Facing the Blinking Cursor

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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?

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17 comments to Facing the Blinking Cursor

  • How ironic that you post this today, as I’m avoiding starting a new novel, overwhelmed by the blank pageS. My solution, implemented as soon as I post this, will be to Just Write. I’ll edit later on. But for now, I need to get words on the page.

    Thanks, Carrie, for the figurative kick in the pants!

  • Unicorn

    I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: When I hit a blank, I ride horses. In bad cases, I get out of the arena, away from the more challenging horses. I climb on my most trusted mare and ride out into Africa. Sometimes – on the best days – hitting the saddle is like opening the wardrobe door into Narnia. Usually all it takes is a good gallop up a hill.
    If the horse doesn’t cure it, I usually abandon that particular work in desperation. Just for an hour, or a day, or perhaps even a week, and I know that’s the wrong way to go about it. I won’t add words to that project, but the problem will pester me constantly until I lose some sleep and finally figure it out in my thoughts.
    Thanks for the interesting post, Carrie. I love the idea of making a list of twenty things that could happen, though I just know I would start with something crazy like “Hero turns into a pink billy goat…”
    Unicorn

  • I do a couple things. The first is to write a quick scene synopsis of what I want to happen in the scene. Usually it’ll help keep things flowing later and give me enough ideas to build on, as well as a direction. It’s probably the best thing I’ve found to get me past the blinking cursor. Another thing I do…is…well…I drink. Maybe one or two, but it’s enough to push all other distractions away and make me focus. It’s not the healthiest way, and I don’t advocate it (it seems there were other authors in the past who worked the same way…), but it seems to help me get through sticky spots. Helping with the focus, I also listen to instrumentals, a specific set of them, actually, every time. It seems to help. I’ve done it without and it’s infinitely harder. No idea why. It just is.

    And now I go to turn off the distraction of the interwebz so that I can hit the next 2k goal…

  • Mikaela

    If the weather is nice, I take a walk. If the weather is not so nice, I do the dishes. If none of that works, I pick up pen and paper. In fact, the pen and paper is a great way to just focus on the writing, and just getting the story out. Are the draft ugly? Hell yes. But all my first drafts are ugly.
    Now, if you excuse me, I have a meeting with a notebook….

  • I kill someone.
    A *character*! (she shouts before you dash off to call the cops) A *character*!
    Or, now that I’m writing dark urban fantasy, I bring someone back from the dead — but utterly changed. Which is way more fun than I expected. 🙂

  • Hepseba ALHH

    So far, my most stuck times have come about because I’m either a) trying to juggle too much information at once, or b) missing a crucial (and usually obvious and dumb) piece of information. With a), either large-scale outlining or organizing seems to help or else just picking the most interesting or immediate idea/plot-point/etc. and running with it. With b), I usually start with trying figure out the proper motivations of all of the characters involved to clarify what their actions should be.

    Usually, of course, I’ve got both problems going at once so I end up jotting lots and lots of notes and trying to get myself organized, then hit myself on the head with something like, ‘Duh! He’s a soldier! He needs ORDERS! Otherwise he’s just walking around in limbo!”

  • I followed what Faith said above in my NanoWrimo. First 20k lines, I’ve killed one of the main characters, and one secondary character.
    I’m finding it’s a good motivator for the other main characters. I suspect the death toll when all is said and done will be brutal. We’ll see.

    Difficult for me, writers block when revising. Kill a character too early when revising and the rewrite could be daunting.

  • I used to take long hot showers from which I would emerge like an oversized pink prune.
    Sometimes I sleep on it and put a pad beside the bed on which the word IDEA is written in large letters so it’s the first thing I see when I wake up. It works surprisingly often.

  • I ask myself what the point of the scene is. Why are we here? Do I need this scene? What has to happen before the scene is over? Sometimes I realize I DON’T need the scene which is why my brain won’t produce words. If I do have a point or a purpose to the scene I write toward that. Sometimes it’s like bushwhacking – I know where I want to get, but I have no path to get there so I just blindly strike out in the general right direction. It might take me 1000 words or 3000, but it gets the fingers typing again.

  • A lot of times I dance. Somehow the physical movement shakes something loose, and I find that when I stop dancing and sit back down at the keyboard, I can write again.

  • Martin

    I like to skip ahead to another scene and make some sort of arbitrary change to one of the characters or settings and make it fit retroactively. Sometimes I keep the change, but sometimes it just sparks enough creativity to spur things along and I forget about the new detail altogether. Either way, it’s a win.

  • Razziecat

    This is relevant, because the other day I found myself stuck in a blank spot while trying to make my daily NaNo goal. And I have an outline! Which I had begun to hate before NaNo started, as it seemed to have sucked all the joy out of my story; then I began writing and found the outline is invaluable. But while I knew where my characters were, and what they had to accomplish, I hadn’t outlined how they do it, or what nasty things were going to happen to them while they tried. So I just bulled through, knowing that I’m going to have to go back after NaNo and figure this section out. And for good measure I threw in a fight scene and a little hanky-panky 🙂 Not sure how much of that will survive the revision process.

    In general, music helps when I get stuck, as long as it’s something that gets me in the mood for the story I’m working on. And writing the old way, pen on paper, gets the juices flowing. I like the “twenty things that can happen” idea, though. I’m going to try it!

  • I think about vaccuuming, or dusting, or reducing the cobweb count… and that usually gets the words flowing. If there’s one thing worse than the blinking cursor, it’s chores! 🙂
    And if the words still don’t come, I type. Anything. To do list. Christmas shopping list. Wish list. Why I hate mornings. Whatever pops into the brain. Eventually, my creative self/muse gets frustrated or disgusted with the drivel and starts insisting that if I’m going to sit there pounding on the keyboard, I might as well do something interesting.

  • I drive. Sounds a little dangerous doesn’t it? I always feel like someone is going to look back at me one day and respond with something like: “Never operate heavy machinery while thinking” or “Friends don’t let friends think and drive”. I do try to stick to familiar routes on mostly empty, back-country two-lane highways where letting my body autopilot isn’t so scary though. The simple, solitary task of driving removes me physically (and metaphysically) from all other distractions and creates a perfect vacuum in time and space for brain waves to crash and churn… something like that 🙂

  • Julia

    Facing a tight deadline and an inability to conclude a piece before getting on a plane, I tried AJ’s method. I wrote down my question–the thought I couldn’t quite grasp. I woke up in the middle of the night with enough inspiration to get it done. Thanks for the timely suggestion!

  • I love the idea of making that list you mention, Carrie. What terrific approach to a problem that all of us face at one time or another. When I’m stuck, I’ll go for a walk, or pick up my guitar, or do anything else that will carry me away from the story for a while. Distance helps.

  • It doesn’t always work, but when I’m stuck I like to bring someone else into the flow of the story. Whether it’s a new character or an old character that didn’t have a reason to stick around, brining in someone with their own motivations which will clash in a small or a big way with what “my” characters are trying to do tends to kick the story back into play.

    When it’s time to go back and edit I may take out that moment, but at the time it gets me writing and gets my characters back to work.