When you’re Stuck, Side-step: A Work-around for Writer’s Block

I am working on a novel, the fifth I’ve written. (One was my MFA novel, hidden in a drawer, one is published — link, two are with my agent being submitted.) It was going swimmingly and I was delighted. I had the big M going! (Big M=momentum, a priceless state when working on a long project.)

But then I got stuck. As I perused a book about writing romance, called Romancing the Beat , I realized I had a problem. To explain how I was stuck, I need to explain a bit about plotting for romance, in case you’re not familiar. In a romance, the main plot is the romance. Period. Boy meets girl, conflicts ensue, they break-up, but then they get back together again. HEA (happily ever after) ensues. This is what Gwen Hayes, the author of the book I read, calls the internal plot, and it is critical. You can’t have a romance without one.

But the best romances, the ones whose descriptions make you push the buy button or pull the book off the shelf and walk it to the counter, also have a compelling external plot, as Gwen Hayes calls it.

Things like:

The woman struggling to save the family farm for her father in a coma falls in love with the developer who wants to buy the land.

The struggling soap maker is hired by the fiancée of the man she accidentally falls in love with. (That’s one of mine, don’t take it.)

The woman who hates Christmas is sent to Christmas Camp by her employer and falls in love with the camp owner’s son. (This is a real novel called, amazingly enough, Christmas Camp.)

You get the idea. These are the memes that envious writers read and smack themselves on the head, wishing they’d thought of them. The hero and heroine in direct conflict with each other through no fault of their own, and/or because of forces bigger than themselves.

And I didn’t have one.

So suddenly I was stuck. Because I looked at my story and realized it really, really needed a boost from an external plot. I had great characters, a wonderful setting (part of a series), and a good internal plot — a hot romance with legit reasons why the hero and heroine felt they couldn’t be together.

But no external plot.

And as much as I told myself to just keep writing, that the idea for the external plot would come, it didn’t.

I will not let this stop my momentum, I told myself. I’ll just keep writing until I figure it out.

But it did stop my momentum. Because so much of the story would ride on this external aspect of the plot, I felt at sea not knowing it. And so, my usual early-morning writing sessions were filled with idly reading essays from the New York Times, perusing knitting blogs and Ravelry, and looking at books on Amazon.

I hate that.

When I have a good early-morning writing session, I feel happy all day. And even if my day turns to shite, some part of me feels good. Because: I’ve gotten my writing done.

So for a week I wandered around distracted and discouraged. Not Writing.

And then I got a sliver of an idea for the external plot. I wasn’t sure it would work or fit in and in order to figure that out I had to do some maintenance type work on my novel. Like going through (I’m eleven chapters in) and making a list of what happens in each scene/chapter, so I can easily refer back rather than scrolling through. And bolstering and neatening each character’s dossier, so I understood their backstories better. Reading the rest of Gwen Hayes’s book for more illuminating tips.

Turns out all of these were on my to-do list.

Once I started working on these maintenance items, the idea I’d had quickly gelled and solidified. It wasn’t 100% developed but it was enough to start writing again. But I wanted to make a list of where references to this new development in the first few chapters should go in. So I started that list of what happens in each chapter. Which is when I realized if I’d just done this earlier, I wouldn’t have wasted a week walking around the house in a stupor.

Duh. I’m a huge proponent of doing prep work for writing a novel, whether you are a pantser or a plotter. Work like character dossiers, setting imagining, a loose outline for the story. If I’d just allowed myself to do some of this work while stuck, I’d have gotten my momentum back a lot sooner.

Don’t let yourself get stuck. Take a side-step. Go back to your character dossiers and work on them. Ponder setting — can you put the scene you’re stuck on in a new locale? This often breaks up a mini-block. Free write — sometimes this works wonders for me, others it’s a total bust. Think about your minor characters — can they impact the main plot somehow?

If all else fails, try one of my non-writing blockbusters: take a walk, knit or engage in any kind of action with repetitive activity such as gardening, do something else creative like drawing, read a book! The idea is to keep the creative flow going, even if you aren’t working on the actual novel.

And if none of those things work, then there’s always wine.


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