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Stuck

Flickr Creative Commons: Ken Mattison

WU is not a blog on which I expect to find upsetting posts.  However, I was upset upon reading Julia Munroe Martin’s recent post Confessions from a Weary Writer [1].  Julia’s raw account of discouragement got to me.  It has stayed with me.  No writer should feel that pain.  I understand it, yet I wanted to hug.  To help.  Is there help?  I hope so.

Julia reports having lost the joy in writing.  She feels a fraud and fears never being traditionally published.  She’s been up to bat a few times and struck out.  She hasn’t quit, though.  (Hooray!)  To nurture herself she practices kindness to herself, mindfulness and acceptance of her fears.  Just thinking is okay.  She draws positive friends close and pushes away social media.  All smart and effective ways to tend to oneself when writing is hard.

Except.  It isn’t the writing that has led to discouragement, but the results.  (So far.)  Slamming into the thick outer wall of the industry fortress is enough to clobber anybody’s spirits, and that in turn can sap the joy juice out of the creative process.  I get it.  I do.  Yet the writing itself did not start out that way.  For most, in the beginning writing fiction is fun.  It’s a process overflowing with potential, a visit to a land of enchantment, a shoulder tap with a magic sword conferring storytelling power.  The story itself is real, happening somewhere apart from the kitchen table, its people fully formed and alive, all one must do is dream their dream and capture it in words.

Stories don’t get discouraged, only writers do.

Which makes me think that another avenue of help for discouragement may be not on the yoga mat but in realizing that even when you are down, a story and its world are always up and running.  A story doesn’t care how you feel.  It doesn’t have time for that.  It’s too busy.  Stuck?  Your characters are not stuck.  Your story world is not static.  Why are you not having fun?  Your story world is an amusement park.  Roller coasters.  Haunted houses.  Tunnels of love.  People there are having a great time, screaming in terror or making out in the dark.

Your story world is also a place of beauty.  It’s a world in which words gush like mountain streams during spring thaw.  There are slow-motion sunrises and blazing sunsets.  People are kind—or cruel.  Rusting red trucks on cinder blocks in backyards dream of old adventures.  A secret is holding its breath beneath the surface of the lake.  Someone is going to change.  Something malign is going to die.

In a way, regaining the joy in writing is nothing more complicated than getting out of your own life and taking a vacation in the world of your story.  That’s not so hard.  It only takes ten deep breaths.  It’s as simple as a walk down to the harbor.  It may not seem that there is time for that.  If you feel so, let me ask you this: Is there anything more important to do with the next two minutes than to nurture your soul and dream your story’s dream? 

If you can take one minute to pray or play solitaire, you can take one minute to dwell in the place of wonder that is the story dwelling inside you.  The trick is in seeing it for the marvelous place it is.  Letting it be not a burden, but just what it is.  Real.  Painful.  Beautiful.  Full of aching hearts, true friends, enduring love, undeserved redemption and gifts beyond imagining.  It’s all there.  It only takes a few clicks to buy a ticket.

What may help is stepping aside from your manuscript.  Broken drafts feel like broken legs.  You can learn from their mistakes but you can’t walk very far on them.  Instead, it may be more helpful to not look at the words on the screen but rather to take a walk in that world: take a break from telling the story and instead spend some time living in the dream.

If you’re feeling stuck, here are some things to try…

In this place, the best day of the year is–? What happens on that day?  This year, what your protagonist is hoping to get is–?

In this place, the good thing that people do for each other is–? Your protagonist does this for someone else when–?  The help your protagonist doesn’t want and rejects is–?

In your story world, right now someone is having a fight—who? Someone is driving too fast—why?  Someone has reached the end of their rope and is about to—what?  A nasty surprise is in store for someone—when?  A fire is going to start—where?

The place your protagonist feels most happy is–? The place your protagonist doesn’t go is–?  The place most magical is–?  The most terrifying experience would be–?

Two people who should fall in love are–? Two enemies who have everything in common are–?  Two allies who are secret rivals are–?  Two kids rushing into sex are–?  Two adults waiting too long are–?  The two characters most wise or foolish are–? 

Someone needs to hear the truth—who? Someone needs to tell the truth—who?  Who rejects the truth?  Who isn’t heard?  What consequences result?

Your protagonist is doing things for good reasons. What’s the reason of which he is unaware?  What need can’t be met?  What yearning is reserved for gods, not humans?  What quest will carry on even after this story is finished?

The love your protagonist never got over is–? The cruelest thing a parent ever said was–?  The day your protagonist would live over and over again is–?  The day your protagonist would permanently erase is–?  Your protagonist is still glowing from–?  Your protagonist was most hurt by–? 

For your protagonist there’s too much to think about, too much to decide, too many questions that don’t have answers, especially–?

In the second chapter, what is your protagonist supposed to do? Instead, ask your protagonist what she thinks she should do.

For one day you can walk into your story world. The first place you would go is–?  The first person you would talk to is–?  The person you would thank is–?  The person you would warn is–?  The food you’d eat is–?  You’d write a poem about–?  The spot where you’d place a flower or lay a wreath is where–?  The place you’d linger as the sun sets is–?  When that day is over, what you’d miss the most is–?

The biggest question in your own mind is–? The answer you most need is–?  The thing you will never get is–?  If you were to give that to your protagonist, what would happen is–?

Did any of those prompts provoke you to write something down?  If so, that proves something: your story and its world exist apart from you.  Whatever state you’re in, that story world is nevertheless there.  It’s carrying on even when you aren’t.  So, what are you waiting for?  Go visit.  If you’re stuck, it’s a better place to be than where you are.

Is the world of your story real?  What do you see when you go there?  What do people there say to you?  What would you change?  What can’t you change?  What makes you wish you could live there?  What makes you glad that you don’t?

About Donald Maass [2]

Donald Maass is president of the Donald Maass Literary Agency [3]. He has written several highly acclaimed craft books for novelists including The Breakout Novelist [4], The Fire in Fiction [5], Writing the Breakout Novel [6]and The Career Novelist [7].