Where to Go When You Don’t Know Where to Go

You don’t know what happens next. You believe you need to know. Not knowing makes you feel out of control, and you’re the author, after all. If you don’t know, who will? That’s another question you can’t answer. You stop writing.  You tell yourself that when eureka strikes, you will start again. But the longer you aren’t writing, the less you think about your story, and the likelihood that your subconscious mind will sort it out is lessened. There’s a tickle at the back of your mind, a discomfort, a voice that says writers write, and, well, you are not. And whoever thought it was a good idea, anyway?

Oh. You did.

So, sit down in your writing chair and open your story file.  Next, tell yourself a lie.  Tell yourself that if nothing is happening in 15 minutes—you set the oven timer to prove you mean it—you can excite yourself with folding laundry. Or walking the dog. Bill paying can sound enticing if you’re really scared.

Begin to read. Reengage with your story people. Tell yourself that this is important. Try not to beat yourself up. Beaten, bloody people don’t write.  Not well, at least.

Give yourself choices.

I. Ask your protagonist a question and free write the answer in his/her voice. (The question doesn’t matter greatly—What will you do about this? will do.)

A free write is usually written by hand, according to these rules, enumerated by Natalie Goldberg in Writing Down the Bones. There’s some science to suggest that the mind/hand connection is important to this process. Some writers find, however, that turning off the computer screen and writing blind works well.

1) Don’t think.
2) Keep your hand moving across the page. If you draw a blank, rewrite the original question you asked your protagonist until something comes.
3) Don’t edit. Don’t stop to correct spelling. Don’t go back to re-read what you wrote.
4) If emotion begins to rise in you, write toward it. Yes, you are scared. You are about to learn something you perhaps don’t want to know. Don’t back off.
5) Lose control.

The paradox of losing control to get back into control (produce what’s next) is one of the mysteries of writing. It’s what you mean when you say you are writing to find out what you think. You’ve been telling yourself it’s the other way round—that you had to know what you thought before you could write it.

This is not true.

II. Write down everything you do know about your character in this situation, about his/her choices. Remember , as in life, every decision you make in a story, limits the choices you can make after that. (So, if you set your story in Florida, you will have trouble convincing yourself that your character earns a living as a ski instructor.)  Your character’s choices are informed by who s/he is and the world you’ve built.   If your protagonist is a present-day, free-wheeling, East Coast potter who has taken many lovers, the choices will be different than if she’s a ’50’s, pearl-wearing Methodist from the Midwest.  Picture a fork in the road. Then consider her values. Will she violate them? What would it mean if she did? In making her decision, she may need a mentor. Protagonists cannot readily solve their problems because they don’t yet have the tools—see Lisa Cron’s Wired for Story for elaboration on this point. Who is your character’s mentor? It can be a person or an experience. It can be an intrusive voice from the past.

III. Sometimes the problem is you. You need regeneration. Take inventory of how you’ve spent your days.  Do you need enrichment?  Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way suggests you write three pages every morning—of whatever is on the top of your head. Then, every week, plan an artist’s date with yourself. A walk in the woods, a trip to a museum, wandering the farmer’s market—whatever feeds your spirit.

IV. Sign up for a writing class. If you’re a clutch hitter (or have ever been a journalist) you may need deadlines to produce the work. Or you may find help in being surrounded by a community of people who want to do the same thing. A class will provide both.  Remember the time you were so reticent to tackle the task of writing your novel’s climax, you signed up for the same course you were teaching at the time, but taught by the other instructor.

V. Anne Lamott in Bird by Bird suggests you give yourself permission to write badly. If you’ve been feeling glum, write intentionally badly.  Write the worst stuff you can imagine.  Put your mind at play.  Why?  Because you can’t make it better if it isn’t on the page. A book of writing prompts can help. Try Judy Reeves’ A Writer’s Book of Days. Or Naming the World, edited by Brett Anthony Johnston.

VI. Write something else. A poem. A personal essay. A blog post. A different form from the one you’re working in.  Write about what happened in your life that drowned out your story.  Come on.  You know what it is.  The words in your head switched topic.  Something made that happen.

This is hardly an exhaustive list. The ways to find your way back in are likely as numerous as the writers who invent them. Choose one or invent your own.

What do you do when you’re stuck?


About Nancy Pinard

Professionally-speaking, Nancy Pinard is an author-educator who spends her days writing, teaching, reading, and researching for her writing and teaching. She is the author of two published novels, Shadow Dancing and Butterfly Soup, and numerous short stories. She has taught the craft of fiction writing in many venues including Sinclair Community College, University of Dayton Life-Long Learning Institute, Antioch Writers' Workshop, Mad Anthony Writers' Workshop, and Molasses Pond Writers' Workshop. Personally, her faith is what sustains, inspires, and motivates her to continue to explore meaning through literature. "You are right in demanding that an artist approach his work consciously, but you are confusing two concepts: the solution of a problem and the correct formulation of a problem. Only the second is required of the artist." — Anton Chekov to Alexei Suvorin, October 27, 1888
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