07 February 2023

Guest Post: I’m Stuck—Now What?

Filling in for me today is Stacy Woodson, a writer I first met at Malice Domestic in 2018. I was participating in Malice Go Round, a form of speed dating where pairs of authors move from table to table every few minutes pushing their latest project to several interested readers. I was on break when Stacy arrived. There were no seats available at the official tables, so—in violation of the rules!—she sat with me at the break table and I learned she had just sold her first story to Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. Stacy and I have since crossed paths at several in-person and virtual events, and she has contributed to several of my projects, including the recently published Mickey Finn: 21st Century Noir, vol. 3 and the forthcoming More Groovy Gumshoes.

Learn how she overcomes those inevitable moments when she gets stuck.

— Michael Bracken

I’m Stuck—Now What?

by Stacy Woodson

The ideal solution.
When it’s time to write, I light a scented candle, put on classical music, sit at my computer and the words flow through my fingertips. I’m a vessel for story. It’s euphoric.


That’s a load of crap.

At least for me. (I do envy people who can access story this way.) My process is messy, don’t-look-behind-the-curtain-Wizard-of-Oz kind of messy. I need an interesting character, thrown into an interesting situation. I need to know the ending and the twist. Without the twist I’m dead in the water. And when I’m writing I’m constantly saying to myself: give the reader a reason to care.

A HOT MESS—that’s my writing process.

As you can imagine, I’m often stuck. Not blocked. (Yes, I’m one of those people who doesn’t believe in writer’s block.) But I do believe in getting stuck. And recently (six months ago, recently) I started being mindful of things I do to get unstuck—thanks to Becca Syme and her Intuition Series.

So, I created my own personal “stuck list,” a list of things that have helped me get unstuck. It’s a list I continue to update. (And yes, there are some things on there that we’ve all heard before like: take a shower or a long walk.) But it has other things that I think are unique that work for me, and I hope some of them work for you, too. So here it is. My stuck list in all its messy glory:

Can’t figure out how to start.

First the initial frustration hits: OMG I can’t start. Why can’t I start? What is wrong with me? The candle is lit, the music is playing. (Just kidding. I promise, I’m not on that hamster wheel again.) But seriously, I was having one of those moments a few months ago. Frustrated, I turned to my shelf and opened a book by an author I admire and read the opening paragraph. Then, I opened another. Five books later, I turned to some of the short stories I had written. I read those openings, too. And then I felt it. (I’m an intuitive writer. I outline [sort-of] and chase a feeling [always]—tone, vibe, a way to hear the voices of my characters. I told you, I’m a hot mess.) After reading those openings I was able to start.

Can’t move forward.

People say write ahead—pick a scene that comes later and write it. This doesn’t always work for me. Often, I am a linear writer. I need the momentum of the story to carry me to the next scene. But I always know the ending before I start and sometimes writing the scene with that twist gets me there. “The Retirement Plan” worked that way. I wrote the ending when I was blocked (I mean stuck) and then I was able to write the missing pieces.

The household chaos.
Things still need to marinate.

I say all the bad words. Then, I take a walk or a shower or go to the box. (In the CrossFit world that’s a fancy way of saying gym.) Sometimes my subconscious just needs time to work on the story. There are times I do more research and look at pictures. When I wrote “The Rose” I looked at dozens of pictures of Honky-tonks and watched a documentary about the Broken Spoke. It helped me hear the voice, feel the vibe, and access the story.

Plot isn’t ringing true.

More cussing. Especially if I’m halfway through the story. (I served in the Army. Cussing is a reflex for me. It’s like breathing.) When I’m done verbally purging, I start asking questions. Are the stakes personal enough? What happens if the protagonist fails? And do I care? If I can’t move forward still, I go to my resource folder. (Thank God for great craft articles and classes and blogs.) I read and use this information to brainstorm how to fix it. Click here for one of my favorite posts at The Write Practice on stakes.

Can’t figure out the twist.

This happens during my “sort-of-outlining” process. I have that interesting character in that interesting situation and then I have NOTHING. No twist. And all the frustration. Then comes… all the Facebook. Because that’s what I do when I get stuck. Instead of going to my list, I click over to Facebook. Don’t click over to Facebook. It suuuuuucks you innnnnnn. My phone rings or the dog barks (thank God, again), and I realize that I’ve disappeared into the void for an hour. Then, I regroup and go back to my trusty resource folder and look at lists I’ve made about twists—generic and specific examples. When I read a story, especially short fiction that has an interesting twist, I write them in a journal so I can go back and study how the twist was executed. I look at articles that I’ve collected, too. Click here for one of my favorites from Screencraft.

Can’t hear the character’s voice.

I started creating a list of characters that resonate with me from television and film, and I watch snippets of their performances so I can hear their voice and feel their vibe. (I DON’T use their words. This has nothing to do with their dialog or their story.) I’m simply trying to access who they are during their performance. If I’m looking for a troubled vet, I often watch Huck from Scandal. I need a crusty mentor character, I watch Lloyd from Yellowstone. A chatty gossip, anyone from the movie Steel Magnolias. No impulse control, Daisy from Bones. Someone bigger than life, Effie from The Hunger Games. (Yes, my viewing choices are diverse.) There’s a tenor and cadence in how these actors deliver their lines that I can harness when I’m writing dialog.

The uncredited assistant.
Don’t care about the character.

I’ve created an interesting character in an interesting situation, and I have the twist. I start writing—and I don’t care. Ugh. I’ve done all the things. The story gods should reward me, right? Wrong. After the cloud of profanity passes, I look at the emotional stakes in the story. Are they strong enough? (This goes back to my personal give-the-reader-a-reason-to-care-mantra.) Does the story feature important relationship characters? Does it feature pertinent interpersonal conflict? Are the emotional stakes tied to plot stakes? Questions I’ve hijacked from Kim Weiland and her amazing blog Helping Writers Become Authors. Click here to read her article on emotional stakes. (I’m a total Marvel nerd and LOVE this one.)

My in-case-of-an-emergency-break-glass person.

If I’m still struggling, first, I complain about the story to my husband. We brainstorm in the kitchen. Sometimes it works. (He helped with the twist in “Armadillo by Morning” which will appear in a future issue of Black Cat Mystery Magazine.) Often, unfortunately, I’m still stuck. But it’s not a waste of time. Even without an answer or way ahead, verbalizing the story (external processing) helps because I’ve considered and discarded other ideas, and this keeps the creative juices flowing. I try chatting with friends in my writers group (shout out to The Royals), bus stop moms and dads, my CrossFit friends on the sunrise squad. (Sometimes Barb Goffman gets a call, too.) And when all else fails, I turn to a story coach. It’s true. I have a story coach. She’s like my own personal story therapist. When I’m really blocked (I mean stuck), I call Dawn Alexander. Which results in a session where I tell her everything. And she looks at me over Zoom, smiles, and says—have you thought about this? Then, I love her and hate her all at the same time because she’s usually right.

Can’t focus.

The kids are too loud, the dog won’t stop barking—but I can’t leave the house. The frustration! So, I put on Brown Noise. Not White. Brown. I read an article about Brown Noise (how the sound blocks out other sounds so you’re less distracted) and tried it. I’m hooked. In fact, I have it playing right now. More on the science behind Brown Noise here.

Click here if you want to take Brown Noise for a test drive.

Phew. So that’s my stuck list, for now, anyway. I’m sure I will continue to get stuck, and my list of hacks will continue to grow. What works for me, may not work for you. Still, I hope there’s something here that’s helpful. Do any of you have a stuck list? What works for you?

Stacy Woodson (www.stacywoodson.com) is a US Army veteran, and memories of her time in the military are often a source of inspiration for her stories. She made her crime fiction debut in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine’s Department of First Stories and won the 2018 Readers Award. Since her debut, she has placed stories in several anthologies and publications—two winning the Derringer Award.


  1. Great post, Stacy. I laughed out loud about your "accidental" use of the word "block" (I mean stuck!). You use several methods I also apply in similar situations. I have a resource folder too!

  2. Thanks, Anne! Great minds think alike :) I'm happy you enjoyed the post.

  3. Stacy, this is an interesting read. I always like to see how other people's minds work. Thanks.

    1. Thanks! I always like to read about others, too. I'm glad you enjoyed the piece.

  4. I'm glad it was helpful! Thanks for stopping by.

  5. Great post, Stacy. I'm a great believer in walks. When I get stuck, I walk. And cuss. And marinate. And accept the fact that sometimes the magic works, and sometimes it doesn't - but it will again!

  6. Thanks, Eve! You are so right about the magic.

  7. Enjoyed this, Stacy! It's fun to see you at SleuthSayers.

    You and I do lots of things the same way in our writing methods, it seems, including the way I "outline" and the way I study the "voices" of characters in movies and on TV.

    Keep doing exactly what you're doing!

    1. Thanks, John! Loved being here. Happy to know we are kindred spirits when it comes to our writing process. Thanks for the encouragement, too!

  8. Delighted to be one of your go-to callers. And these are really good tips. I especially like the one about watching TV/movie characters similar in tone to the voice you want to write. When I wrote a short story involving a jerk of an Army general, I was having a hard time getting the voice right, so I rewatched A Few Good Men, and then everything flowed.

    1. Thanks, Barb! I love that watching tv/movie characters works for you, too.

  9. Congratulations on all your accomplishments, Stacy. Nicely done.

    I'm listening to brown noise. The concept is a bit like noise-cancelling headphones without the headphones. It reminds me of the sound of the sea in a way, and I love the ocean at night.

  10. Thanks, Leigh, for the kind words. Wonderful to hear you're listening to brown noise. I think it's calming, too.

  11. I’m currently in cursing mode. Good to know I’m not alone. Going to check out the brown noise now!

    1. It's therapeutic, right? Hope the brown noise helps.

  12. Great article, Stacy! Love these tips, always nice to have some new strategies. I've got to try the brown noise -- and more cussing :)

    1. Thanks, Adam! I'm delighted you enjoyed the piece.

  13. I'm currently stuck, and this is fabulous advice! Thank you, Stacy!

  14. cj Sez: I do almost all those things (no coach, no cussing), but I'm at an impasse as I type this. I'll have to go back over my resources. Thanks for the reminder and the new resource urls.

    1. Good luck! Being blocked (I'm mean stuck) is frustrating. I hope the resource route helps.

  15. Great post, Stacy! Like you, I'm never blocked, just stuck, sometimes without a story at all. Cussing, as you pointed out, is useful. Also, I find blaming others helps. Thanks for the tips!

  16. Fun post, Stacy. Thanks for the tips.


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