Seeking a Revelation

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We’ve all been there—happily plowing through a manuscript when we’re suddenly brought to a squealing halt. Or maybe it comes on gradually, like so much mud solidifying as we try to trudge through until we find ourselves frozen in place, blinking at the ground and wondering what happened.  It could be our outline didn’t foresee all it might have, or we wandered down an unexpected path only to find it’s a dead end. Or perhaps our characters took on lives of their own and staged a coup when we weren’t looking. However we got there, we’re stuck, and being stuck mid-project is no fun. So what’s a writer to do? 

We could ditch the whole thing. Occasionally that is the right answer, but being persistent writerly-types, thank goodness that’s not our first inclination. There are lots of ways to get unstuck which leave us with a better manuscript in the end. Here are my top five:

  • Walk away for at least 30 days. It never ceases to amaze me how insightful this can be. When you’re writing, you’re close to the material. You leave a part of you on the page, and sometimes it’s hard to see the forest for the trees. Many writers know this, and they take frequent steps back from their material in the hopes of approaching it later with a less familiar eye. It’s tempting to think a week or two is sufficient, and sometimes it is. But if you’re really stuck, I highly recommend walking away for a full month to get a truly fresh perspective. That distance can do wonders for improving your writing on the next go-round.

Source: Wikipedia

  • Ask for help. While many writers recognize the value of a critique group for the craft side of writing, I’m surprised how few ask for help with storyline. Asking for help does not make you weak. It makes you resourceful. I recently rewrote the entire end to my novel because an editor thought it predictable. I asked a trusted critique partner for help. She brainstormed with her daughter (this was a YA story) and came up with a slew of possibilities. One contained the thread of an idea I ultimately spun into a much better ending. And let’s not forget the power of prayer. Realizing you don’t have all the answers and asking for guidance from above is simultaneously humbling and empowering. Just remember to let go of any preconceived ideas and be open to whatever form inspiration may take.
  • Print it. This isn’t the first time you’ve heard this, but it works. Seeing your work in print is strangely insightful. You will plainly see things you don’t when looking at it on the computer.
  • Push through. To put it bluntly, give yourself permission to write crap. Knowing the next chapter or two will be ‘throw away’ material is incredibly freeing. It takes the pressure off and lets you work through the block. Not everything you write needs to be brilliant. You’re not going to go with that first or second draft anyway, right? So give yourself permission to make a mess before you refine it all.
  • Read in your chosen genre or non-fiction category. Some writers worry if they do this they’ll either find someone beat them to the punch or they’ll inadvertently pick up another author’s voice or idea. In the case of the former, you’re better off knowing this sooner than later so you can make your story stand out as different. In the latter, you can influence this: you’re a disciplined, creative being, not a machine that regurgitates what you’ve read without your knowledge. The benefits of understanding what’s successful (or not) in your chosen field far outweigh the possible risks. Read—and keep a pencil handy for when the revelation hits.

How do you get through when you find yourself ‘stuck’ during a writing project?

Third Day Give Me a Revelation

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21 thoughts on “Seeking a Revelation

  1. The thing is. . . with my first manuscript I would wake up in the night with a revelation. I did not know one of my characters was going to get killed in a wreck. I sat up in bed and said “I did not know that.” then got up and went out to the office and started typing.

    What happened? Now when I am stuck I try to go to sleep thinking about where we are at in the story and I have several hours to let the old cranium work on it. But many times I wake up no further along in the story.

    No, these characters are making me work at it. Journaling does help. It just occurred to me, are these characters more extroverted and need more personal one on one time with me?

    • That sleep trick is a good technique. When it works, it works brilliantly. Now I just need to remind myself not to go to bed too exhausted to dream! (:

  2. Now you’ve joined ranks with Anne Lamott, who’s constantly whispering, “sh***y first drafts!” in my ear! Lately I’ve been so stuck, and giving myself permission to write crap has helped immensely. But most of all, I’ve been soaking in prayer, and that helps the most. Why I forget/remember to run to Him when I’m stuck–in every situation–is beyond me. Thanks for this super post! I needed that! 🙂

    • I have learned that I dare not neglect my morning bible study. But often the prayer part gets a shorter time. I need to remember that our Lord does want to hear from us, too.

    • Amy and Sharon – I’ve learned (the hard way, I guess) to pray over my writing before I even begin. It’s nice to know I’m not the only one who gets stuck when I forget to do that.

    • I heard a good quote recently re: writing the first draft: “Write hard, write fast, and don’t look down.” It’s much easier to do that—especially the last part—when you’re putting your faith in a higher power.

  3. Rebecca, these are fantastic tips! I love it when someone posts things that I’ve been doing or something that I specifically needed help with – this post does both. When I’m in the middle of editing or a rewrite, I’ve found that if I leave the computer every thirty or forty minutes, that seems to help jump start my ideas. After a load of laundry is folded or put away, I’m excited to get back to work and write some more. As for getting stuck at a scene and asking for storyline ideas, my poor family and friends get smacked upside the head with that all the time. I find chatting about my books will spark someone’s interest, and they offer ideas – some fit, some don’t, but again, it kick starts my brain cells. Again, thank you for sharing. I needed that today!

    • Glad you enjoyed it, Amanda! (: Agree with you on the frequent, shorter breaks, too. I recently took to setting my iphone alarm to remind myself to stretch, walk around and drink some water to clear the mind before going back to the task. It really helps!

  4. I’m not sure I should even answer this…Most of the time when I get a block about writing it is either because my mind wandered or else its because I accepted a paying project to write about something that I would not naturally write about – examples: water treatment plants in Malaysia and Thailand in the 21st century, or end-load fees at Fidelity Mutual Funds or Tyre Production in North India. Things like that. I might do a little research and write something only to find that when I check the word count I’m really supposed to write more about it. Getting more in depth about carpet cleaning can be a challenge for someone like me. Many years ago now, another woman more advanced professional writer told me that for her, there were times when the work became difficult and one has to ‘pull words from out of one’s own butt’. How do I make myself able to do it? That depends – sometimes take a break and goof off, other times I will respond to pressure from someone else to go through with making changes.

    • I’m glad you shared! (: If it makes you feel any better, I once had to rewrite (and revamp) a 600-page technical training manual that was originally in french. Not the most fun, not at ALL. I kept myself entertained by having lots of fun with ‘names’ and examples. If I recall, someone at the ‘cooler wrote about using fiction techniques (like voice) in non-fiction to give it some pizzazz. I’m going to have to go back and look for that…

  5. Loved all your points, except for the first one. Not that it isn’t true, it is. But when writing under contract, it’s pretty hard to set something aside for 30 days. Especially if you only have six months to write a novel. I honestly think my recent series could have been better if I’d had the luxury to do that. Even if we aren’t stuck, it’s helpful to set work aside for awhile.

    That said, your post is giving me the “kick in the seat” I need not to waste time now on an non-contracted work I’ve started. Maybe if I can get ahead with it, I’ll have the luxury to set it aside later. But when I finally get out from under deadlines, I get lazy. It’s tempting to take a break now, even though it means coming up short later. Thanks for the nudge.

    • Great point about the contracted deadline—not so easy to make that first one work there. When I’m stuck on a deadline, I tend to do one of three things: (1) prioritize like a maniac, (2) stare out the window a LOT, (3) change my environment (write in a completely different location). This seem to help me, but I can’t begin to tell you why (except for #1, of course). No clue.

      • I do the prioritizing, too – basically there is only ONE priority when I’m pushing (or past!) a deadline. I now refer to it as going into my writing cave. Nothing else gets done around my house until I finish the manuscript. Lots of take-out fried chicken going on….

      • Love the writing cave concept. I don’t have a door on my workspace, but I do have a sign that says ‘disturb at your own risk’ and I use it! (:

  6. I have spent most of the last month stuck. Unbearably stuck. So I shot it off to my CP and asked for her input. I was trying to take the easy way out and avoid an emotional, angry explosion of one secondary character, directed at the hero. I’m unstuck now, even though this scene is going to be very difficult to write. Now it’s just finding the time to get lost in it.

    • Glad you’re unstuck! See, ‘this too will pass’. It’s tough to make your characters do things that will probably cause them pain, but that’s one of the best ways to get them to grow, no? Good luck with that scene! (:

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  8. Loved all this conversation, gang, and your tips are excellent, Rebecca. For the longest time, I was uncomfortable asking for help, since I thought I had to do it all myself as the writer. Now, I bounce ideas off everyone I meet when I get stuck, and ask for help regularly. It has broadened my horizons and ideas in more ways than one, as I constantly find new directions to which others’ comments point me.

    • I felt exactly the same way for years. We just had a brainstorm session last night at our local RWA meeting, and I was amazed at how forthcoming other people are with helpful ideas—even in such a large group setting. Only we can write our story, so why not snap up the help when we can get it? (:

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