Writer’s Block and Getting Unstuck

montesa_alteredvibrance_squareThere are some stock questions that non-writers and aspiring writers always ask of those who start and finish books. We’ve all heard them and they go something like this:

  • How do you write a book?
  • Where do you get your ideas?
  • How do you avoid writer’s block?

Answering all three would take a book and even addressing all three would take three posts at a minimum. However, this month’s topic lends itself very well to the third question – How do you get unstuck?

Most people connect their few experiences with writing with high school or college “English” classes. We were forced to read books we had little interest in and then write essays on the themes the English teacher told us were relevant. These rarely made sense to me and, like most people I think, I’d spend a lot of time staring at a blank page. Either that, or I’d write two paragraphs and get stuck. Non-authors then understandably scale those experiences to a 300 page novel and so ever finishing seems an insurmountable hurdle. But there are big differences between essays in English and writing a novel.

First off, authors choose topics they are passionate about. That goes a long way towards keeping us on task. Secondly, most authors know something about what they are writing and so have some kind of a plan whether it is written down in detail or carried in the head. I’m a detail guy and like to get everything down even if I ultimately diverge from my plan. Ginger Solomon is a seat-of-the-pants writer as she described in her post on plotting a few days ago. Yet even given these powerful differences, authors still get stuck. I certainly do, sometimes for weeks! There were times in every one of my novels – I’ve written four now – that I believed I had struck an iceberg and was going down. And yet, a day, a week, a month later, I’m way past that sticking point and moving forward, having forgotten all about the collision alarms and icy water inching up my ankles.

How do I do it? How do we do it? It is definitely something every writer has to learn how to handle and there are probably wide differences. For me I can tell you it wasn’t obvious. I had to learn it along the way. And the first thing you have to learn is to realize when you are stuck. Sometimes you just keep on writing even though you know in your gut that you’re headed down a blind alley. It’s just like walking around a strange city, knowing you’re getting off course, and then suddenly realizing with and icy numb feeling that… you’re lost. The earlier you realize you’re heading towards a problem the easier it is to fix.

So, once you’ve realized you’re writing yourself in to a corner – what then?

For me, and sometimes it is an effort, I go to research. I close out of the manuscript and ask a few questions.

  • What is my character/plot doing?
  • Where is my character/plot going?
  • Who are my characters interacting with and why?

And then I say to myself, and I usually say this out loud, “And now for something completely different.” Yes, I know Monte Python used to say this. For me, it is a mental confirmation that I’m looking for a different solution. Something I’ve not thought of or considered. Even something radical. And then I take the answers to the questions above and research the heck out of them. If my character is stuck in P’yongyang, North Korea, like Mitch Weatherby is in “The Silla Project” I research the heck out of P’yongyang and the people who live there. If my character is interacting with a Syrian used car salesman like Colonel Bishira is in “The Green Hajj” I research the heck out of the used car market in Syria as well as the city of Palmyra (where my character is) and everything else I can find out about the place. If my characters are fleeing on a boat like Saul and Minerva in my work in progress, I research the kind of boat they are on, the climate of the place they find themselves, what’s around them, what they have to eat, how they sleep, etc.

Up to now, and this has happened dozens of times, I have not had a single instance in which I was not able to move forward. In fact, some of my best plot twists come out of these research sessions. And, as I mentioned in my first post on research, The Three Other R’s of Writing, it is arguably my favorite part of the writing process. Not only do I get my plot and my characters out of trouble – or deeper into it as the case may be – I also learn something cool and, quite often, come up with ideas for new stories. As I look up at the cork board above my desk, there’s a little green scrap of paper pinned there with a nugget I found years ago while doing research for a screenplay set in World War II. It’s a good one. And one of these days I’m going to write about it.

Today’s Writing Prompt: If you’re a writer, and you have a work in progress, and if you are a writer you DO have a work in progress, when you have a few minutes, say out loud, “And now for something completely different.” Mentally explore other directions for your story. Let your mind wander unfettered by anything you’ve plotted out in advance. If there’s a hidden door there, open it. Let Google take you through that door and discover what lies beyond. It may go nowhere. It may go everywhere.

John C. Brewer is a novelist, physicist, rocket scientist, lifelong soccer player, motorcycle rider, husband, father, and the author of Multiplayer, an adventure for young adults, and The Silla Project, a North Korean nuclear romance. Find out more about what he is doing at johncbrewer.com.

– John C. Brewer