Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Q&A: Get out of Stuckland

Our question comes from Anna, an aspiring writer who wants to know what in the bojangles you're supposed to do when you get stuck. She can't seem to quite finish a novel, and also has a hard time picking between a plethora of ideas.

Anna, I feel your pain. All writers go through this.

First, let me say this - if your biggest problem is having too MANY ideas, then get down on your knees and thank the good Lord above for this problem. By far, the most important aspect of being a writer is storytelling. Coming up with ideas for those stories goes hand in hand with that. You'd be surprised how many people look in the old thinker and find nothing but slimy goo.

But you do need to focus and hunker down - pick one and go with it for awhile. If you just can't decide, then pick one randomly. You can't let that be an excuse to stop writing! You must, must, must be writing, and writing often.

Now, if your problem is thinking of ideas, I don't know how to help you. Honestly, I don't. Ask any children's author - the number one question we get from kids is: "Where do you get your ideas?" I've never been able to answer it, unfortunately. I just don't know! I mean, I guess they come from watching movies, reading books, thinking, daydreaming, etc. But I've got enough ideas in my head to write 100 books, so I'm either psychotic or very imaginative. Probably both.

Maybe it's writer's block that's killing you. That's a toughie. For me, and I promise I'm just being honest here, I don't suffer from this. Ever. I think that's because if I get stuck, I just write a different scene or start writing dreck until the muse flows again. I realize I'm not helping much.

Now for some practical advice. YOU HAVE TO FINISH ONE NOVEL. I mean it, from beginning to end. Repeat: Beginning, Middle, End, and all the little bits in between. I don't care how bad it is, I don't care how boring it is, I don't care if it makes Goosebumps look like Shakespeare (don't take that the wrong way - I love me some Goosebumps). But write and write until you can type "The End" and be done.

I Dashner Dude Guarantee you that once you accomplish this, it will become much easier to finish another one. And then another. I don't really know why, but it's true. It has something to do with confidence and practice and vision and all that. But it's true.

Also, and this is just me, but I WILL NOT ALLOW MYSELF TO EDIT while I write the first draft. Not at all. I go from beginning to end without stopping, without looking back. This has helped me so much. Creativity and storytelling is all that matters that first go around. Fix all the jive later.

Make yourself a goal. I do this every time I write a first draft. For example: I wanted to write the first go at Book 2 of The 13th Reality in 3 months. That equaled about 1,000 words a day. I met my goal and felt pretty gosh darn golly good about myself. Stephen King does 2,000 words a day when he's hot and heavy in writing mode.

Well, I'm not sure I've answered your question very well. But I tried. Any follow-ups are welcome. Also, please let us know in the comments if you have any advice for Anna.

Now, I'm off to San Antonio. Come see me at Barnes and Noble on Friday night!

Also, I have an announcement regarding agents to make very soon. I'm only waiting because I need to talk to a certain person before I go blabbing about it.

Riverwalk, here I come!

Lyrics of the Day:

Born on third, thinks he got a triple.
- Pearl Jam

Know anyone like that?


J.N. Future Author said...

hmmm, that clears things up a bit.

but i still cant figure out WHAT idea to go with...i have so many. but when you think to hard about them, you see holes in your story.


Sara Z. said...

...and if none of Dashner's methods work, try the opposite.

Really, so much of this is experimenting and finding what works for you. But yeah, to be a writer, write. That's the main thing. Think less, write more, and a lot of problems will magically solve themselves in the process.

(TM Sara: Giving unsolicited advice since 1985. You're welcome.)

James Dashner said...

JN, pick and go, dude, pick and go.

Folks, that is SARA ZARR, 2007 National Book Award finalist for STORY OF A GIRL. Yeah, she's my friend.

Anna said...

hello James, thank you for answering my question!!!!

it helps that you stressed again that I need to finish ONE NOVEL, even if it is the worst thing ever written. Which, it probably will be at least one of the worst for a very long time.

I have lots of ideas.....and it is very hard to find the right one. But I think that you're right....if I finish one draft of one idea thing, I'll be able to work from that so much easier! Thanks.

Tamra Norton said...

My favorite places to think through storylines and get "unstuck"

*The bathtub
*Driving (radio off, no kids)
*Laying/Lying in bed (I never remember the rule here, but it's a great place to work out ideas.)

Have fun in San Antonio!

Suey said...

I love what you have to say here, especially:

-finish no matter how bad or boring
-don't worry about editing on first drafts

These two things hold me up a lot so I'm going to be saying them to myself over and over again!

Worldbuilder Robin said...

As for having a plethora of ideas, please write them down. I can't tell you how many great ideas I've had and lost because I didn't write them down, because, well, I didn't write them down. But it's a lot.

Can't decide between ideas? Write them down. I can just about guarantee that one of them will strike your fancy as especially interesting and/or itching to be written, and off you go.

The important thing, as Mr. Dashner said (can I call him James?), is to just write. Write often. And don't worry about editing, at least not until you have the "skeleton" of the novel done.

My current problem, it seems, is getting back on that horse and going through with the editing that I know my novel sorely needs. I've finished my second draft, and I know it needs at least a third before I can even think about sending to publishers (gasp!). But somehow I'm doing something else when my brief windows of writing time come up. I guess I don't really need advice on what to do for that, just encouragement. :)

Melinda said...

Along the lines of getting unstuck (LOVED the picture of the cat, BTW), Kirby Larson, Newberry Honor winner of Hattie Big Sky spoke at a recent conference at UVSC. She gave a great quote, that no writing is ever wasted.

Sometimes I get stuck when I think I'm writing something that I won't use or is boring drivel, but sometimes we have to write through the bad to find the good. -That is what Kirby said.
-and she is much more credible than I am. :-)

Anna said...

thanks for the advice everyone! every little bit helps. keep it coming. =D

Rachelle Christensen said...

Loved this post. I'm ready to get going on finishing up my 5th novel and I really think I've improved a ton with each book.
By the way, to have that many ideas, you're probably psychotic. But that means most of us are right?

Anonymous said...

James, your advice is lucid and, believe it or not, constructive. I can't imagine where it came from. Can't wait to hear your agent news.

Anyway, Anna, pay particular attention to two things James said:

"...if I get stuck, I just write a different scene or start writing dreck until the muse flows again."

Writing has been proven to be a form of thought-interaction. It's a metacognitive tool, something that helps stimulate thought and lets you understand how and why you think as you do. So write more, think better and more clearly. Also:

"I WILL NOT ALLOW MYSELF TO EDIT while I write the first draft. Not at all. I go from beginning to end without stopping, without looking back. This has helped me so much. Creativity and storytelling is all that matters that first go around. Fix all the jive later."

Nothing is ever wrong in storytelling. Everything and anything can be changed and improved. By keeping that in mind, you can write a whole draft without feeling bad about some problems or weaknesses. In fact, the only thing that can ruin your ability to write stories is not writing. (See Ms. Zarr's comment)

Sara Z. said...

Oh, and I second Tamra. Driving (or riding in a plane/train/automobile/city bus) is one of the best things ever for breakthroughs. Your creativity is kind of like a muscle, and like a muscle it can get overworked and seize up, and if you've ever trained for anything athletic you've heard the term "active rest." For me, active rest for my creativity is staring into space and staring into space while moving seems best. Walking is good, too. The brain seems to unclench.

Other kinds of active rest that work for me are seeing movies, listening to a CD I love, reading a book. One of my favorite quotes, allegedly from Flannery O'Connor, is "the only adequate response to a work of art is another work of art," and if you see a great movie or read a great book or look at a beautiful piece of art in a museum, pretty soon you'll be itching to work with your own ideas. (OTOH, reading a bad book can be motivating, too. You start thinking, "If this crap can get published, so can I! Woohoo!")

But...also like a muscle, if you don't put it back to work soon (doing the ACTUAL WRITING, not the thinking about writing), it will atrophy and turn to flab and pretty soon you won't fit into your jeans any more.

Speaking of overuse, I think I've exhausted this metaphor.

Anna said...

Keep the advice coming everybody. Sara, thank you for saying that you get inspiration from movies and CD's. I don't feel guilty for it now, even though I realized a long time ago that it wasn't copying.

Melinda said...


Great comments. I'm really good at staring into space. I look like my brain has checked out, but really I'm in the middle of some really deep and creative thinking. My kids will say, what are you staring at, and I'll reply, nothing, just thinking.

Crystal Liechty said...

Great blog! But my favorite part is that picture of the cat! Making that my desktop pic.

Anonymous said...

the picture of the cat is awesome;)
I just wonder how you tell us to get out of that!
Aaron B.

J.N. Future Author said...

er, I decided to post something thats a sample of writing. could someone criticize it, and tell me what i could do to improve?

(its on my blog, i didn't want to waste space)

Marcia Mickelson said...


Hope you had a great time in San Antonio. I wanted to try to make your book signing, but it just turned into one of those days, and I couldn't go. Sorry. Hope it went well. You had great weather while you were here, I think and hope you got to see some stuff.

James Dashner said...

Hey, I appreciate everyone's comments and advice. You guys are awesome.