Stop. Look. Listen


Summer comes early to where we live in New Mexico—and when the warm weather shows up you want to get out into it (meaning the time at the computer writing can suffer). But my goal is to get my pages done early—except when I can’t. Life happens, of course. And sometimes the story stalls out. But that’s not writer’s block. It means something’s wrong.

The phrase I was taught as a kid was that at road crossings: stop, look, listen. Well, when the story stops, I’ve found it’s wise to apply the look and listen. While I don’t believe in writer’s block, I do believe the subconscious is always at work—and sometimes it hits you upside the head to get your attention. The reasons for the stop?

1 – Wrong viewpoint. If you’re in the wrong character’s viewpoint you’re not getting the most emotional bang from a scene, that’s a great reason for the subconscious to rebel and stop the action. A viewpoint switch is the first fix I apply and most of the time that’s the fix needed to get the flow going again.

2 – No conflict (or I don’t really understand the conflict). These are scenes that ramble along until you want to put a bullet in them. The fix here is to ask if you really understand what each character wants in that scene—and what’s stopping each character from getting that want. (This one also impacts dialogue—as in you do not want characters speaking too much to the point, but if you don’t know what the point is, the dialogue is going to wander along with the scene.)

3 – Breaking at the wrong point. I try to stop every writing session in the middle of a scene and the middle of a sentence, right where I know what the next words are going to be. This means I’ve primed the start of the next writing session. Every time I break at the end of a sentence—or worse, the end of a chapter break—it’s hard to get back into the scene. Because I’m into a new scene. I’ve learned to use tricks to get my head back into the story and stopping when the writing is still hot is a good one.

4 – Introduction of a new character—and you’re not sure of the personality or voice. Some characters are gems—they show up knowing their lines, and walk onto the page ready to steal the story. Some characters are shy and it takes chapters before you hit on their voice and their core issues. I’ve learned that whenever a new character comes into a story, it’s a trip time for the writing. Knowing this means I’m ready to deal with it—tensing up and fighting the stop is a great way to keep it around for a long time.

When you hit one of these stop points, look at the pages. Are you in the wrong character’s head, do you know the conflict. And listen to your characters—are they telling you you’ve got the conflict wrong, do you have that character’s voice showing up in dialogue. Reade your work aloud and listen to it–that may show you what’s wrong.

If you stopped writing at a chapter end (or a sentence end), go back and edit a couple of pages to help you pick up the scene.

Listen, too, to what your writer instincts are telling you—the stop may be because a setup you have three chapters earlier isn’t going to work. Or maybe you forgot a key line and motivation in the opening of the story and if it’s not there, the scene you’re working on is dead.

A stop is not a stop if you turn it to your advantage. And take advantage of the summer days, too—sometimes a long walk is just what you need to get your subconscious to tell you why it stop the show.

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