Hello and welcome back to my weekly Inception to Completion series! This series of blog posts will help to guide you through the entire novel-writing process step-by-step from beginning to end. In Part 2 we talked all about the process of writing your first chapter—getting those very first words down on the page of the actual book.
There’s nothing quite like the high of clearing that first chapter hump and getting into a good groove with your story. Your characters are turning out even better on the page than they were in your head, and you’re coming up with new ways to enrich your story’s world by the day.
But then it suddenly happens: You hit a wall.
You realize with a chill of fear that the villains of your story don’t have sufficient motivation, making all their actions seem contrived. Or that some essential twist of your plot doesn’t actually make coherent sense. You see that you’ll have to go back and do a bunch of rewriting if you want to save your story. And even then, you have no idea what to do to fix the problem.
If getting into a good groove with your story is one of the highest highs of writing a novel, hitting a wall like this is certainly one of the lowest lows.
Just know that you’re not alone. Every single writer out there—including the ones you admire most—have been exactly where you are right now. I’ve personally hit more of these snags than I can count. Here are a few tools I’ve used that might help get you over the wall and back into the groove.
I’ve mentioned before on this blog how useful research can be no matter what genre you’re writing. It can also prove very helpful when you get stuck. You may think that you already know all there is to know about werewolf lore or UFO sightings by the time you start your novel. But it is definitely worth diving back down the research rabbit hole in search of some new sources.
Recently I was doing research on a draft I had already completed. I wanted to expand the story but was having trouble figuring out how to do so. I started out researching fashion from the 1960s and 70s, then I ended up reading article after article about a particular vintage shop in New York, and suddenly I found myself twenty pages into Tommy Hilfiger’s autobiography on Google Books. That particular trip down the rabbit hole gave me multiple ideas for new scenes in my story, as well as one for a whole new character.
Sometimes the best way to deal with a writerly hurdle is heading back to the drawing board. Well, the metaphorical drawing board. In my case the drawing board actually tends to be a Notepad document on my computer—though it can sometimes also be Notes on my phone or an actual, physical notebook.
The best way of brainstorming I’ve found is to think about the problem and then just ramble about it. Several of my brainstorming documents begin with the phrase, “Okay, so, here’s the problem…” I describe the issue I’m facing in detail and really try to wrap my mind around it.
And then something about simply trying to describe the problem often leads me to just sort of stumble across an answer. I think maybe in the frustration of hitting a block, we fail to see that there might be a simple solution right in front of our noses.
Take a Walk
If research and brainstorming are doing nothing for you, it’s probably time for you to stretch your legs. It can be easy to forget how much time we writers spend hunched over our keyboards, and it’s important to get some physical activity in at least every few hours.
Maybe you think that “take a walk” is synonymous with “take a break” here. But I actually get a lot of my best writing done while I’m out taking walks. It’s not literal writing (though I do type a few notes into my phone from time to time). Instead, I conceptualize—I think about my world, characters, and plot in a big picture sort of way that can be hard to do while planted in front of my computer.
I also listen to playlists I previously created for my characters and novel that capture the mood of the story like a sort of soundtrack. Taking a good walk and listening to some carefully curated music has gotten me out of countless binds with my stories.
Have Some Mindless Fun
You probably have a few comparatively mindless activities that you enjoy. It’s often not that these things aren’t difficult—it’s just that they’re hobbies you’ve had for so long that you don’t really have to think too hard about them. For some, these hobbies might be knitting or crocheting. While for others it could be drawing or painting.
My favorite mindless pastime is playing with my Rubik’s Cube. A friend taught me how to solve it years ago and sometimes I challenge myself to beat my fastest time. But usually, I like to solve the cube at my own pace, often while doing something else like listening to music or watching TV. Another thing I like to do while playing with my Rubik’s Cube is think about writing. Something about keeping my fingers and part of my brain active helps to get the creative juices flowing.
This might not prove helpful for you—in fact, trying to focus on multiple things at once could end up being no fun at all. But if you’re really stuck, it might be worth a try. And if it doesn’t work, you can always just dedicate your mind fully to enjoying your hobby instead.
Say you’ve tried everything you can think of. You’ve researched, you’ve brainstormed, you’ve gone for walks, and knitted so much your fingers are cramping. And still, you have no idea how to move forward with your story. You’re so frustrated that you’re getting close to giving up on the story altogether.
If you reach this point, don’t worry. All hope is not lost. Because you still have the Drawer. Like the drawing board, the Drawer is not a physical drawer but a metaphorical one. It is the place where you put a manuscript that you don’t plan to work on for a while.
Periodically you can open the Drawer and check in on your story. It’s possible that the novel may seem every bit as hopeless as it did months ago. But then all you have to do is just close the Drawer, and check again in another few weeks or months or years. You never know when a combination of life and learning will get you to the point where you’re finally ready to vault over that wall and continue onward.
Stop by next week when we’ll be discussing the importance of taking breaks and self-care during the writing process.