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12 key steps for getting unstuck as a writer

Trapped in the middle of your manuscript? Here’s how to move forward.

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Look inward.

Many of us write about topics that are painful: loss, heartbreak, mental illness, family breakdowns. Often we’re drawing on our own experiences as we write, which can mean reliving painful associations. We can get stuck not because we have nothing to say, but because we have too much to say, and don’t want to say it. This happened to me when I was writing my first novel, The Fiction Class. It’s the story of a woman who heals her relationship with her dying mother by teaching her to write. I knew, from the moment I wrote the first page, that the mother in the story had to die. It was built into the story. And yet, as I got closer and closer to that scene, which was toward the end of the book, I just could not bring myself to write it. Every time I started, I froze. My own mother had died not long earlier, and I was devastated, and writing that scene brought me intense pain. It was like losing her over and over again. The fact was, I didn’t want to write that scene. But I was under contract and I had to do it. So one night, I poured myself a glass of scotch, locked myself in my office, and raced through the scene. And I’ve never read it again. The book came out and often people have told me they like the ending, and I’m sure it’s very nice, but I’ll never look at it. I got it on the page, and that was enough. So think about what might be stopping you. The one comfort I can offer is that when you write something difficult, it does offer a form of healing. It can provide a way forward for the book and for your life. It can also help other people going through the same thing.

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