Thursday, July 12, 2018

What to Do When Your Writing Stalls Out

By Marcy Kennedy, @MarcyKennedy
Part of The Writer's Life Series

JH: Everyone gets stuck at some point in their writing career. Marcy Kennedy discusses how to get stalled writing moving again. 

There comes a time in every writer’s career when they find themselves stuck. The words and ideas aren’t flowing like they used to. Production stalls out. Panic sets in.

If you’re a career writer like I am, that panic is compounded by the fact that writing pays your bills, and when you aren’t producing new books, your income drops. The best way to make a solid living in the new publishing landscape is to publish often.

For a year and a half, I produced a minimum of one book every other month. And it was easy for me. (Please don’t hate me for saying that.)

Then 2018 hit, and it stopped being easy. While I don’t believe in writer’s block, I do believe we can become stuck or we can stall out.

So what do we do when that happens to get us back to writing?

The solution depends on why we’ve stalled out in the first place. I’m going to take you through the questions we can ask ourselves to try to figure out what’s gone wrong.

Does my story have a plot issue?

This is probably the most common reason we stall out during a project.
  • We don’t know how the story will end so we don’t know what should happen next.
  • We don’t know our characters well enough so we don’t know how they would naturally react to the situations we’re putting them in.
  • Our stakes aren’t high enough.
  • Our plot is too convoluted so we’re having trouble keeping it straight and keeping the story focused.
  • Our world-building or foundational premise isn’t strong enough so it feels like we’re forcing things to happen that wouldn’t logically happen.

A few years ago, Janice wrote a great post on getting unstuck from a craft problem. If my list above rang true for you, I’d recommend heading over to her post for a more detailed solution.

In a nutshell, though, the way to solve this “stuck” issue is to pinpoint which plot area is the problem and start working out solutions. Sometimes it can help to brainstorm with a writer buddy, create a mindmap, or do an idea dump where you set a timer for 20 minutes and write down everything that comes to mind, no matter how crazy or far-fetched.

Fortunately or unfortunately for me, this wasn’t why I stalled out. (I wish it had been since this is the easiest to solve.)

Am I scared?

I’ve heard so many writers talk about how it used to be easy to write and now it’s hard. My personal theory on this is that this change is partly due to the transition we have to make from writing privately for ourselves as we’re learning to writing for publication as we progress in our career. As soon as we have readers waiting for the next book, there’s a lot of pressure, and it’s easy to let fear creep in. And fear can paralyze us.

If you’ve caught yourself thinking any of these things, you might have a fear problem.
  • What if readers don’t like my new series as much as they did my old series? Should I try to find a way to keep writing in the old series even though it feels done to me?
  • My reviews aren’t as good on my most recent book as they were on the previous books. What if my earlier books were a fluke and I can’t reproduce those results?
  • Will the reviews on this new book be good or not?
  • What if this new book doesn’t sell?

This was definitely one of my problems. Not only was I launching the first novel under my real name this year, but my pen name was starting a new series. Readers loved the old series, and I was scared I wouldn’t be able to create a new series that they’d love as much.

With this type of fear, I think contingency plans are our friends. What I asked myself for each fear was “how can I make this less likely to happen?” and “what can I do to pick myself up if it does happen?”

If you think your problem is fear, you also might want to check out a couple of posts I’ve written about fear: Icarus and My Fear of the Sun and Why Does Fear Exist?

Am I excited about this project?

Sometimes a book can be structurally sound and full of great characters, but we’re just not that interested in it. There are plenty of excellent books that I don’t like. They’re not my thing.

Which is fine unless we’re trying to write one of those books that doesn’t resonate with us.

This turned out to be my primary problem. I’d plotted a book almost to completion that I just wasn’t interested in writing. It was a good book, with interesting characters and lots of conflict. I just didn’t want to write it.

I kept trying to make myself finish plotting it because I felt like all the time I’d spent on it would be wasted otherwise. I finally realized that it would be worse to spend time writing a book I didn’t love and wasn’t excited about. It would show in my final product if I did.

We have two choices if this is what’s making us stuck. We can either scrap the entire idea and start fresh or we can find a way to make the story exciting for us.

I ended up scrapping the plot but keeping the characters and giving them a different mystery to solve that I was more excited about writing.

Am I experiencing life stress or burn out?

As creatives, we’re in a weird spot. For those of us who want to earn a living (or even a supplementary income) from our writing, what we do is a business.

But it’s also an art and all art requires a certain clarity of thought and emotional well-being. We’ll work better when we’re relaxed and emotionally well rested rather than stressed out and exhausted. We’ll work better when we can focus. Life events can get in the way of that, and often there’s nothing we can do about them.

This was the final piece of my puzzle for why I was basically bottoming out. So far this year, I’ve had two extremely sick pets that we thought we were going to lose, we’re building a house, my husband launched a new business, and I’ve been helping care for my grandma who has terminal cancer. I’m pretty much running on caffeine and sheer stubbornness at this point.

If our “stuckness” is being created by life circumstances, I think there are still a few things we can do about it.

We can ride it out and do the best we can for the time being. This is often the solution if we know what we’re facing is temporary.

We can find small ways to try to refill our creative well. Quite a few years ago, I wrote a post with 7 Tips for Increasing Our Creativity. The post might be old, but the tips are evergreen.

We can focus on smaller projects. Sometimes if we’re too overwhelmed or tight on time to work on a big project, we can still find the creative juice to do a smaller project like a short story or even a novella.

Have you ever had to battle through a rough patch with your writing? How did you manage to get through it?

Marcy Kennedy is a science fiction and fantasy author who believes there’s always hope. Sometimes you just have to dig a little harder to find it.In a world that can be dark and brutal and unfair, hope is one of our most powerful weapons. Hope is the certain expectation that something better is coming if we don’t give up. She writes novels that encourage people to keep fighting. She wants them to know that no one is beyond redemption and that, in the end, good always wins.Marcy lives in Ontario, Canada, with her former Marine husband, human-sized Great Dane, seven cats, and budgie. In her free time, she loves playing board games and going for bike rides.She also writes award-winning mysteries under a pen name, but that’s a secret. Shhhh…

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About Cursed Wishes

Most people would die to save the ones they love. But would you live a life worse than death instead?

In 1500s Scotland, Ceana Campbell, the unwanted daughter of the village drunk, accidentally does the one thing every sane person knows not to do. She angers a fairy.

As punishment, the fairy forces her to make three wishes—and the man she loves will suffer the opposite of whatever she wishes for herself.

To spare him, she takes on the cursed side of the wishes and ends up erased from the lives of everyone who mattered to her and doomed to fail at everything she tries. At first, the sacrifice seems worth it.

What she didn’t count on was how rescuing one person she loved would put another in jeopardy.

Now, to save the life of her little brother, she must convince a man who no longer remembers she existed to help her hunt for someone powerful enough to break a curse of the fae—a feat which could put them in the middle of a supernatural civil war, where an angry fairy will be the least of their problems compared to the monster they’ll face.



  1. Thanks, Marcy! I have many rough patches. Yesterday morning, exhausted from yet another tiring but rewarding day in our camp kitchen, I miraculously thought of two great ideas. Go figure. I should be tired more often. ☺️

  2. I've been stuck for about three years. I really do think it's life stress/day job stress more than anything.