Getting Unstuck When You’re Writing Your Novel

We’ve all had it happen. You're at the end of a scene or chapter, or maybe in the middle, and you just can’t seem to go on.

Maybe you stare at the screen for a while. Maybe you walk away for five minutes, get a cup of coffee or tea, and come back. Maybe you take your dog for a walk.

Yet you still don’t know what to write next.

Or, worse, you think you do know but for whatever reason you’re not sitting down to write it.

This has happened to me more than once as I’ve been working on the first draft of the second book in my new Q. C. Davis mysteries series. So I've been revisiting my options for getting rolling again.

Below are the four that help me the most.

What works will vary from writer to writer, but maybe some of these will help you, too.

Live Music

Attending a concert or other musical performance almost always stimulates ideas, brings forth new characters, or causes me to create new plot turns. Sometimes I come up with entirely new stories.

It’s not a conscious effort. That’s the beauty of it.

As the music absorbs me, my mind feels free to relax and drift, and that’s when magic happens.

While recorded music helps too, there’s something about the energy of the performers and of the crowd that makes it easy to let go of day-to-day life, concerns, and anything else occupying my analytic mind and just be.

If you haven’t tried it, in my opinion it’s worth giving it a shot no matter what type of musical performance you can get to.

For me, it really doesn’t matter if I love the music or not. It just matters that I'm there, listening and experiencing and watching.

Museums/Art Exhibits/Random Art

Much like music, viewing art stimulates creativity.

Normally I’m pretty skeptical of concepts that can’t be tested scientifically, but I just feel that the energy the artist puts into creating the work somehow comes through the art itself. Whether I like a painting or sculpture or not I feel like being near it and studying it–getting absorbed in it–transmits some of that artist's energy to me.

Also, as with attending a live music event, the energy of other people in an art exhibit or museum (or looking at a piece of art in an outdoor plaza) also adds to my energy.

Sometimes it can be a bit draining if it’s terribly crowded and loud in the area, and then I need to take a break for a while. But for the most part I find myself relaxing and focusing on the art.

I also think viewing artwork is helpful because writing is all about words on the page and what we see in our minds.

With artwork we're often looking at shapes and colors and possibly movement that someone else has created and that’s different from what we see on a day-to-day basis. Anything new like that is almost guaranteed, at least for me, to spark new and different ideas for our own work.

Finally, though I don’t do it purposely, I almost can’t help imagining the emotions of the artist or that the artist wanted to convey. Along with that often come scenes and characters. They aren’t necessarily directly related to the art, but they often speak to me all the same.

When I go back to my own work I find that I am revitalized.

Use Cards With Images

Often when I'm stuck on a scene or story I take out a deck of cards. Not regular playing cards, but some cards with striking images created by artists.

Here’s an example from a set of Soul Cards I bought in an antique and gift store once. There is probably some way to use them for people who want to try to do intuitive or psychic readings, but I don’t use them for that.

Instead, I’ll pull a card at random and stare at it for a while.

I try to let go of other thoughts the same way I would looking at a painting or listening to a concert.

With the card, though, I take it a step further and ask myself how the card makes me feel. I might write down what I feel and think or what story the card brings to mind.

Another option is to imagine you are looking at the card as your character.

How does your character feel? Does it make her feel sad? Does it make him feel happy? What memories does it trigger?

If you’re comfortable with it and you're using a deck (such as any type of Tarot deck) that assigns meanings to the images, you can use the instructions or search for meanings of the cards online.

You don't need to believe the cards actually tell the future or give true insight in themselves. (I don't.) In my view, most descriptions of most cards are general and open enough that you can interpret them in many, many ways.

This possibility of so many different interpretations allows your mind and heart to range freely and bring forth or add on to whatever is already in your unconscious mind about your characters and story.

Take A Train Ride

Another time new ideas or creative solutions to plot or character questions come easily to my mind is when I’m riding a train.

The movement of the train prompts a sort of meditative state of mind for me. I don’t read or listen to music or do work. I simply stare out the window and let my mind drift.

As with art and music, it doesn’t matter if I like the scenery outside the window or not. Whether it’s city, miles of fields of corn (I take the Amtrak through Central and downstate Illinois a lot) or a river or swamp, it helps clear my mind.

I don’t make any effort to think about anything in particular, I just let my thoughts flow.

Often for the first few minutes I’m preoccupied with day-to-day concerns. But soon I let go of all that, and thoughts simply arise.

Sometimes nothing about story or character comes to mind during the train ride, but later when I sit down at the keyboard again the words start flowing.

Why It Works

The key, at least for me, for all of the above is not to try to come up with an answer but to simply take the train ride (literally or metaphorically).

The common threads I see in all the above activities are:

  • being exposed to something new or different
  • changing a daily or weekly routine
  • feeling the energy of other people (at least through their creative work)
  • letting go of the specific purpose and being in the moment

My best guess is that’s why these activities spark ideas that help us get around blocks.

What works best for you? Feel free to share in the comments.

Until next Friday-

L.M. Lilly

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