It happens to all novelists. Our story seems to be going great and then we get stuck.
How to get unstuck? I have various ways:
1. I take a walk. Seriously.
Because writing is an aerobic activity I sometimes need to get my physical lungs in motion to boost my writing capacity. Taking a walk – doing yoga, swimming laps, going bowling, any physical activity – is a good way to let the back burner pump energy to whatever problem you’re facing on your front burner.
In the old days writers smoked. I can see smoking a cigarette as a meditation in miniature. The rhythmic hand-to-mouth activity gives you something soothing to do while you’re pondering your scene. Nicotine also acts on neurotransmitters, so there’s the mental stimulation of tobacco to keep you smoking.
However, since smoking will likely shorten your writing life, any repetitive manual activity that gives your back brain room to roam is a good way to let your front brain replenish itself: playing solitaire, knitting, doing beadwork, etc.
You’ll know when you’re ready to go back to your writing.
2. If I’ve lost the thread of what I’m doing, I go back and title each chapter. It does not matter whether the chapter titles remain in the final version. A title acts like a spotlight to help you focus on what’s most important in your chapter so you can develop it.
Lately I’ve been thinking about compressed language: poetry, imagery, and op-ed pieces.
For 10 tips on writing op-eds see: http://julietetelandresen.com/writing-op-eds/
Titles are compressed language.
It doesn’t matter what kind of book we’re talking about. Linguistics textbooks abound with first chapters titled “Introduction,” which a) announce the author’s lack of imagination, and b) miss the opportunity to offer any kind of perspective on what is to come.
The first chapter of my latest linguistics textbook is “All Languages Were Once Spanglish.” Are you interested to read further?
3. When one of your characters is giving you trouble, write him or her a letter asking what the problem is and then write the response. This tip is not original with me. It’s rather ones of those conventional creative writing exercises. The reason it’s conventional is because it works.
Letter writing can be a part of other creative writing assignments. This semester at Duke University I’m teaching the creative non-fiction class Public Writing and Speaking with Priscilla Wald. In the first part of the course we worked on op-eds. In addition to writing an op-ed the students could choose to craft a Letter to the Editor in response to an op-ed they read.
4. Another conventional exercise is to take a passage from someone else’s work and rewrite it. I sometimes do this in my head when I’m reading a story I like but find the writing isn’t working for me. It could be sentence structure, how the dialogue is constructed or even an action that seems out of place for a particular character.
In the Public Writing and Speaking class we give students the option to take a paragraph from a published op-ed they don’t think is working very well and to rewrite it.
Reworking another writer’s material can help you find your unique voice and is an exercise only.
5. Creative writing springs from emotions, and creative writers need to get in touch with theirs.
When you’re stuck in a scene, here’s an exercise that can open you up:
Write a paragraph describing the scene, strongly worded, from the POV (point of view) of one of the characters. In a second paragraph take a different POV, equally strongly worded, from another character. In a third paragraph describe it from the POV of an emotionally balanced outsider.
This is a great exercise for novelists. Your characters will have different emotional points of view on events, so it’s useful for you explore both (all) sides of a scene. You, the novelist, are not supposed to be the dispassionate outsider. Rather, the three paragraphs trace the emotional range of the scene, and your job is then to decide where on this emotional scale you land to write it.
Note: My latest linguistics textbook is Languages in the World. How History, Culture and Politics Shape Language with Phillip M. Carter (Wiley-Blackwell, 2016). I find this book easy to promote because Phillip and I are donating all our royalties to the Endangered Language Fund. So far we have donated several thousand dollars!
This post was written by Julie Tetel Andresen