What to do if you’re stuck – the writer’s guide to bootstrappin’ 1

It’s been a tough two weeks. I had a lot of freelance work going on, leaving me with only small pockets of time to devote to my novel. And though I’d love to be able to tell you those short writing sessions were super productive – the truth is I got stuck.
Like, seriously, stuckedy stuck.

So what did I do?

Needless to say, I panicked. Duh! I took this opportunity to tell myself that my material was worthless, that I had my characters all wrong anyway, generally sucked at writing, etc. etc. Halfway through a super productive crying session followed by the also super productive inhaling of a bag of chips, I thought ‘Hmm. Maybe I need a different tactic.’

I’m joking (okay, half joking), but you guys know what I mean, right? Being stuck can really get to you as a writer. Well, in my darkest, carb-infused hour, I came up with some tactics, and I wanted to share them with you. They might get you unstuck, but more importantly: they will help you to keep seeing the matter as a technical problem instead of a measurement of your worth as a writer/human being/slacker with a bag of chips.

And trust me – that’s a good thing.

Let’s get to bootstrapping. This is not my leg. I swear.

First up, a short explanation
When I decided to write a novel, I didn’t even know if I’d make the finish line. So to begin with, I planned to write genre fiction and use a clearly outlined synopsis. I ended up writing four versions of that manuscript: draft one.

Working within well-defined boundaries really helped me to get started as a writer. Still, I noticed that working like that, I was stifling my honest writing voice and cheating myself out of large parts of my creativity*. That’s why I started a second draft, this time without using distinct ‘genre’ conventions and without a synopsis. A marvellous decision that I very much enjoy and have also occasionally described as

[…] Carrying sand to the Sahara (in a thimble (that’s leaky (during a hurricane (without a map)))).

*= this does NOT mean I’m judging, it’s just what happened to ME. My best friends are genre fiction writers. Don’t hit me.

So having said all that: These tips are – hopefully – useful to everyone, but particularly aimed at those who don’t use a synopsis or plot outline. And now…let’s get bootstrapping!

Tip #one: stick to the habit
Last week I saw a great post by Leo Babauta of ZenHabits about the habit of exercising being more important than the type of exercise. Immediately I thought ‘that’s true for writing, too’.

My habit is to devote the first few hours of each working day to my writing and have at least 500 words by the end of it (a rather meager number, but that’s another story). When I was stuck, my first instinct was to go brooding in a corner and think myself over the hump. Yeah, okay THAT IS NEVER GOING TO WORK.

The only way that a ‘revelation’ is going to come to you, is by discovering it while writing. If the story is a fossil, to quote Stephen King, then the point you’re stuck at is simply a part of the fossil you don’t know how to dig out yet. And the one thing that’s for sure is you’re never going to dig it out by thinking about it. So KEEP WRITING, even if it’s the same shitty scene over and over again.

Which brings me to

Tip #two: use placeholder scenes
Your story is a series of interconnected events, a chain of cause and effect. Usually when you’re stuck, you can’t see the one link in the chain properly, but you do have a vague notion of what you need to SET UP THE NEXT LINK.

For these situations, I invented the term ‘placeholder scene’: It’s a crappy scene that still works to keep the story moving. Sort of like using a plastic model to experiment with before making the definitive bronze cast.

Or stabilizing a nuclear reactor with a paper clip.

The good thing about placeholder scenes is that it’s okay that they suck. I usually even make them a different color. That way I’m reminding future, editor me ‘Hey, this is a weak link, but you used it to keep the story rolling, so worry about it later’. Most times, when I come back to those placeholder scenes I have an immediate sense of how to make them better. That’s because by that time, I have the whole chain. It’s worth a try.

The worst that can happen is that you wreck a paper clip.

Tip #three: this is the end, my friend
Often when you get stuck, it’s because you just don’t know WHY the action happens. You can think of a million things that happen next…but what do they MEAN?

In those cases it might not be enough to simply keep writing, because as long as you don’t have a direction, you could as well be going in circles. This is what happened to me. Since I don’t use a synopsis, my knowledge of the story is pretty intuitive and I’m discovering the theme (and main dynamics) as I go.

What I discovered this week, after a lot of soul-searching (and chips), is that just because I can’t get this one panorama into focus, doesn’t mean that I can’t describe the view. In other words: my intuition about this particular part of the story might be lacking, but if I jump to another point in the story I might see clearly again.

And that is exactly what I did: I STARTED THINKING ABOUT THE END. To my great surprise, my brain/intuition/left foot/mysterious writing source knew exactly what the end should look like. And that went for a whole bunch of other key scenes too. So while I don’t know the way to get there yet, I now do have a focal point to write towards. And that really helped me get unstuck.

Tip #last: DON’T PANIC
Okay, this is not really a tip. The above is about all I have on the subject of getting unstuck, but I still think this one is important to mention. If you are stuck right now, you might think that you’ll never get out. You might even think that it’s no use, you’re a bad writer, anyway, etc. etc. (Can you hear the comfort food calling?)

Well, what I want to leave you with is DON’T PANIC. You are trying to write this book for a reason. Something is calling you to do it, and that means that that ‘something’ is already there, even if you can’t feel it right now.

SO DON’T PANIC. Just listen carefully. Keep writing, using placeholder scenes and jumping to conclusions. Sooner or later, you’ll hear that voice again. I promise.

And when you do, it’s going to be the best thing you ever heard.


Related: How to write when you’re down and out

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