Getting unstuck

I’ve been going to writing workshops since 2004, and at this point it’s pretty rare for me to hear of a tool I haven’t heard of before. That doesn’t mean I don’t need to be reminded, and often! I love being reminded, because frankly there are just so many tools and I’m too new at this still to have internalized even a fraction of them. What I’m getting at is that I just don’t have a lot of lightbulb moments in workshops anymore. But a couple of weeks ago, I did.

Recently I got to go to a workshop called Paradise Lost, run by Sean Patrick Kelley for graduates of Viable Paradise and Taos Toolbox. The resident pros were editor John Joseph Adams, and authors Jay Lake and the legendary Steven Brust.

Steven Brust is a character. I mean, you can tell by the hat. He’s also incredibly enthusiastic about helping new writers. Any time there was a lull in conversation he would jump in and say “Okay, who has a problem? Let me have it. I want to help. Let’s figure it out.”

His first lecture was the lightbulb lecture for me: it was about Getting Unstuck. Holy crap, did I need that.

Advice to turn off my inner editor, write a shitty first draft, use placeholders–they’re all good, but they mostly don’t work for me anymore. I had a really good conversation with Jay Lake about my enstuckedness, and he tried to help me get to the root of what I was stuck on in the first place. I think it was that conversation combined with Steve’s lecture that helped me finally identify it.

The problem with shitty first drafts, inner editors in cages, using placeholders, pushing forward etc. is that at this point I’m not okay with writing crap. LOOK I KNOW WE’RE SUPPOSED TO. And I’m not saying I don’t. I do. I absolutely do and will continue to. I guess a better way of saying it is that I’m not okay with writing filler, of writing contentless content. It can be bad prose, that’s fine, but whatever comes out of my fingers needs to matter to what I’m writing, and those tools all leave me writing contentless content just to put words down (the NaNoWriMo* approach). What Brust’s lecture did was provide me with tools to help me write cool shit that matters when I’m stuck. Because if it’s not cool, I frankly don’t want to write it.

It would be uncool to transcribe his lecture here, but I’ll tell you one thing that I thought was just freaking awesome. When Steve gets stuck he plays games with the prose. There’s one book, he said, in which he included a bad Hamlet pun in every chapter, just to give himself something to write toward. In other cases he goes back and looks for something that he may have accidentally repeated, and then he goes and makes it a theme. You remember the whole “the curtains are blue” thing? If he finds that he’s accidentally made two sets of curtains blue, he then makes more shit blue and invents a theme that wasn’t actually there. The end result is that he has a good time, he adds cool stuff for the dedicated reader to find, and most importantly, he gets unstuck.


The thing that really struck me about Steve is that he seems to be having an immense amount of fun being a writer. That was inspiring. I will write no matter what because I am simply compelled to do so, but if I can be compelled, get unstuck, and also have fun?

Best of all possible worlds.

* I’m not dissing NaNoWriMo! I love it. I was a Municipal Liason for three years. My current novel is a rewrite of my 2005 NaNovel. I’m just saying, that approach doesn’t generally work for me anymore. YMMV. 


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  1. Paul Weimer
    01/06/2012 at 12:43 pm Permalink

    Thanks, Christie!

  2. Jennifer RDonohue
    01/06/2012 at 12:49 pm Permalink

    Steve’s “prose game” sounds pretty fantastic! All right, the whole thing sounds pretty fantastic. Thanks for sharing!

  3. Mike Douton
    02/06/2012 at 11:05 am Permalink

    I’m absolutely going to try out that hidden theme game. I love dropping references to things in my writing. I’ve got an ongoing challenge to my sister to pick out all the references to the games we played as kids. Most of my friends have cameos in the book I’m working on. For some reason I never thought of making hidden themes people who don’t know me in out in the real world might get. High five for this.


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