5 Ways to Work With Stubborn Writing

Sometimes that stubborn writing needs a little mental WD40.

I spent last week with my son at camp and then visiting my uncle, and today it’s back to the laptop to start working on the novel again.  My only problem is that this scene I am about to write just doesn’t flow out of my head and through my keyboard like I’d prefer.  It comes out all wonky and odd, and I find it stubbornly fighting me every step of the way.

As writers, we all have that phrase or paragraph or scene that is completely wrong for the novel or is just awkwardly phrased.  No matter how many times we type the thing it just doesn’t come out sounding realistic enough or it seems too campy or it simply doesn’t jibe with the rest of the narrative.  Here are some techniques I use when I reach this impasse:

1.  Sleep On It – I don’t know about you, but when I lay down to go to sleep at night the wheels start turning.  I lay there for the better part of an hour thinking about that stubborn scene and my brain goes to working on it.  Perhaps it is the quiet that I experience lying in bed that triggers it.  Maybe you need to lock yourself in a quiet, dark room until your brain squeezes out a way to deal with the stubborn scene.

2.  Talk to Others – Tell a friend (for the Joe Reader perspective) or another writer in a writing group about the scene and see if together you can’t break the stubbornness of that passage.  Feedback is one of the best things a writer can use.  Sometimes when working together the problem that you thought was bigger than Everest turns out to be only as big as that gopher hill in your back yard.

3.  Write Multiple Versions – This may seem like overkill, but it has helped me in the past.  I will write three or four different versions of the scene and then after writing those, the way it should be written usually surfaces.  I write all possible outcomes, even if the scene manages to kill off all of my characters or cause them all to part ways.  I used to collect comics.  One of them was the Marvel “What If…?” line which explored other ideas that the writers developed throughout the years of story lines.  It is fun to play around with this idea when writing a novel because it keeps the creative juices flowing.  Some would consider it time wasted chasing a rabbit for a bit, but it has helped me find the right way to tackle that stubborn scene.

4.  Rediscover What Makes Them Care? – One of the biggest problems with writing a stubborn scene is all too often the reason we are finding it stubborn is because we have lost the reasons that would make a reader care about the story in the first place.  Readers have to invest in characters and plot in order to care enough to keep reading.  My latest stubborn scene was the introduction of a tent village on the shore of the Red River.  In the scene, my characters find this village, work out an unstable relationship with those living there and eventually gain another traveling companion as they raft down the river toward New Orleans.  Every time I wrote it the words fell flat.  After several tries I happened upon telling the arrival of the characters to the village through the voice of one of the villagers who had been waiting for her husband to come back from the war for over a year.  She had lost contact with him because of everyone being displaced by all of the disasters.  One of the characters in my group of travelers is Ethan, a used car salesman who stole a uniform from a dead soldier and has been posing as that soldier in order to gain advantages from the group (with little success).  When the villager sees the soldier approach she goes to him, only to see that even though he is not her husband, he wears her husband’s uniform, causing her to faint away from the added stress.  This creates a conundrum for the reader: When she wakes will she confront him?  Will she kill him?  Will she expose him to the villagers (who are already slightly hostile to the outsiders) and cause a huge conflict?  This causes the reader to read further because they become emotionally invested in this woman’s story.

5.  Take a Break From It – This past week has been great for me.  I went walking in the forest with my kids and almost saw them bitten by a cotton mouth water moccasin (read the post here).  It revitalized my writing spirit.  Being away from my laptop for a week really did me some good as they say.  I had my notebook handy, and jotted down any ideas that would pop into my head.  Of course, this meant that I was nearly always thinking about the novel, but not so much that it distracted me from having fun with my family.  In two weeks I’m going to Sea World with them and will take my laptop, but hopefully I will be finished with the rough draft of part 1, The U.S. of After.  This past week gave me the gasoline I needed to fuel the engine of the novel and helped me to get over the hump of the more stubborn scenes of my novel.

What do you do to get through the stubborn piece of writing?  By all means, post your ideas here.  Like a local writing group, your comments help me more than you know, and you may be helping others without realizing it.

Published by Roger Colby, Novelist, Editor

Roger Colby is a novelist and teacher who has taught English for nearly two decades. He is also an avid reader of science fiction who feels, like many other sci-fi readers, that he has read everything. He writes science fiction for the reader who is looking for the next best thing, something to excite them into reading again. This blog is his journey as a writer and his musings about writing. He also edits manuscripts for a fee and is an expert at helping you reach your full potential as a writer.

11 thoughts on “5 Ways to Work With Stubborn Writing

  1. These are some great ideas. I particularly like your approach of writing every possible outcome to a scene. I usually change POV or walk away for a bit but what you say about writing yourself into a corner because you are still trying to figure out why a reader should care is spot on.
    If I don’t know a character well enough this often leaves me with the feeling that I haven’t nailed that scene. And in my experience sometimes it is best to keep writing and come back to that scene if you really can’t figure out the care factor… it will usually present itself further along.
    I also find that writing sidelining stories to my novel helps with filling in those details too.

  2. I use my writing group a lot. If I’m having trouble with something, I tell them specifically what it is and ask them to focus on it. Going on walks also helps me. Something about the constant, rhythmic, non-strenuous exercise really gets my creative juices flowing and by the time I get back, I can’t wait to sit down at my computer and write everything I’ve thought of! 😉 Great post!

  3. I like #3. Trying different versions of the same scene would probably unlock it for me. Taking a break just turns out to be another way to procrastinate.

  4. I skip it, write what comes next and then fill in the blanks when I come to edit and rewrite. Or, if I have to put the scene to paper in order to write the next one, I will outline it rather than writing in properly. This takes the pressure off. It doesn’t have to be good because it’s not even a first draft.

    I’ve also found journalling about a sticky passage can be helpful. I write about the story, the characters, the difficulty I’m having, and why it might be difficult, then pose solutions and usually come out with ideas if not a solution. I think this is safer than talking it out – talking about your story can diffuse your need to write it. It might get you through the scene but if you talk too much about the story then you’ll just get stuck again later – stuck for motivation, which is worse.

  5. Getting some time away always gives perspective. That’s great to have. If I am having trouble on a fiction story, I either try to imagine the scene as if I am one of the characters, watch a movie that might help (maybe a Huck Finn one for you??) or, it may sound nerdy, but if my scene happens at night or by a lake or in a forest, I try to go there and imagine the scene. This brings out all of the senses and allows my imagination to run wild.

    Great post. I readily admit that this is where the love-hate rub of writing is. But it is great when you find that bridge across.

  6. Taking a break is always good. I always try to “warm up” with short writing– answering blogs, emails, editing, etc. before starting the day’s task. And writing should be messy– I write down notes fast (type) and then sort through to find the best lead. It’s important not to be too quick to push the “send” button. I just did that with a submission and immediately regretted it– I’d already begun to revise and it was too late. Live and learn.

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