Three Parts of the Writing Process That Get Authors Stuck: And How To Work Through the Halts

daylight-at-last-921613-mOne of the toughest things about writing fiction is getting stuck. We get stuck SO OFTEN as authors…. One of the keys to success is simply finding ways to overcome the doubt about our stories and our abilities that getting stuck thrusts upon us.

Me, I’ve been kind of stuck fiction-wise all year, so I’m no stranger to this topic.

Part of my personal situation was that I had real-life interfere and had to give attention to other things. But part of it was that I also gave into the definition of madness: doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting different results.

Finally, I decided to organize myself differently. I made a plan to break down my work-in-progress, scene by scene, in chart format in Microsoft Excel (I explain that organizational model here). And that has given me the motivation and the ability to make progress in my editing.

So, here are 3 different ways we writers get stuck, with some thoughts on how to get over the barrier.

1. OVER-PLANNING

However we do our prewriting–outlines, research, charts, character sheets, all of the above–sometimes it’s tough to feel that we’ve prepared enough. The planning can be fun for some people, and it feels safe. It’s not frustrating the way writing can be. And so we fall into the comfort of planning and telling ourselves we’ll write “once we’re done getting the story together.”

My only advice here: jump in. Just start writing. In a grad school time-management seminar, I had a presenter talk about research papers for our classes (because hey, writing is writing. It’s relevant here.)

What did she tell us? You’ll always have to do research. And you’ll want to outline, which is fine. Do that stuff. But start writing before you feel you’re ready to write. Write before you feel you’ve got everything lined up.

That was one of the BEST PIECES OF WRITING ADVICE I personally ever received. I needed it because of my perfectionist tendencies.

I found that once I had done some research and had a basic idea of what I wanted to say, that was enough to start writing. I could fill in gaps in my plan as they arose while writing.

When all is said and done, writing is about getting words on the page. Some of us need or like more prewriting than others; I do understand that. But at some point, we all have to start putting words down.

Remember: those words aren’t carved in stone. They can be changed. You can even throw them away and start over. In the end, for me, it’s more valuable and more helpful to just start writing and toss twenty pages later on than to plan, plan, and plan some more.

2. WRITER’S BLOCK

I’ve written a lot about this, and even have a category attributed to it that you might want to check out if you’re having issues with writer’s block.

My personal suggestions for working through it?

  • You might try free-writing and see what shakes out.
  • If you know where you want your story to go but aren’t sure how to get from point A to point B, jump forward to point B. Sometimes jumping ahead like that and rushing onward will spark a brainwave later involving the missing pieces.
  • One of my big rules is “follow the characters.” So focus on character. Get to know your characters better. What you discover about them might help you understand how they respond to a particular situation that has you stumped.
  • Consider changing some aspect of a character’s background, description, or overall identity. For some writers, this is like treason to suggest, I understand that. I, myself, have never made big changes to a major character whom I’ve already established as his or her own person. But if you’re not averse to it, it could help.
  • Of course, there is the always suggested “distance yourself.” Walk away for a bit. Clear your mind and come back fresh. You don’t have to leave writing entirely…. Just the particular project that’s an issue for you.

3. OVER-EDITING

I have issues with this. I read, read, read, and change, change, change. Later, rinse, repeat. You know the drill.

There is a comfort in that process of repetition. After all, no novel can ever be “perfect,” but by continual edits we can always make it better, right?

I used to use this as an excuse NOT to share my work with others. The fact is, there comes a point when I need to ship my work-in-progress off to beta readers.

Beta readers always find issues I have overlooked. They also tend to help me relax about issues I am blowing out of proportion.

My personal rule of thumb for when you know it’s time to involve the help of others? I can only say this works for me, but:

A big clue is when I start changing things from A to B, and then in my next editing pass, I want to change phrasing back from B to A. That kind of “back and forth” is a sign I’ve done all I can on my own with the novel for now.

A second clue is that I’ve done a second (or even third or fourth) read-through. You see, a bit part of my editing strategy is to read-through my novel from time to time and not edit as I read, just take notes on what isn’t working. Later, I edit based on those notes. Then I might read-through again.

By the time I’ve edited and read through my novel at least two times, it’s generally in solid enough shape for first readers to give input on how I can take it to the next level, smooth things out, and enhance what’s already working so that it’s even better.

So, what do you do when you get stuck? Have you experienced being stuck in one of these areas, or at a different point in the writing process, in a different way? I think this is a great topic to get a discussion going about. We can help each other grow and progress by leaps and bounds by getting ourselves unstuck.

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24 responses to “Three Parts of the Writing Process That Get Authors Stuck: And How To Work Through the Halts

  1. That third one really is a killer. My rule is if I catch myself making a change simply for the sake of changing something. There are times I see a blank page with nothing altered and think something has to be wrong. That’s when I know I’m about to make a mistake.

    • Wow, that’s such a great point, Charles! I hadn’t thought of that but I do that too sometimes. Sometimes a change when one isn’t needed is a disaster. In the best cases it isn’t good. I need to do a better job of saving multiple versions of my work so that I can always go back and easily “delete” a change. I have a version for each editing pass but maybe I need more. Thanks for spurring these thoughts!

  2. Excellent advice. I’ve shared on Facebook and Twitter. One thing I’d add: When I’m stuck because the novel just isn’t working and I’m not sure why, I go back to the last page where it was working and rewrite from there. That doesn’t always work, but it has helped me get rid of a bad section and shown me a different route on several occasions.

    • Thank you so much for that advice. That makes a LOT of sense to me as a great way to jumpstart a solution. It could also fit in well with freewriting, though it doesn’t have to. I mean, a writer who is stuck could go back to the last place the story was working and freewrite from there. Or think things through and write carefully, either way.

      • I run into this problem a crazy amount of time. If a scene’s not working for me, my first reaction is to edit, edit, edit. But sometimes (most of the time), the best fix is to scrap that scene entirely and return to the last point of Goodness. Great advice, thanks Victoria and E. Rose.

        Laura

  3. One thing I have found useful with Scrivener’s binder is writing a scene, and being able to easily move it or park over there, while I rewrite the scene or move on to write another and I can move them around, delete and add. Editing is so much easier.

    When I get stuck, I have to keep writing, or I loose the momentum.

    • I’m glad you mentioned momentum, because it is SOOO important. You’re very right. One of the keys is just to keep going, to keep rolling, not to lose steam or focus. That’s tough when things are nto going well, but it’s always possible to do.

  4. I’m glad to see that you’ve go through several layers of self-editing before it hits the beta readers. Such practices are the only way to defeat “Indie-Author Stigma”
    I’ve just made a blog post concerning my process. “Facing the Ugly Truth: Your First Draft Isn’t Beautiful” 🙂

  5. Start before you are ready is great advice in all kinds of situations beyond writing! Very true! Thanks

  6. Reblogged this on Ink Drop Interviews Presents… and commented:
    I enjoy passing along articles of substance and here is one I came across today: Three Parts of the Writing Process That Get Authors Stuck, by Victoria Grefer (Crimson League). Enjoy and don’t forget to let her know what you thought of her blog!

  7. Such great advice! I’m a firm believer in the free-write. Free-writing helps me explore character. But more than that, it helps me relax since it’s not “official.” It reminds me that I can write anything.

    Another thing that I found helpful is to remember what you said: that nothing is set in stone. My job is to get words on the page. But perfectionism often rears its ugly head and I wind up critiquing my writing instead of writing. I have to beat that down in order to move on.

    • again…. TWINS! I have the same troubles and I too have to strive to just write. NaNoWriMo, the one time I did it, helped me with that, but now I’m stuck with a mess of a draft to try to clean up. It’s happening, though, slowly but surely. At least the “surely” is involved!

  8. Pingback: Top Picks Thursday 01-09-2014 | The Author Chronicles

  9. I overplanned an entire book and now I can’t even look at it. It took the sparkle and excitement out of i. That was two years ago, and I kind of think that it’s gone forever.

    Sigh . . . .

  10. Reblogged this on Just Saying… and commented:
    Found tis particular blog very insightful about a subject that is one all writers are afflicted with at some stage.

  11. Pingback: Three Writer “Illnesses” (and how to treat them) | Creative Writing with the Crimson League

  12. I can really relate to the over editing phase just a the moment.

    • For a lot of us, doubt about how good our story can be, as it plays out in our imagination, keeps us from committing that story to a document. If I may offer an object lesson… http://youtu.be/otqf_v1rHYE If you can do better than the movie reviewed by Nostalgia critic, (and you CAN !) it’s worth your making the time to get the story out there.

  13. Reblogged this on NOOR A JAHANGIR and commented:
    Something I find myself struggling with often is writer’s block. It’s always good to get a fresh perspective on it.

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