How To Get Out of Story Stall


I think about Paris when I’m high on red wine.
I wish I could jump on a plane.
And so many nights I just dream of the ocean.
God, I wish I was sailing again. 
If you read my last couple of entries here you know I have been struggling to get some mo on my WIP. This week I finally realized I needed something drastic to kick me out of my funk.
So I took a cue from that great Western philosopher Jimmy Buffett and changed my latitude to change my attitude.
I didn’t get on a plane and go to Paris. But I did take a boat to work.
Normally, I work at home, migrating from sofa to chaise to bed with Acer in tow. But I was feeling closed in and my story was reflecting that. So I stuck the laptop in a backpack, put on clean clothes, combed my hair and slapped on enough makeup so I wouldn’t scare the horses and left the condo.
I live in downtown Fort Lauderdale on a river. A couple days ago, the city started up a free water taxi service. So Saturday, I took the boat to my local Coffee Place With Green Mermaid Logo. I got a cappacino, switched off the Wifi and opened Word. In two hours, I wrote 956 words. And most of them were keepers.
Today, I am back. And as soon as I finish this blog post, I am back to chapter twenty-two. And you know what? For the first time in weeks, I am eager to get to work.
Maybe you are one of those writers who thrive on routine and quiet. God bless you. I envy you. But I can’t do it. I don’t have set hours and I seem to produce my best work when I am in a strange place, preferably with the white noise of hissing espresso machines or bar Musak. But I had gotten in the habit of staying at home and it had resulted in a bad case of story stall.
We all have times when we get stuck in neutral, when our mind-wheels are mired in mud or spinning fast and going nowhere. Yeah, we can call it writer’s block, as this New Yorker article does:

Writing is a nerve-flaying job. First of all, what the Symbolists said is true: clichés come to the mind much more readily than anything fresh or exact. To hack one’s way past them requires a huge, bleeding effort. For anyone who wonders why seasoned writers tend to write for only about three or four hours a day, that’s the answer. Anthony Burgess…concluded that a writer can never be happy: “The anxiety involved is intolerable. And…the financial rewards just don’t make up for the expenditure of energy, the damage to health caused by stimulants and narcotics, the fear that one’s work isn’t good enough. I think, if I had enough money, I’d give up writing tomorrow.”

But I think writer’s block is a luxury of literary types. If you write for the commercial market, you can’t afford to wait for the muse to come around every couple years. My story stall and my move to coffee shop got me to thinking about all the ways we can use to un-stick ourselves. I’ll bet you guys have some good tips to add.

Change Your Habits or Habitat

Getting dressed and going to a coffee shop has forced me to treat my writing as more of a job. I also have eliminated all the distractions and excuses of home: dogs, full laundry basket, TV, husband, unfinished crossword puzzle. If you work at home now, go somewhere else. Do you write only in the morning? Try a shift to the afternoon. I know life intrudes (kids, day job, night classes). But even a small change in routine can make you feel renewed.

Switch Point of View

Not just your own, but your narrator’s. When I started my WIP, I envisioned the entire story from my female protag’s POV as she is pursued by a male investigator. But once the guy came on stage, he started stealing the story. I fought him for nine chapters before I realized his story was equally as compelling as hers. In fact, their storylines paralleled thematically. I switched to a dual protag and the story took off.

Simplify Your Plot

There is an urge, when you’re new at novel writing, to use all your best ideas in one book. Maybe it’s because we feel if we don’t, we will never get a second chance. Usually, a simple linear plot works best. (Which is not to say you don’t have complications, obstacles, setbacks, etc.) Two folks in my critique group were wrestling with confusing tangled yarn-ball narratives that overwhelmed their characters. One writer realized he had TWO books in one and has now excised one plot line for a sequel. The other writer realized she was trying to graft an international thriller plot onto what is, at heart, a lovely Romeo and Juliet mystery. Once she jettisoned the over-done thriller elements, the characters began to shine.

Pick a Different Point of Entry

The writer’s saw states, “get into a scene as late as possible.” I’d say that applies to your overall story. As James, Jodie and others have said here often, the optimum moment to begin your story is just before the stuff hits the fan. If you have too much set-up, all the reader “hears” is you clearing your throat. If you come in too late, you can risk losing any chance to build tension. Do you have a prologue? Try cutting it out. I bet you won’t miss it. Click here to read Joe Moore’s useful post on prologues.

Write Your Book’s Back Copy

Lack of focus is one of the biggest reasons for story stall. If you don’t know WHAT YOUR STORY IS ABOUT, how can you know where it is going? I’m not talking about plot points; I am talking about the big picture, the main drama and the stakes, your character’s arcs, and the theme. If you can’t boil your book’s essence down to one sharply written paragraph of about five sentences, I’m betting you don’t have a handle on what you are trying to say. I wrote about this at length a while back. Click here to see tips.

Print Out Your Chapters

It’s scientific fact that looking at a computer screen changes the way our brains work. Print out your pages and read them like a reader. And here’s another twist: Format your chapters in single space, justified, Times Roman, so it looks as close to a real book as possible. I did this once and my problems with pacing and back story jumped off the page. Also, “typesetting” it breaks your mental image of your WIP, taking it out of “rough” draft (I’m struggling!) to “real” book. (Wow, not as bad as I thought.)

Speed Write

This is something I do in my workshops: I give students an opening line and make them write as fast as possible for ten minutes. Sure, it might produce junk, but more often than not, they come up with interesting stuff. Set a kitchen timer or your iPhone and just let it flow fast and furious. You will surprise yourself. Consider it a creative colonic.

Quit While You’re Ahead

This one’s from Ernest Hemingway: “The best way is always to stop when you are going good and when you know what will happen next. If you do that every day you will never be stuck. Always stop while you are going good and don’t think about it or worry about it until you start to write the next day. That way your subconscious will work on it all the time. But if you think about it consciously or worry about it you will kill it and your brain will be tired before you start.” Caveat: This does not work for me. I must finish and light up my metaphoric ciggie.  

Get an Imaginary Dog

This is something I know a lot about: Not writing is like not sleeping. It does no good to lay there at 3 a.m. and stare at the glowing digital clock. Likewise, staring at the blinking curser won’t unblock you. Get out and go for a walk. Wordsworth wrote many of his poems on the move. Nietzsche claimed to have made all his philosophical insights while walking, and Kierkegaard wrote, “I have walked myself into my best thoughts.” Walking is something of a luxury in our go-go world. But science has documented the relationship between walking and thinking, that the rhythm of the body seems to free the mind. The ancient sages even had a phrase for it: Solvitur ambulando. “It is solved by walking.” So walk, don’t run. No iPod. Leave early and take the dog.

Get Some Imaginary Kids

We are Writers (capital W). But sometimes it’s good to go lower case and remember we are first storytellers. In our quest for the perfect sentence, the lovely phrase, the big idea, we often get in the way of our stories. Did your parents or teachers ever read to you? Remember how enthralling it was? John Steinbeck once wrote about being stalled: “Pretend that you’re writing not to your editor or to an audience or to a readership, but to someone close, like your sister, or your mother, or someone that you like.” If you get stuck, imagine you are sitting around a campfire telling a good story to some kids. Would you open with a prologue full of back story? Would you start with some confusing dialogue? No, you’d do something like this: “Every night, before he turned off the light, Jamie would get down on his hands and knees and look under his bed. There was never anything there except the dust bunnies. But on the night of his thirteenth birthday, when he picked up the edge of the bedspread, he saw something he had never seen before.”

Stop Writing

I know, I know. This sounds counter-intuitive. It smells of defeat. But I think we sometimes just need to give ourselves a break and take a break. Maybe your break is only for a day or a week. Maybe it needs to last over a good vacation. Maybe, like I had to do at one time, you need to take a couple months off. The world won’t end. Your WIP will still be there when you go back. But don’t buy into this notion that you MUST write every day. I’ll give the last word to Hilary Mantel:
“If you get stuck, get away from your desk. Take a walk, take a bath, go to sleep, make a pie, draw, listen to ¬music, meditate, exercise; whatever you do, don’t just stick there scowling at the problem. But don’t make telephone calls or go to a party; if you do, other people’s words will pour in where your lost words should be. Open a gap for them, create a space. Be patient.” 
I like that. Be patient. With your writing and with yourself.

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Writing Advice from John Steinbeck


What follows is some writing wisdom from John Steinbeck, via an old interview in The Paris Review. I’ve added some comments, which is a bit cheeky considering Mr. Steinbeck is a Nobel Prize ahead of me. But here goes anyway:
1. Abandon the idea that you are ever going to finish. Lose track of the 400 pages and write just one page for each day, it helps. Then when it gets finished, you are always surprised.
JSB: I like this. It’s similar to what Ann Lamott counsels in Bird by Bird, i.e., the “one inch frame.” Just face your daily writing, with full attention. If you do this faithfully, at some point you’ll look up and see a full novel. And that’s a very nice feeling.
           
2. Write freely and as rapidly as possible and throw the whole thing on paper. Never correct or rewrite until the whole thing is down. Rewrite in process is usually found to be an excuse for not going on. It also interferes with flow and rhythm which can only come from a kind of unconscious association with the material.
JSB: I completely agree. I am a planner, but once I get going I want to finish that first draft as rapidly as I can. I edit my previous day’s work and then move on. I don’t do substantial edits, with one exception. At about 20,000 words I’ll stop and assess the foundations of my story (using my LOCK System). I don’t want to press on for another 70k or 80k if the spine is not strong.
           
3. Forget your generalized audience. In the first place, the nameless, faceless audience will scare you to death and in the second place, unlike the theater, it doesn’t exist. In writing, your audience is one single reader. I have found that sometimes it helps to pick out one person—a real person you know, or an imagined person and write to that one.
JSB:I’ve heard this advice before, but I’ve never been able to use it. I don’t think about readers when I write. I think about the characters. I think about the readers when I come up with a concept. I make sure I’ve got an idea that will appeal to people who have discretionary income to spend on books. But once I’ve put that concept into motion in a novel, I’m involved only with the characters and how they get out of trouble.
           
4. If a scene or a section gets the better of you and you still think you want it—bypass it and go on. When you have finished the whole you can come back to it and then you may find that the reason it gave trouble is because it didn’t belong there.
           
JSB:This is good advice, so long as  you’re not doing it a lot. If you do, there’s going to be a much bigger mess at the end than there was at the beginning. If you have too many scenes that are not “working,” the problem may be in the structural foundations or in scene writing itself.
5. Beware of a scene that becomes too dear to you, dearer than the rest. It will usually be found that it is out of drawing.
JSB:I believe “out of drawing” is an art term which means an element that doesn’t fit. “Kill your darlings” is another way to put it. But this advice has always puzzled me. Maybe that scene that’s dear to you is the best one in the book. I think the only test is, Does it work? And maybe what we need is that objective eye, from someone else, to tell us if it does.
           
6. If you are using dialogue—say it aloud as you write it. Only then will it have the sound of speech.
JSB: I prefer to write dialogue and let it flow. When I edit the dialogue, that’s when I might say it out loud, or have Word’s speech function read it to me.
So there’s a list from one of our most esteemed writers. Any of it resonate with you? (I’ll be flying to L.A. from NYC today, so talk amongst yourselves!)
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