Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Sticking Points

So there I am, happily pounding away at my keyboard, full of promise and verve. The words flow onto the screen, meaning takes shape; I’m in the zone.

Then it happens. That Feeling. Creeping in, growing stronger. The typing slows. Stops.

Something is wrong.

That Feeling is pretty familiar to me by now, working away on my fifth novel. And I’ve learned not to ignore it. It comes as I’m writing and also when I’m editing/rewriting. Sometimes it’s only a squiggle of a notion, but it’s always reliable. The scene isn’t working for some reason. The character is resisting the plot. There’s a logical hole I need to figure out. The tone is off. The pacing is off. The action isn’t adequately grounded. I need to do more research in a vital area. Whatever it is, I'd better fix it.

While it’s disappointing to have to move out of that magical timeless place I go when the writing is going really well, at least I have a toolbox of methods with which to tackle those hiccups in the process that I think of as sticking points.

Journaling as the character: This is particularly effective if the problem seems to be a recalcitrant character. Writers often talk about the characters taking over the story. Magic and muses surely affect the process, but a writer knows her characters pretty well. If I oh-so-cleverly plot something that’s inconsistent with the way my character would really act, then try to write them into doing it anyway, it doesn’t work. I mean, I don’t plot against my characters (so to speak) on purpose, but sometimes mistakes are made. If I journal the scene from the character’s perspective, I generally discover what they would really do in that situation. Sometimes that’s what I write. Sometimes I have to throw the scene out altogether and figure out an alternative.

Clustering: This is a method I’ve seen used in workshops, but which is probably best set out in the book Writing the Natural Way by Gabriele Lusser Rico. You start off with a word or phrasee drawn in a circle in the middle of a page, and then rapidly draw lines and circles out from that circle and the subsequent circles, free associating ideas. It taps into the right side of the brain, and oddly enough, as you do it a linear solution falls out of the process. I find it particularly helpful for working out plot points and relationships between characters. I’ve looked at old clusters, and they look more like an alien barfed words all over the page than any kind of meaningful anything, but hey, it worked at the time I did it.

Take a walk: Nothing new here. We all know how getting out and moving helps the brain kick in.

Talk to myself about the problem: Not recommended for use in coffee shops or other public places, this method can be helpful in a pinch. Something there about hearing your own voice concretizing what needs to be fixed. I do have to be careful not to let in negative self-talk. Also, it’s good to have a partner who likes to talk to themselves, too, so they don’t think you’re stark raving nuts.

Sleep on it: I love this one, especially for when I’m figuring out what needs to happen next in the plot. Go to sleep with a question in your head, and then let your brain work on it while you’re off in dreamland. Because it frequently works very well for me, I am delighted by the sheer efficiency of it. For more detailed information about how this method works, check out a little book called Sleep Thinking by Eric Maisel.

And if none of these methods work, my motto is: Don’t let it stop the writing for long – if the issue isn’t solved, make a note (always), and come back to it later. Sticking points can be paralyzing if not solved quickly, so sometimes the best thing is to move on, leaving it sticky for now. Future writing may provide just the right solution.

What do you do when you get to a sticking point? Any tried and true approaches you return to again and again?


Sue Ann Jaffarian said...

I also love the sleep approach. :)

But often when I'm stuck, I get up from the keyboard and do something physical, like scrub the bathroom or vacuumm, grocery shop, go for a walk. I find giving my brain a rest and movement to my body often loosens the rocks in my head.

Felicia Donovan said...

Candy, like you said, this is more common than most people realize with writers.

When I get stuck on THE BLACK WIDOW AGENCY, nothing works better than working out. Sweat pouring through my pores, body engaged in motion - they physical activity really clears my head and lets my brain reengage with the task at hand.

Joe Moore said...

One of the huge benefits of having a co-writer is bouncing ideas and issues off each other. That's how I usually address problems, I give them to Lynn to fix. :-)

Mark Combes said...

For me, it's a cigar. Not the healthiest approach, but when I'm stuck, I find just sitting out back by myself thinking about the story does wonders. But I can't just sit there - too antsy I guess - so futzing with a cigar and a fire are required.

paul lamb said...

One technique I have used a few times to get back the spark (especially with character issues) is to put my characters in a completely different genre and try writing a scene or two. Put your sleuth in a western or a romance. It doesn't matter that you don't really know how to write those genres (or maybe you do). But it gives you a chance to flex your character's muscles and see how they would react in different situations. It can freshen them for you. That has helped me rejuvenate my understanding of characters a few times. And since most of my writing is character driven, that usually gets me over whatever hump or issue my regular writing has put before me.

Keith Raffel said...

You all make it sound unusual when you fall out of the zone. I am in another dimension just a couple of times a book if I am lucky. So glad I do not have to turn a first draft. My general attitude is don't get it right, get it written.... And fix it later.

Rick Bylina said...

When I get to a sticky point, I just give up. I go outside and throw a javelin at squirrels to release the inner anger of being stuck again. I pout and take the chain saw and take down a few trees, chop them up, and stack them. I'll even run after the deer in the woods. I love it when they turn around stunned and amazed that someone is actually chasing them for more than a hundred feet. I don't chase bucks anymore. I did that once, and I think he wanted to rut with me, but I only had on my bullwinkle the moose hat. I think I would have lost, and besides, I'm not into beastuality had I won and inherited his herd.

I guess in sum, when I get stuck, I look for a physical release to get my mind right.