Welcome to our weekly column offering perspectives on lit mag publishing, with contributions from readers, writers and editors around the world.
So, this has happened.
Really, it’s remarkable that the columns have been filled consistently each week. So many of you have opened up to me about your submission strategies, rejection woes, lit mag and small press conflicts, and shared your opinions about out little corner of the literary landscape. Thank you!
Please send more!
Twitter has been shadow-banning nearly everything I tweet due to their ongoing beef with Substack. So I’ve mostly stopped using that platform. This might account for the recent dearth of column submissions.
So please, tell your students, friends, colleagues and fellow writers and editors: Lit Mag News is always open for column submissions and pitches. We pay. There is no fee to submit. And we want to hear from everyone. Here is all the information about submitting to Lit Mag News.
Thank you, also, to all the lovely people who advised me to take the day off. I would love to! But I won’t.
Instead, I’ll use this time for us to talk about writing. As I’ve said in the past, we mostly talk about lit mag submissions here. And when we discuss writing, it’s with an eye toward publication.
But what of the writing itself?
Consider this week a bonus community & conversation, writing-themed.
What I would love today is to learn more about you, dear readers. In particular, I would like to know how you deal with the issue of feeling stuck.
In the Dean Koontz interview I mentioned last weekend, he also said something interesting, if a bit harsh. He said that if you’re constantly writing yourself into a corner, then perhaps you’re not meant to be a writer.
Harsh, because I don’t think it’s anyone’s place to tell anyone else that they’re not meant to be a writer.
Harsh too, because I am literally constantly writing myself into corners.
I have written myself into so many corners my home office is actually the shape of a megagon.
Finding one’s way out of such corners, I suppose, is part of the satisfaction of writing. It is also, at least for me personally, part of the anguish. It feels as if I never know if I will actually make it back toward the other side of the room, where there are merciful doors and windows, or if I will stay in this particular corner for yet another week, month, year, eternity.
I never mean to go into the corners. (Maybe my office floor is also slanted, sending me rolling backward against my will?)
But today I’m wondering, do you feel the same?
Is this an experience unique to fiction writers? Arguably, the best fiction is that in which our characters are trapped until they finally see the way out. Get them up the tree and all that. So perhaps it’s normal to go on that ride along with them.
You poets out there, do you also now and then write yourself into a corner?
Are you a more organized writer (a “plotter” rather than a “pantser,” as it’s referred to in novel-ese)? And if so, do you avoid such conundrums altogether?
I’ve heard several fiction writers talk about crying while they write. Not crying because of their character's emotion, but crying because of the difficulty of the task before them, that corner pressing in every passing day. Do you fall into this camp?
The good news here is that I don’t believe what Koontz says in this regard at all. I think you’re only not meant to be a writer if you decide you no longer want to write.
If, on the other hand, you write yourself into corners and then doggedly, ruthlessly endure the painstaking process of seeing your way out, then, in my own view, you’re doing just fine, if struggling at times.
So, what’s your own process like?
What do you do to get out of the corner?
Do you never wind up in corners in the first place? (Is your writing space the shape of a circle?)
What is your process for seeing your way through those more difficult writing moments? A workshop? A walk? An outline? Trial and error? Talking to a friend? Talking to your pet? Starting from the beginning and re-envisioning the whole thing? Weeping at your desk?
And also, please, enjoy this bit of wisdom from the great Billy Ocean.
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I don't conceive it that way: if I'm stuck, it means that there's a question I haven't answered yet, whether conscious or unconscious. So I take time off, walk the dogs, go to the gym, read, lament the losing battle with weeds in our yard, ride my bike, watch a movie, listen to music, nap, make some coffee, contact friends who are not writers because I don't want a kvetch fest, sit in our hot tub or do anything else that is a break. For me, the key is letting go.
I think of getting stuck as a failure of imagination. My go-to strategies to get out of it are taking a shower, going to sleep, freewriting, or letting the story rest for as long as it needs to. There have been times when I've written myself into a corner, only to realize after some time has passed that I didn't need to be in that room in the first place. Deletion can be a beautiful thing!
When I'm having writing troubles, I like to *read* some of the masters (I have a list of go-to's). Far from depressing me, I usually find myself inspired. "Ah, so that's how to do it!" (I used to also do this when I was a musician, with similar success.) It's just a good idea to get away from the keyboard when it's not behaving and open up your ears to the masters, whoever they may be for you. Read some great prose. Then get back to it.
The first question I have is always, is this fear or burnout? If it's burnout, then rest, refresh, take in some creative or cultural input, spend time in nature, have time with your people.... you can't grind forever, you are not a machine. Take care of yourself.
If it's fear, though, what is the fear? That's a good one to talk through with a writing pal. But ultimately... write the thing you are most afraid to write. That's where the creative risk is for you, that's where the good stuff lives. You're allowed to put a lot of self-care in place around this, but set a timer and go for it, handwrite if you can, no editing, no overthinking, just treat it as an exercise in freewriting and let it out. Once you get going it's probably better than you think it will be, but let it out onto the page, as unfiltered as you can. You can always revise later, but give yourself the biggest canvas to work with.
Sonal’s comment is so wise: Is the corner due to fear or burnout? If fear (and that for me is the far more common, especially in the novel) it will always take a few excruciating days of spinning wheels against the corner in growing angst, huge self-doubt, relentless criticism, deletes. Then, light will dawn. I’m avoiding ‘going there.’ I’m skipping over the most crucial scene, emotion, plot turn. I’ve so successfully put my character in the worst possible situation, I cannot bear for her to actually make the leap, I’ve either wimped her out, or (most frequently) skipped forward to the afterwards. Write the scene! Go there. Maybe it’ll be of little use, but maybe, just maybe, it’ll get you to the very core of your story.
And that soaring satisfaction, the magic, the flow, oh wow.
Sometimes, the corner has caved in completely, though, and I can’t see over the top. Then, I’ll use a writer friend or two to brainstorm. Is the choice I made a few pages ago the only possibility? What if…?
And if none of that works, text your writer’s group. Confess. They’ll be so there for you. And the simple act of saying it—like Becky has—might loosen the devil on your shoulder.
I don't believe in writer's block. But the other week I was working on a book proposal and I just wasn't feeling it. I wrote about how I wasn't feeling it and all my doubts about this project. But I remained open to it, didn't write my editor and say I was throwing in the towel. About a week later, I began thinking of primary sources I could tap into, and this was just what I needed to boost my confidence for the project--at least for the time being.
When my editor crucifies my manuscript drafts, I remind myself I always feel like abandoning the project and returning the advance. I remind myself I will get over it, because I always do. I just have to roll up the shirtsleeves and dig in.
As a poet, my guess is that my process is different than a fiction writer's, since my poems are short compared to most fiction. So I don't exactly write myself into corners. There are times when I simply blank out and don't know where to go with something I've started. When that happens, I will often do some knitting, or read something (poetry or fiction) that will likely re-inspire me. I feel it's important to engage in what I think of as composting time. I don't have a produce-produce-produce mindset, and it has taken many years to let go of feeling that must mean I'm not a real writer/poet because I believe in composting. I Recently I enrolled in an online dream study because the composting has gone on a little too long. I expect this to get me going again.
If things aren't happening on the page, I always refer back to what Anne Lamott refers to as the importance of "shitty first drafts." I just let go of my expectations for that day or that story, and continue to write. Sometimes for several days. And when I'm not writing, I try to think of ways the story could possibly play out. Not every story will feel that successful, but it's a bit like a batting average in that regard. I'm not going to hit everyone out of the ballpark. I will say that I recently went back after two years to a story I was never very happy with, and did some major revisions and quite a bit of cutting, and I'm feeling pretty good about the outcome. I also find that for the most part, my more successful stories have either events or characters that are based on my own experience, not made up completely out of whole cloth. I'll sort of take a person from one period of my life and mix them up with someone else from a completely different period of my life, and place them in a context from another period of my life. For whatever reason, this works for me. I suppose you could call it a bit formulaic. But I also always remember what Stephen King said in "On Writing". Basically, throw your characters on the page and see how they interact with each other. Another quote I refer back to I read on LitHub: "Does each of my characters want something? Is what they want clear within a page a page of their appearance?" I'm rambling here, but hopefully some of this will resonate with folks.
Imagination, creativity and energy run in spurts. Sometimes it just isn’t the right time to write. I usually jot down fragments of ideas which appear to be stillborn before I go to bed to get them out of my mind so that I can rest peacefully.
In the morning I return to them and, over breakfast, think on them, narrowing them down to one or two. If I’m very fortunate they will begin to connect with each other.
I always try to keep in mind that once launched, even only in a phrase or line, these idea, whether in story, poem or essay form tend to begin taking on lives of their own. It’s at this most crucial point that the writer must not try to impose a conscious narrative on the potential but to listen to where it leads, one step at a time.
I can’t tell you how often I have begun to write with one aim, subject or end in mind only to watch as it begins to unfurl in a totally different and wholly unexpected direction. I think that underneath all deliberate thinking is a constant process of free association.
Writers like Koontz stick to predictable plots and cliched characters. Of course, he is never going to write himself into a corner. He never takes a turn toward the unknown in his writing. (Sorry, but I found his quote offensive, especially coming from someone like him).
Start something new, preferably in a different genre can get me out of a rut. I'll also dig up ancient discarded fragments from previous projects and sometimes discover something that takes me in a new direction.
Ah, writing can be such lonely work. Sometimes I have no idea what I’ve written because I have only myself to read it again and again and by the third time, it sounds(in my head, in my corner) like crap. Sometimes staying the room of my own makes me feel cornered. My antidote for these times has been keeping company with other writers where we write and read to one another. Zoom rooms work. Having a writing buddy helps. When I read to someone else, I’ll hear a word or a sentence that’s just the ticket I need to go forward.
I'm in a corner with my novel right now. And I agree to disagree with Koontz on that. I think the best writing can come from the most unpleasant and difficult moments in a draft. A writing instructor once said to me (about doing a novel), "Get ready to put up with large sections of your first draft that are basically just shit." If you're a story writer trying to write a novel, it's especially hard to tolerate this. You want to fix it and for it to not be shit, but you have to finish the first draft above all else. So you need to accept the inherent enshitification. And sometimes writing yourself out of a tight corner means writing what you consider at the time to be sub-standard prose. Still doesn't feel good, though. (PS: I also don't believe that anyone can self-assess and say, "I must not be cut out to be a writer." Just keep writing. You are your own worst evaluator, always.)
I do two things to stay out of those corners, corners that I associate with Writer’s Block. First, my pre-writing morning routine is always the same. Second, I always quit at a point where I absolutely know where to go when I start next. Knowing how and where to start is vital to me, and does not depend on inspiration, but rather a comfortable work routine. And I enjoy it. Peace.
Phil Levine, the poet, gave the opposite advice to writers (of poetry). He said, "Make it hard." Challenge yourself. If you've written yourself into a corner, you're challenged all right. I believe the solution is a counter-challenge. Walk out of the corner, walk around the writing and see things from a different perspective. I like Liz's comment: deletion can be a beautiful thing! For a poem, take the whole thing apart and put it together again, like a puzzle, formalist poem or not. No detail is essential. If word , phrase, line is pretty but doesn't illuminate the poem, delete. Same with a fiction scene, I suspect.
I feel what I put into my head comes out my fingers.
This association is strongest when I listen to poetry podcasts. I’ll replay the same poem 10x in a row. It holds true for short story readings and if I’m locked into music that’s rich in mood and melody or lyrics. It’s also helpful to change artists/poets.
The association between what I take in and what I put out holds true for my reading life and the more focused I am and more immediate the writing, the better.
If all else fails, I read what I’ve written and don’t hate, which gives me confidence I can do it again.
If I’m stuck in the middle, I take a walk - it’s amazing what pops up on a short walk after a deep writing session.
Decent sleep and nutrition are the backdrop to all this. Writing makes me tired or hungry or tungry but never hired.
I've been doing long form, novels, the last few years, so this would be for that process. The last listed option may cause controversy but it is a hill I am willing to stand on and I am ready to defend it.
The options I use when I get stuck are...
1. I'll leave a blank space where the troubling passage is and work on what follows. I'll come back later as once I've got other areas defined the problem may solve itself or the solving idea may get born as you are working on the parts that are flowing. Assuming I have a point to make or a direction to go or a place to end up in, I keep going there. Sometimes writing is like layering paint on a portrait.
2. In the long form, I consider if what I'm struggling with is even worth doing. If it is tedious to me it might be tedious to the reader. Maybe I'm trying to construct paragraphs where a sentence will do. In the long form it's okay to luxuriate with an idea but every detail of every event doesn't have to be covered. This happens to me especially in transitions or setting something up. Sometimes it just kills the action and stops the flow and I think maybe it isn't even needed.
3. I have stuff I started thirty years ago sitting in a (now laptop file) folder that I quit on for just the reasons you've mentioned in the OP. I've recently picked up one of these things and am flying with it. It was just a matter of being less intelligent thirty years ago, not knowing enough about life to make that thing work. Now that I know everything it's coming easier (joke).
4. The books and stories that have been my favorites are talismans. The only time I get published is when I write the kind of stuff I like to read. I'm constantly running to HalfPrice books to sell books and have a permanent library of only maybe twelve or fourteen books that I will never sell. These are my favorites and mean the most to me. If I'm running dry or empty I will pick one up even if I've read it a hundred times, just to remind myself of what tribe I'm in. It has happened to me more than once that I will open one of these paper amulets and be back writing after a few pages.
5. My controversial theory goes like this. In the course of normal life we pay bills, show up to family birthdays, do a our "straight job," put on our social mask in line at the grocery store, be polite to the people we slide past going to our seat at the ballgame, and generally use all our acquired social skills so that we don't come off as the asshole du jour in the world. I believe this is necessary for a functioning society, but I also believe this kind of normal, everyday activity blocks up certain creative pathways in the brain. It is a survival mechanism and we all wear the mask at some point. But when I'm writing I require those brain pathways to be uncalcified and open and sometimes they have to be blasted clear. So I will use the Aldous Huxley / Henri Michaux curatives to open up those jammed creative pathways in the brain. Not so much psychotropics any more as in the old days, but the new legalities available have always been handy since before they were legal. If you see what I'm saying. HOWEVER. The mantra sounds like a gag line but it is the rule here; write high, edit sober. Sometimes the first result is unintelligible garbage I would never insult an editor with. So the sensible writer must have the last look at it before sending something out in the world. But I would defend the practice because life can suck the juice right out of me sometimes. I would not recommend it to people with addictive personalities, and I should note that in the last ten years or so I only use these cures when writing / for writing. I pass on their use in social situations. But no apologies.
Speaking as a poet - - a formalist who had four separate titles accepted for publication in 12 months AND who helped two colleagues get their mss placed in good homes - - I don't feel stuck, generally speaking, on how a manuscript is progressing.
Where I feel "stuck" comes from on-going micro challenges that sometimes outfox me.
EX: I've been trying to master the GLOSA form and finding it difficult for a few reasons. Few poets write them so there are not many great examples to study. And there's a difference between finishing a GLOSA - - - and creating a GLOSA that sprouts wings and then soars.
Two years ago, I tackled the Golden Shovel form and this challenge worked out very well for me. Editors rarely get a clever Golden Shovel written in iambic pentameter and these are usually accepted their first time out.
One day I hope to be able to say the same for my GLOSA poems.
For now, my pen is still stuck in fly-paper. Sigh.
Creating art requires sacrifice, and I don't mean the sacrificed hours, days and years, the financial sacrifice, the relationship sacrifices. I mean the sacrifice that occurs in the work of art itself. When I taught college-level creative writing, I always told my students who "got stuck" that in order to get "unstuck," they needed to sacrifice what was most important, even most sacred to them about a poem or story. The image or sequence of words that gave birth to the poem and to which the writer was emotionally attached and would never get rid of as essential? Yes, strike it out! Shake up the poem or story, cleave it into a new configuration. An old friend of mine, an artist, had a long series of small, square abstract paintings. Occasionally, I would go to his studio and watch him work. When the piece was finished, he would meticulously paint a 2-inch-wide black stripe around the four sides. I would say, "Wait, you just painted over some beautiful passages!" His reply? "Yes, there's no art without sacrifice."
The fiction manuscript I completed a dev/line edit for last month is literally a meta-commentary satire on this very phenomenon, among other writing woes. It was quite a delightful and gratifying process to work closely with the author to get her out of various corners (as gently as possible--today a retired librarian told me a story of how they once had to dismantle a couple of bookshelves to rescue a pet turtle that had got itself wedged between two because, get this, turtles can only go forwards, not backwards, and they couldn't otherwise reach it--and I think there's a charming metaphor there!)--particularly since art imitated life so closely! The author expressed deep gratitude for the assist, and she's getting some lovely blurbs now too, so I think it worked. It goes without saying that I agree with you, not Koontz! If we want our characters to be able to work anything out, we have to be able to do it ourselves first... the irony, of course, is that we often want to read (and therefore write) books about problems we haven't quite got sorted ourselves in the real world yet... so every drafting process is a chance for IRL character growth too.
My best ideas for a work in progress come when I am not "thinking" about how to solve a problem, or in a "corner" just called "this doesn't feel quite right". I always turn to something else creative or nourishing—a walk, writing something else, a necessary shower...and my weekly drives into the country that take me through Illinois farmlands to the rescue horses I help out with often allow my mind to be surprised by an idea or solution I never would have come to when trying. Like @BarbaraKrasner, I've never believed in writer's block as a "block" and a negative thing. I have always seen it as interesting, my brain's way of saying "take a break, take a different path, respect the message of being 'stuck', and a new door will open". It always has.
I can’t speak to fiction, but some of my favorite exit strategies are to step aside from whatever project and start with “If I could write any damn thing I want it would....” I also used to keep a journal for shitty writing. Keeping the bar so low that, in the words of the late William Stafford, I can crawl over it. Sometimes (far from always) I get on a roll and find the joy again.
As we learn from fairy tales: if you speak the beast’s name it might appear! So I never allow myself to think the words “writer’s block” or “stuck.” The beauty of writing in the short form is that if inspiration is temporarily lagging for one story, you can jump to another story. When writing novels, I found there was always something I could do, like rereading and editing of earlier chapters. One thing leads to another: just the act of rereading could often recharge that forward momentum. And, I've learned that inspiration always comes back. Always. Imagination never dies.
My comment is not at all about the main topic, but from something you/Becky wrote early on about Twitter/X: please please get on to Threads! Everyone! Poets, writers, editors, journals, presses, etc. I gave up Twitter when I got a death threat and EM took over (within the same 3 days). Threads still needs work, yes, but it is so much nicer. I hope that the more people and organizations that move there, the more it will improve. I am off now to submit--I received a rejection this morning from a place that had my poems for almost a year, and that energized me to look at those poems for any revising that's needed and then submit to places with better response times!
For me, generally, getting stuck usually means there's a hole in the plot that I haven't figured out. Very rarely it can be a factor of needing to take time to recharge and rebuild imagination, or reflective of issues in my personal life.
Becky, I appreciate and am grateful you don't charge for this fine service, but lately when I return to it after a couple days, I find I'm locked out unless I upgrade to paid status. Is than something new?
As to the question of getting out of a corner:
I don't--have really no control over writing a poem--prose I can command at any time--go figure!