My current work-in-progress, Into the Mist, has always been a little sticky.
I wrote the first draft during Nanowrimo 2017. I got to just over 50K words, but didn’t finish the novel. In years since, I’ve started to keep writing after hitting that 50K mark to get a full first draft, but that year I did not, and so lost steam just before hitting the climax, which would have carried me through to the end.
During Nanowrimo 2020, I attempted a full rewrite – I didn’t look at the previous draft, I just wrote the story from memory, smoothing over the things I apparently had not needed. Yet even though I split this Nanowrimo between 20K of The Last Time We Met (finishing off that manuscript), the 30K of Into the Mist only got me to approximately the same point as my first draft. I kept going after the end of November, and plugged away at it for three months, yet have only added about 20K. I was at that awful 50K mark of what I hope to be a 70K manuscript, and was struggling to write more than 50 words at a time.
Oh, god, those words were so hard to write. I tried to think of writing these words like laying bricks. (I feel like there’s a quote from either Annie Dillard or Anne Lamott about this but I could not find it). Brick by brick, the house will be built and the story will be written, and in the end no one can tell how quickly those bricks were laid down. But it’s hard and heavy work laying bricks.
Little bits of planning came through and sometimes those words I wrote would include snippets of scene ideas for the future, in hopes that a future me would have more motivation to write them.
But then, a breakthrough!
This one happened on a lazy Sunday morning as I lay in bed thinking and not wanting to get up. It just came to me what would happen in the scene I was struggling to write. Part of how this breakthrough came about was in thinking about what my other character arcs were. Somewhere I read that subplots were essentially the character arcs of the secondary characters, and that was the case here. I needed to raise the stakes for him, and create a conflict between him and the main character, Aubrey, that would leave her alone and without anyone to trust.
And just like that, I suddenly had the motivation to get through this awful transition scene that has taken me about two weeks to write! I’ve written more than 1K words for each of the past two days.
I feel so much better about things.
I’m not sure really how to engineer a breakthrough. I’ve previously posted about quick fixes for when you get stuck, but here are a few tips when you’ve hit a wall in your novel:
- Go for a drive: Sometimes my breakthrough come when I’m just listening to music and driving someplace, thinking about my story. The ideas always come when you can’t write them down! In addition to driving, try also taking a shower, lying in bed, or taking a walk.
- Consider your secondary characters: they have needs too! A lot of times I just expect them to hang around supporting the main character, but really, they can do a whole lot more than that. And sometimes, what they want can lead to a breakthrough!
- Jump the shark: If you’re really stuck, try making some completely huge leap in a different direction. You might just hop onto the right path for your story.
- Try not to stress out: I mean, if you’re a writer with a contract and deadline, maybe it will be impossible for you not to stress out. But for someone without a deadline imposed on them by an outside force? Relax! Your book has plenty of time to be written. When I get stressed at work I often tell myself, “It’s just a library.” Really, there are no emergency situations associated with my job. Books are not emergencies. The story can wait until it’s ready. Stress isn’t going to make it come any faster. Enjoy the journey!
- Remind the story that you’re waiting: Keep showing up and typing your five or fifty words a day. Keep that story coming, brick by slow brick. No matter how slow, you will get there!
Have you ever had a particularly long case of writer’s block? How did you break through?