What Do I Do Now?

By Brett Battles

I don’t believe in writer’s block.

What I do believe in is getting stuck in a story. See, writer’s block implies the inability to write…anything. My feeling is I can always write something. Maybe it’ll have nothing to do with the story I’m working on, but it will be writing. Maybe I start a short story, or write a scene that has nothing to do with anything, or maybe I just write some emails. Whatever works.

Recently I got stuck on the book I’m currently working on. Now my deadline isn’t until May 1st, so just before I got stuck I was thinking that there was a good chance I would finish a month early. I mean, I already had over 300 pages written, and I usually top out at just over 400. So even writing another 100+ pages and doing a rewrite of the whole book at that point was very doable.

I knew how I wanted the book to end, but I also knew I had a lot of loose ends and things that needed to be changed. I kept writing, though, until I suddenly came to a point where I said to myself, “I’m not really sure what I should write next.”

I’ve got to say, I was annoyed. But to be fair, I knew I’d get to that point eventually. I always do.

So I did what I’ve done in the past, I went back to the beginning and start my rewrite even though I hadn’t finished the draft. But something different happened this time. I got about two-thirds of the way through the rewrite when I hit another snag.

Okay, not a snag completely. But I knew I needed to do something different. I realized I just needed to take a step back and look at the story as a whole. I knew I had a good plot, and the characters were all solid, but I was afraid that I was missing something. So I decided to take two days and not touch the manuscript at all. That’s not to say I didn’t write anything. In fact I wrote a ton. Only none of it was on my laptop.

I got a couple of things from Office Depot to help me out. One was a 2’ x 4’ dry erase board. The other was one of the coolest things in the world. Did you know they make Post-it notes that are actually 2’ wide by 2 1/2 ‘ long and come in pads of 30? They are so AWESOME! I mean like award winning awesome! Check them out next time you’re in a office supply store, you’ll see what I mean.

Anyway…here’s what I did.

I summarized all the chapters I had written so far on the dry erase board. Then, using a different giant Post-it note for each of my main characters, I wrote a point-by-point rundown of the story from that particular character’s point of view. Once done, the Post-it went up on the wall of my living room. Eventually most of the empty space on my walls was covered. (Thank God I live alone…the notes are still up and not attractive to anyone but me.)

I then took a step back to see what I had. Suddenly several things became clear to me: chapters that needed to be moved around, some that needed to be removed entirely, and two characters that needed to be combined into one, among other things. And most importantly, I realized that I wasn’t as far off as I had first thought.

I grabbed another post it and wrote out a chapter-by-chapter list of things I needed to do, then threw it up on the wall. My final act was to photograph each post it and import them into my computer so that I’d have them with me wherever I ended up working. Old school meet new school.

Yeah, I know. It sounds like a lot of work. And it was. But, man, did it open me up. That sense of being stuck…gone. That feeling of not knowing what to write next…also gone.

I know I won’t be done by the end of March like I wanted to be, but I still think I’m going to beat that May 1st deadline.

So I guess what I’m trying to point out if you’re a writer who sometimes gets stuck, maybe you just need to take a step back and look at the big picture. Or maybe you just need to put the story to the side for a day or two and try writing something else entirely. But what you should never do is think that you are blocked. That’s just a state of mind. 

Find your method. Find what works. And move on.

Song for today: FALLING SLOWLY…I LOVE this song. It’s the kind of song I wish I had someone to sing it to. Someday, perhaps.

11 thoughts on “What Do I Do Now?

  1. Dana King

    Those big Post-Its kick ass; I don’t know what I’d do without them and dry erase boards. I have dry erases in several sizes; sometimes I use a small one and sketch out how I want a small are of a couple of chapter to go, or even a scene. Different colored index cards are also a big help, as is PowerPoint: one scene per slide, move as necessary.

    I know this seems like a lot of stuff, but for some reason a method that worked before won’t work this time. With this many tools in my box, I can always find something to get me over a hump.

    Reply
  2. Denese

    Interesting. Thanks for writing this.

    I don’t know what we did before Post-it-Notes. They, and facebook, are the only ways I communicate with my family members!

    denese

    Reply
  3. Cornelia Read

    I want the giant post-it notes!!! So cool.

    I usually hit the wall with writing when what I think I should be writing next isn’t what actually needs to happen, in the story.

    Or I’m just lazy. Hard to say.

    Reply
  4. Scott

    I had a similar experience for my first novel. I mapped out most of the chapters before I started. It wasn’t until I was in the middle of everything that I realized (with some help from a critique group) that I actually needed *more* scenes in the first third of the book. When I ended up doing was using the smaller post-it notes, the one 2″x1.5″, and mapped every chapter and scenes on a giant poster board. Then, I went back and color coded each post-it with the POV of whatever character that scene was in. Thus, I had a visual and color representation of the entire book. I could then realize that I had three chapters with Character A and none from Character B. Thus, for pacing’s sake, I moved a chapter with Character B among the three Character A chapters. I found this approach, and the approach you write about today, to be essential. Thanks for the post and I’ll be sending other folks over here.

    Reply
  5. Alexandra Sokoloff

    I do index cards (or Post Its, and yeah, I love those rectangular ones!) in the beginning to outline a project and always end up going back and redoing them several times over the course of writing a script or a book.

    Just a technical point – I find you end up having to pin the Post Its to the corkboard just as you would index cards, otherwise a strong breeze or a rambunctious cat can play havoc with your outline.

    Reply
  6. NS Foster

    Yep, love using index cards for this. Like Scott, I highlighted the plot I was trying to keep track of and spread them all out on my office floor. Perfect visual aid.

    Reply
  7. Tom

    Ghod, I loathe drive-by spammers, almost as much as I loathe being story-stuck

    Great techniques – I hadn’t thought to use PowerPoint or Keynote that way.

    I’ve looked into mind mapping (with apps like NovaMind or MindManager). It’s used a lot in Australian creative businesses, and it’s beginning to catch on here in the States. It’s a good way to see ‘the whole fence’ and ‘all the pickets and posts’ at one time.

    It’s all blather until I spend more butt in the chair time, though.

    Reply
  8. pari

    Giant Post Its? Wow. Those sound wonderful.

    When I get stuck, I force myself to write something else and let the other story rattle around in my brain. That usually helps me through.

    BUT I’ve never had to write any of my fiction on deadline, so I don’t know what I’d do if that were the case and I were stuck.

    Reply

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