We’ve all reached that point in a project where we run out of things to say. I’ll be honest, I thought that point was never going to come with the novel I’m working on. I started with such grand dreams and the process felt wide and bottomless. This is not a new feeling- I have started and abandoned about five novels now. So to imagine this feeling would not return was a bit, shall we say, misguided?
It comes on in different ways- things can begin to feel slow when you sit down to write. The voices of the story feel quieter. It’s harder to hear what the characters are saying. Sometimes there is suddenly a flood of social invitations that sound too amazing to pass up. Sometimes you get to a busy time of year and then there isn’t time to get to the book for a day, and then a month.
The first thing to remember is that this is not a sign that you are writing a bad book. Getting to a stuck place has nothing to do with the quality of your idea. It’s simply a part of the process that is inevitable as a writer. One of the curses of anxiety is how it compounds itself. First, you feel anxious about how the project is going. Then, this can fold in to become a layer where the presence of the anxiety begins to mean that the project is not worth continuing.
Take a deep breath and let that thought go. Your book is absolutely worth writing. Your story still matters. In these stuck moments, the important thing is not to damage your relationship with writing when things feel difficult. Instead of walking away completely or forcing yourself to grind through and continue at your prior pace no matter what, here are some helpful steps to take at low moments in a draft:
- 1) Write backstory. That relationship between two of your characters that isn’t quite clear? How your main character’s parents met? What happened that summer that no one can talk about? These kinds of plot lines that the reader may never find out completely in the course of the book, but that you need to know to decide what you put in the book and what you leave out are perfect ways to spend your time when writing the actual official book isn’t going so smoothly. I learned this tip from Scott O’Connor (ep. 72)
- 2) Let yourself cheat on your project, for a little while. I have lost count of how many writers have told me that they cheat on their main project when they get stuck. Patricia Park (ep. 71) started two other novels while at work on Re Jane. Edan Lepucki (ep. 4) always has a new book idea as a lover on the side when she’s working on a novel that she can look forward to working on when the current book is finished. If you’re feeling a bit bored with this project because a new one seems much shinier, then give yourself a few days to play. When you come back to your current project, you’ll be that much more motivated to finish and move on to the next story.
- 3) Change format. Don’t underestimate the power of the bright shiny object. When I get stuck on a project, I switch freely from handwriting it to typing straight into Scrivener, to dictating into a voice recorder on walks and then transcribing with Dragon Naturally Speaking (ep 84 Joanna Penn‘s hot tip for avoiding RSI), to typing with the Alpha smart (A trick I learned from Piper Huguley in ep 77) Sometimes changing how you write can be just the trick to keep writing.
- 4) Give it time. There is so much pressure to write fast and to get everything down as quickly as possible, but it isn’t always possible to write a book or a story as fast as we’d like to. It takes time to digest all the material and all the thinking you need to in order to write your story the best way you can. I have yet to speak to a writer who wishes their book had taken longer to write, but almost everyone wishes they could have gotten in done more quickly. Even so, Jade Chang and Paul McVeigh both said in their episodes that a lot of what made stories they got stuck on work was more time. That after reflecting and letting the work breathe, it came together on its own in the end.
- 5) Pull a tarot card. I have found this to be an incredible source of breakthrough in my writing as well as for others. Once a friend asked me to do a tarot reading for her writing project instead of her and the results were so profound that we were both utterly gobsmacked. I created an entire course about using tarot to break through blocks in writing and it’s still available for anyone who needs some support and guidance getting started.
Don’t give up on your writing. Everyone gets stuck and everyone has a hard time seeing the way forward when you’re in the middle. It’s normal to get rattled by this point. It’s called the messy middle for a reason. But just because things get messy doesn’t mean you have to give up on your story.
I hope you keep writing. I hope you keep going back to the page. I struggle with the same issues, and I have learned that every single writer does, too, no matter how successful they become. You are not failing if you get stuck. Trust your story, trust yourself, and keep going.
Your story is worth it and so are you.
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