Stuck in a Rut?

by Gina Burgess

Sure. We’ve all been stuck in a rut at some point in our life. It’s similar to being stuck in traffic. Oh, my goodness, 7:30 am on Interstate 10 in New Orleans is like swimming in molasses in January. “Slowly you go, inch by inch…”and really getting nowhere in a long amount of time.

There are all kinds of ruts, though. You may be writing the next Pulitzer winning article or book, but you’re stuck in some other kind of rut with no social life or friends outside of the Internet. Any one see, “The Net” with Sandra Bullock? Bad things can happen when we get in that kind of rut. There’s the rut of writing in only one genre. There’s the rut of wearing the same kind of clothes year in and year out, the rut of same foods, same cars, same ole same ole stuff. Getting bored yet?

What about when you get stuck in writing? Is there such a thing as Writer’s Block?

An interesting discussion ensued on Facebook when someone asked about this phenomenon that seemingly attacks arbitrarily.

“It’s real, I tell you.”

“No, it isn’t real. It’s a misnomer because you are in ‘perfectionist’s paralysis,’ or ‘not-good-enough-writing state.’” Sort of like a student who has no good ideas for a term paper, but has to turn one in anyway because he can’t claim “writer’s block.”

First we need to define what it is.

Is it: A psychological inhibition preventing a writer from proceeding with a piece?

Or is it: The problem of not being able to think of something to write about or not being able to finish writing a story, poem, etc?

Or is it something else as you define it?

How long does the block have to last before it is considered literal writer’s block?

Recent references to writer’s block posted to the Internet:

This tells me there are a lot of writers who define writer’s block as broad as no way to write anything, to specific as not being able to finish writing one piece, to a state of being.

I don’t think it is a state of being unless we become amnesiacs and can’t remember how to even write our name. It most likely isn’t a deterrence to all creativity, and it probably doesn’t infiltrate all thought processes or problem-solving processes. But there does come a time in every writer’s life when writing a story or article everything comes to a screeching halt. (If it has never happened to you, praise the Lord and pass the biscuits. Keep reading, though, because it might happen tomorrow.)

There is always a reason why this blockage happens. Sometimes plaque (read that distractions) build up in our systems. Sometimes priorities change. Sometimes time whizzes by and we suddenly realize it’s been months and the story has become a rusty engine rather than a pumping life-giver because we aren’t eating right, sleeping enough, and we are stuck in a flat life wheel meaning our work, social, and spiritual cycles are lopsided: too much work and not enough play without any time for God.

I think it’s real. I’ve had a block concerning my Starmada series for several years now because I’m having a hard time reconciling my own beliefs with what I’ve created. I can hear people saying, “Well, change the world you’ve created,” or “Scrap that and start something else.” To people who think that way, I say, “Do you have any idea the amount of work that goes into creating a world in fiction?” ACK!

To those who believe writer’s block is the mental paralysis because of fear their writing is “not good enough,” or can’t get past a chapter or paragraph because it isn’t perfect enough, Robert Graves says, “There is no such thing as good writing, only good rewriting.”

First time out, nothing is perfect. Even the best-selling Australian author, Collen McCullough, who wrote all 698 pages of her novel “The Thorn Birds” in longhand with no 2nd draft, still had to be edited.

Some writers expect to have body-jarring emotions as they write so they know what they are writing is good. Poppycock. Yes, authors will weep and laugh as they write, but plotting stories that work when readers read them is not something to weep or laugh over. Polishing is work. It is here when, I think, authors are most susceptible to writer’s block because we’ve read the thing more times than we can count and redrafted paragraphs and chapters into the double-digits. We get bored. We know what happens. Perfecting is hard to do when we are bored. Don’t let it get to that point. A second, third, and fourth pair of eyes on the project does help a lot.

But, what to do when you are still in your first draft? What’s to do when the story flow slows to an occasional drip, and you don’t seem to have any plot line in your outline that will get you over the bridge to the next plot point?

Set the project aside for about a week without thinking about it. After several good meals, sleeping all night for several nights, taking a walk in the early morning dew (or late evening which ever kind of person you are), and then going back to the project to just write the next paragraph no matter what pops out of your mind onto the paper. What do you do, however, when you still write nonsensical stuff? Consider the cause of the block.

There is always a reason. If you’ve set the thing aside for a few days, gotten your life back in sync, and rested well, the cause must lie in the story itself.

Very often you are having conflicting emotions about what needs to transpire from one plot point to the next. Usually this is at a strategic point in the story that you can’t skip because it impacts the climatic end.

What are some good strategies for considering the reason for writer’s block? Do you think this is how to overcome it? Are there any problem solving techniques that you employ for overcoming writer’s block? How about sharing some!

44 thoughts on “Stuck in a Rut?”

  1. In my opinion, writer’s block is a fiction made up to excuse our refusal to sit down and do the work, our refusal to write. The only way to write is to write. We will fin all sorts of other things to do besides the writing we are supposed to do and then blame it on “writer’s block”, but really it’s just laziness. Sort of like not going and working out when you are physically able to but you just don’t. You’re not working out because you’ve decided not to. Plain and simple. You’re not writing because, all else aside, you’ve decided not to. But you can always change your mind. 😉

    1. Hi Sean,

      I completely understand what you are saying. There are a lot of authors that agree with your viewpoint. I just wonder, though, what if the author really is sitting down, trying to write, but most of what is typed is garbage and doesn’t work with the story’s plot? Would you agree that there must be a plot problem or perhaps a character development problem?

    2. Well, gee. I’ve had a few times when I thought I had writer’s block, but when I think back on it, my problem is one of two things. Lack of sleep and over tired, or I ran out of chocolate!

      1. I’ve had that lack of chocolate block before! It’s a nasty thing, especially when it happens at 1 am and in my rural town, nothing is open!! ACK!

  2. I think it’s a real thing too. I’ve been there several times on my current novel and I’ve usually found it’s a story problem. Once I fix the problem, I can get back on track.

  3. Every next page is blank. The challenge is what to put on it. If you don’t have a clear idea where your story is going, if you’re not very clear how each character is unique, every choice you make that has long-lasting implications (does she read the diary or destroy it?) makes you stop and think, else you risk going down a rat hole, wasting your time writing 50 pages that, in the end, you must throw out.

    It’s also the case that crappy writing causes us to pause. So does losing interest in the original idea. My only solution is to accept that you write in layers: the first one can be as simple as a logline, then a one-page synopsis (and it’s okay if it’s not 100% correct), and then a first draft. Subsequent revisions add layers to characters, places, and events. Most of us are better re-writers than writers, unless you’re Dean Koontz or Stephen King, who don’t need much more than a simple revision of the first draft. Accept that writing can be a layering process and just get through that first draft after having some decent sense beforehand who the major players are in your novel, what they care about, what they have to overcome to get what they want, and where the story eventually ends up. There’s no doubt that executing the first draft will vary from your first thoughts and that’s fine. The goal is to write without much revising through the first draft and then go back because then you no longer have a blank page, you have something to enrich.

    1. George, you’ve hit on a point that can be a stickler for most authors. For some reason we think we must perfect that first page or chapter because that is what will draw the reader in. But actually, the crux is to get the story on paper (whether through the outline or by the seat of your pants). Once it’s on paper, then the enrichment can begin. Great thoughts!

    2. Thanks for the advice.
      For me it is what Gina says here: “Very often you are having conflicting emotions about what needs to transpire from one plot point to the next. Usually this is at a strategic point in the story that you can’t skip because it impacts the climatic end.”
      So, just forge ahead and finish the damn story, so that I can start from the beginning and change it!

  4. Excellent article, Gina. You covered a wealth of potential sources of writer’s block, which can be a real issue for many writers. The ways in which I confront and/or avoid writer’s block are basic; first, and foremost, I do not write what seems like a good idea for that reason alone. If I am passionate about my topic or story, it flows. If I reach the point where I am unsure where to go next, I select a character other than the protagonist and explore what is happening from another character’s viewpoint. The insight gained from this different point of view always opens the door to new options to proceed with development. When a story is too protagonist-centric, it limits the cause and effect of other characters’ motivations and actions.

    1. Great point, Margie! I am constantly grateful at how much I learn from you guys. Love the idea of looking at the story from another character’s point of view. So often ideas spring forth when considering a different angle. I think this kind of writer’s block doesn’t last very long when with wrestling characters. Sometimes characters just don’t do what they are told and take the story in a different direction than planned. That could lead to a point when the outline needs to be adjusted.

      1. I like the idea of looking at the story from a different character’s viewpoint. Never thought of doing that since I usually have one female and one male protag. But that would be an interesting look at the story from outside their points of view.

        1. If you have a dear friend who is also a writer, you should try an exercise I’m currently doing with a friend.

          Come up with a plot line and two characters each. Then alternate chapters back and forth as you feed off their timeline and they off yours.

          It it’s a great way to see… different perspectives, ways the story line changes, and most importantly…a way to have some fun while doing something you both love to do.

      2. The outline ALWAYS needs to be adjusted. The outline is not a strict guideline, not a recipe, unless a writer is using a formula writing approach, which some genres dictate. Writers who produce outside of tight genres know where the story needs to go, but often find the way there invites wonderful insights to explore that were not in the original idea. If not writing strictly to genre, this can give both the story and the characters new depth that only enriches the story and the meaning of the ending.

  5. Either that or I’ve tried to force the story in a direction it doesn’t want to go. Or I’ve left something out that is so integral to the rest of the work that I have to fix it. It’s like a nagging toothache, always there in the background until you get it taken care of. Usually, once I’ve gone back and discovered whatever it was that was trying to get my attention, I’m able to go on with the story without a problem.

    And I want to say also, I don’t think of that as an inability to write. I can always work on separate scenes, even if I’m stuck on the overall story arc, and I don’t have a problem with those. It’s just a roadblock that I need to remove so I can push the story as a whole forward.

    1. I like your statement, “push the story as a whole forward.” Even though we sometimes can’t write/type fast enough as the story pours out, we always need to keep the plot line at the forefront so that we don’t have these roadblocks. It might be what we think is a minor point, but can become a flashpoint. That turning point can mean the difference between a roadblock or dam-opener.

  6. I’m not sure I’d call doing one thing, or the same thing always, a “rut.” For many people at the top of their game (not just writers), that has been the key to their mastery. Someone once said, “Do one thing, and do it better than anybody else.” So, for at least some of us, is “writing in only one genre” (etc.) actually a rut? Or maybe, hmm, the best path?

    1. Yes, I agree, Dan. For some authors the same genre is essential because it is a calling. Sometimes, there comes a story that is out of that genre and it is ignored because it’s outside the norm. It happened to me, so that story bubbled in my brain stopping all other stories from completion until I finally wrote the thing… Now it is sitting in my computer waiting, waiting, waiting, to be updated and polished to be published. I’m wondering if I need to publish it under a pseudonym because it is totally different than what I usually write.

  7. Exactly. There are days when I bleed onto the page and wish I could type a couple hundred words a minute. Those are the best days, but all those words sometimes clot into something not very wholesome for my overall plot line. If I keep going, that’s when I get into trouble. I know the theory is not to edit on the first draft, to just get it all down, but I can’t always do that and keep the story true. Sometimes I just have to go back and fix whatever I did and get the flow of healthy words moving again.

    This is an excellent topic, Gina. Thanks for letting me participate in the discussion. 🙂

    1. Thanks, Mica, you have made some wonderful points. I agree about having to go back and — let’s say, redirect — the story flow so that writer’s dam won’t clog the flow. 🙂

  8. Everybody has a “good point”. But my own ‘writer’s block’ is an excuse for my procrastination to keep going. As someone said, ‘we find all kind of things to do to avoid writing.’

    1. Yes, and letting all kinds of things take priority over writing. It all boils down to how passionate we are about what we are writing about. I’m passionate about my weekly column and my weekly blog post here. I don’t let anything get in the way of those two things… but story ideas (and some carry me off to Never Never Land in the middle of the night) don’t seem to have that kind of importance. I guess my passion really is non-fiction rather than fiction. But by golly, I’d fell bereft if those stories quit bubbling in my brain.

  9. Writer’s block! What is it so I am glad you defined for me because I didn’t have a clue and never suffered from it. I can understand how a writer would feel when characters and plot are not in sync. Fortunately, I don’t suffer from that affliction, my problem is to contain all the ideas that bounce into my head day and night. I am a writer because I love writing and my dream was to publish and I have published two novels, which some enjoy and others just say the plot is good. I currently working on my third novel, and what I have leant in the last ten years of writing is that I learn something new everyday and believe the writing is better. So my advice, for what’s worth, is for people suffering ‘writer’s block’ should just stop and go out in the fresh air and do some weeding or planting. I hope my reply wasn’t too boring as usually I don’t give a point of view in these things but this subject has always intrigued me.

  10. Yes, funny thing ‘writer’s block’. I think it can include so many of the things you’ve all mentioned. I find it comes on in longer work – 400 odd pages – when many, complex threads have to be managed. You jam on one and then everything has to wait. Often I’ve just sat myself at the desk and ‘gone on’ writing, feeling it was flat, but did it. On re-reading next day I was surprised to find it good! Just sitting at desk and `doing it’ regardless of feelings, can work. Other times I just have to lay the work aside and get on with other writing stuff. I always have more than one book on the go.
    When thoroughly blocked, as I fall asleep, I ask the old subconscious to sort it out. Frequently I get the answers pretty soon. As the Russians say: ‘The morning is wiser than the evening before.’ Good luck to all blocked bloggers!

  11. I forgot to add: listening to/moving to music can unblock. I was struggling to work out a complex battle strategy, with warriors coming in from various places at just the right times. Got in a right jam. Left desk, played fast movement from a favourite concerto and bingo! The whole thing unfolded right before my eyes!

  12. For me, it’s a psychological problem but not because I won’t write. I pretty much get up everyday and write so that’s not where the fault lies. If I have a problem with a story, it’s usually because the story concept isn’t good enough so I perforce set it aside to let it percolate in the back of my head for a while. If I find myself bored with a story the same situation occurs until I can’t look at it any longer. I personally believe in writer’s block completely; because that HAS happened to me but apparently everyone is different about it so it’s a conundrum. I don’t think there will ever be a definite solution or definition or even solid concept about writer’s block.

    1. You are most likely correct… it’s because everyone has a different definition because everyone experiences it differently for different causes. Since we are all unique creatures, I guess that isn’t surprising 🙂

  13. I think the above comments have probably exhausted what is, and what isn’t, writer’s block. The consensus seems to be that it’s simply being stuck and not knowing where to go next. i’m finishing my third novel now and for me it is always when I get to a plot point and am not sure how I want it to evolve. I do not stare at a blank page when that happens. I leave the work alone and let it roll around in my mind for a few days, and without fail it comes to me like an avalanche. I can then sit down and write productively. Writer’s block rarely happens at the beginning of a piece because the idea has already come to me to start something new, and getting thoughts down on paper is easier then. I do a lot of writing in my head, so when I sit down to put it on paper, the writing flows pretty freely. I came to this style of writing after many hours of trying to compose something that wouldn’t come. Good writing can’t be forced. When the flow isn’t working, give yourself a rest, and it will come back.

  14. For whatever reason, every person who has to write something has experienced a time in their lives where the words just “won’t come.” It has nothing to do with psycho-analysis nor the cost of tea in China. It happens to everybody.

    We relate this “loss of words” to a phenomena called “writer’s block,” especially if the loss lasts more than a few hours. That said, the truth can be a variety of stimuli within the brain. Perhaps you remember where you left your keys, or finally figure out the name of that song you heard. Whatever the case, your train of thought is disrupted. Unfortunately, it is not that easy to get back on the same set of tracks, especially when your brain is like Grand Central Station.

    One of the best pieces of advice I give out on a regular basis is this, “get your mind off the problem.” As humans, our biggest flaw is commonly known as “tunnel vision.” We get so passionate on solving a particular dilemma, we lose focus. The moment you lose focus is the moment you start seeking ways to blame other things, people, stimuli, etc. It’s time to go sing karaoke style in your car, or go play with your dog/cat/kids. Numb your mind to the dilemma.

    So to ask the question and answer it at the same time…is writer’s block real? Only if you make it real.

  15. The rut I have been stuck in has roots in trying to decide how to enhance the promotion of my book, having a real winter here in the midwest, and having caught the Influenza A. I think I am getting back on track. I have two books I plan to review early in April and have another one coming that I will review hopefully early in May. Plus I am trying to write something for an article to send to a publication by May 1st.

  16. I am a historical writer and my rut is usually caused by search engines like Google who are only about 25% effective for searches than they were 2 – 3 years ago. Nowadays you put in something to search and in some cases the items listed have no reference to what you are searching and after a few searches the items are commercial sites trying to sell you something. That is my biggest rut – trying to find a search engine that is something more than a commercial referral engine!!

  17. My rut has lasted over 2 years. I’ve written here and there but nothing consistently. Like Ron mentioned finding info on Google was not as easy as it used to be. I quit writing as soon as I hit a wall. In February the local library had a book signing and I had nothing except that little book I’d written years ago and is only available on-line. A friend suggested I write short stories, but I wanted to be a “real writer” and write “real novels.” Silly, I know. After thinking on her idea for a while, I wrote two short stories and put them in a notebook along with a few single pages of time-related words, poetry, and humor. The notebook had a clear front so I made a face page with the title Time and Time Again. I made 7 and sold 6. I considered that a huge success! I’m currently putting together another notebook with the theme “Rocks and Rills” this time. May is Short Story Month. I hope to have them ready by then. I think my writing slump is over. If I do a few more short stories, I’ll see about publishing a book of those.

    1. Congratulations, Connie! Perhaps your forte is actually writing short stories. I have found short stories seem to pack a piercing punch most of the time unlike novellas and novels that do pack a punch, but much softer.

  18. I must be one of the only writers (I use that term lightly) that writes non-fiction. The only exception is when I write a blog post based on Scripture where I use creative leeway in my telling of the story, such as my latest Palm Sunday piece.

    Other than that, I find that coming up with consistent material related to my book’s topic (spiritually uneven marriage) or marriage in general is my “writer’s block”. Because I don’t write fiction, my block has more to do with fresh content that will engage my blog readers than plot twists and character development.

    Finding myself in a “rut” is still a very real and constant reminder that I need to look for everyday occurrences and opportunities to make something out of nothing when it comes to writing. I often take notes when I see, hear or feel a post emerging. I pray for God’s direction when addressing a sensitive subject or an emotional topic. In the end, you write what you want to, when you want to… Plain and simple.

    1. I write non-fiction, as you know, Deb. I had writer’s block with my latest book When Christians Hurt Christians, and I now know that block was for my education to catch up with my writing. Who would want to read a book that didn’t present any solutions, but only dealt out story after story of wronged Christians? After earning my Master’s I finally understood from writing all my academic papers that people need the full story, both sides of it, and they need to be able to draw some kind of conclusion. That block was a God-thing 🙂

      1. Great point Gina! All those papers written gave you such a good training ground. Both sides ARE so important to work through their inner deliberations and frustrations… I envy your journey 🙂

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