Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Feeling Stuck Creatively? by: Marissa Burt

Chapa Traffic Jam in Maputa, by A Verdade
licensed for re-use at Creative Wikimedia commons
For me, the term writer's block is a synonym for perfectionism. I feel blocked when I'm waiting for the perfect thing: whether it's the perfect plot-point, a perfectly well-rounded character, or even the perfect writing environment (Hello, Person-in-the-comfy-chair-at-Starbucks: you are in my spot!)

I've learned to not freak out when I'm feeling stuck, and instead remind myself that every step, however small, is a step forward for my writing. So here are my favorite things to do when I'm feeling stuck:

1. Breathe in the story. I often do this when I'm brainstorming a new project. I will immerse myself in the story world. Sometimes that means checking out all the steampunk movies I can find from the library. Or cooking my character's favorite food. Or attending an event my character would be interested in. For my current work-in-progress, I've been channelling my inner Disney Channel and spent a whole afternoon re-watching THE PRINCESS DIARIES 1&2. I don't approach these activities looking for something specific to put in my story - I mainly want to be inspired by the atmosphere of my story.

2. Play with the setting. I like to re-visit kindergarten days and pull out old magazines, scissors, and paste to make collages. But nowadays, there's Pinterest, and it's super easy to accomplish this same goal by pinning images that inspire my setting.

3. Interview the characters. There are hundreds of templates online for character interviews. I always drag my feet on this one, because it seems so silly, but then when I actually do it: it's amazing! My characters go from flat and frenetic to motivated, well-rounded individuals.

4. Rework a specific scene. If the plot is stale or forced, I'll try re-writing the scene from a different angle, attempting a different character's point of view or 1st person instead of 3rd. I think like an actor that never performs a scene the same way twice and change setting or time of day or supporting characters to see where that takes the story. I'll ask What If? and Why? questions and recall Peter Jackson's advice in the special features on THE LORD OF THE RINGS DVDs (Yes, I've watched all however-many-hours-of-them. Twice). Is this scene moving the story forward? If not, it gets cut.

Beautiful. Isn't it?
5. Raise the stakes. I imagine the worst possible outcome would be for my main character at the moment, and then write that scene. Poor characters. I'm sorry. Here. You can have the cushy Starbucks chair.

6. Write or Die. Besides being an awesome bumper-sticker phrase, this is my go-to website on the days when I loathe my story and think every plot-point is boring, every character stale and carboard-y. I feel like no one will ever want to read my writing - I don't even want to read it. Then I click over to Write or Die (the freebie trial version is awesome), and let pressure do its thing. Some of my most unexpected plot twists have come from Dr. Wicked's Writing Lab.
http://writeordie.com/
And all these things may not add to my word count, but they do move my story forward. They are the  work of writing. So get rid of the perfectionism, and aim for perseverance instead. Every step, however small, is a step forward on your writing journey.

How about you, Mayhemers? What are your favorite go-to tips for getting un-stuck?

17 comments:

  1. Fun post, Marissa! I really love this advice--all of it. I'd love to hear more specifically where that advice is from Peter Jackson. That's my best way to get unstuck--to read or listen to other writers talk about craft and process. It usually inspires me to approach it all from another angle. Needless to say, this post will be bookmarked. ;)

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    1. I don't remember exactly which interview he talks about it, but I think he's speaking to why he doesn't include the tom Bombadil storyline in the movie. And he talks about how wonderful and rich it is but how it really doesn't advance Frodo's journey forward. And that's how he began to decide to what to edit out - was whether or not it directly related to the ring/Frodo narrative. :)

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  2. Oh, that Write or Die is a hoot! I feel my own whip cracking at me. LOL. I also love to raise the stakes on my characters - see what painful new mayhem I can get them in. :) But two simple things always work for me when I am stuck, 1. Go for a walk (it always unravels the problem) and 2. Sit in a different space with a notebook and pen and write freely about the scene I am stuck on. Something about writing with pen to page vs. firing away at a keyboard slows down the brain to work differently.

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    1. Yes! Going for a walk=good inspiration. If you can avoid the curious gaze of neighbors as you walk along muttering to yourself about plot points. :)

      I'll have to try the notebook/pen approach. Thanks!

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    2. Marissa, I just recently discovered a fantastic way to brainstorm on walks. I record my scenes as they come to me. (this is better alone in the woods - ha ha). I even act them out dramatically as I record them (a definite don't do in your neighborhood!)

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  3. Love how the last two posts have been about blocks of some sort.

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    1. Yes! Joy's post inspired mine... I was going to comment on hers and then had too much to say. :)

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  4. Walks are terrific. And, now that we have a dog, I'm doing a lot more of them.

    Two great, connected posts in a row!

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  5. Hey Marissa, this was great. I don't write middle grade fiction but your ideas would work for any of my current projects (getting off Facebook would also work well for me!). I wonder if doing an actual collage is different than Pinterest.

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    1. Oh, facebook. I hear you. That and twitter pull me in every time. I like the actual collage because it gets me off the computer. :) Happy writing!

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  6. Marissa, this is so great! I wanted to do a post on writer's block, but your ideas are WAY better than me!!! Working out really, really helps me. Has gotten me out of a "stick" many times! :)

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    1. Great idea, Hilary! Get those good endorphins flowing. I've recently tried to modify my treadmill into a treadmill desk, and sometimes just that low-level activity gets ideas flowing.

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  7. I've recently found that the best way to get past writer's block is simply to keep trying. It's easy to get frustrated staring at the blank page and coming up with nothing, but there have been so many times that I've done that for two hours, then written something amazing in the next hour. Had I gotten frustrated and given up after two hours, it wouldn't have happened, and I'd believe myself to be facing unconquerable writer's block.

    So for me it's simple. The cure for writer's block is persistence. The more opportunity you give yourself to defeat it, the more likely you will.

    Harrison Demchick
    Developmental Editor, The Writer's Ally

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    1. I think you are so right! Persistence is really the key to getting unstuck. Happy writing!

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Thanks for adding to the mayhem!