Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Ask O: How Do I Get Unstuck?

Good morning! Welcome to Ask O Wednesday. This week's question: Sometimes a character's reaction or plot point will stump me. It's like there's no clear way the story should go. How do I get unstuck? Great question!

I talked about this a few years back in one of my writing columns. Take a look.

Andrew falls, screaming, into the swirling river, the villain’s knife-wound plunged deeply into his shoulder. Kristin watches the whole thing—her reaction?
Nothing. Not a word, no panic, not even the slightest tear. Why? It’s not because she’s a cold, unfeeling girl. It’s her author’s fault—mine. I was stuck! I could not figure out how she would react. I almost gave up. And then it came to me.
Freewrite to freedom! I put fingers to keyboard and didn’t stop until I had a scene—not a very good one, but with a few decent nuggets. Then I freewrote a few more times until I finally had a workable “something.”

The Brain Factor
Why does freewriting work? It’s that left brain/right brain thing. Our left brain’s the analytical, language side of the brain. The right brain bursts with creative and emotional energy. Most times, our left brain is dominant. For writers, this can be frustrating. That darn left brain stifles right brain’s free-for-all. “Let me through,” right brain cries. “I must be heard!” When we freewrite, we temporarily restrain left brain, unleashing right brain’s mind-blowing ideas.
Here’s how I do it.

A Little Planning
1) I first narrow down the problem. Where am I stuck? Is it an illogical plot point, an elusive description, or, like in my earlier example, a stubborn character?
2) Next, since I find it easiest to write in answer to a question, I morph my troubling issue into something like this: How does Kristin react when Andrew gets thrown into the river and almost dies? Even when I’m stuck, I can usually come up with this much.
3) Depending on how bogged down I am, I then jot a few quick, short answers, not worrying if they make sense: Doesn’t cry. Touches his sleeve. Begs him to be okay. Walks away. Thinks about chocolate.

The Timer’s Set
Once I’ve done that, I set the timer for five minutes. (Writing in five-minute bursts gives right brain freedom to spill its creativity before left brain can squelch it. Plus it’s enough time to knock out a good chunk of a scene, and it helps me stay focused.) Then I take a breath and …
… go!
Once I start, my fingers aren’t allowed to stop clicking until the timer beeps. No thinking, no deleting, no trying to come up with a perfect example—just go, baby, go, go, go. Write for your life! Oops, missed a comma, oh well! There goes a cliché, can’t stop now! Not till the timer beeps.1

It Works!
And when I’m done, I’m always surprised at what’s popped out. It’s often a truck-load of boring nonsense, but underneath, I’ll have found my way out of the mire. I may not have the final draft, but at least I’m moving again. And sometimes, when I really let myself go, a nugget will surprise me. A character will reveal a new skill (Kristin, I didn’t know you could hang-glide!) or a new friend will speed onto the scene (Hello there, what kind of creature are you?). Even better, a plot twist will wiggle in, solving a loose end I wasn’t even aware of (Oh! So, Andrew needs to steal the scroll.)
It’s amazing how freewriting gets me unstuck. It may take a few times, and always requires a number (a big number!) of edits, but there’s nothing like it to nudge me free.
Where are you stuck? Character, plot, description, openings, endings, transitions? Freewrite to freedom! You’ll be amazed what right brain can do—if you only set it free.

1. Many of my freewriting techniques have come from two sources, which I highly recommend. How To Write Any Book in 28 Days by Nick Daws and Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg.
2. This article first appeared in the Northwest Christian Author

Happy Writing!

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