Help, I’m Stuck – Knocking Loose Ideas

[Alma T. C. Boykin]

N.B. I’m not talking about true writer’s block, or burn out. I’ve never blocked completely yet. I’ve had months where I “piddled around” and didn’t accomplish as much as I wanted to, but never had a total brain lock. Yet. [taps wood]

There you are, typing away on your Work-In-Progress (WIP) and splat! You hit a wall. Or you have a bit of an idea for a story, ish, but you don’t know how to flesh it out.

Sometimes, Great Ideas won’t work. It happens. You’re just not the writer for the story, or it requires some skill you don’t have yet, or you realize that it wants to go places you really don’t need to visit. That’s fine. Tuck it into your scrap folder. There might be an element you can use later. Or you might gain the skills and knowledge to revisit the idea and turn it into a story. I have a whole folder of those from the Cat books that were too close to what I was going through at the time, or turned out not to fit the overall story line, or that I eventually decided not to publish because I wanted to end the series on a happy note. I’ve also got a few from other series where I was noodling around with “OK, what if this character did that?” In a few cases I decided to modify them for use, one became a chapter in a book, and a few won’t go anywhere because the characters went their own way. They were useful exercises.

At other times, you almost want to tap your head with a small hammer to knock the stuck bit loose. I don’t recommend it, but you do what works for you. A few people I’ve read about use something like a Whack Pack, a set of cards with random story ideas and bits. Draw one, use it, and see what happens. It probably won’t work, but other things that come with that particular scene might prove to be the answer.

If you use outlines and plot things in advance, you might stop and jump ahead, then use your outline to work backwards and see what the problem is. It might be that you need to shift a character into a slightly different role in that particular scene, or re-work a later event so that the block becomes a step stone. Is this the best character to have doing [THING]? Do you need to shift a bit of foreshadowing so that the current scene fits better? Is there something about the plot/characters/setting that’s gotten jammed up and needs to be modified?

I often shift gears. Either completely, like taking a quick walk if weather and overcast conditions allow, or tidying something small, or getting something to drink and staring out a window at the RealWorld™. Sometimes that’s enough to knock something loose. Otherwise I work on a different piece of fiction, hunt for cover art, or otherwise stay in the fiction mindset. Or I stay within the story and jump to a different scene that I know I can write. That gets words on page/screen, and lets me make progress while my back brain sorts out the problem with the earlier bit.

I have a rough plot idea in mind, but I don’t outline in detail. I tried that once, and hit a total brick wall. Then the characters took over and shredded the outline. Plus I outline non-fiction and academic work. My fiction mind balks at outlining for that reason. However, I do have notes of where the story needs to go, phrases and bits, and a general sequence of things. So I can jump around if I need to, in order to allow my instincts to sort out a problem while I keep working. The later bits will probably be modified, polished, or re-timed to get them to fit the book once it catches up to them, but they are there.

Sometimes, you just have to step back from a project and leave it alone for a while. I have over 20K words on a fantasy story set in post-Roman Scotland. It jammed. I know where I need to go with it, but my mental gears slip and then lock. I need something I don’t have yet, probably time to immerse myself in the world because it is very different from everything else I’ve done recently. It is now well onto the back burner while I finish the next Merchant book. Come summer, I will clear my desk and attack the Scotland book again. I have that luxury.

If you are writing to spec and on a deadline, you might just have to power through. I’ve done that with non-fiction. It’s not fun. You find something that works, write around the problem if you can and go back to it, then finish.

Image: Help, I’ve hit a wall! Image by Peter Hilmer from Pixabay

21 thoughts on “Help, I’m Stuck – Knocking Loose Ideas

  1. You mentioned post-Roman Scotland – any ideas for researching historical eras such as this which may have limited sources for getting details about daily life, political leadership of said area, etc? Just general suggestions are fine.

    1. Archaeology. Look at books that tap into the archaeology. I was fortunate because a number of epigraphers, linguists, and archaeologists have been doing research on the Picts, and so there’s been a number of papers and books written for me to tap into. For other things, I lean on archaeology and what historians have drawn from their work. One problem with Europe is that certain things are not translated into English all that often, because of the lack of a popular market. I suspect the same is true for other areas as well.

  2. Yeah. I just finished a major scene, now I need to fill in a gap of time with several basically social things that needs to happen before the last battle . . . Muse: Now the final confrontation . . . Me: No, we need to do these boring social things so I know who at the . . . Muse: No! Boring!

  3. I wrote my first 10 novels (3 different series) one book at a time, with no detailed view of where they would go, plot-wise. The first 2 sets had a pre-envisioned limit of 4 entries, and that had the effect of controlling sprawl and contributing to unity, but disappointing me since I would have liked to go longer with those characters, but knew I didn’t have the skills yet to pull that off.

    So the most recent 2 novels, which form the start of the new indefinite length series, were terrific fun, because I was building for the long haul. Then I suffered a medical interruption (sigh… it’s all ended very well but it’s taken almost 3 years for me to feel fully healthy — better than before (and to get my brain back to full function — for my age — again)).

    I wrote this comment to remark on the unexpected usefulness of an interruption/delay like that. Since I hadn’t released the first 2 entries yet (oh wise & lucky choice!), I had an extended period of time (with no idea when I would become active again) to… ruminate. So, even though my brain didn’t feel up to writing, I had lots of time to do serious extensive research to make my faux-reminder of a real time & place much more coherent and genuine (servants, careers, buildings, trade, industry, natural resources, local history, etc.) And I had the luxury of doing a context edit of the first 2 books to make that suggestive subliminal world much denser, coherent, and detailed — and much more productive of opportunities for plot developments.

    What really surprised me, in this fallow period, was the fulminating fabulation of bits of not-yet-produced books in the series. The research sparked ideas for new characters or situations with existing ones (what if servant X recommended his successor Y?) which would not have appeared without the study. Even better, I started envisioning the rough context for the next 3 books in both story and character form. I was able to produce a reasonable outline for book 3 to sketch out the plot, with some of the detail, and that sparked the logical setting for book 4, which helped give an overall focus to how books in the series might progress usefully, with variety. Then a good idea (sparked from a vivid dream) suggested itself for the mid-point crisis of what will be book 5 (about which I knew nothing else), and that’s been expanding on both sides into ever larger parts of that book, complete with details, bits of dialogue, character relationship changes, and foundations for later books. Before this, I would never have been able to envision character/plot scenes unanchored in a realized story-context.

    So, for the first time in my writing life, I have advance knowledge of some of what’s happening in later books and the luxury to accommodate/setup for some of that in earlier ones. It’s as if my “writing into the dark” was suddenly handed a hard-core spotlight. I was never able to do something like that in my 2 earlier series. I feel like I’ve been to the gym and grown a whole new set of muscles. Now, I don’t recommend a medical crisis as a way of achieving that — hardly an efficient use of time — but the work of laying foundations from earlier series work really did matter, as I had hoped it would when I delayed the start of this 3rd series to write limited-length series 2 first, for the experience.

    1. This has been my experience with series as well. The ideas for the other books in series keep percolating along with whatever primary book I’m currently working on.

      1. I have all sorts of idea percolating in parallel. Endlessly.

        So I switch.

        Note; this is a bad idea and if you use it to avoid getting stuck, you must train yourself to circle back.

  4. I will have to try the whack pack thing. That sounds like a really interesting way to play with characters and figure out what makes them tick.

    Was listening to a YouTube skit of personality types describing their opposites, and two of them I could just hear a couple of my characters doing that same interview on how they saw the other one. It’s a situation that would never come up in the book, but it was just so *them*.

    I need to write it down and post it before I lose it.

  5. There’s a tipping point where, if I get something past X words (feels like it ought to be 25K, but I’d have to go back and check to be sure), it will usually get finished, or at least a close cousin of the same concept will get there eventually. It’s given me some confidence in dealing with the periods of “am stumped, can’t write on this project, don’t have anything else I want to work on.”

    A lot of “elevator pitch” or “next elaboration after pitch” ideas tend to churn in my head at all times, but especially when I’m unhappy with what I’m currently working on. I get them down in the notebook du jour, and don’t worry about them unless they keep bothering me. Sometimes, as with

    This year, I’m trying to keep a “productivity tracker” going in excel for my writing: really just a 2023 calendar template. Marketing stuff, covers, editing, first-drafting and brainstorming (see the churn above) all count, and the days where none of that happens are marked in red with “no writing done.” It’s been good for accountability, but also for helping me understand that even when words in doc aren’t happening, writing related stuff is.

    1. I finish what I start, but (so far) I rarely have an interruption on a WIP. I do very few shorts (just as I don’t read very many — not a form I can get emotionally hooked into easily, though I appreciate the virtues of the craft.)

      My novels are remarkably uniform at about 100K (circa 450 pages), give or take 10%. I seem to have lucked in from the start on a size/structure that just works for me. I do keep close account of the quarter- and mid-points (and subdivisions, for a 4 act structure), to keep my emotional beats moving along so it doesn’t melt into taffy, but I see no particular need to meddle with something that satisfies me — I’m not trying to teach the varieties of literary craft, just tell a story in a way that suits me.

  6. I tend to have 2-3 WIP going at various stages of completion. That way, if I block on one, I can usually jump to one of the others and keep being productive, but everyone does it differently!

  7. For getting those pesky stuck ideas out of your head, Have you considered autotrepanation?

  8. A Famous Science Fiction Writer gave a class or seminar in which he stresses the importance of things making sense. “You wouldn’t have a martian named Smith.”

    As he left, he thought to himself, “A martian named Smith? That might make an interesting story.”

    《Once upon a time, when the world was young, there was a Martian named Smith. Valentine Michael Smith was as real as taxes, but he was a race of one.》

    1. I was recently watching one of those aristocratic mad scientist movies that used to be a thing from about 1930-mumble to 1970-mumble, and thought, “You know, there is no way you could make a good guy out of the main guy in this” and then scribbled away in the notebook and tried to make him a good guy just as a mental exercise.

        1. Some villains are, short of Divine Intervention, irredeemable. “What? Are you [rude gerund] me? I chose this lifestyle. I LIKE this kind of power! Go [anatomically challenging activity].”

      1. The Witch-Child and the Scarlet Fleet is a combination of justifying something (justly) criticized in some Conan the Barbarian criticism, and turning a pointlessly depressing story into a successful wrestle with the dark circumstances.

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