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Stuck Is a Symptom, Not the Cause
Whether you write for fun or profit, you likely have had this experience: You feel the adrenalin rush about a story idea. It is so clear in our thoughts that it will practically write itself. Your fingers fly across the keys. If you’re lucky, the words flow non-stop for hours, even days. Suddenly, you come to a full stop. That pulsating perpendicular line on the computer screen seems to say, “Don’t just sit there; say something.”
It is a heck of a time for your muse to go on vacation or sleep in. You are face-to-face with the infamous “writer’s block.” You are stuck. When a good night’s sleep doesn’t cure it, panic sets in.
Panic is like a portal to self-doubt. Your imagination, which normally is your best tool, turns on you, and your muse’s evil twin gets to work on your self-esteem: What if I’m just wasting my time? What if I’m not good enough? What if this is the only story I have in me? What if everybody hates it? What made me think that I could write?
Soon the “what if” fades into the background and the thoughts become I can’t do this; I’m not good enough; this is the only story I have, and I’m wasting my time. You become paralyzed.
Getting stuck mid-story is not the cause. Getting stuck is a symptom. There are so many causes it’s hard to count them all.
Find the Real Cause for Writer’s Block
The causes for being stuck are varied. Diagnosing which one applies to you is the first step in the cure.
• Too eager to begin
• Fear of failure
• Trying for perfection
• Too many outside obligations
• The inability to concentrate on one idea at a time
• The fear of success
Surprisingly, fear of success can be just as debilitating as fear of failure. It has its own set of obstacles and expectations. They all can evolve into story impasse.
If we haven’t worked ourselves into a tizzy, temporary changes in our routines like switching from computer to pen or from your desk to the kitchen table often jumpstarts the word flow. When the problem messes with your confidence, you need help. You must first silence that wicked inner voice of self-doubt.
Stop Comparing Your First Draft to a Published Novel
If you’re trying to write the perfect first draft, it can be intimidating and paralyzing. There is time enough to turn the best phrase, discover the perfect metaphor, or create the best sensory detail in the revisions that follow. It is empowering to edit work. You shouldn’t compare your draft to a published novel.
You have no idea how many restarts or revisions that published book went through before fruition. Thomas Wolfe’s first novel manuscript was over 1,100 pages (about three times longer than the average novel). After getting many rejections from other publishers, it arrived at Scribner’s and was wheeled on a dolly into Max Perkins’ office. The genius editor became a sculptor carving away the excess to find the core of the story. Forget about comparing your writing to anyone else’s. You have no clue what the submission looked like before the editor stepped in. Thinking about that can make any writer feel better, so title it “first draft” and move on. It will remain your secret.
Your ideas and voice are unique because you are unique. That’s about 90% of creating. You can acquire the skills to express that unique view by taking courses and critiques, and even if you are physically isolated, you can find company and encouragement through fellow writers online.
Experienced writers are by nature a generous lot and share their knowledge. We might write alone, but we are not alone. Never has there been so much help available, and you don’t have to leave home to find it.
The good news is that for every problem there is a solution. Being stuck need not be permanent. You need only to recognize which of the many possibilities is your current dilemma.
Don’t Begin Too Soon
Oddly, the most common cause might be your enthusiasm. Enthusiasm for our story is not the worst fault we possess unless it causes you to skip some vital steps. That sudden stop you are experiencing might be your writer instinct telling you to take a deep breath and figure out why.
Starting to write prematurely might be your easiest problem to solve. Just as we crawl before we toddle, toddle before we walk, and walk before we run, writers have a natural order to create a story: Idea, Plan, Write, and Rewrite. Your story’s strength is from your preliminary planning. It doesn’t have to be a detailed outline. Before you start your journey, you want to know the destination and if the driver (your viewpoint character) is qualified to get you there. Otherwise, at some point, you might come to a dead stop.
The flipside of starting without a clear idea of the steps is sticking to a rigidly detailed outline. You shouldn’t be so set in stone that you ignore a better alternative. It’s as if the character says, “You don’t know me. Why should I listen to you?” When your main characters refuse to travel the path you choose for them, you are just as stuck. It’s time to ask, “Am I forcing them to behave out of character? Did my shy, insecure character suddenly rush on stage and snatch the microphone to speak?” It’s time to backtrack and make sure you show that they have a recessive emotion that might one day overcome the shyness. You might need to alter your outline to reflect the change, but it is worth it to have a better story.
An Idea is Just the Beginning
An idea is only the seed. It needs time to develop. Your main characters weren’t born on page one. What happened to them between birth and now that makes them react to their current situation? Don’t get so enthralled with the action that you forget that a story is like an iceberg. Readers are aware of what they see. Yet it’s the foundation beneath the water that has the biggest impact.
In your story, that foundation is the theme the reader takes with them. It’s why you wanted to write the story in first place, right? If you spend some quality time getting to know your character’s past, at some point in the story they’ll practically tell their own story. Those stuck moments become temporary at worst.
Oh, and about your muse’s evil twin whispering that you have no chance to compete with the established authors? Ignore it. Keep writing and know that good stories do sell and editors at traditional houses still buy first time authors despite the shrinking market.
Mary Blount Christian has had more than 100 traditional and work-for-hire books published for adults, children, and teens in fiction and non-fiction. She is currently working on two potential mystery series for adults. Mary joined the Institute of Children’s Literature in 1977. Reprinted in French, Japanese, Indonesian, Swedish, and Braille, some are reprinted in paperback and video films. Her first book, NOTHING MUCH HAPPENED TODAY, has never been out-of-print since it was published in 1973 and currently appears in a collection by Mosdos Publishing for schools.