getting stuck and getting unstuck

The novel I'm writing now is longer and more complex than any I've tried to write before. This is a good thing! It is exciting and epic and full of things I love and there are monsters everywhere!

But it is also long and complex and full of characters and everything is interconnected across miles of story geography and years of story time and tens of thousands of story words, which means that it is a lot to handle. I am trying to be better about thoughtful first draft writing. That is, rather than jumping head first into a story and assuming I'll figure it out later, I am trying to plan a bit more. I'm not full-on outlining, but I am trying to be more deliberate about each step I take in the story--even when that step comes as a result of a wild idea that strikes in the middle of the night.

That means than when I hit a snag--which I do all the time, because it is a big and complicated story--I try to figure out why I've hit a snag, rather than barreling through or giving up entirely. I try to think about the problem in a way that actually helps solve the problem and gets me writing again. To do this, I ask myself some questions about the story to figure out what's keeping me from moving forward.

 

1) Do I know what happens next?

It's one thing to have a grand idea of where the story is going on a global scale, but it's something else entirely to actually know what happens next. In the next chapter. The next page. The next paragraph. If I don't know, well, that means I need to work it out. Usually that means its time to take a walk, go to the gym, take a shower, read a book, pet the cat, cook a meal, listen to a podcast--do something that takes my mind out of the story and lets me mull it over in the background.

 

2) Is there a problem with my plan for the next steps?

Sometimes I have a plan, and it's clearly defined, but I still feel stuck. I can't quite get to the point of writing those words down. That usually indicates to me that there is a problem with my plan that I can't quite see yet, so I try to pinpoint that problem:

a. Are the characters and their actions bothering me?

b. Is it a lack of backstory or sufficient context?

c. Is it just plain boring?

d. Do I feel like I'm guiding the story in the wrong direction?

e. Have I lost sight of where I'm headed entirely?

 

3) Does the next step make sense for the characters?

One thing I've found, over the course of many revisions, is that often when I am stuck it's because I am trying to force the characters into doing something that doesn't quite feel right for them. Maybe it seemed like it made sense from afar, or early in the story, but characters evolve constantly as I write. A first draft is the process of getting to know them. And that means I have to ask myself:

a. Is this character doing this thing because it makes sense for her, or because I am trying to twist her into a situation that no longer fits?

b. Do I even know what would make sense for this character in this moment? Do I understand her well enough?

c. Is she driving her own story? What decisions is she making?

d. What does she want right now? What is standing in her way right now? Does she even know what she wants, or is she figuring that out?

It's okay if I don't have answers to all of these questions, but I find that forcing myself to go back to some Writing 101 lessons about character--what she wants, what's stopping her, what she has to lose--can often help clarify what's holding me back at sticky spots in a story. This is especially true if I find myself and my ideas veering toward a character very different from the one I had originally envisioned.

 

4) Does fixing the next step require backtracking to change the present situation?

I am a big proponent of minimal editing while charging forward on a first draft, but sometimes it simply doesn't make any sense to ignore serious misfires that are holding me back. This can be a dangerous question, because sometimes the answer is, "Actually, you need to change everything. Start over." I have done that before; I've done it after writing fifty or sixty thousand words. But the scorched earth approach is not always necessary, and in those cases I ask myself:

a. Do I understand the problem the character is facing, or do I need to do some more world-building/backstory/villain work before I really get it? Do I know what the forces/people/monsters opposing her want?

b. Have I made things too easy on my character? Have I been avoiding trauma or danger or emotional complications?

c. Does she have too much help? Does she have too much power? Does she win too easily? Can I kill all her friends?

d. Is she in the right place? How did she get here? And why?

e. What's happening off-page? Do I know what's going on elsewhere in the story while this character is stuck in this spot?

 

5) How long has it been since something really exciting happened?

I don't actually think writers are the best judge of a story's pacing and level of excitement, because after working on something for a long time it will inevitably, on some days, feel like a boring slog to us. The idea that a story must flow lightly from the writer's fingertips to be a brisk read is bullshit; there is no correlation between how easy something was to write and how enjoyable it is to read. (Anybody who tells you otherwise is probably trying to sell you advice about how to write.)

But I do think it can be helpful to look at a story and ask some questions about whether what's happening is keeping the pressure on:

a. Am I too focused on a certain future exciting point that I've neglected to think deeply about the specific steps needed to get there? Can I draw my focus closer to think about what the story needs now, rather than what it needs a hundred pages from now?

b. Am I too focused on maintaining a specific sequence of events that I'm missing an obvious new direction that would be interesting and exciting? What happens if I blow up my own plan and trying something new?

c. How can I make everything worse for the characters? How long has it been since I've ruined somebody's day?

 

6) Am I just being lazy?

Look, this isn't always the answer, but sometimes it is. It is almost always the answer when I know that what I need to write is a big action or fight scene. This is a personal quirk. I find fight scenes difficult to write, so I procrastinate and waffle around and whine until I can't avoid them anymore. And that's all it is! Just internal whining. It doesn't mean there's a flaw in the story. It just means some parts of writing are harder than others, and sometimes writers are brats about those parts.

For me, getting through this particular sort of logjam generally requires a very practical approach: I give myself a small word count (maybe a couple hundred words), force myself through it no matter how long it takes, then do that again and again and again until the story starts flowing. (Note: I almost never skip a scene and go back to it later. I do that a lot while revising, but with my first drafts the whole point is to have something down on the page, even if it is awful. I know not everybody works this way.)

 

7) Why am I even writing this damn thing?

If none of the above helps me sort our what's got me mired down in my writing, if I've tried everything and I'm still stuck, I take a step back from the details and look at the story as a whole. Writing a novel takes a long, long time. It's natural for a writer's enthusiasm to wax and wane. It's natural to have days when you just don't fucking feel like dealing with it. That's fine! That's normal!

It's when those days start to stretch out past a normal rest period or weekend that I start to think I need to find a way to refocus on my novel. And that means remembering why I'm writing it in the first place. I don't mean why in the "I've got bills to pay" or "I'm under contract" sense, although those can be powerful motivating factors. I mean I try to remind myself what it is I love about this story, these characters, this setting, this adventure. Sometimes I even make a list: Things I Like About This Story. I actually sit down, pen in hand, and write out a list on a piece of paper.

Doing that can help me see if I'm pouring an awful lot of angst and energy and frustration into aspects of the story that I'm just not that interested in exploring. It can also help me see where and how I've strayed away from the deep, buried, bloody, pulsing, dark heart of the story that first grabbed my attention. I can help me find ways to get back to that when everything else has become a distraction.

 

Now, my process of getting through sticky points rarely looks as neat and systematic as what I've described above. What I've tried to do here is clarify a lot of what goes into the whole "I just need to sit and think about this problem for a while" thing that is necessary for writing. Sitting around and thinking is all well and good--it's one of my favorite hobbies--but it can help to have a road map for the sort of things I ought to be thinking about. Untangling big knots in big stories feels more manageable when I break it down into questions, ideas, and concepts that I can get a handle on.

The key is to not think of these sticky points as this dark, looming cloud of failure that cannot be avoided. It doesn't help to romanticize the concept of mid-story writers' block when the problems are, in fact, so very practical. Nor does it help to think of every momentary roadblock as a sign that the entire story is broken. (The entire story might be broken, but that should be the last thought you come to, not the first, especially if it's something you still love and yearn to write.) When we've written ourselves into a story swamp, we can write ourselves out of it. We are the omnipotent gods of our invented universes. Nothing in the worlds we create is outside of our control, not even those things that are most surprising, awe-inspiring, or terrifying to us.