The Unstuckening: Tools for Writer’s Block

If a daily writing process is living the dream, then writer’s block is a waking nightmare. Today, apropos of nothing, I’d like to share how I break through the wall and keep the words flowing–even when my Muse has taken an unscheduled vacation.

I’ve shared here before about my prewriting/journaling process, but this post will highlight three other tools I find exceptionally useful. Two are designed by others and one is by me. None of them work every time but usually, one of them does do the trick.

I said APROPOS OF NOTHING

What is writer’s block–and why is it so persistent?

I experience writer’s block a lot. Most of it comes from facing down a blank page–starting a new book, chapter, scene, or a rewrite I have to start from scratch. I put a lot of thought–some might say overthinking–into how and where to start, despite the tried-and-true writer’s wisdom to just write something, anything.

Yeah, I’m a perfectionist and I can’t handle that shit. Even though it works.

Writer’s block can also mean I’ve made a wrong turn and gone down a plot or character avenue that doesn’t take the story anywhere (endless banter; reduced tension when rising tension is called for). Or it can mean I haven’t slept enough or that my creative well is empty.

Jane Friedman says writer’s block is a myth, and even though this seems to contradict my above premise, her point is that feelings of blockage arise for different reasons. It’s better to treat the cause, not just the symptom.

WriteTrack: Staying Motivated/Avoiding Overwhelm

I discovered this sweet little browser-based word tracker a few NaNoWriMos back, and it is the single most useful tool I’ve discovered for holding myself accountable to a semi-daily writing practice. Here’s why I love it:

  • It gives you full freedom to set your own word count goals for the day, month, or year.
  • It automatically adjusts your remaining daily goals as you update. If you bang out thousands of words more than your goal one day, you will see your goal words for the next day go down. And vice versa–when you don’t hit goal, the words for the next day increase.
  • You can create an unlimited number of challenges (I like to set a new goal each month.)
  • You can edit your total word count goal during the challenge.
  • You can set certain days to percentages of your average daily goal if you are planning a vacation or if you write more on the weekends. (Super helpful for perfectionists who obsess over hitting goals and beat themselves up when they don’t.)
  • You can view past challenges and statistics.
  • It’s free! (Actually, everything I’m sharing here is free.)

Here’s a snapshot of my July challenge:

As you can see, the daily goals fluctuate depending on how much I’ve done so far. The bars on top track overall progress. The live updating is incredibly motivating for me because it helps me visualize my progress when I write a few hundred words. When I skip a day, the calendar shows me I only have to write a few extra words the next day to make up the difference.

Solving Plot Problems Worksheet

I discovered Shalon Sim’s Solving Plot Problems questionnaire when I was facing some terrible plot holes in my last WIP and frantically Googling how to fix them.

(When I’m confronted with a conundrum I don’t know how to solve, Googling is my first resort. This means that if any poor FBI agent is tasked with tracking my internet use, they know ALL about my personal problems. Hopefully they’ve figured out that I’m a writer. I Google how to kill people a lot.)

I love Shalon’s template because it’s extremely simple and intuitive to use. It provides a structure for brainstorming and evaluating ideas that is more linear than mind maps, snowflakes, and just throwing everything at the wall to see what sticks.

Basically, this system let’s you track your ideas, in a type of mathematical coding way. You open up each problem like a box, and pull out the boxes inside the box, and then you open up those boxes, and pull out any other boxes you find inside them. Each box is a plot problem, or a snag that you run into in your WIP.

Shalon Sims: How to solve plot problems with a simple self-questionnaire technique

This may not work for everyone, but I have come up with some of my favorite plot twists while brainstorming on this template.

“Unstuckening” Questionnaire for Blank Page Syndrome

This is an outlining tool that I’ve developed when I don’t know what my “entry point” is in a scene. It’s probably similar to a lot of other tools out there, but I didn’t have anything like it when I started.

The goal with this worksheet is to generate ideas until they start flowing on their own by figuring out the scene’s purpose in the story, where it needs to lead, the sensory details that will drive it, the POV’s character’s internal state, and the behavior of other characters in the scene.

There are some questions on here that may be repetitive depending on the scene. They aren’t all necessary to answer. Once I have found a strong image, line of dialogue, or emotional theme for the scene, I usually copy it out of the worksheet, paste it into my scene document in Scrivener, and build around it.

SCENE PLANNING WORKSHEET/UNSTUCKENING


Word Count Goal:
POV Character:
Other Characters:
Action/Reaction: (or scene/sequel)
End result/scene goals/purpose:
Setting:
Location:
Important descriptive details/items/props:
Time of day/year if applicable:
Weather:
What does the POV character experience:
See?
Smell?
Touch?
Hear?
Taste?
Response/feeling?
POV Character’s Internal State:
Emotional:
Mental:
Physical:
Motivation:
Desires:
Worries/problems:
Non-POV Characters:
Attitude:
Appearance:
Gestures:
Dialogue:
Purpose/Goal:

Here’s a Word document version in case you find it useful:

Here’s an example of a filled out version for a scene in my current WIP:

SCENE PLANNING WORKSHEET/IDEA GENERATION/UNSTUCKENING
Word Count Goal: 1500
Characters: Harmony, Nikolai, Medea
Action/Reaction: Harmony begins to feel more uncomfortable and out of place in her life; Nikolai spins castles in the air
End result/scene goals/purpose: ???
Setting: villa by the sea (Newhampton?)
Location: the beach, the pier
Important descriptive details/items/props: fake scenery, real waves
Time of day/year if applicable: midday
Weather: sunny, hazy
What does the POV character experience:
See? Light reflecting off the waves, holographic palm trees
Smell? Salt and sulphur
Touch? Sand, Nikolai’s hand
Hear? The sound of the waves
Taste? Some sugary drink?
Response/feeling? Lonely, inadequate
POV Internal State:
Emotional: helpless
Mental: confused
Physical: hot
Motivation: forgetting about being offered freedom that she can’t imagine, being Good
Desires: to please her husband
Worries/problems: she can’t forget and nothing she does for him will satisfy him
Non-POV Characters:
Attitude: N: cheerful, manic, grandiose
Appearance: casually dressed, smiling
Gestures: wide and sweeping
Dialogue: “Does it have to follow us like that? It’s creepy” “It’s pretty but it’s not like the oceans of Earth. Someday I’ll take you there. Someday we’ll own them.” “I just need my ship to come in.” “I could regulate them better. They need free markets.” “She wasn’t even working that hard anymore. All she did was program AI sim characters. Pirate queens, courtesans, and spies. She lived in a fantasy world.”
Purpose: distract and dazzle Harmony, ensure she remains loyal, trash her predecessor, assuage his ego

So there you have it. In the above example, I used most of the details I came up with in the scene and built it primarily around the dialogue to start with. For me, it’s particularly useful to have a few important sensory/setting details and clarify what the scene is supposed to accomplish (although as you see here, that last was ??? when I filled this out, but the scene turned out to be very important for clarifying the antagonist’s character and motives.)

I hope you found something helpful here. I did actually meet my 1000 word goal today despite feeling stuck, and I’m proud of myself for remembering that I had tools I could use and staying kind to myself in the process.

Happy writing!

4 thoughts on “The Unstuckening: Tools for Writer’s Block

  1. Haha I love the word unstuckening. I too fill up an outline of sorts to get me out of writing funks. As a pantser, I sometimes find it hard to just jump into a scene, so sometimes taking my time to outline and think the scene through before I start writing really does help with unstuckening my writing mind. Loved this, thanks for sharing!

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    1. Thanks for reading! Yep, the blank page and knowing where and how to start is my number one roadblock. I prewrite more and more as time goes on so I have to make fewer decisions when I go to confront it.

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  2. Hi Erin! So great to see you found my tool useful. It’s something I still use all the time. I will have to try out your scene-planning worksheet. Looks like a great unstuckening tool!

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