Everyone’s faced that point writing when you stare at the blinking cursor and think, “Okay, what’s next?” Some people call it writer’s block, some people call it being stuck, and some just call it a day that ends in y. There are times when you have the luxury to step back, take a walk or a shower or a nap and let the story sink in with the hope that the threads sort themselves out but there are other times, like when you’re under deadline, that you have to keep writing and forge ahead. So what do you do?
Sometimes getting stuck in a book is your subconscious telling you that you’ve taken a wrong turn and need to go back and re-route. I know one author who puts her finger on the delete key and holds it down until she’s sure of the story again — whether that’s a paragraph or five chapters later (I should note that I never actually delete anything, I just cut and paste it into an “errata and lost words” file just in case I can pilfer from it later). I know another author who starts reading her book from the beginning, looking for the place it went off the rails.
There are times (especially for a non-outliner like me) when we think “Oh, this is the perfect thing for this story!” and we take that turn in the plot and follow that path through the woods of words only to realize we’re getting nowhere (and we keep taking these paths because sometimes they lead to some amazing places!). When that happens and you just have to backtrack until you find your original path and then keep going from there.
One of my favorite pieces of writing advice comes from Nora Roberts who once said, “The muse is a fickle b*tch.” Sometimes you can’t just sit and wait for inspiration to strike and you have to forge ahead word by word armed with the knowledge that you can come back someday and fix what you’re writing. As Nora also says, “You can’t fix a blank page.”
But once again, you’re staring at that blinking cursor and maybe you’re okay with writing rubbish but still… where do you start? I tend to go by the adage that happy people make for short books so when I’m stuck I ask myself, “What’s the worst thing that can happen?” Because I tend to write actiony-horror type stuff this may seem like an easy solution (when in doubt, send the zombie hordes to attack!) but this adage can work for any kind of story. Remember the movie Working Girl? It’s about a secretary who pretends to be her boss and falls in love with her boss’s boyfriend while also stealing one of her boss’s clients. What’s the worst that can happen? Her boss comes home right when she’s presenting to those clients with her boyfriend in attendance.
This is when I tend to turn to list making — figure out where you are in the story and make a list of twenty things that could happen next. Don’t hold back — if you want to put down “aliens arrive” in your contemporary romance, feel free! Perhaps that will jog something else free in your imagination. The reason I say you should aim for a list of twenty is because that’s a difficult number and to reach it you have to really really stretch. Sure you can probably come up with five or six easy solutions, but what happens when you let your mind roam free and give it free reign?
The key is to stop censoring yourself. Sometimes we face the blinking cursor because we feel the pressure to produce and to produce something good. Often the pressure I feel isn’t deadlines but a fear of breaking a story that I love. Let me ruin the suspense: we’re all going to break stories, we’re all going to have days when the writing is bad and we’re all going to have times when, no matter how hard we try, we can’t get past that blinking cursor. I don’t say this to be depressing, I say it to be liberating. Once you know that there will be tough times then they can’t be surprising and hopefully that will help you take them in stride.
When in doubt, walk away. Get outside and leave your cell phone or any other distraction behind. I’m convinced the reason so many writers find solutions to their plot problems in the shower is because there’s nothing else to do but think. We live distracting lives and if you’re focusing on twitter or email or TV or the phone then you’re not fully focused on the story. And when I say “focused on the story” I’m not necessarily advocating taking a walk around the park and thinking of nothing else — I mean sometimes you have to let your mind wander completely away and emails/twitter/phones tend to keep us tethered.
At the end of the day here’s what I remind myself: there will be days when I stare at the blank cursor and there will be days when the words fly. Sometimes you have to make it through the former to get to the latter. And if you can’t think of anything else to do, I’ve found forcing your characters to make out or blow something up is a surefire way to get the story moving again 🙂
What are your tricks for facing the blinking cursor?