So, the bills are paid. The kids are off with their dad at the park. You’ve managed to ignore the last three days of dishes and are resolved to put it off one more day. It’s time to write. There are no distractions. You’ve reduced stress. You’ve slept well. You’ve got the snack and drink right next to the computer. It’s time to get cracking! You’re hyped. You’re positive.
An hour later, you’re playing online solitaire slumped over the keyboard with maybe a sentence written in your story. The kids are pounding back into the house screaming about the great time they had at the park and little Jimmy fell off the monkey bars. You save your sentence and decide that maybe you really ought to go do the dishes instead feeling glum that despite everything. You weren’t able to write. And you need to be sure little Jimmy didn’t hurt himself, because boys and dads.
It’s frustrating! You’ve got this really cool idea in your head, but you just don’t know how to begin, or continue or maybe finish!
Sometimes, it’s not really the story or the idea or distractions or anything like that. Sometimes, we get bound up so much in our own heads that our writing has to be great, and perfect and absolutely amazing right out of the gate and nothing we think of is good enough to be the next great novel. (Because we all want to be that writer who sends something to an agent and have them charge in on their boss and go “you’ve got to read this!”) We get so caught up and bound up in this idea of perfection that we get absolutely nothing done because we’re just so busy trying to be perfect.
Take a deep breath and let it out and as you do, push your hands out in front of you and think along the lines of “I don’t have to be perfect.” Push this idea of perfection away from you, let it go.
Acceptance isn’t easy. At some point, you have to sit back and go “I am using so much energy fretting about being perfect, that I could be putting into writing and make it perfect later.” You see, that first draft is going to always represent the lowest denominator of your ability to write. It isn’t going to be a shining diamond that publishers are going to want to print thousands of copies of. It’s going to be like a rock with a diamond in the middle of it and you’ve got to first write the rock, then you work on chiseling that diamond out on the second draft and with the third you can grind some facets into it. (Yes, facets are ground, not chipped no matter what you see in cartoons.) When you’re writing, you’re climbing a ladder. The first draft is the first rung that gets you off the ground. You have to take that step even if it is dross!
Oh, you’re not perfect but you’re still having problems you say?
My first question is usually is the story in question really a good story? (This is a harsh one. So, please, don’t get mad! It isn’t personal.) Does it have a plot? Is there conflict and action? Is there movement? Does the character change? If the answers to these questions are ‘no’ then there is a bunch of work to be done.
But if you do have all these things and are caught on a pesky scene that isn’t going anywhere. It’s in your head (no matter where it is story wise) and you’re just not sure how to go about it. You can’t seem to get it written down. It’s not dynamic enough. It feels boring.
All right, is the character only acting with himself? If the character is only acting with himself, yes, it tends to be boring because the character only has himself to bounce off of. A lot of times, you can’t get away with having the character only interacting with himself early on in the story (or even in the middle of the story.) There’s no action. People get bored. They shut the book. The scene needs to be rethought out. Is there another way to give that same information that involves another character? Or, do you need to give this poor character a pet? The character needs someone or something to interact with to create a sense of movement.
Next are the three important questions. What does the character think? What does the character see? And what is the character doing? If you’re stuck on a scene, open another document, grab a sheet of paper, summarize what is going on and then ask your important questions. What are his thoughts? Agreeable, snarky, skeptical? Usually a character’s thoughts reveal how they feel about the situation, angry, happy, sad, etc. What is in the environment around the character? What do other characters look like? What are the other characters doing? What does the character think about what he is seeing? Maybe there is a fruit bowl with papaya in it and the character just really hates papaya. And lastly, what is the character doing? Surely, this character has some mannerisms that can be exploited. Do they toss their head? Or do they get red when embarrassed? Maybe when they’re angry they clench their fists. Or kick the floor when they’re nervous. Do they have excess energy and are constantly pacing. This will help the reader know what type of character they are, anxious, bouncy, laid back and so on.
Sometimes I find it helpful to script out dialogue in advance. I love dialogue. I spent a lot of time trying to work on dialogue that wasn’t just question and answer exchanges or something out of Emily Post. When you’ve got dialogue in advance, later you can go back in and answer the three previous questions and know, “well, here I can put some pauses in the dialogue whereas over here, I need the dialogue to be snappy back and forth exchanges.”
Other times, I like to work out what is a typical situation for this group or person. Then comes the fun part, putting the character into the middle of this situation and having them describe what they see and what they think is going on. Different characters have different viewpoints. Some will love the situation, others will be wondering when they can leave, and yet others will be skeptical of the whole affair. (This is why I’m a character writer, not a plot writer.) (And here we are at 1000 words again.)
And if none of this works, and you’re still stuck, it could be your brain is telling you that you’re just not prepared enough to write this particular story. Maybe you haven’t figured the character out enough yet, or there aren’t enough scenes or plot to keep you going. Or maybe you’re just trying to punch a hole through a brick wall called writers block. And you’ve got some options if this is the case.
You can go and write some short back stories to your characters. Help you learn their voices, where they came from and where they’re going. What are their goals? What drives them? Why do they hate papaya? Maybe once you get into their heads a little more, you’ll be able to move onto the main story you want to write. Or maybe one of these short stories will blossom into a longer story of its own and that is the story you needed to write before you could write the one you first came up with. (It happens.)
Or, you can take a break from frustration and pick a writing prompt! There are lots and lots of internet communities and sites that have fun little memes of prompts to help the struggling writer find something to write about. Now, you can do the prompts with your character and as above, learn more about the character and become comfortable with their voice. Or, you can choose to do it about yourself. Or create a new character. The goal here is to write and to get used to writing every day. By giving your brain a break from writing what has been frustrating you, you never know, in the middle of your lazy hot shower, you’ll have a break through moment and have to rinse super quickly to get out and start writing with a towel around your torso!
(Seriously, the shower and before I go to bed at night are the best places for ideas.)
As you can see, there are a lot of reasons why a writer can get stuck and not be able to write. Sometimes it is as simple as they’re so bound up in their own head about being perfect that it feels impossible to put words onto the screen. Other times, the foundations of the story just aren’t in place and the writer is working against themselves trying to come up with the plot and conflict as they are writing instead of taking the time to step back and figure it out first. There are times when entire scenes need to be rethought out to see if there is a better way of showing the information that the reader needs. When this happens, three questions can be really useful, think, see and do. Sometimes, it is easier to write the dialogue and fill in what happens later, just to get the dialogue down. Or there is a situation that happens to this group of people all the time, what happens when I put a character in that situation? If nothing feels like it is working, maybe the writer isn’t ready to write that story at that time. Maybe they need to write short stories about the character’s past or take up some writing prompts. Or set the story aside all the together and focus on something else until they have an idea for the first story.
Writing is such an individual thing, that some of these or none of these may work for you. And that’s okay, finding your own way is perfectly fine. Maybe these ideas will get you started or spring board into your own ideas to get focused and get moving on writing (or whatever your hobby is.)