Sometimes, we writers set off to write a novel or memoir or some other kind of book, and the first few chapters fly off our keyboards as if they were being dictated. Then, something happens. We might blame it on our busy schedule or tell ourselves we’re just taking a break. But really what’s happening is that we’re stuck.
If you scoured through my laptop, you’d find a folder called “Book Length Manuscripts” with several subfolders each containing a document I started at some point in my writing career. One of them turned into On Being a Writer. Another is a complete but unpublishable memoir about a mysterious autoimmune disorder I suffered with in my early thirties. And the rest are “in progress.” Really, I’m just stuck.
If I’m stuck, though, why bother saving those documents? Partly because I have the available storage space on my laptop and I rarely part with anything I’ve written. Mostly, though, it’s because I might get back to those manuscripts at some point. Even now, as I scanned through the titles, most of them still appeal to me.
But how does a writer go from frozen to fruitful again? How do we unstick ourselves?
Here are a few ideas:
- Step away for a while. Especially if you are just now finding yourself stuck, give yourself some distance and time from the project. But mark a day on the calendar when you’ll get back to it, otherwise, if you’re like me, the next time you pull out the file, you’ll have to wipe away the cobwebs and blow off the dust.
- Reread all that you’ve written so far. Sounds too simple, right? Maybe it is. But recently, I sat down to write chapter 3 of a new nonfiction project, and I felt stymied. I couldn’t find my way back into the flow. But since I had been away from the manuscript for a few days, I decided to just reread everything I had written up to that point. Sure enough, by the time I got to the last paragraph of chapter 2, I had a vision for how to begin chapter 3.
- Revise some of your earlier work. While you are reading through it anyway, take the chance to rephrase that awkward sentence or swap out that weak adverb/verb combination with a stronger, powerhouse verb. Sometimes, the process of rewriting shifts something loose in me, and I can begin writing new content.
- Start someplace other than where you left off. If you are working on a nonfiction book, review your outline or proposal, and begin working on another chapter later in the book, one you’re really excited about. Or, if you are writing a novel, pick up the story in a new setting or let your character flashback with a memory or daydream into the future. Now might even be a good time to work on the ending of your story.
- Do more research. Maybe the reason you’re stuck is that you don’t have enough information. Avoid the temptation to research indefinitely so that you never begin writing again, but just for today, go ahead and spend your writing time reading or surfing the web or visiting your childhood neighborhood for new insights into your plot or outline.
- Consider making a shift in your plot or outline. Now that you have some new information, how might you change the direction of your project? You don’t have to commit to it yet, but take some time to write toward a different conclusion or a different climax. If you like it, keep going. If you don’t, maybe the reason why you don’t will help draw you back to your original plot or outline.
- Move on. I know this isn’t what you want to hear, but maybe the way to save the project you’re stuck on is to abandon it … at least for a while. Save all the work you’ve done so far, but start the next project you are excited about. If you’re supposed to complete that original book idea, you’ll eventually come back to it.
I don’t claim to be much of a fiction writer, but I actually have written quite a few short stories and started several different novels. The problem is, I seem to get stuck on fiction more than nonfiction, and I’ve been stuck on most of partially-written novels for years now. Recently, though, I began thinking about this one particular novel that I began back in 2004. I’ve been thinking about the characters I birthed and never matured. About a plot that needed to be tweaked. About the story that still wants to be told.
Now, 12 years later, it’s time to find my way back into that world I started but never finished. It’s time to get unstuck.
By the way, I originally sat down today to write a blog post about What to Do When You Don’t Know Where to Start. I already had the Google Doc open to begin my draft when I happened to look at an email subscription from my friend and coauthor Ann Kroeker, who just today released a podcast called … wait for it … “What to Do When You’re Unsure How to Begin.” Coincidence? I think not. We’ve done this more times than we care to admit. We’re both writers and writing coaches, and the issues writers face seem to come to our attention at about the same time. So rather than duplicate Ann’s topic, I wrote about something else. But be sure to check out Ann’s post, too. Especially if you aren’t sure how to get started.