This post was written for the I'm Shelfish blog.
Three things to ask if your novel is stalled.
I often hear “I’ve been writing a novel for decades. Somehow I just got stuck and can’t finish it. What is the key?”
Some writers have dozens of novel beginnings that they never finish. These writers lose focus, or did not have a clear focus to begin with. Then the writing becomes difficult, right about the middle, and they abandon the novel, waiting until they unlock the secret of finishing. But the key to that middle ground is really simple – keep going.
But you’re stuck, right? It isn’t fun any more. You’d rather watch NCIS than stare at a blank screen, as your insecurities rise up. I get that. I’ve been there with every one of the novels I’ve written. Here are some things to ask yourself when stuck.
Do you have a clear idea of how the book ends? Often, the direction isn’t clear. I tend to be a “pantser” instead of an outliner. But once I get stuck, I have to plot and plan to find where the plot is going. I have to settle on a vague ending. It will probably change as the writing picks up again. But clarifying your end, knowing where the plot is heading, will spur imagination. It gives you a dot to connect your wonderful beginning to. The brain likes to connect things – it will imagine the possibilities in between those dots and creativity will follow.
Are you sitting down to write on consecutive days? Related - Are you sitting down at the right time for you? Writing on consecutive days spurs creativity. The first day is for fidgeting and despair (nothing will come!) and writing descriptions of what to write when inspiration strikes. The second is for writing the novel itself. Days 3-6 are when I hit my stride. Some writers sit everyday, but I find I need a day or two off occasionally for the creative well to refill. Also, think about the time of day you sit down to write. You may feel the only time is after the workday, in the evening. But if you are a morning person, it might be best for your imagination to get up early. Or during a noon lunch break. No specific time will be best for every person. Simply changing what time you write could give you the breakthrough you need.
Are you editing too much as you write? Or not enough? Every writer has a different style of getting the words to paper. You need to find what keeps yours moving. Natalie Goldberg advises to put pen to paper, and never look back at what you are writing – just keep moving. Others outline completely and edit as they go, their imagination spurred more by organization than intuition. Outlines stifle my writing, but writing by keeping the hand moving ends up in a jumbled mess of thoughts rather than a novel. So I find a happy medium. I write until I am done for the day. The next day I read over what I wrote the day before, make edits, and then continue the story. This reminds me of what I was excited about yesterday so I can move forward, but gives me enough structure to get a good first draft. Perfectionism can stifle your imagination; but sloppy organization can create novel-killing frustration.
Writing consistently is about knowing where your sweet spot is. Once you understand where your story is going, sit down consistently at the time that is right for you and get your level of structure – you will conquer the dreaded middle to finally finish your novel.