Monday, January 25, 2016

Getting unstuck

It’s so easy to get into a ‘same old, same old’ rut with your writing. What do you do to break out of it?

by Meredith Cole

There is always a time in every book (usually the great black hole of the middle) where my original idea/plan/outline goes piffle. Or doesn't work. Or is dull. And I get stuck. So after wandering around the house aimlessly cleaning everything and doing other chores that I usually avoid (which just goes to show how desperate I am), I usually turn to books about writing.

Here are three techniques that I've tried that have been somewhat successful at getting me unstuck and trying a new approach to a book:

Mind map the characters

Get a poster board or a giant piece of paper. Write your protagonist's name in the middle and then write your other characters names like they are planets circling your main character.  Draw lines between characters that are connected and write how they are connected (mother, college room mate, etc.). Think about other ways that characters are connected. Imagine new scenes between them. Are all the characters working as hard as they can to make your story exciting?

I remember this generating a couple of ideas for my first book and giving me a few more ideas on who to kill next (always a bonus in a mystery).  
Warning: It takes a long time and you'll need to dedicate a portion of your wall to the map (challenging for apartment livers and for people whose spouses prefer, um, art on the wall).

Visually scramble your scenes

After writing a first draft, I was a bit stuck on how to fix the flow. I went through and "re-outlined" my story (typing what actually happened after I wrote it in each scene/chapter). Then I printed it out (with spaces between each scene) and cut each scene into a strip. I laid out the scenes on the floor and played with scrambling them up and trying to decide what had to go where. I also wrote up new scenes to insert on pieces of paper and asked questions like, "is my story starting in the right place," "is it dragging anywhere," and "are there places where my protagonist isn't doing enough or is 'absent' from the action too long"?

Warning: Not good for homes that use heat blowers or air conditioners or open window (you can lose all your work in an instant!). Also, must have adequate floor space for this one. And no pets.

Cast your book

If you're having trouble really seeing your characters, you can try "casting" your book like a movie. I tried this with one book and found photos of actors on Google to represent each character and photos of locations. This works best when you have a few actors in mind, or else you'll end up looking for hours and get depressed about how few character actors there are in Hollywood.

Warning: This was not very useful for me since I didn't feel like it helped me go in any new directions. I was just reinforcing what I already knew, and looking for actors that fulfilled my existing vision. And it took a long time.

What other ways have you used to get unstuck? I'm always looking for ideas that will help!


Paul D. Marks said...

I've used the "scrambling" method on occasion, but with index cards. Where each card is a scene. Was having major trouble with something one time. Just couldn't get it to work. Played around with the index cards and it just came together.

Art Taylor said...

Great tips, Meredith! ...but yes, as you advised, we need a bigger house (or at least more wall space....)

Seriously, I actually do some of this on Scrivener--using the corkboard feature and then casting characters with photos of actors/actresses in the character sections.

Now I just need to get working! (...and stop shoveling....)

RJ Harlick said...

Some intriguing tips, Meredith. I will have to try them next time I'm stuck.

Meredith Cole said...

I hope they're useful! They're worth trying (as long as you don't let them take too long and derail your writing process...) We're still shoveling out here, too, Art! Hope you can get some writing done today.

Susan C Shea said...

My first book wound up on a white board (one of those temporary, roll-up ones) that had been marked as calendar days. For me, each box was a chapter and my the end it was covered with notes and sticky notes of all colors. It's been simpler since then but when I get stuck, I walk around, talk out loud to myself and get out those stickies again.