April 25, 2019
Here's the thing about writing. Eventually, no matter what else you do, you'll get stuck.
Just this week, I was stuck trying to come up with a sixth book idea for a series proposal. The publisher requires a six-book series for proposal, and I had five good book ideas, but that was it. I was stuck. And it's not the first time I've been stuck.
I've gotten stuck in the middle of a plot when I realize the next step I intended to take actually wouldn't work for this character and this situation.
I've gotten stuck when I finished up a rough draft and still haven't come up with a title.
I've gotten stuck when a publisher asked me to send in some ideas for a literacy series they were doing and my creative well seemed to have run dry.
It's uncomfortable and scary but there are things you can do.
Being stuck is not permanent. You will eventually be on the other side of this. It's important to remember that because the scary side of stuck works hard to keep you in place. Fear is not the friend of creativity or clear thinking. So the first thing to remember whenever you're stuck is that it is a temporary problem. In all the situations where I've been stuck, I eventually wasn't stuck anymore. So take deep breaths and picture the spot on the other side of stuck when you're so relieved not to be stuck anymore. You're going to get there.
The Problem of Burn Out
We get stuck for lots of reasons. Let's start with the worst one, the one that requires the most radical and difficult solution. When the publisher asked me for ideas for literacy series books, I was burned out. I'd been working hard and fast for a long while and I was simply tired.
Burn out is a serious problem for anyone who tends to take on a lot in their lives. And it is another enemy of creativity and clear thinking. So if your problem is burn out, the only cure is trimming the amount you're trying to do, being a little kinder to yourself, and rest. That's what I had to do about the burnout I was suffering when the literacy opportunity presented itself. And since that was an offer with a deadline, in the end, I only caught the very end of the opportunity and ended up only doing four books.
I would have loved to do more, but the burnout I felt was completely self-induced. I’d brought it on myself and it bit me hard. And that situation taught me to be watchful of burnout (especially since I missed out on thousands of dollars of work because of it). But that period of burnout also taught me a lesson in how much I was capable of. I'd produced an amazing amount of work before burning out, but I'd also found my absolute limits. So after trimming back hard in order to rest, I have been able to ramp back up slowly, always keeping an eye on those limits.
Burn out isn't the only way to get stuck. One that I've talked about before (and probably often) is the empty story well. Every time you read a book, every single time, you teach your brain things about story. Organization. Pacing. Description. Dialogue. Action. It all goes into your brain and is sorted by the amazing machinery up there. And the more books and stories you read, the more ways your brain sees to do these things. It's a bit like looking at a flat photo versus looking at a 3-D model.
When you can see something from more angles, you have a better understanding of it. Reading does that for you. Sure, it helps if you think about what you read and look at how the author did things, but it also helps simply to read for fun. It's all feeding your brain’s story machine. That's why some of the best, most original, most creative writers are voracious readers. But our busy days can make it hard to stop and read. Plus, a lot of us read so much just from our phones and the web. We read the news, and social media posts, and texts from friends. And it can become hard to stop and read a book. But if you stop teaching your brain written story, you starve that story-building mechanic in your head. And eventually it will come to a grinding halt and only reading will restart it. So read. It's so important.
Another way to get stuck is simply pressure. So many times, I have approached a blank page and simply been flummoxed by it. When we're called to produce right now, we go blank. It's a bit like having to come up with someone's name suddenly. You know you know the person's name. You've said it a bazillion times. You've known the person forever. But it's gone. Thanks, Brain, for making me look stupid, again.
That sudden panic of the social pressure or the blank page can leave you stuck. The answer is usually simple. Change of scene and action. Don't try to come up with your story while staring at the blank screen. Go take a shower or a walk and relax. Don't think about the story. Instead think story-adjacent thoughts until the story begins to sneak in. Honestly, I've been known to work out a whole tricky bit of dialogue while walking. I'll do all the lines out loud. My neighbors undoubtedly think I'm nutty. But ideas are much easier to come by when not at the computer. So I take a walk or take a shower or clean something and ideas show up for the ride along.
In extreme stuckness, you may need a new approach to writing. I've known writers who became unstuck when they switched from writing on computer to writing long-hand. Or when they talked through their stuckness and recorded it. Or when they tried drawing a story in stick figures instead of writing it. By radically changing how you approach the story creation, you can sometimes route around the panicky stuck part of your brain to find a smooth road again.
So What Doesn't Help?
As I said earlier, panic doesn't help. Panic makes your brain less inclined to come up with ideas. But panic isn't the only problem. So is shaming yourself.
In fact, negative voices of any kind are harmful to your creative flow. When you're inclined to think that getting stuck means you're not a "real writer" or "not called to this" or whatever, just remind yourself that every writer gets stuck. Great writers get stuck. Your favorite writers get stuck. In fact, some writers have piled so much panic and pressure on themselves that they stayed stuck for a long, long time.
Don't be one of those.
Let yourself off the hook. You don't need to hold your nose to the grindstone in the belief that you just need to be bullied out of your stuckness. Instead, make friends with your stuckness. See it as an arrow pointing you to what you need to do to be successful:
• more rest?
• a break?
• a refill of the story well?
• a new approach?
Whatever you need, it doesn't make you less of a writer. In fact, it makes you more like the rest of us. The writing journey is bumpy sometimes. But a bump isn't a crater and you can get through it. I promise.
Jan Fields is a full-time, freelance author and an Institute of Children's Literature Instructor. Would you like to have your own instructor teaching you on a one-on-one basis? Show us a sample of your work here.