If your writing is stuck, shake things up!

Most writers sometimes hit a wall partway through a manuscript.

That said, I don’t believe in writer’s block, and I don’t think you do, either. I think of it more as writer’s detour. It can happen even when you have an idea of where you want things to go, or even when you have an outline.

Calling it writer’s block makes it easy to close the laptop and walk away until inspiration hits.

Don’t do it! The longer you stay away from the book, the less it’s going to be in your head. There are better ways to solve the problem.

I’ve learned some tricks over the years to get things back on track. They may work for you or may not. If they do, great. If they don’t, they may give you some ideas of what would work for you. The point is that instead of waiting for inspiration, shake things up and make it happen.

  1. I recently bought a fairly cheesey journal-type thing called “Write a Novel From Nothing.” (Sorry if you’re the inventor of this. My adjectives are totally subjective and it’s an awesome journal.) It has a lot of elements, including pages that ask questions to develop characters, plot, setting, etc. Even though my book isn’t at the “nothing” stage (far from it), the excercises helped. Once you’ve been working on a book for a while, it’s easy to forget things, even important ones like character motivation and plot-driving setting elements. Being prompted with exercises may be all you need.
  2. Re-start from the beginning. Everyone has a different writing process, but almost any process can benefit from going back to the beginning if you’re stuck at a certain point.  Rewriting key early scenes can help move the plot in directions you didn’t see before.
  3. Get a whiteboard, chalkboard, anything, and go through the manuscript and outline what’s going on. Write out themes and where they happen in the book and make charts of plot progression, etc. Whatever works for you. I don’t generally outline before I start, though I do have some general idea of what’s going to happen. But as I go, I outline, reoutline, figure out where the lulls and action are, etc. I even do a calendar to help keep timeline things straight. At some point late in the process, like I am now, I erase the whole whiteboard and go back to the beginning of the book and start the process over, which helps me see where scenes should and shouldn’t be, etc. No, it’s not pretty, but it can give you a mile-high look at the book. That perspective may help loosen things up.

    You can’t have too many whiteboard outlines. Well, maybe you can. But you get what I’m saying. Putting a manuscript into perspective may help you get unstuck.

  4. Re-read (or read) a really good favorite author whose books are nothing like yours. have trouble reading books in my genre when I’m in the thick of writing. It makes me think too much about my own book, but not in a good way. It’s like I’m looking in a funhouse mirror, and causes a lot of anxiety about the fact that my own book isn’t done. Hard to totally explain, and probably a blog post for another day. The point is, though, that I often overdo it and avoid reading any fiction, but stick to nonfiction (I have dual Northern Ireland Troubles and Mount Everest Disaster obsessions going on right now). Nonfiction is great, too, but we’re talking about moving a stuck manuscript forward, and nonfiction usually doesn’t help (except for plot points maybe). I recently broke my rule, though, and read Kate Atkinson’s “Shrines of Gaiety” (five stars!). Then I re-read another of her books. Then another. Her writing style is complicated and awesome, and it made me start thinking of ways I can loosen things up a little, not just with style, but with plot and characters. Once you think about doing that, it changes the way you look at the book. At least it did for me.
  5. Free your mind. Similar to the previous point — sometimes when you spend a lot of time with a manuscript you begin to paint yourself into corners and stop seeing possibilities. Consider plot, characters and action and ask yourself “Do these have to be this way?” Usually when you’re stuck it’s because something isn’t working. Reconsidering even small things like some aspect of a character’s personality, or a geographical layout, or adding or taking away a minor character can spur a bigger change.
  6. Take a major detour and write character biographies. I know! Ugh! I always feel that if I’m going to be writing, I want it to be the actual book. But this is an excercise that can move that book forward. It’s kind of an expanded version of the one-page character descriptions in the journal I mentioned at the top. Sometimes all it takes is a more in-depth knowledge of a character to understand what he or she is going to do next.
  7. Keep writing even if it’s nonsense and you don’t feel like it’s moving your story forward. Have your characters have inane conversations or go to a ballgame or anything else that won’t make it into the book. Write a scene where your character sees a famous actor in the grocery store. These are just random things — you don’t have to specifically write these scenes. But write anything, even if you can’t think of what to write next that’ll actually stay in your book. I promise you that something in your brain will loosen up and you’ll be back on track. It may seem like “wasted writing,” but if it gets you where you want to go, it’s not.
  8. Don’t worry about the “shoulds” and “should nots.” This can be paralyzing when you’re writing. There’ll be plenty of time to revise, rewrite, fix, change, dump, etc. Get to the end of the draft without worrying too much about all the things you should and shouldn’t be doing. The only voice in your head should be yours and your characters’. Once you have the story down, then it’s time to fix it and make it right. I know it’s a lot of work, but that’s what writing is.

I hope this was helpful. I know everyone writes differently. But I think all of us at times get stuck, not only on the writing part but what to do about getting stuck on the writing part. We get concerned about following certain “rules,” or feel like we already know our characters and plot and just want to get on with it.

But if you’re stuck, you’re stuck. You need to get unstuck. Find a way to shake things up that works for you.

Happy writing!


About Maureen Milliken

Maureen Milliken is the author of the Bernie O’Dea mystery series. Follow her on Twitter at @mmilliken47 and like her Facebook page at Maureen Milliken mysteries. Sign up for email updates at maureenmilliken.com. She hosts the podcast Crime&Stuff with her sister Rebecca Milliken.
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6 Responses to If your writing is stuck, shake things up!

  1. Anonymous says:

    Great suggestions, Maureen. Thanks.


  2. matthewcost says:

    Great thoughts! I use them all to varying degrees. When in doubt? Write. Write on.

  3. Katherine Vaughan says:

    Wonderful suggestions! A personal go-to that almost never fails: take a long walk, and audio record your ideas as they occur to you…..

  4. maggierobinsonwriter says:

    I’m going to follow every one of these. Soon, LOL.

  5. Judy Alter says:

    Very helpful suggestions. thanks.

  6. Shelley Burbank says:

    Very helpful, detailed post!

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