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.
- 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?