Have you ever started writing a story gung-ho with enthusiasm, with a clear vision of what you want to say, then half way through your creative wheels lose traction and your story car slides to a halt?
Remember the movie, My Cousin Vinny? At the end of the movie Marisa Tomei’s character was on the witness stand and she says, “Anyone who’s been stuck in the mud in Alabama knows, one tire spins, the other tire does nothin’.”
That’s how it feels when your story car gets stuck in the mud. One part of the brain wants to keep going. It has the end of the story in sight and tries to move forward, but the other side of the brain doesn’t know how to get there and does nothing.
In my Civil War novel my hero was in one place and my heroine in another. I didn’t want them separated for too long, but couldn’t figure out a way to get her from Washington DC to the battlefield at Chancellorsville. Since he was a surgeon I couldn’t send him back to Washington and at that time lady nurses from hospitals in Washington didn’t go to the battlefield. Yet, it was important for these two characters to be together in order for the story to work.
I was stuck.
I couldn’t figure out how to move forward. I ended up staring at the blank page without writing more than a word or two. Social media and online games took up my time while I was thinking. I sharpened my pencils, sorted my piles of papers, and organized my desk.
Days went by. Self-doubt crept in. What am I doing? I can’t write this. Whatever I do will be historically inaccurate. Readers will hate it. I’ll get trashed on review sites and social media.
I put the manuscript away, intending to come at it with fresh eyes in a couple of weeks. Instead, I procrastinated. More time passed. Each day I felt more and more like a failure. I was kidding myself to think I could write a novel.
Yet, there was that one tire which kept pushing me to move forward; to finish. How?
Acknowledge there is a problem.
First I had to acknowledge that there was actually a tangible, fixable problem. Next, I had to determine exactly what exactly that problem was.
Orson Scott Card says not to just power through, because writer’s block might not be the problem.
I had to ask myself whether it actually was writer’s block, or a problem with story structure, or a combination of both. Eventually, one feeds off the other and your story mires deeper into the mud.
For me, a good part of the reason I was blocked was fear: fear of getting it wrong, fear I wasn’t good enough, fear no one would ever buy my book. That fear undermined my self-confidence and left me emotionally drained.
Procrastination is a choice.
A year ago, I attended a conference during which one of the speakers reminded us that procrastination was a choice. Until that moment, I hadn’t fully realized my time on social media and online games was my choice and not a result of my writer’s block.
I needed to force myself to step back and logically consider what was specifically wrong and then come up with a plan to regain that traction.
For me, more research was needed to create a believable scenario in which the heroine travels to the battlefield.
Having a specific plan narrowed the focus of my research and gave me a goal. With positive affirmations overshadowing my internal negativity, I was finally able to send my heroine to the battlefield along with a wagon train of supplies from the Sanitary Commission.
If your story has become stuck, acknowledge that it’s happening. Ask yourself if it is fear or a story problem. If it’s fear try to determine what you’re afraid of. Write down some possibilities.
Are you telling yourself you’re no good? Think about triggers that cause this feeling. Redefine your personal definition of success. Make that your goal.
Is your story the problem?
If you’re looking at a story problem, analyze the stakes. What does the protagonist risk losing if he/she doesn’t achieve their goal? What is the cost if he/she doesn’t succeed? What will your character risk in order to reach their goal? Are those stakes high enough?
Is there enough conflict or tension? Can you add a new twist or subplot? Throw up another obstacle? Again write down some ideas.
Flesh out your ideas and see where they take you.
Or, go back to that point in the story where the words were flowing and your story made sense. Start from there and write forward. You may have gone off track and backing up to gain a running start may push your story car right on through the muddy bog.
Writing things down makes them tangible, gives you something to work with and build on. As has been said many times in writing workshops — you can’t fix it if it’s not written down.
What took me months to unblock the first time, took weeks the next, days the next, and hours after that. Overcoming the stuck-in-the-middle slump takes practice. It will happen again, but like anything, having a plan makes it easier to conquer.
Bio: Kathy Otten is the published author of multiple historical romance novels, novellas, and short stories. She is also published in contemporary romance and historical fiction. Her current project is a young adult novel.
She teaches writing craft on-line, is a conference speaker, and free-lance editor.
She has been married for thirty-four years and is the mother of three grown children and has one grandson. When she isn’t writing she enjoys long walks or curling up with her cat and reading a good book.