Rocks fall and everyone dies — Writers dealing with frustration

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Here at magical words there is a lot of talk about BIC (obligatory translation: Butt in Chair). But what do you do when you’ve been sitting in your chair for hours, your fingers poised expectantly over the keyboard, but nothing works? Maybe your main character just won’t get with the program, or maybe it’s bigger. Maybe everything you type is falling flat, your characters have all faded to mere shades of people and you’ve been banging your head against your computer so long that your ready to invoke Armageddon/the Apocalypse/Ragnarok or whatever end of the world scenario you can come up with, let the story implode, and then dump the file in the recycling bin. Some might call it writer’s block, but what it’s really called is frustration (maybe verging on disrepair) because things just aren’t working. While it might give you a cathartic release to write that rocks fall and everyone dies before shutting your computer and walking away, that isn’t actually the best solution. Let’s look at some alternatives:

  • Change things up. Have you been writing on the computer? Try writing long hand for a while. Have you been writing in your office? Try the back porch or a 24 hour IHOP. Sometimes changing your environment or the mode in which you write can tempt your muse back where she’s needed.
  • Take a walk. Or a nap. Okay, admittedly, these are very different things. Taking a walk or in some other way getting some exercise can get the blood flowing to your brain. It also gives you a bit of a break from the frustration so you don’t start gnawing on the keyboard. When you come back, you’ll have a rush of adrenalin and endorphins and hopefully be ready to tackle the scene. The nap is also an unwinding tool. It doesn’t work for everyone, but sometimes stepping away and calming down allows the pieces to fall together.
    Now, before I go on, there is a big caveat that goes along with the walk/nap suggestion: this is a procrastination gateway so limit how often you walk away from your manuscript and always, ALWAYS come back. You might take an entire evening off, but make sure you are in front of your computer the next day. If things still aren’t working when you come back from your break, try a different method, don’t leave again.
  • Skip the scene. Some people probably cringed when they read those words because they always. have. to. write. in. order. No exceptions (really? you sure?) Others are probably shrugging and thinking that they already skip around. Personally, I prefer writing in order. Always. Scenes build on each other. But once in a blue moon it comes down to having to skip ahead or start working on matching my heartbeat to the blinking cursor. My suggestion when skipping ahead, write what you know has to happen in the scene, even if it is just a sentence or two of narrative summery. Then move to the next scene and write as if you’d finished the previous scene–you can fill it in later.
  • The next suggestion I’m reluctant to mention because it is so easy to abuse and end up in a never ending cycle but: Run a diagnostic on your novel. Many times, if a scene just won’t work or a character won’t cooperate it is because I’ve messed up somewhere with motivations or I’m wrong about what I think should happen (vs what the story actually needs to happen.) Once I figure this out, it is easy to move forward.
    Now why I’m reluctant to mention this one is because diagnosing and fixing your novel as you write the first draft is full of pot holes. I know some here edit as they go along, but for me, I finish books only by maintaining a forward momentum–as in, editing is for the second draft, my goal in the first draft is to get the  entire story down on paper. Editing as I go along is dangerous for me because I can get into a loop where I can’t move forward until the first part of what I’ve written is ‘correct’. So what do I do if I realize I’ve got something seriously wrong and I can’t move forward until I figure it out? I diagnose the problem, and if it’s a quick fix or costs me only a scene or two, I fix it immediately. If it’s a correction that will take a lot of work to weave into the story, I make myself really good notes about the problem and what needs to be done to fix it. Then I move forward as if I’d already fixed it. Forward momentum.
  • Write through the frustration. This is the most annoying solution, but sometimes it’s the only thing that works. Every word might be agony for a while, but eventually you’ll pick up stride and while the words might not exactly flow from your fingers, at least they won’t cost quite so much blood.

These are just my suggestions and some tips that have worked for me in the past–your mileage may vary.

So what do you do when you want to strangle your characters and decimate their world? How do you move through the frustration so that you are once more productive? Any tips and tricks to share?

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11 comments to Rocks fall and everyone dies — Writers dealing with frustration

  • Rhonda

    Another option is to switch to a different writing project. As with all of your options you do have to make sure to come back to it later, however!

  • K- I am dealing with a similar situation right now. I have a short story due on the 15th of Sept. And I have *no freaking idea* what to write. It has to be about school. Somehow. And I know what character I want to write about, and school, and what type of subgenre. But–

    And I just got the plot idea. I’ve been banging my head on the keyboard for 2 weeks and as soon as I start to write this, it comes to me. School, senator’s family member, blood on the floor, magical death. Got it. I can to do this, now. And sometimes that is just the way it is. You are ready to give up and something little changes and *there it is*! The solution.

    So, let me suggest: If you are stuck, just start to reply to the post and maybe your problem will solve itself too. :)

  • I’m a big fan of the take a walk and daydream school. If the writing really, really isn’t working and I can’t see the forest for the trees I take a hike up in the canyons until I’m all sweaty and tired and my brain has shut off. I don’t think about the novel while I walk – I let my mind wander anywhere it wants to go. Once I get good and cleared out, I walk back and somewhere on the drive back down the mountain I’ll start to have ideas again.

    The other thing that helps me is a version of what Faith just suggested – describe the problem to someone else. Either they’ll suggest something really good or they’ll suggest something awful and wrong. Either way It helps – if the suggestion is wrong my brain reacts with the right solution that I couldn’t see before and off I go again.

  • K – I’ll add one to your list that kind of plays off of what Faith just said: Start writing something else. Anything else. It’s amazing how shifting your focus can spark new ideas.

  • Rhonda and Ed, I forget who told me, but another author I know said he always has two projects going at all times–that way he can always use one to procrastinate on the other with.

    Faith–Glad you found it!

    Sarah, oh ¥ou are so right, having someone else to throw ideas around with helps a lot, even if it is ønly to provoke the ‘correct’ answer from your muse to way off suggestions.

  • Rhonda

    I’ve had suggestions that were so far off they didn’t even trigger the correct answer! I’ve learned not to expect ideas/”muse corrections” from talking to that person. (He’s nice, and funny, but *really* big on melodrama in stories, to the point where my subconscious doesn’t seem to recognize that we’re talking about the same story.)

    But mostly, talking out a story problem is helpful. Partly because of the gut reaction to suggestions, and partly because you have to explain it to somebody, which means you have to sort out what you know in a coherent way.

  • I’m a pacer. We have a long dining room so I tend to pace back and forth there, talking to myself out loud. Our daughter actually recognizes it now and says, “Daddy, are you trying to figure out your book again?” Heh! If it’s later in the evening, I’ll take a bath and just lay there and let my brain work. I’m one of those who can’t skip scenes. I’ve always written linear. Just the way I’m hardwired, I guess. There have been times when I’ve wanted to. There’s certain scenes I just don’t like to write, but I end up doing the last suggestion and just slog through it anyway. And for me, if I try to switch to something else I won’t end up coming back to the current project. It’s a bad habit I’m trying to break that had me writing beginning after beginning after beginning for a long time…

  • Kalayna,
    The walk/run option works great for me, and has also helped me keep my exercise goals (see Faith’s recent post). I find running down a bike path a great way to recharge and think about story construction and character issues. When I sit down after a run, I almost always have a better time than the struggling before.

    Cheers,
    NGD

  • One of my favorite approaches when stuck is to open a separate file (or get out pad and paper) and do a stream of consciousness session in which I basically grill myself about the scene (or book or series) in question. I literally type a question and then start pounding away at the answer, onscreen, so that I have a record of what I’ve written. More often than not, after meandering a bit, I come up with useful ideas. My hard drive is filled with these stream of consciousness sessions — I find that I go back to them again and again to mine the ideas hidden within them.

  • pepperthorn

    I’m a pacer too. The downstairs of my hous makes an uneven circle and I go around and around and around. Sometimes the change of venue is helpful. I find I work best when I have at least some access to the outdoors, even if it’s just an open window. Only very, very rarely do I skip a scene. Usually it’s a certain bit of a scene. It’s really obvious what needs to happen but the words just won’t come. Otherwise I write on through.

  • We usually try to talk through the story with each other and if that doesn’t work, we take a break and go do something completely different like read a different genre of book or watch a movie. We are both very visual so sometimes a movie which has nothing to do with the story will spark something visual which will start the story going again.

    Also if the parts after the scene are flowing, we just skip it until later. About every 20,000 words or so we force ourselves to concentrate on the skipped material if it hasn’t already come to us while we were doing something else (we keep a notepad in the bedroom because things always seem to pop into someone’s brain when we are trying to go to sleep and another one in the kitchen because sometimes cooking together things will get sparked).