RU’s Becke Martin Davis discusses sticking points today. The Oxford online dictionary’s informal definition of “coming unstuck” is to become separated or to fail completely. Sounds like a bad thing, right? Maybe not.
When you’re writing, coming unstuck can be a good thing. There are lots of ways to get stuck – hitting the proverbial wall, trying to solve a seemingly unsolvable problem or simply figuring out where to go next. Any of these scenarios can bring a story skidding to a stop. Reigniting the flame of inspiration can be like struggling to start a car with a dead battery. Need some jumper cables? Sometimes what it takes is a metaphorical bolt of lightning. Or a glass of wine—whatever works!
In my own writing, the internet is my nemesis. It goes something like this:
- Goal: Choose a name for a character.
- Step 1: Go to my file on Possible Character Names and make a short list
- Google “Meanings of Names” to see if any interesting names have meanings that match the description or qualities of the character I’m trying to name.
- Look at all those cool Irish and Scottish names. Google “Celtic names.”
- Click “Behind the name – Ancient Celtic Names”
- Ooh – “Caratacus. Where have I heard that before?” Google Caratacus. A powerful Celtic king.
- Nope, not quite right. Hmmm. Wait – Google corrected the spelling. It’s not Caratacus, it’s “Caractacus!”
- I can’t remember where I put the $20 bill my husband handed me while I was putting away the groceries, but once I think “Caractacus,” my brain fills in “Potts” as if I watched “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” over the weekend instead of probably twenty years ago. (My memory is useless for practical things like the name of the neighbor I just met, but phenomenal in other ways.)
- I am really tempted to spend some time on YouTube playing the soundtrack to CCBB, but I got online for a reason. Which was…? Oh yeah, a name. How about Willa? I like that name, it’s not overly popular, but not weird, either. Definitely Willa.
- But since I’m online, I might as well just whip over to Facebook real quick, see if my daughter-in-law has posted any new pictures of the grandkids. No new pictures, but there’s a hilarious meme. I’ll just share it and get back to work. Right after I make myself a sandwich…
Research is not my friend. Unfortunately, it’s not only useful, it’s necessary. And it’s a bigger time-suck than going through a gazillion emails. Example: In one story, I gave the antagonist a weakness triggered by an allergy to chocolate. (I know it’s weird; that whole story was/is weird.) Once again, Google was almost equally a help and a hindrance.
- Google “allergic to chocolate” – phew, it’s a real thing. But it’s not straight-forward.
- My niece is allergic to apples. Turns out lots of unlikely things contain apples. Google “unlikely things that contain chocolate.” First thing that comes up: “Ice Cream has Meat in It? Seven ‘Vegetarian’ Foods That Actually Contain Meat Products.” And we’re off on another tangent!
- I prefer white chocolate to real chocolate. Did you know white chocolate isn’t even really chocolate? Honestly, I should forget this book idea and just write about chocolate.
And so it goes.
I have getting stuck/sidetracked down to a fine art. Coming unstuck is a little trickier.
My favorite method of jump-starting my brain is to think outside the box. Sometimes waaaay outside the box, as in focusing on nothing to do with my story at all.
- Read. This can be a dicey choice for me. Reading reminds me why I fell in love with writing in the first place, but it can also completely derail me if I get sucked into a book. That happens to me a lot. Since I like to read everything a favorite author has written, when I fall into the deep end of the reading pool, I practically grow gills.
- Write to prompts. Someone, probably looking for distraction from what they were supposed to be writing, actually wrote a book about this. (Oops – I was going to supply a link, but when I Googled “writing to prompts,” it turns out a lot of people have written books about this. I guess I’m not the only one who likes this type of writing exercise.)
- Play writing games. Jennifer, Carrie and I occasionally dabble in a writing game where one person starts a story with one sentence, and then we each take turns adding a sentence. We did have a name for this game, but my sometimes-phenomenal memory is coming up with zip. On the other hand, searching for an example of this game (I know it’s out there someplace, but Google is falling down on the job), reminded me of another way to unclog my writing process. (See #4.)
- Read blogs by other writers. I’ve just been skimming Jennifer Tanner’s awesome blog posts – neither of us updates on a regular basis, but when Jennifer does post, it’s always worth reading. Scrolling back through her posts has given me a lot of ideas for things to write about.
- Do whatever sets your mind free. I often come up with ideas in the shower. Agatha Christie recommended planning a book while doing the dishes. (I wonder if loading the dishwasher counts?)
- When all else fails, just do it. Write the first thing that comes to your mind, even if it’s a grocery list. Sometimes putting words on paper (or on the monitor, although that doesn’t have the same ring to it) lets loose a kind of automatic memory in our fingers. It’s like rubbing two sticks together. Somewhere along the way, maybe between cat food and laundry detergent on your list, the prehistoric writing brain will catch a spark. Before you know it, your keyboard will be smoking as your typing breaks land-speed records. (Think NaNoWriMo, just not in November.)
Hitting a writing wall or getting stuck in other ways isn’t always the result of a brain fart, if you’ll excuse the expression. Sometimes life intervenes and we make a conscious decision to go on a writing sabbatical.
But that’s another story.
How do you pull yourself back into the game when your writing gets stuck?
Becke joined the RU team in January 2011. She moderated the Garden Book Club and the Mystery Forum at BN.com until the forums were discontinued. Prior to that, she was a writer and instructor at B&N’s Online University and for two years she wrote a garden blog for B&N. During Becke’s twenty years as a freelance garden writer, she wrote six garden books and one book about ‘N Sync, co-authored with her daughter. Becke also used to blog at Michelle Buonfiglio’s Romance Buy the Book blog. Writing as Becke Martin, she has three short stories in the HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS anthology published by the Ohio Valley Romance Writers Chapter. Becke has two adult children, two awesome granddaughters and two cats. She has been married almost 45 years and lives in Chicago’s Hyde Park.
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