Six impossible things

Resistance and Catastrophes

Thank you all for your input; I’ll try to get around to everyone’s suggestions in the relatively near future. I’m going to start with a post about getting stuck, because the first two suggestions were both aspects of that and I haven’t written about it for a while.

First off, getting stuck is a continuum that runs from the several-second pause while one is trying to think of the exact right word (it’s sort of like flurry but not that weak, or maybe frenzy, but that’s too strong…tizzy?) all the way to full-blown writer’s block of the sort that requires medical intervention at the other end. Most of what people refer to as “writer’s block” is actually somewhere in the middle to upper middle part of the range, and is more an extreme level of resistance to writing than actually being stuck.

A writer who is well and truly stuck usually has a problem with not knowing something. They don’t know what happens next, or they know what happens but not how to present it…and they have no idea how to find out the thing they don’t know. Or something just feels wrong, which usually means there’s a flaw in the part that’s already been written and the writer won’t be able to make progress until they’ve found and fixed it. In these cases, the writer generally needs to poke and prod the story and/or the writer’s hindbrain until they figure out the thing they don’t know.

Resistance is different. Resistance happens when the writer is getting in his/her own way, for whatever reason: they’re waiting for sunshine or inspiration, for more time, for certainty. They’re waiting to feel like writing something. Or the next scene is one that has to be there, but that they don’t want to write – they’re going to have to kill off a favorite character, or write a war or a sex scene (whichever they’re most uncomfortable doing), or deal with a topic that, in their family of origin, was never, ever discussed.

Usually, resistance is a minor problem, but if one doesn’t pay attention, it can easily become a habit. If it gets really bad, one often has little recourse other than to slog through on sheer stubbornness.

Sometimes, outside circumstances create resistance. When my mother died, I didn’t feel like writing for nearly a year. I wrote anyway, because I had a deadline, but it wasn’t easy (and I missed the deadline…but not by as much as I would have if I hadn’t even tried).

What I learned from that experience were some tricks for dealing with that kind of stuck-ness. I think they have more universal application. There are three parts, all of which need an individual solution. I can tell you what they are and what worked for me, but you’re almost certainly going to have to come up with your own variant in order to find what works for you.

The first part is to get out of your own way. Stop waiting for things to get better, for there to be more time, for inspiration to strike, for the Fiction Fairy to put some words on your computer while you’re sleeping. I stuck little notes on the edge of my computer that said “Pretty good and done is better than perfect but still in your head” and “Touch base. It isn’t all or nothing.”

The second part is sheer discipline. You can’t write if you have no tools at hand. You have to sit down at a keyboard or pick up a pen. It doesn’t matter whether you set a time and religiously sit down and open the file at 9:03 every morning or 12:56 at night, or whether you simple refuse to go to bed unless you’ve sat down and opened the working file sometime during the day. The point is simply to sit down and get started, not to actually get a lot accomplished. Some days, all I did was correct a couple of typos, or even just look at the file for fifteen minutes. This is where sheer stubbornness and determination are enormous assets.

The third part is making it as easy as possible to get something written. That means making it easy FOR YOU. It took me a while to figure this part out, because it requires thinking about what works and then setting it up, and that looks a lot like the kind of fiddling-around anti-writing activities that writers are discouraged from pursuing. Things like creating a play list for one’s plot or characters, or collecting pictures on the Internet that evoke different scenes, or drawing a stick-figure storyboard of the next chapter.

For me, what made writing easier was two things: first, splitting the writing part away from the making-things-up part, and second, constantly changing the mechanics of how I was getting things written. I did the splitting by expanding the two-page plot outline I’d used when I submitted the book into a great sprawling file that contained all sorts of notes and scraps…and that had a long, coherent description of the plot from the beginning of the story through one chapter beyond whatever scene I was writing. This meant that I always knew what came next, not in a general “George confronts Jennifer” sense, but in a very specific “George goes to the warehouse. After stumbling around in the dark, he finds the lightswitch and discovers Jennifer bending over a box in the corner. He does not want to believe it is a bomb, but it is. Jennifer is sarcastic at him. George stammers. Jennifer is about to blow them both up when Carol arrives, holding a gun” sense.

Changing the mechanics of how I was getting things written means that some days, I’d go to the office and open the file and let it sit there accusingly while I did other things, until I couldn’t stand it any more and wrote a couple of sentences. Other days, I took the laptop to a coffee shop and promised myself one of their sinful pastries if I got some words done. Still other times, I’d sit in the living room with a notepad and pen and a cat on my lap. I even bought a little hand-held recorder-cum-dictaphone to use in the car. I didn’t quite get to the point of standing on my head in the shower, but I considered it; the sticking points were that a) I didn’t have waterproof writing materials and b) I can’t stand on my head.

Alternatively, when life hands one something that puts one in an emotional tailspin, one can simply accept that one is not going to get any writing done for a good long while, and stop trying to do it. If one has no deadline and is not relying on one’s writing to pay for rent and food, this can be a viable alternative. If the very idea gives you chills and makes you hideously unhappy, then you don’t have to do it…but you do have to accept that getting stuff written is not going to work quite the way it used to, and you will have to find new and different working methods, and perhaps adopt an entirely new process. It will require some experimentation and patience, but it will be good practice for the next time your working methods change without warning. (And they will, sooner or later.)

  1. My worst cases of “stuck” come from my having taken a wrong turn without having realized it. I’ll finally realize that my back-brain is telling me “You took a wrong turn, and I won’t let you move forward until you figure out how to fix it. No, I won’t tell you how you went wrong; figure it out yourself.” The bad part is that I can’t tell the difference between the early stages of this and lesser forms of resistance. So I end up being stuck for long time before I realize that this is the problem.

    I already do have some separation between the making-things-up part and the writing-the-story part. In my case the making-things-up part doesn’t live in a big sprawling file, but in a whole bunch of little files. I could wish for a program that would help me organize those little files, while still allowing them to live independently – without the organizing program trying to borg them all into one great big file, the way the usual recommendations do.

    It occurs to me that I really ought to make myself spend more time, on a regular basis, working on those making-things-up files. Trying to work on the writing-the-story part on a regular, disciplined basis keeps provoking a “It’s too hard! I give up!” response from me, but working on the making-stuff-up part shouldn’t. Especially if I keep using the word “maybe” a lot, to keep off the “If you write it down it will end up in the story! Or at least the background! And it might be wrong!” panic response that would otherwise inhibit me.

    • Especially if I keep using the word “maybe” a lot…

      LOL! I do that. In fact, in my notes, I’ll write that a scene will go a certain way, and then also note down another way it might go that’s completely opposite from the first one. I’ll know which is right when I get there – or if I need to take it in some other previously unforeseen direction. I love how my skeletal outlines are supremely flexible, but give me a safety net while I’m writing.

  2. Discipline, definitely. Also, rewarding with treats (like the pastries at the coffee shop). I find that I gain a lot of weight when I’m putting down my first draft …

  3. My worst states of resistance come when I’m outlining. I found that often enough what I should do was take what I thought would happen next and invert it. Heroine was going to get news at a market? Heroine gets driven off by a dragon (which, conveniently, was wandering about from earlier in the story).

  4. I get resistance in the form of “I haven’t sold anything for years, why the bleep am I doing this?” But I still scribble onward, occasionally.

  5. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

    I’ve had a ridiculous number of major life changes and stressors in the last several years, affecting both my emotional state (my mother’s dementia, a miscarriage, moving a thousand miles away, etc. etc.) and the mechanics of routines and schedules (having a baby who grew into a toddler, the move with its resultant change in support structure/babysitting). It’s been a bit of a struggle just telling the voices that say “if you’re not writing/editing a WIP every single day, you’re not a writer” to go shove it — I tell them I do have drafts, plus I now have an essay getting published, plus I’m always writing, even if it isn’t always on the WIP.

    But this gives me some more specific tools and ideas to work with. Yay! Hooray for not making things unnecessarily hard on oneself! 🙂

  6. I keep trying to come up with a comment, but it would just be a verbatim re-post of Deep Lurker’s first paragraph. 😉 (Why, why can’t brains just send memos?)

  7. I wish I’d realized many years ago that when life was piling on, it was okay to take a hiatus from writing rather than keep trying to force it. Looking back at that particular time, when I’d sit at the keyboard all evening and fail to produce anything because my brain had no cycles left for fiction, I think I’d have had a much easier time getting back into writing again once life calmed down if I’d taken a break entirely for a year or two instead of getting in the habit of not writing during writing time, if that makes any sense.

  8. “The first part is to get out of your own way. Stop waiting for things to get better, for there to be more time, for inspiration to strike, for the Fiction Fairy to put some words on your computer while you’re sleeping.”

    I know this, but I needed the reminder. THANK YOU!!

  9. First of all, this site highlights in pink! How great is that!?

    Second, I really appreciate this post. I’ve had all the answers on writers block that range from “artists are beautiful, delicate flowers” who apparently create art in a vacuum of nothingness and wake up in a daze with a completed novel in their laps… “writers blocks doesn’t exist, you’re just a lazy butt” And I disagree with both extremes. I think “writer’s block” is a real thing but the phenomenon might not be so phenomenal. So I appreciate the turn to “let’s figure out why you’re not writing and what will help you” because that’s the only thing that’s going to really HELP in the end.

    I think I’ll mostly take your “post it” notes approach from this, as well as the making-up the story part because both are things I need to do better on. Your post it notes are so much better than my previous “you should be writing” mantra that just made me want to scream sometimes. (and was also actually very easy to ignore once I had let myself do it once).

  10. I’ve read this article several times now to make sure I “get it”. I am so grateful for your blog and your writing about those ‘slip between the cracks’ methods which are often mentioned but rarely *explained* clearly. It seems like common sense, and sometimes it is, but having it laid out with an actual example of Meh sequence an example of Yay! sequence helps so much.

    Thank you!

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