A boat… a river… which direction?

by Michelle Wallace on June 18, 2014

I'm stuck with my story outline.  

And I’m feeling bad. Do writers really get stuck on the outline? Or is it only me? A sphere ball with signs and arrows reading Start Here, Next Step, Go There and other directions mapping a route to success and finding your way photo

Here’s my basic problem. I can’t seem to get pass this particular point which is about three-quarters into the story…

Let’s see what I’ve tried. Pause and rethink. Done. Maybe go back over what I've already written. Done that. Take a slight detour? Mmm, I may have something in mind…

The thing is I’ve been stuck here for a while. When I say a while, I mean for more than 3 weeks? I need to get moving.

And I don’t want to add a fresh element to the story. I need to work with what I already have. Plus there are already far too many twists at the moment…

I read that Mark Twain spent months stuck in the middle of Huckleberry Finn before he came up with the notion of having Huck and Jim take the wrong turn on the river and get lost.

boat water river
 

Now I’m off to create a river… and then arrange for my characters to take a wrong turn… *sigh*

Any other suggestions?

{ 86 comments… read them below or add one }

J.L. Campbell June 18, 2014 at 10:08 pm

Hey, MIchelle,

As you've noted via Twain, this happens to the best of us. Usually, I leave the story for a bit and then come at it fresh. Have you brainstormed as in, what if my character does, a, b, or c? Will that change things, affect outcomes? Hope you get over this hump soon.

 

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Michelle Wallace June 24, 2014 at 3:39 pm

I'm going to try the what if my character does, a, b, or c approach, and see what results I get. It should produce some interesting options…

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Melissa Maygrove June 18, 2014 at 11:29 pm

I was stuck on plot once. I got to a point where I was going to have a write the heroine a certain way and, although I could have done it, I didn't want to. It just didn't *feel* right. I pondered it until I was dizzy and crosseyed, but I couldn't come up with a plan.

Then it hit me. The answer was right in front of my face; what if I DON'T write her like that? What if she has a totally different quality (for lack of a better word) than what is expected. I used the 'what if…?' strategy and carried it out in my mind to its logical conclusion.

Oh my gosh! It totally ramped up the tension and conflict and supercharged my plot!

Asking 'what if,' even if the scenario seems crazy or impossible, is a good thing to try when you're stuck. Mapping it out in your mind costs you no wasted words and it can find a fix in many cases.

Another thing to try when your plot is giving you trouble (if you know the ending) is plotting backwards. Start with the last scene and work your way back, chapter by chapter, to the start. This technique is really good for keeping you focused on cause and effect and for getting the unecessary stuff out of your story.

Good luck. ;)

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Michelle Wallace June 24, 2014 at 3:42 pm

Mmm. Interesting. I like the sound of somebody having a totally different quality or maybe even a totally different reaction to what is expected.  :)

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Alex J. Cavanaugh June 19, 2014 at 12:34 am

The suggestions above are probably better than anything I could come up with. My only question is do you know how it ends? I don't get stuck when I know the ending.

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Michelle Wallace June 24, 2014 at 3:43 pm

I know the ending. And yes, the suggestions above are really great!

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krystal jane June 19, 2014 at 3:07 am

Ooh, nice tips already! I always get stuck in my outline, and when I do, I go back to the story and write up until that point hoping that something in the story inspires me out of the ditch I'm in, and that has been working really well for me. I usually don't even finish my outline until I'm at least halfway through the story. As long as I know the ending, I don't have to worry about getting derailed. 

Another thing I do is force myself to do another creatively stimulating activity. I like to play piano, so I might do that for a few days. I'll go to the movies. I'll read. And sometimes I draw or paint. I don't remember if it was Einstein or Edison, but one of them said that when you're doing something monotonous, either something you've done a thousand times or something that doesn't require you to think, it frees up your subconscious to work the problem out for you. And I have definitely found that to be true as lately whenever I'm stuck, answers have been coming to me while I'm at the movies or cleaning! 

Best of luck with working this out. ^_^

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Michelle Wallace June 24, 2014 at 3:47 pm

Well, this is my cue to get onto the piano. I haven't really been playing much (besides tutoring). And I have written some scenes up until the point where I'm in a jam. However, these scenes are not really in proper order. I'll try juggling them around.

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Carol Kilgore June 19, 2014 at 4:23 pm

A year or so ago, I came across this great article about just this kind of thing. It's helped me, and maybe it will help you, too, figure out what kind of river to create :)

http://www.writersonthemove.com/2012/06/plot-possibilities.html

Good luck!

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Michelle Wallace June 24, 2014 at 3:48 pm

Thanks Carol. I'm excited about this list of plot possibilities.  :)

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Shell Flower June 20, 2014 at 12:09 am

There is some great advice here. I agree with Alex, and don't have much to offer other than having your character do someting completely unexpected. You should definitely take those mosaic classes. Doing something artistic in another vein can help you come back with a fresh perspective.

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Michelle Wallace June 24, 2014 at 3:49 pm

Absolutely. I'm just dragging my heels. Need to get on with this project. Thanks Shell!

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Medeia Sharif June 20, 2014 at 12:41 pm

I work with an outline, but I will get stuck when I feel something's wrong or when the plot doesn't sit well with me. I work on something else until I figure out what to do. 

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Michelle Wallace June 24, 2014 at 3:51 pm

Maybe one or two little changes/tweaking earlier on in the outline will open up the way to move forward… I'm almost there – I can feel it.

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L. Diane Wolfe June 20, 2014 at 12:41 pm

Maybe sit down and brainstorm with another writer?

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Michelle Wallace June 24, 2014 at 3:51 pm

I would love to do that. I need a willing participant…  :)

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Stephanie Faris June 20, 2014 at 2:53 pm

Sometimes simply making a list of all of the things that could happen can help. Usually the first things you list aren't the best things to do because they're too predictable.

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Michelle Wallace June 24, 2014 at 3:53 pm

That may be what's causing the blockage. I need to think of the unexpected. Maybe the list link provided by Carol (above) will help.

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Chrys Fey June 20, 2014 at 4:08 pm

The things you mentioned already is what I usually do. Recently I was stuck on a spot in my sequel, near the end, and I didn't know what to do. I sort of meditated on it when I was going to sleep one night and TADA! The solution popped into my head. You might just have to give it time. Maybe work on something else for a little bit. GOOD LUCK! :)

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Michelle Wallace June 24, 2014 at 3:55 pm

I'm jotting down ideas for another project. Maybe I'll do this for a while. Thanks!  :)

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Debi O'Neille, writing against the wind June 20, 2014 at 5:01 pm

A writer/friend of mine who passed away a couple of years ago tried to help me out of a similar situation wants. His answer? "It sounds like it's time for someone to die."

Then he told me to remember that there are more than one kinds of death, not just the six-feet-under kind.

Good luck.

Deb@ http://debioneille.blogspot.com

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Michelle Wallace June 24, 2014 at 3:58 pm

More than one type of death… mmm… *trying to hink out of the box*

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Michelle Wallace June 24, 2014 at 3:59 pm

 *typo alert*… think out of the box… (sorry…)

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Hilary June 20, 2014 at 5:58 pm

Hi Michelle .. I could do that with posts easily enough .. and struggle to straighten them out .. when you mention which direction .. I immediately think of three men in a boat .. or turn, turn turn … and I'm sure there are many other unhelpful ideas I could dream up …… good luck – cheers Hilary

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Michelle Wallace June 24, 2014 at 4:01 pm

Unhelpful ideas? Certainly not! I could just pop over to one of your blog posts, which are choc full of info… countless story/scene possibilities… thanks!

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Annalisa Crawford June 20, 2014 at 6:05 pm

If you know the end, write that down, then start writing. You might find the characters themselves give you the answer. Mine can be very vocal sometimes. Good luck :-)

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Michelle Wallace June 24, 2014 at 4:05 pm

Good idea. I know the ending. Just need to write a scene for it, then maybe try to backtrack to the scene just before… see what gives then… maybe it will gel. Thanks Annalisa. :)

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Murees Dupé June 20, 2014 at 7:03 pm

I don't know if this is helpful, but you can kind of move on and come back to it later. Kind of work your way from the ending back to where you got stuck? Just to keep your momentum going. 

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Michelle Wallace June 24, 2014 at 4:06 pm

Quite a few people suggested that. It seems like the next step. I'll try it.

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Gina June 20, 2014 at 7:24 pm

I think a list would help a lot with this kind of thing.

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Michelle Wallace June 24, 2014 at 4:08 pm

Yes, definitely. I'll try all the possibilities/suggestions. Then see what happens.

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Julie Flanders June 21, 2014 at 1:04 am

I had this same problem with my current WIP. I was ready to just give up and toss the whole story because I felt like I'd never figure it out. But then somehow inspiration hit and it came together. I think the same thing will happen for you! You'll get it. 

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Michelle Wallace June 24, 2014 at 4:09 pm

Thank you Julie. I'm hanging in there. Not gonna let an outline beat me!!

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C. Lee McKenzie June 21, 2014 at 2:43 am

Well, now you see I am useless in this outline issue when it comes to fiction. If you want me to outline something like the history of deforestation in Brazil, I can nail that in a no time. Let me know when you tackle that topic and I'm there for you. 

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Michelle Wallace June 24, 2014 at 4:10 pm

Lee, I don't know if I'll be tackling that issue… not in this lifetime. LOL You don't outline? You must be a pantser.

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Trisha June 21, 2014 at 2:51 am

3 weeks, huh? Sounds like you're really stuck. I wouldn't be surprised if an idea comes to you in a flash, sometime unexpected… like when you're really needing to get to sleep for the night or when you're driving or something. :)

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Michelle Wallace June 24, 2014 at 4:12 pm

I'm going to get out… one way or another! :) I will not be beaten!! (acting more confident than I actually feel… LOL)

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Michelle Wallace June 24, 2014 at 4:13 pm

*typo alert* That should read: I'm going to work it out…

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Rachna Chhabria June 21, 2014 at 3:38 am

Don't worry Michelle, you wil soon get unstuck and before you know it, you will complete that outline. My only suggestion is that if you know the ending, writing backwards from that ending: by outlining the events that lead to the ending.

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Michelle Wallace June 24, 2014 at 4:14 pm

I'll do that. Thank you Rachna!

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Lexa Cain June 22, 2014 at 8:23 pm

Nothing's written in stone regarding an outline. Three quarters done is actually very good! Usually, when I hit a brick wall, it means I took a wrong turn somewhere myself and I'm feelig it's not working in my gut. However, in my current WIP, I only wrote a rough draft to the two-thirds point. I knew that there were so many huge mistakes that I couldn't go on until I fixed them, so I went back and started to revise. So far so good. I'm wishing you luck, Michelle!! :)

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Michelle Wallace June 24, 2014 at 4:16 pm

Three quarters is good? Okay. Sounds like there's hope.  :) I'll soldier on…

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Trisha June 23, 2014 at 12:59 am

I totally do suck, but I finally posted the My Writing Process post … a week late. :) I guess the chain was gonna end with me anyway, since nobody responded to my tagging … that I know of (I did check on the 2 bloggers I remembered I had tagged).

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Michelle Wallace June 24, 2014 at 4:17 pm

Aww, that's okay! I'm glad I tagged you. You're such a relentless writer!  :)

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Sherry Ellis June 23, 2014 at 9:17 pm

Do you have a critique group or writer's group you work with?  They can help you get through tough spots by suggesting different things.  The only other thing I would suggest, is taking a break and working on something else.  Sometimes time away gives you a fresh perspective.

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Michelle Wallace June 24, 2014 at 4:19 pm

I don't have a physical writer's group. But there've been some great suggestions posted here. So I'm sure something will give. Time away clears the mind, allowing for a different perspective. You're right.

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Sammy D June 23, 2014 at 10:13 pm

You mention "far too many twists already." Could that be why you are stuck? Perhaps try "what if I eliminate …"

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Michelle Wallace June 24, 2014 at 4:20 pm

Aha! That's something I didn't think about…  :)

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Tonja June 24, 2014 at 2:06 pm

Creating a river sounds about right. :)

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Michelle Wallace June 24, 2014 at 4:25 pm

Yes. I need to think about it. Maybe the answer is in the "river" image. You never know. I can just bounce questions around. See what I come up with. Will the river meander? Dry river? Overflowing? Will it join up into a larger sea?  I'll play around…

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Nicki Elson June 24, 2014 at 3:44 pm

Do you have any of the outline completed past that point? Becasue that's my advice — if you know where this story is going jump to the end of the outline and start working backwards, then maybe it will be easier to come up with something to tie together that 3/4 point.

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Michelle Wallace June 24, 2014 at 4:27 pm

That's what two or three people suggested. I'm trying all sorts of things. Something will gel. It has to. :)

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Cherie Reich June 24, 2014 at 5:11 pm

If you know the ending, then consider going to the end and write back from that scene to where you are at.

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Michelle Wallace June 25, 2014 at 5:03 pm

Yes, I'll give this one a try. Quite a few have suggested this.

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Jemi Fraser June 24, 2014 at 10:22 pm

I'm totally unable to outline, so I'm not sure I'm able to help! But… can you write out the last 2 or 3 scenes before you're stuck and see where it goes? Actually writing it out might help.

Or not! Not sure how that plotter brain works – although I really, really wish I could figure it out :)

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Michelle Wallace June 25, 2014 at 5:05 pm

I hadn't thought of this. I'll write out 2 or 3 scenes in full, that lead up to the 'stuck moment'… and then cross my fingers that it flows to a natural conclusion… :) Good idea.

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Christine Rains June 24, 2014 at 10:59 pm

I'm one of the pantsers. I rarely outline before a first draft. Yet if I do, I find the only thing that helps me get through a block like that is just to write the story and let it unfold itself.

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Michelle Wallace June 25, 2014 at 5:06 pm

It sounds like the logical route. Maybe the remainder has to unfold as I go along.

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Denise June 24, 2014 at 11:18 pm

I read every comment and saw good advice, but we each have our own version of outlining or not. Or not…that’s me. I try to be a good girl and outline…spend (waste) too much time, then start writing then throw all that out the window as my subconscious kicks in. I do have a good ‘fill in the blanks ‘ story planner I was given (paid for) by an author but will send it via email as this author doesn’t like to share for free.

Maybe you are past the hump already…?

Denise

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Michelle Wallace June 25, 2014 at 5:10 pm

I'm thinking that maybe your outlining "challenges" the subconscious to kick in and then it simply flows from there… sounds magical. That story planner sounds useful.

With all these brilliant suggestions, I have some good ideas…  :)

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tara tyler June 24, 2014 at 11:35 pm

being lost in an outline is hard, being lost in a story is exciting and suspenseful… wishing you luck – i know you will find the right detour. and if you don't you can always edit it!

and thanks for your sweet encouragement with my blog tour!

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Michelle Wallace June 25, 2014 at 5:11 pm

Yep. There is a marked difference!  Thanks Tara!

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Crystal Collier June 25, 2014 at 12:28 pm

Simplify. Where are you going to end up? I'd focus on that–especially if you're 3/4 the way through and just focus on deepening the conflicts that already exist building toward the climax. You know, when I get stuck, I find I'm putting too much pressure on myself. If I just start playing around and joking and not worrying, the answers come. Best of luck!

Oh, and I nominated you today. =) http://crystalcollier.blogspot.com/2014/06/awards-for-meawards-for-you.html

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Michelle Wallace June 25, 2014 at 5:12 pm

Joking/fooling aroud? Sounds like fun. Right up my alley. I can do that.  :)

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Nick Wilford June 25, 2014 at 3:39 pm

You've had tons of brilliant suggestions! My outlines only tend to go up to a certain point, and then I pants the rest. I get stuck many times while I'm doing this, but I just try to write through the problem, if that makes any sense. Usually I just have to think more deeply about the characters, what I've learnt about them in the writing, and how they're going to achieve what they need to do. It's always about character motivation. Good luck!

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Michelle Wallace June 25, 2014 at 5:14 pm

Thanks Nick. I'll keep this in mind. Seems like my outline may also need to go to a certain point… which may be the point where I'm at.

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Mary June 25, 2014 at 6:31 pm

Urgh, stuck! I feel stuck this week. Don't know why. I usually force myself to sit down and write. I can't outline in detail. So I guess my first draft is my outline. Workouts sometimes help and showers.

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Michelle Wallace July 1, 2014 at 8:58 pm

I think my outline is very detailed, so maybe it's morphed into a semi-first-draft-of-sorts…? Maybe that's also the reason why I got stuck? Am I even making sense?

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Tyrean June 25, 2014 at 8:17 pm

I generate weird, random ideas – blow something up, find a map or secret entrance to dark caves/hidden passages, kill a random character – and then after I laugh a bit about how that would affect my storyline, I just try to write out some character vignettes. What will my MC do after the last part of the plot – what's going to drive her/him forward? What will it take for her/him to accept/fully engage with/take charge of the story? If I'm stuck on plot, it usually has something to do with the MC not doing what they need to do . . . and I did throw in some sea serpents in Champion in the Darkness, and then decided to keep them. Some of my readers weren't too happy that I killed a couple of characters that way, but my MC needed to be kicked out of her shallow worries and into the "real" deal. However, it is a fantasy novel so that worked – not sure if that would work in your book.

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Michelle Wallace July 1, 2014 at 9:03 pm

I love your weird, whacky and wonderful ideas!!  :) They're full of energy!

So I'm thinking that maybe… just maybe… there's something my MC's not doing that she really needs to do…? *thinking-mode*  (I'm following up on ALL suggestions/possibilities so I'll look into this…)

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Julie K Pick June 26, 2014 at 6:37 am

I hope that you've followed all of the wonderful incoming advice, and have become unstuck. I have complete faith in you Michelle, and I know that you will succeed.

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Michelle Wallace July 1, 2014 at 9:06 pm

The advice has been AMAZING, hasn't it? Some really innovative ideas. I know that something will give…

Thanks for the vote of confidence, Julie!

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Gary Philip Pennick June 27, 2014 at 5:29 pm

Hey Michelle,

Yeah I know, late again.  Think beyond your usual writing process.  Go surreal if you must.  For instance, if I was ever  stuck with my writing, I have a certain Jack Russell dog to help me out.  Remember, stating your're stuck only heightens that sensation.  Keep going and you will do fine.

Gary :) 

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Michelle Wallace July 1, 2014 at 9:07 pm

Thank you kind sir! Your wonderful words have inspired me. Thank you for the support. I really appreciate it!  :)

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Doreen June 27, 2014 at 6:21 pm

I suppose I have more of this to look forward to once I start writing fiction.

When I get stuck on direction I usually try to clear my mind so ideas can, hopefully flow.

I take a walk, play scrabble blast or move onto another scene.

Good luck:)

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Michelle Wallace July 1, 2014 at 9:09 pm

It probably needs a little time… it will come together… eventually… :) I know it will.

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joylene June 27, 2014 at 7:21 pm

Sounds like you're getting excellent advice. Are you back on track? If not, this is what I do… I google for advice on Stuck in the Middle. I also jot down points until I get to the muddled one. ie. 1. Jason's wife is run down. 2. Jason believes she was murdered. 3. Jason thinks it had something to do with a dog being rundown 4. Jason hires a PI and they travel to the UK to investigate the dog owners. 5. Turns out the man who killed the dog, hit someone else. 6… 

Well, you get my drift. It doesn't take me out of the funk, but it does open up an new avenue. What's the worst thing that can happen next? I make a list of answers and visionalize each scenario until one has me sitting up straight. 

It's a long process, as you know. But not one to hold you back either. Playing the piano might be a nice reprieve. 

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Michelle Wallace July 1, 2014 at 9:10 pm

Joylene, I LOVE the sound of this! You are a STAR!

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joylene June 27, 2014 at 7:27 pm
Michelle Wallace July 1, 2014 at 9:11 pm

Thanks for the link!

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tammy theriault July 1, 2014 at 4:44 am

the only thing that works for me when i'm stuck is to find one person that i trust (a beta) and brainstorm. throw ideas out there. when you get feedback, your brain will spin a million times and it will be a huge release! give it a try!! best to do over texts/messenger/emails.

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Michelle Wallace July 1, 2014 at 9:14 pm

I don't know of anyone to ask. But I'll make some enquiries. Is there a specific writerly  group that caters for this type of brainstorming technique…? Like a brainstorming buddy? It could be a mutual relationship.

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Morgan Shamy July 2, 2014 at 2:18 am

Oh gosh… this is MISERABLE… I was stuck with my last book about 3/4ths in too… and it took me TWO months to break out of it. I'm so sorry you're experiencing this!!! I HOPE you break out of this soon. It's so hard to even do normal life when you're stuck. :/ 

 

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Michelle Wallace July 10, 2014 at 2:28 pm

I'm busy with some family commitments so I've put it on hold for a few weeks. Hopefully things will fall into place when I look at it with a fresh set of eyes. Thanks Morgan.

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Celine July 6, 2014 at 11:49 am

How did you get on with that problem? I have gotten stuck on an outline a number of times, it's especially tricky when it's late into the story as you are because as you say it's not really a place where you can ad new elements. 

I definitely agree with Tammy above -for what it's worth – about getting feedback as a way to get unstuck. Even just the act of getting comments from a fresh perspective might help you see your story in a different light and help you move forward. Have you tried the absolute write forum? They have a section for Beta Readers, you could post something there to see if anyone would be interested in a writing / brainstorming buddy? 

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Michelle Wallace July 10, 2014 at 2:31 pm

It's on temporary hold for the moment…  and I think your and Tammy's suggestions are the way to go. However, in the past, I struggled with logging into the Absolute Write forums. Not sure why…

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