Stuck! A Writer’s Nightmare

By Elaine Viets

A desperate writer sent me this email. “I am having difficulty getting back to my story,” he said. “Maybe it’s Covid hangover…. I need to rewrite some stuff in my earlier chapters and I can’t get into it. Argh!!! So tell me, is this common?”
You bet. I’ve been stuck, too – and many of my writer friends are tearing their hair out. Some are so desperate, they’re threatening to give up writing. Blame it on Covid-19, your day job, your kids, (insert your worry here), we’re not keeping those computer keys clacking.


I was in a deep funk for three weeks before I finally broke out of it.
Here’s how I got back to writing.
My next Angela Richman, Death Investigator mystery is due in January. I was off to a good start – I crafted the plot, created a catchy opening chapter, introduced the main characters, figured out who was the killer, all the things writers do when we’re starting a new book. I happily banged out six chapters. And then . . .
The words dried up.
I couldn’t go forward. I tore up chapter after chapter. I stared at the screen, willing the words to form on the page. The blank space taunted me.
I paced the house. I surfed the Net, looking at cute cat pictures. I fell for click bait (Did you know the Princes in the Tower may be buried in Westminister Abbey, but Queen Elizabeth won’t let anyone test their DNA?). I ate half a pound cake. Still nothing.
Gloom descended, and it didn’t help that Hurricane Eta was bearing down on South Florida, bringing lashing rains and flooded the streets.
Last Saturday, I went to a Sisters in Crime chapter Zoom meeting – a plotting seminar by mystery writer Annette Dashofy. Annette had us plot a mystery, based on her method, and things quickly went off the rails. Our mystery started with a dead female politician who was killed in her office. The awful plot included an unfaithful husband, an ex-stripper boyfriend, a cheating reporter, and an unmentionable murder weapon. The red herrings would leave you red-faced. But we had a lot of laughs. After much laugher – and some very serious plotting strategy – I realized I had a giant hole in my plot. After the meeting, I reworked the plot, put in another murder and more red herrings. The dam broke. I was back writing. I was going forward. I’d been too isolated.
So when you’re stalled:
(1) Talk to other writers.
Many writers are solitaries, but we need to talk to our own kind. We used to do that at chapter meetings, conferences and mystery conventions, but those are canceled thanks to the pandemic.

When you’re stuck, schedule a Zoom meeting or set up a FaceTime chat. Talk over tea. Make a lunch meet or coffee break. Or my personal favorite, a cocktail hour – a whine and wine session with one or more writer friends.
When I was stuck earlier in the year, I had a Zoom lunch with a writer friend and ran my plot past her. She listened carefully and then said, “You know, there’s not a single likeable person in your novel.” She was right. I changed the characters. Thanks to her, I could write again.

(2) After meeting with those writers, my head was buzzing with ideas.
I started taking notes again, always a good sign. My subconscious was working. I keep a notepad on my night stand and write down ideas that I get in the middle of the night. Some of these ideas are useless – I once scrawled “Call California” on a notepad. The next morning, I had no idea what that meant. After all, it’s a big state.
Sometimes, I can’t even read what I wrote.
More most often, I have the start of another chapter, or a nice fat red herring.

(3) Here are some ways to get in touch with other writers:
Sisters in Crime has a number of free seminars on its national Website. https://www.sistersincrime.org/ Also, check with the individual chapters. Sisters in Crime is also sponsoring NaNoWriMo, and it’s not too late to join:
https://www.sistersincrime.org/events/EventDetails.aspx?id=1427737

Most of the Mystery Writers of America chapters have monthly virtual programs. The Florida MWA Chapter has a free virtual program November 21, called “Seriously Series: Why and How to Write Series Fiction” given by Joanna Campbell Slan. Members can sign up here: https://mwaflorida.org/events/monthly-meetings/

The International Thriller Writers Association has their Virtual Winter Thrills Program, Jan. 11 to March 18. You can buy the whole package or choose individual session for $35 each. Here’s the information. https://web.cvent.com/event/8e0e649d-5c1c-4c55-be1c-575146f15ebf/summary?rp=00000000-0000-0000-0000-000000000000

What do you do, TKZers, to break out and break the isolation?

*************
Need a good laugh? Read KILLER CUTS, my eighth Dead-End Job mystery. Buy the e-book for $1.99 – or free on Kindle Unlimited. https://tinyurl.com/y6yopjkp

 

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About Elaine Viets

Elaine Viets has written 30 mysteries in four series, including 15 Dead-End Job mysteries. BRAIN STORM, her first Angela Richman, Death Investigator mystery, is published as a trade paperback, e-book, and audio book. www.elaineviets.com

36 thoughts on “Stuck! A Writer’s Nightmare

  1. Thanks for the great advice, Elaine, about a common problem.

    To answer your question… I usually go for a drive to an area where I haven’t been either lately or at all. I either see something or get involved in something that jump-starts me. At other times, I’ll explore the back catalog of a musician or a band (I am doing that now with A Perfect Circle).

  2. Going for a drive is good advice, Joe. I like to turn off the radio/CD and hope the quiet sparks new thoughts. Thanks for Florida driving, they are usually about murder.

  3. I spend time on Hangouts with one of my critique partners. We brainstorm, whine, report word counts. I’ve always been happy away from people, and living where I do, getting to in person group meetings has always been a challenge. Walks with the dog are good. Doing critiques for my partners helps switch my brain to writer mode. Reading their comments on my chapters helps, too.

    While I can’t say I’ve been totally stuck this year, outside stressors have slowed things down.

  4. That’s so funny about “call California.”:-) I just picked up a mid-story writing prompt book called (appropriately enough) Mid-Novel Writing Prompts by Rayne Hall. If nothing else, it’s fun to explore what-if’s.

  5. Elaine, I heartily second your advice to meet with other writers.

    For decades, every time I get into a slump, my critique groups help me brainstorm my way out. Other people have different ideas, experiences, and perspectives than I do, stuck in my little corner. Someone *always* triggers a new way to approach a problem or comes up with a new development to twist the plot.

    I also walk every day. Fresh air clears the brain and lets my subconscious send up fresh ideas. It’s like airing out a stuffy room.

  6. Nature is the remedy for me. I like to get out into the woods, mow, cut wood, clean up trails, anything physical and mindless. It gets the blood flowing and leaves the brain free to accept new ideas. Even though it’s during the day, I call it the “boys in the basement.” My wife got tired of hearing me talk about the boys and announced that for her it’s “the girls in the attic.” Whatever!

    • Thanks for dropping by, Steve. One of my writer friends clears his head by chopping wood. He has a farm, so there’s always physical work for him to do.

  7. The person mentioned in the first paragraph is in rewriting heck which is a bit different from a dead stop in the writing process. For her, I’d suggest she get out of her head and back into the head of her main character. Once she is back inside the character’s head, her writer/observer relaxes a bit and starts doing her stuff.

    This is also the best trick for maintaining tone.

  8. Thanks for the links. I will check those out. I’m writing my very first mystery and finding it difficult. As for getting stuck, I like your idea of puzzling it out with a writing friend. I tend NOT to do that because I always have this sense that I ought to be able to figure out things myself & shouldn’t be bothering other people. But the key there is to remember that while some people may feel bothered by it, others would welcome the opportunity to help. I tend to forget that.

    What happens instead when I get stuck is I tend to switch to another writing project (or to another interest altogether since I have many). However, that’s not an option if you’re on a deadline.

    While the concept of ‘writing sprints’ have been around for several years, just within the last week or so, I’ve tried participating in writing sprints with fellow Nanowrimo participants and found this very helpful. I will be sure to engage that activity more in the future.

  9. While reading all the great comments on this post, and frequent mention of getting outside/interaction with nature, that reminds me of one thing that has come home to me this week while enjoying a rare week of vacation–when my life is crammed full of to do’s from the time I wake to the time I go to bed, it doesn’t leave much room for creative thought and busting through those “stuck” periods. I need to do a better job of putting breathing space into my schedule…give creative ideas a chance to float around. Many people have advocated for that for a long time, like Julia Cameron. But sometimes it’s a lesson you have to re-learn.

  10. Ann LaMott in Bird by Bird talks about giving yourself short assignments. She recommends taking a one-inch picture frame and filling it. (I haven’t got her book here to check the exact language, but that’s what I remember. Everyone should read her book for themselves anyway.)

  11. I’ve found that rereading my ms from the beginning helps me get back into the story. I examine it from the pov of the world’s meanest editor, and imagine what they’d say needs to follow.

    And if that doesn’t work, I’ll buy (yes, buy) a book from a writer I despise and read it until I can’t wait to finish my ms.

  12. Excellent advice, Elaine. I don’t know what I’d do without my writer friends. They’re amazing, supportive, funny, caring, crazy, and always there to lend an ear.

  13. Love this post, Elaine. That zoom meeting was not only fun but motivating. Afterward, I plugged in the characters from my WIP using Annette Dashofy’s worksheet and found some gaping plot holes. Good to know, right?

  14. Elaine, Thanks for the links from SinC and MWA. I’m going to give one of their webinars a go.

    I find running outside is a cure for many things. If the weather is even close to tolerable, I’ll go to a nearby park and trudge along listening to an audiobook, podcast, or a course on writing. (James Scott Bell has a great one about writing fiction on The Great Courses.) I almost always come home with a new idea. If the weather doesn’t cooperate, I’ll run on the treadmill. Same health benefits, but for some reason, it doesn’t provide the creative spark that the outside world does. (I think there’s a PhD thesis in there somewhere.)

    And, of course, a daily dose of TKZ is always an inspiration!

  15. Break out of isolation… I pretty much do everything to get into it, Elaine, and get things done. I can’t write with anyone around or even distractions like the radio or background music. But a good walk in a nice place really works to put the WIP in perspective. And then there are Facebook distractions like a security camera video I saw this morning of a goose attacking some poor defenseless woman – it was hilarious. Wish I could share it with TKZ friends. 🙂

  16. Hi Elaine,

    I found that getting stuck can happen to me at any point in the process, in outlining as much as when drafting. Fortunately, I meet with my writer’s group, the Masked Hucksters, weekly on Whereby.com. We founded the group seven years ago after I’d returned from an awesome two week writing workshop on novel outlining, and I wanted to continue the brainstorming process that workshop espoused.

    Now that I’m writing my first mystery novel (after twelve fantasy ones), the group is as helpful as ever. I can bounce questions off them, and since we all read mysteries avidly, we can talk about reader expectations, plot twists, clues, red herrings etc.

    Talking with them or a couple of other writer friends is my go-to block breaker 🙂

  17. Great tips! And you’re right… it’s not to late to use NaNoWriMo as a jump starter to good habits! Right now Sisters in Crime is also hosting a SinC50K Facebook group where lots of great tips and encouragement are being shared.

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