First Draft Rx: How to Get Unstuck in Your Novel
It happens to the best of us. One day you’re humming along on your novel. You’re churning out words like a boss and feeling great, and the next day, you hit a wall.
This usually happens to me about a third of the way through a novel. I hit a tough scene or chapter where something about the narrative just isn’t working, and I get stuck.
Last week, I had a few dark days of feeling stuck while working on the third book in my near-future space series. I had my outline — I had the entire series worked out. I knew my characters and yet…I just got stuck. It wasn’t just that I couldn’t go any further; I didn’t want to. And no amount of coaxing could get my creative side interested in that chapter.
It wasn’t writer’s block. (I don’t believe in writer’s block, and even if I did, this just wasn’t it.) It wasn’t that I wasn’t into my novel. The storyline felt exciting, and I was still in love with these characters. I wasn’t burnt out on the series. Usually it takes four books before I feel that I need a break.
I went through all the usual suspects: Did I know the characters well enough? Yes. Did I know where the storyline was going? Yes. Did the characters’ motivations make sense? Yes. All of their decisions up until this point were sound. They were the best moves they could have made given the circumstances. Something about the chapter itself just wasn’t right.
More than a week later, I’m still not sure about the exact source of the problem. It could be the odd mishmash of characters that I’d assembled together in this chapter. It could be a big cataclysmic event on Earth that’s a little hokey or unrealistic. It could be the way the action comes to a sudden lull. I’m still not sure and it doesn’t really matter.
Here’s what I did: I skipped it.
Yep, you read that correctly. I skipped over that part. I don’t mean I found a way to “fast-forward” through the boring part of the novel (like when a character is traveling). I mean I literally stopped writing the chapter and went on to the next one.
Of course I’ll eventually need to revisit that chapter and figure out where I went wrong, but for now the story is humming along again without any major hiccups.
How am I able to do this? You skipped over an entire chapter, you say. Won’t the rest of your plot fall apart? And, if not, wasn’t the chapter unnecessary to begin with?
My answer for now is no. The fact is that in any page-turner, there need to be “lulls” for pacing purposes. Nonstop action in a book sounds great, but a frantic pace never gives the reader a chance to breathe. Just as the rest stops in music are just as important as the notes themselves, lulls in the action are necessary for juxtaposition (using inaction to better showcase the action), building suspense, and many other things. It also gives your reader a chance to absorb what the hell just happened.
That’s not to say lulls in the action should be boring. These pauses are a great place for relationship development between characters, moments of reflection for a main character that shows the reader how he or she is evolving, and for laying the groundwork for future problems.
The most important thing is to have an outline. Because I did the work of plotting out my entire novel, I know where the story needs to go — even if I don’t know the particulars of how this particular scene needs to play out differently. I’ve also taken the time to “check in” with each of my characters. Emotionally, they’re where they need to be: worried, confused, and conflicted but still fighting the good fight. My problem could be a case of too many characters in the room, but I won’t know until I let it rest and come back through in editing.
What are my key takeaways from this? You must always, always, always work off a strong outline. Otherwise, when you get stuck in a quagmire, you’ll be hard-pressed to pull yourself out.
The other takeaway is to know your characters. This is so, so important to any novel, and it’s something that you get better at as you go along. (One way to get to know your characters is to write in-depth histories of their lives. No, you don’t have to know what a character’s experience in kindergarten was like, but thinking about who their parents were and how their early experiences shaped them gets you thinking about what really makes them tick.)
So if you find yourself stuck a third of the way through your novel, just do what I do and skip to the next part. You’ll likely find that what you write next is fresh, exciting, and exactly where you need to be.
Photo by Paul Gilmore