Writing

Troubleshooting When You’re Stuck

At some point, writers must face hurdles that prevent them from working. Frustratingly, these barriers can appear at random, even for storytellers with a long history of productivity. But that doesn’t mean you can’t troubleshoot and resolve these problems. While barriers to writing are as unique as the writers who have them, here are some tips for identifying and fixing your latest block.

Is It You or Your Story?

First, you need to know if your roadblock is particular to the story you’re working on. It’s surprisingly easy to get this wrong. Even cognitive planners rely on some level of intuition to write, and intuition can fail without giving us the cause. It’s easy to think you’re having a bad day, when really your story is making it bad.

To find out whether it’s you or your story, start working on a different story (one you didn’t abandon because you got stuck). If the writing process magically picks up again, then the problem is in your work.

Finding the Problem in Your Story

If you can write another story with ease, then something about the first story isn’t clicking for you. It’s time to sit down and gauge how you feel about it. Ask yourself these questions, focusing on your entire story if it’s a brief piece or the scene you’re working on if it’s a long one.

  • Do you like the story or scene?
  • Do you like the primary character in it?
  • Is that character being true to the background and personality you developed for them?
  • Can you understand the character’s goal?
  • Do you feel like their goal matters?
  • Is the character acting in ways that might logically achieve their goal?
  • Are events important to the central problem/question of the story?
  • Is everything consistent with the world you created and the plot points you’ve established so far?

A “no” to any of these questions could create the sense that you’re just not feeling the story anymore. When you’re not into your own story, it’s hard to write it. That’s a good thing. Otherwise, you might never know your work needs improvement.

If you’re still blocked after you handle one of these problems, set your work aside for a bit, then go down the list again. Another problem could be obstructing you, or perhaps you fixed the first one only half way.

Changing Your Well Laid Plans

While outlining can be a great tool, outlines can have flaws that aren’t uncovered until you’re writing the scene in question. When this happens, you’ll need to revise your outline until the problem is fixed.

When reworking a scene you’ve already planned, try the following:

  • List everything that is absolutely required in the scene. The list should be as short and broad as possible, to give yourself maximum wiggle room. Instead of “Tyrone tells Marsha she’s the chosen one,” put “Marsha learns she’s the chosen one.”
  • Ask yourself what aspects of the scene you like. Maybe you like the character interaction you’ve envisioned, or the underlying theme inspires you. Write these down.
  • Brainstorm, daydream, or free-write a new scene/story that emphasizes the aspects you like while meeting your requirements.

You may have to change the requirements of your story. Can you foreshadow in a different scene instead?

For some writers, using an outline will always create a block. If you’re a pantser converting to a planner, try making your outline more general. Give yourself fewer planned plot points and more room for discovery in between. Even so, you may decide that planning isn’t worth it.

When You’ve Lost Interest in Your Story

It’s common for writers to stop working on stories simply because they lose interest in them altogether. If you are unmotivated to work on your story, ask yourself if this is a regular occurrence. Does it happen for most stories you write or just this one? If it’s a common pattern, do some troubleshooting to retain interest in your stories. If not, ask yourself, why am I losing interest in this story? How is it different from the stories that retained my interest?

Troubleshooting Mindset and Work Habits

People go through many different phases in their life, and their writing habits can change as a result. But don’t worry – if you’ve written before, you can write again. However, it might take some time or a change in scenery.

Look through these common factors, and ask if they fit your situation.

Discouragement

Writing can be a long laborious process with many ups and downs. It’s not unusual for writers to become discouraged about their ability to write, and this lack of confidence can make writing harder.

Often, these emotional setbacks are caused by unrealistic expectations. It’s easy to come in thinking that you’ll breeze through your magnum opus and end up at the top of the bestseller lists in a couple years. When we finally realize that learning to write is a long process for everyone – not just everyone else – it can be an emotional blow.

Even if you’ve been writing for a while, it’s easy to feel discouraged. While learning any skill, there’s time between when we think we’ve mastered it and when we actually have. That period can be frustrating.

If you’ve sustained an emotional setback, give yourself a vacation to recover. Then adjust your expectations. Remember that even the best writers need editors and general feedback and that most stories are not considered finished until they are revised extensively.

If you’ve been at it for while, take heart – the frustration stage comes shortly before triumph. To pick yourself up, read something you wrote when you started so you can see for yourself how much improvement you’ve made.

Pressure

Pressure to write can come from yourself or from the people around you, and unfortunately, not everyone performs well under pressure. If you’ve finally quit your day job to write all day at your desk, the pressure could be holding you back. Unfortunately, getting stuck will make this pressure worse, creating a downward spiral.

If you think this type of stress could be contributing to your block, then give yourself permission not to write for the time being. Instead, focus on activities where the process, and not the results, is important. Read some books and clip out passages that inspire you. Do some free writing while listening to music. Find ways to nurture your creativity without creating deadlines or demanding a finished product. When you’re ready, slowly ease yourself back into creating polished pieces.

Mental Wellness

Are you getting enough sleep? Sleep removes toxins from your brain, and you need a working brain to write. If you’ve been working with a sleep deficit, it’s time to change that.

Unfortunately, diseases like seasonal affective disorder or chronic depression could also be inhibiting your writing. It’s common to have them without knowing it. If you can’t remember the last time you had a good day or that day was over eight weeks ago, see a doctor. While you can’t wish away any diseases you may have, you can focus on what is under your control – taking care of yourself, to the best of your ability. If you’re ill and you aren’t seeing a doctor, do that!

Take any medications you have as directed. Keep in mind that it may take several weeks for you to adjust to new medication, and that period can be rough. If you’ve been taking the same medication for a while and you think it’s inhibiting your ability to write, talk to your doctor about trying a different one. Otherwise, take your medication consistently. Don’t go off of it when you feel better, unless your doctor directs you to.

Lack of Time & Energy

Changes in your work or family life may be taking the energy you need to write effectively. A new baby leaves many people without the marbles for former pursuits. A job that involves a great deal of writing can leave you without motivation for writing in your off hours.

Because many writing projects don’t come with deadlines, it can be easy to make writing your lowest priority. If it’s important to you, you’ll need to make some hard choices about what you can cross off your schedule. Maybe you can trade babysitting with a friend, giving yourself a baby-free day once a week. Maybe you can look for a position in your company that isn’t as writing-intense.

Once you carve out time and energy for writing, don’t give it up easily. It can be hard to make others understand how sacred writing is to you. However, if you give it up whenever you’re pressured to, you’ll unintentionally send the message that writing isn’t important and others don’t need to respect it.

Productivity

No amount of creativity and skill will matter if you can’t stay on task when you need to write.

Most fiction writers aren’t required to be at their desks between nine and five. We don’t have bosses demanding progress reports on our stories every week and preventing us from checking Facebook while we’re supposed to be working. If you need this structure to write, you’ll have to create it for yourself. Establish a routine to ensure you go to bed on time every night and get up on time every morning. Before you start working, close your web browser if you don’t need it, and silence your phone.

Anything from the caffeine you drink in the morning to the movie you watched the night before can impact productivity. If you have frequent productivity issues, keep a journal. Record where you worked and at what times, how you feel, how much you got done, and any other factors you think might be important. Then you can check over your journal and correlate those factors with success or failure.


90% of troubleshooting is discovering the cause of the problem. Once you know what it is, fixing it is easier. When in doubt, try new things. By paying close attention to your methods and how you feel, you’ll discover what keeps you writing.

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Comments

  1. Karen B. Kaplan

    One block for me is that now that I have published one book, I know that if I publish another, the hard hard work of promotion looms ahead if more than a few friends are going to read it.

    • Chris Winkle

      It’s too bad the industry works that way, the skills involved in writing vs promoting books are very different. Are you dreading the promotion stage because it’s intimidating or because you dislike it?

  2. Brigitta M.

    One thing I recently discovered that can be a storykiller for me is when the underlying theme doesn’t jibe with who I want to present myself as not just a writer, but as a person in general. It’s not that the theme itself is offensive or potentially hurtful… it’s just not me.

    I’ll be more specific (but not too much because I don’t want to start a religious/political debate). I had originally envisioned a story with the underlying theme of “Hey, maybe religion A isn’t all that bad” without actually bringing up the specific religion. I’m a member (card carrying? I don’t know about that…) of religion A and it has a tendency to be marginalized, mocked, and even ignored so any good press is good imo.

    The story originally started as a short, but after getting about 300 words into it I realized it had a lot more there so I shelved it until I could figure out backstories. Well…backstory had a LOT of religion B, a rather popular religion with many followers… but not my cup of tea. It’s not a bad or evil religion per se, but it already has a lot of really good press.

    As backstory with a lot of religion B, that wasn’t too bad, but it became an overarching theme and motivation for my FMC and she was the focal character and the more I dug into the story the more it became about religion B.

    I’m just glad I discovered the reasons why during the outlining process instead of actually writing it. It’s a shame that it’s currently an unworkable mess because there are a couple of other themes such as homelessness and single fatherhood (so many stories cover the struggles of being a single mother that I thought this was a really cool way to show the other side of the struggle when the dad has primary custody) that really are near and dear to my heart.

    Ah well, back to the drawing board and other projects abound.

    • Hunter_Wolf

      By religion A and B you do mean real world religions, right?, from what i understood your story idea doesn’t sound like spec-fic so far (specially that it seems to be strongly tied to real world religions/politics).

      If that’s the case try using speculative fiction to avoid the problem you mentioned, instead of Religion A and B create a fantasy world or a parallel world similar to us and within it create Religion X and Y, you might give them new names and change few things here and there so that you are no longer dealing with a specific real-world religion, personally i don’t think novels or stories should be used to give a specific religion or political party good press, because intentionally or not it comes off as propaganda, it would be far better to indirectly discuss the core values of said religion or political party while not using their real-world names, a fictional setting works great for that, i’d leave all the good (or bad) press business to journalists or academic researchers.

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