Hitting your head against a brick wall

In today’s What Works For Me post I wanted to clarify a point I made in the very first of these articles back in January. I was talking about planning, if you remember, and the process I follow to turn an initial spark of an idea into a finished piece of writing. I was talking specifically about the ground rules I set myself to get my first novel finished back in 1994, and the fourth of those rules was don’t force it: if you’re not in the right mood to write, walk away and come back later.

A few folks took exception to this, and I can see why. I don’t think I explained myself properly, and some clarification is in order.

Banging your head

Writing is hard. Bloody hard. There are days when the words flow, and there are days when they definitely don’t, when you feel like you’re banging your head against a brick wall. You know what it’s like when you’re reading and you realise you’ve been looking at the same paragraph for the last fifteen minutes, maybe even the same sentence… I get that when I’m writing too. I occasionally reach a point in the day when I just can’t write another word, when I’ve stopped being productive. It can be a physical thing, not a mental thing.

THIS IS NOT THE SAME AS HITTING A PROBLEM WITH A STORY.

If you’re anything like me, you’ll regularly hit snags along the way when you’re writing. Whether you’re a free writer or a compulsive planner, whether it’s a brand new project or something you’ve been getting ready to write for years, there’s always going to be something that puts a spanner in the works. I often find that I fly through the first hundred or so pages of a book, then suddenly grind to an unexpected halt which threatens to derail the whole project. Quite frequently I’m tripped up in the middle of a book: I have a solid start and a killer ending, I just can’t work out how to properly connect the two…

I think this can actually be a good thing. It’s definitely an important thing. It means the story you’re writing isn’t predictable, if nothing else. Guiding your characters and your plot over and around these obstacles will, in my experience, help you write a better story in the long run.

So how do you get over these frustrating bumps in the road? Well, here are a few suggestions which usually work for me (in my order of preference).

1. Step away from the keyboard…
The longer I stare at a blank screen/page, the bigger a hole I usually end up digging for myself. I’ve found that if I do something completely different, I’ll inevitably still be thinking about the book, and I’ll usually come up with a solution. Case in point: I had a situation yesterday I couldn’t resolve – two scenes in the first ‘The Spaces Between’ novel which needed to be bridged. I spent most of the evening thinking about it. I fell asleep trying to work it out, and woke up this morning still thinking about it but no clearer. Then I went for a run as I often do. Three miles in and I’d worked out how my well-meaning doctor carrying out unauthorised operations on the quiet was connected to a criminal gang and their insalubrious fixer, and how these revelations fit into the book. You don’t have to run, of course. I find dog walking, driving, taking a bath or shower, cutting the lawn… they all work just as well.

2. Reverse the flow
Having trouble getting from A to Z? Why not reverse direction and try and get from Z back to A? Often working my way backwards from the end of the story to the beginning really helps.

3. Leave it for this draft
This is particularly useful in early drafts: if you’re really struggling with a particular scene, why not leave it and come back to it later? Just put a few bulletpoints or bookmarks in your text, or the briefest of guide notes: e.g. This is where character X finds out his best friend Q did something unspeakable with his associate E’s mother. The more of your story you write, the better you get to know the characters and situations, and the kind of temporary plot derailments I’m talking about have a habit of working themselves out.

4. Stimulate your brain/distract yourself
Similar to the first suggestion: if your brain’s not playing ball, why not try looking into someone else’s? Try reading/watching/listening to something completely unconnected to whatever it is you’re working on. Alternatively, read/watch/listen to something that is connected. Seeing how someone else deals with a particular situation might inspire you to come up with a way to resolve your plot issue.

5. Force your way through
I’m not a fan of this approach, but it can work. Just keep staring at the screen/page until you’ve worked out where you’re going.

6. If all else fails, perhaps work on something else for a while
Many writers, myself included, like to be working on several projects at the same time. If you’re struggling with one story, why not flip to another? As with suggestions 1 and 4 above, a change of scene can help.

So there you go. If I gave the wrong impression in my post about planning, then I apologise. I’d never advocate giving up on a project. All stories take a huge amount of effort to finish and to hone into shape, as this old post from Cracked.com shows.

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  • Petra Hammer

    At least you’re throwing your head against a wall instead of someone else doing it for you. (Hater ref)

  • exogeist

    Dave,
    Great pointers as always. It’s great to get some inside information on the process of ‘breaking through the wall’ and also helpful to know that established, published writers go through this stuff too.
    I read recently that King enforces a 2000 word or 10 pages minimum per day on himself. That’s great if it works for him and others – he’s been doing this so long that I’m fairly certain his process has become somewhat more mechanical/methodical than the rest of us. In addition, I read once that Don Delillo had an idea for one of his novels and did nothing. No writing – he just sat on the idea and let it work itself out for one year. I’ve found success with the latter myself: I get more work and thinking done away from the screen than in front of it. Perhaps it’s got something to do with psychology, similar to being out walking the dog and such. Maybe it’s easier for the mind to travel back to your project when you know you should be concentrating on something else…
    Thanks Dave!
    P.S. What’s going on behind you in that picture? (You may want to get rid of it before somebody photoshops something – or somebody – in.)