Thursday, October 1, 2009

Getting Unstuck

September was not the best writing month I’ve ever had. I spent more time being stuck than being productive. I'd been working on weaving a stronger, meatier plot into my novel. It was a big undertaking, but I knew I had to get it right. But I got stuck, and for a lot longer than ever before.

Good news is that I’m finally back on the horse of productive writing and revising at a respectable pace. So I thought I'd share a few things that helped me stay on track.

I took a little break.
I knew I was facing a big change and I knew I didn’t know how to solve it. The words were spinning in front of me and I couldn’t see any story. So instead of writing, I went to movies in the afternoon. I watched a lot of Gilmore Girls. I took a few mid-day naps. Of course, at the time I was distraught by all these non-writing activities. But I see now that my brain needed a break from the book and I let it have it.

I didn’t give up.
After a couple weeks of pure nothing, I felt like I indulged enough. But I kept opening the document, and looking at it, and thinking about it. For one brief second, I questioned if I should just abandon the book. Then I questioned it some more. It was a good, important question. Was my approach of writing by the seat of my pants failing me? Did I discover the right plot too late and used up all the creativity I had on this story? But I knew if I gave up on the book I’d feel so disappointed in myself. Believe me, I’m a fan of walking away from things that just aren’t working for me. I don’t believe in banging my head against a wall. But I believed in this book, in this story. I knew if I gave up I’d feel like a failure. So even if the book never gets published, at least I know I finished what I started and gave the story a chance.

I talked about it.
No hiding in shame here. When people would ask how my book was going, I would gleefully shout, “Just awful! It’s a big mess and I don’t know how to fix it!” And these kind friends, writers or not, would listen and I would talk about what I was struggling with. By the seventh, or eight, or eighteenth explanation of what was wrong with my story, my mind started to jump alive with ideas on how to make it right.

I wrote new words.
At first, I kept trying to move the existing scenes around. If that approached worked by putting my inciting event in the right place, wouldn’t it work for the rest of my chapters? Couldn’t I just add a little paragraph here and a couple sentences there to support my new plot point? Unfortunately, no. The best thing that helped me see the story was to write brand new scenes. Entire, full scenes. I learned more about my characters and what they wanted. And I felt like I was making progress.

I kept sending pages out for critique.
Even though I knew I had a problem in a specific spot, I sent other chapters that were in decent shape out for critique. My critique partners were kind and patient enough to review what I had. And learning about what worked and what didn’t work in those other chapters helped me see the whole story and determine what I needed to add.

I stayed focused.
Mid-afternoon movies and naps aside, when I was working through this problem in the beginning of the book, I stayed focused on the beginning of the book. I focused on the first fifty pages, and when I got them in order, I focused on the next fifty pages. That’s where I had the biggest issue. But I knew that every word I would write past page 100 had to be supported by what happened in pages 1-100. And because I knew I was struggling with a plot issue, working on another section of the novel wouldn’t serve me well. I refused to move forward in the story until I got that section sorted out.

I didn’t give up.

This is worth saying twice. Sure, you can argue that no one is going to publish a really awful book (definition of awful is subjective, just leave Dan Brown alone, he’s getting people to read, he’s found an audience that loves his work). But what I really believe to be true is that no one is going to publish a book that isn’t finished. And if you don’t believe me, listen to agent Jessica Faust over at BookEnds when she says: Never Give Up. It's a tough business, and like any business, problems will pop up. But whether it’s during the first draft, final revisions, or agent search, you must just keep going. And keep writing.


  1. I'm glad you didn't give up, though I know the frustration of stopping cold because you suddenly don't know where to go next.

    I'll be blogging about this in a couple days, but I finally admitted that I had rushed parts of my book. So I've written many new scenes, but now face the task of making sure these new scenes fit seemlessly with the old ones.

    Haven't found a short cut to doing that, have you?

  2. Some good points. It's hard to stay focused, glad you didn't give up.

  3. Hi Linda -- shortcuts, you say? I didn't know there were any shortcuts! My approach is just to go over and over and over my scenes, noting what feels awkward or where I need to fix timing. I do try to focus in chunks though, and just work on a few scenes at a time.

    Hi Carolyn, welcome to my blog. Glad you enjoyed the post!

  4. Good point about telling people about your writing problems. I've always found that to be helpful in sorting those issues out - assuming I can find people who aren't thinking, "Why are you whining on and on to me about random writing things?" Just another function of the oh-so-wonderful Mom . . . :P