be why you’re stuck. You’ve gone a little off course and need to delete some, add some more, so that you’re once again heading toward a big moment. Stories usually have several smaller arcs on both sides that can be used as places to aim toward as well till you’re driving for the ending.

Fifth Tip: Read the last portion you got down on paper to a trusted friend, preferably another writer that you respect. Hearing it out loud may help you hear what comes next. A brief conversation about what you’re writing and where it’s headed next may do the same. If you have to call more than one or two friends, though, you’re serial dialing as a distraction and not to help the writing. That usually leaves me overwhelmed.

Keep in mind that every job has its down days, and even though we love being writers, some days we’re bored or anxious or frustrated. That’s okay, but we have to also keep going because this is a business as well as an art form and someone’s made plans with that deadline in mind. So do your best, hammer out what you can and come back tomorrow. This too shall pass.

Q: What do you do to get out of a literary corner?

29 Replies to “Stuck in a Corner”

  1. Or go to Starbucks and start writing down what and who you see. Or the smells, tastes, colors around you. One word always leads to the next. It may not make any sense or be pertinent to the historical fiction (pre-coffeehouse) you’re writing, but, like the aroma of fresh brewed beans, it gets the juices flowing. Oh yeah, and realize you’re not alone. We’ve all been there!

    1. Good points Susan! Getting out of ourselves helps us to relax and then the story often takes off again.

  2. Great tips, Martha, some I hadn’t thought of.

    Talking it out loud has worked well for me. I think there’s some magic “unlock” code when I verbalize a scene or plot problem. I discovered this during my 10 mile drive home from town one day. I’d solved scene dilemmas by discussing them with friends before, so I pretended I was talking to a friend in the car, describing the scene and the problem as though this were all new to my invisible hearer. What needed to stay, what wasn’t working, etc. And before long, several solutions sparked. Somehow, letting the problem rattle around in my brain, or worse, staring at words or a blank screen doesn’t spark my thoughts in a way that reaches a solution. But talking it out does. I may have an even bigger problem when other motorists see me talking to myself, but I’m not too worried about people thinking I’m strange. I’m a writer.

    Thanks! I’ll keep this list handy.

    1. I love that Camille. 🙂 So often, what’s getting in my way when I’m staring at the screen is my perceived expectations and sometimes I need a break to get things back into perspective and get out of the way. Thanks for the idea!

  3. Thank you. This one is a keeper! My biggest blocks seem to come when I start to worry about being good enough and forget to write from my heart.

    1. I agree Sherri. Sometimes I’ve even needed to take a break and pray. My favorite is the St. Francis prayer that asks me to be of service rather than get what I want. But some days that’s a tall order.

  4. What a word in season, this has been a week of writer’s block. I plan to go to Starbucks and sit and write, sometimes I need to get out of my home to work. I got hit with a shocker last week and it put the brakes on my writing. I need to get over it and keep writing. Thanks or your encouragement.

    1. That’s true Heather that sometimes life’s events knock the creativity out of us for a little while. This too shall pass. It helps me to ask myself (sometimes out loud) what I’m supposed to be doing in that moment and go do it, call others and ask how they’re doing and looking more actively for ways to be of service. Hope things are getting better for you and yours.

    1. That’s often me too, Lucille, especially when I’ve decided in my head what perfect would look like and I ought to be there. Usually, I’m also thinking that most every other writer is hitting perfection too. Not much humility on my part. 🙂 When I can get comfortable, yet again, with the idea that writing is a form of service and God knows what to do with what I’m doing I tend to relax.

  5. Awesome post, Martha! I’m going to bookmark it. Love how you compared writer’s block to a corner. One thing that gets me in a corner is outside influences, important matters or crisis that take over my mind. During those times, I need to start writing early in the day before my mind goes there. The other times I get stuck are usually plot problems. Then I do the tedious, go back to plot cards and see if they still jive. Something about being able to see the main point of each scene stirs my imagination and helps me fix the problem. You are right, these corners produce the best parts of the books. But I’m a so-many-pages-per-day writer, so when I’m stuck in the corner, I feel the ticking of the clock because I know the extra time it’s taking will come out of the time I set aside for my personal life. It can be hard to tamp down the panic.

    1. I felt the pressure every single day of my last book. It was my first experience of selling something before I wrote it and I wondered if I’d be able to do it. Finally, I had to tell myself that God doesn’t know space or time and just be okay with what you can do today. See what God can do with that. That was the only way I could get the panic down enough to write anything. In the end, the harshest critics loved the book and it turned out to be of great service to some and I saw that whatever God puts in front of me, I’m enough to do the job.

  6. Really enjoyed your tips and am going to use them. We all have our doubts when writing. It happens before, during, and after writing the book and, for me, it’s unpredictable when it occurs. And I’m probably my worst critic. One really good idea was returning to the story’s most critical part and making sure it’s the best it can be, taking out some and perhaps adding new material. I liked that one!

    1. Thanks Patti! Sometimes when I return to those critical parts I’ve seen where I can make the entire story stronger because I spot a great thread through the story that I wasn’t utilizing.

  7. As Sherri said, “This is a keeper.” Wonderful encouragement and advice, Martha. I’ve been getting away from the computer with book 3 that I’m working on in my series. I write out some pages in long hand with my favorite pen and a legal pad. There’s something about that pen gliding over paper that helps me and my brain. 🙂 Then I go to the computer and as I type the pages I wrote in long hand into the word document all kinds of other ideas and thoughts come to me and I expand the scene(s)and it’s more fun.

    I’m a pantser who is desperately trying to become a little more of a plotter for the sake of deadlines and sanity. Also, Lucille’s statement about Stage Fright I think is true so when you said,
    “how important it is to just keep going without expectations or attachments,” this is essential. It’s easy to get caught up in the perfectionist persona and that’s not healthy. So I just move on, I make myself do it or I’m in danger of stalling out. Thanks for the post and to all of you who are leaving comments. Great encouragements.

    1. Jillian, I definitely used to be a pantser but then they invented the internet and it became harder to say the work was in the mail. 🙂 Multiple deadlines and a need to be more accountable got me out of most of that but it’s still a character trait I pray about all the time. Mostly, it comes from an unrealistic view of myself that I sometimes use as a measuring stick and then inevitably fall short. Hard to be of service when I’m in that corner because I’m so wrapped up in what if, what if.

  8. Martha, this one is going in my “Writers Helps” e-folder. A great list in one handy place. And I really like the fact that you have obviously used these tips for yourself and know they work. Thanks so much!

  9. Great tips on how to get the words flowing again, Martha. Two I use most are talking over the plot with my hubby, aka my plotting partner, and going on a walk.

    I like what Lucille’s friend’s agent said about Writer’s Block being Stage Fright. That’s been true in my case more times than I care to admit. What’s helped me most when fear attempts to dig in its claws is to follow the oft-heard advice of writing my way through the block or out of the corner.

    1. Those are great tips Keli. I also try the 15 minute clock. Set the timer for 15 minutes and then if I’m still stuck I can get up. I can try anything for 15 minutes and that can sometimes alleviate stage fright.

  10. Thanks for this post. These are great points, Martha. I find a hot bath does the trick for me. It allows a calm enviroment to let my mind sort through possible details. Plus, it beats looking at a blank screen and blinking cursor.

    1. Sometimes an inspiring movie will kick me into a better place. Enchanted April generally works. I know that’s a little weird but it really works.

  11. Thanks for this Martha! To get out of my corner, I step away from my computer. Sometimes it just takes a few hours. Recently, I was forced to take a few weeks. It was stressful at first, but when I came back to work, I was armed and ready with LOTS of words!

    1. It’s always so much better when we let things unfold, isn’t it Joanne? Glad to hear the writing is perking along for you now.

  12. Prayer works well for me!

    (And if you use the writing exercise that Jamal Wallace employed in the movie “Finding Forrester,” be sure to change what you copied before you submit it.)

    1. Prayer works well for me too. Alone I can do nothing but together, anything is possible.

  13. Great post. I haven’t had to do much. I usually just get up and do something else. Get my mind and thoughts on other things. That usually works for me. Thank you for the tips.

    Glenda Parker

  14. This is such an encouraging yet practical post, Martha. From “be gentle with yourself” to “read the last portion you wrote to another writer friend,” you’ve given us all excellent suggestions for getting out of any literary corner.
    I love to brainstorm my way out of corners with other writers. Sometimes I can’t see the way out, but they can. Talking, throwing ideas back and forth (no matter how outrageous) is fun, invigorating — and freeing.

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