JWAM reader request no. 3: How to get unstuck

There are a number of requests that touch on the same theme of getting stuck:

Jonathan says:

I’d be very interested in the pushing a dead plot post, since that’s where my novel is at.

On the other hand, I sort of know the answer already—stop reading blogs, sit down, and write.

Sylvia_rachel says:

I second the request for a pushing-through-a-dead-plot post (or perhaps a figuring-out-who-the-villain-is post). My writing projects tend to start with a strongly felt character/voice or scene, and then I have to go looking for a plot — sometimes easily found, sometimes … not.

Quiz question: Lois McMaster Bujold has said that the way she finds plots for character-driven novels is (I’m paraphrasing) to figure out what’s the worst thing she can have happen to that character, and then make it happen. Discuss 😉

Gillian A says:

I third the request for a post on pushing through with a dead plot. I’d also be interested in any comments on dealing with the ‘middle’ of a novel (although there may be elements of overlap with the dead plot advice – at least in my experience).

Dorothy says:

How can I make my plot more exciting? Like put in those kinds of turns to make you want to read the whole novel at once! So far my stories are too calculable.

Lianne says:

Sometimes when I’m writting I really like the story idea but, then I loose intrest in what I’m writng. I know that if I ever want to complete a novel, I have to stick with my idea and like what I am writing about. Do you have any advice on how to stick with my ideas?

These all amount to more or less the same thing. How do I stick with my novel? Despite the plot being dead, me being bored, me having crap ideas, my novel being totally uninteresting—how do I perservere?

My first response is, Oh, good. Another not easy question. Though I think I have at least partly answered Sylvia_rachel’s question in JWAM reader request no. 2 when I talk about nicking plots from elsewhere.

I’ll answer Sylvia’s quiz question first. Lois McMaster Bujold is the mistress of good plotting (and one of my favourite writers) so what ever she does is bound to work. Though personally, I have never consciously done that. How do you figure out what the worst thing is? Surely there are multiple answers to that question? (Which is probably Bujold’s point.)

How to deal with a dead plot

I don’t believe that any plot is dead. Only abandoned and/or recalcitrant. With the second (recalcitrance) often leading to the first (abandonment). This definitely seems to be the case for Jonathan, given the second half of his question: “On the other hand, I sort of know the answer already—stop reading blogs, sit down, and write.”

When your plot tangles, or grind to a halt, or becomes in some other way recalcitrant, sometimes the best thing to do is walk away. You need to not be in the same physical space with the problems. Go for a walk1 around the block, around the flat, whatever’s possible. Stretch our your back and arms and hands and fingers. Jump up and down on the spot. Do something physical away from your computer for at least fifteen minutes.

When you feel like the blood is actually circulating, sit down somewhere—not near your computer—and with pen and paper, or your iphone, or blackberry, or whatever—the key is that it be something that is not the thing you mainly write your novel on—write a quick schematic of where you are in the novel. You can draw little stick figures if you like representing the characters. Squares to represents the various places your novel takes place. Squiggles to represent action. Straight lines for when nothing’s happening. Etc etc. Personally I am not a visual person, I just write stuff down, you know, with words, but I have seen diagrams and sketches work for other people.

The point is to recreate your novel in a much shorter form to give yourself a different angle on it and a path forward. You may discover that not all your characters are interacting—bring two unlikely ones together. That they’re stuck in the same place—move them. And so on and so forth. Sometimes just the act of writing (or drawing or dancing) stuff about your novel away from it will trigger a solution to your plot problems.

It’s really important to take a break from your computer when you’re stuck. Don’t stay there futzing about on teh evil interwebs. That’s usually not the path to clearing brain and getting more focussed. Though if you’re writing your novel with pen and paper or on a typewriter (you lunatic!) or some other weirdness, then sitting in front of a computer could be just the break you need.

The other tried and true method—and this is the one I use most frequently—is to just push through. Sometimes that means putting in square brackets [no idea what happens here] and jumping ahead to write a scene where I do know what happens. Other times it means stubbornly writing even though you’re not sure what happens next. I did this when I got stuck with Magic Lessons and wound up writing about twenty thousand words (or whatever it was) where Tom was stuck on his own in Sydney while Reason and Jay-Tee had a fine old time in NYC. I didn’t realise I’d made a wrong turn until I had Tom sitting on his own in the cemetery saying to himself, “What am I doing here?”

Very good question.

I deleted the twenty thousand words and started from the point where Tom had been left on his own with nothing to do. This time Jay-Tee stayed in Sydney. The book began to write itself. Love it when that happens!

Scott had the same thing happen to him with Extras. He started the book in Hiro’s point of view before realising 16,000 words in that was the wrong point of view. He had to start over. Not much of what he’d written was salvageable.

Many beginning writers are appalled by these stories. “But you wasted so much time!”

Not really.

The time spent going in the wrong direction is how we figured out the right direction. Making mistakes and fixing them is how you learn to write a novel. Very few (if any) people get it right the first time.

Pretty much every novel Scott and I’ve written (and I suspect this is true of most novelists) has far more words on the cutting room floor (so to speak) then make it into the actual novel. I don’t mean that in the dramatic ditching-twenty-thousand-words-cause-of-wrong-turn way. Just that as you write, you make edits:

    First version: Her hand had gotten cold so that when she reached out to touch him he startled from the coldness of her touch. (22 words)

    Second version: Her hand was cold. When she touched him he startled. (10 words)

    Third version in which you realise the sentence not only sucks, but is unnecessary and cut it: (0 words)

So 22 words witten, but none of them remain in the complete first draft of the book. That’s just one (very bad) sentence. There are gazillions more where that came from.

Dealing with the middle, making things more exciting, finishing

I think the advice above can definitely help when you’re bogged down in the middle and will also help make things more interesting. You should also look at JWAM reader request no. 2 about generating ideas.

But I suspect that the real problem is often psychological. Who says your book isn’t interesting? You, right? Are you sure that’s not just an excuse to give up?

The most important way to deal with all these problems is to finish your book. It’s very hard to diagnose what’s wrong with an unfinished manuscript. Trying to fix things before the book is finished can complicate and slow things because once you truly finish you may discover that your diagnosis was wrong. Making your book good is easier to do when you have a complete manuscript to work with.

Your main job is to complete the first draft. This is especially true if you’ve never finished a novel before. You will never trust yourself as a writer until you have a completed ms. with a beginning, middle, and an end.

Hope this advice helps. Just remember there are lots of different solutions to these problems. Some will work for you, some won’t.

NOTE: Please ask your writing questions over here. It’s easier for me to keep track of them and answer them in order if they’re all at the end of that one post. Thanks! I’m taking writing advice quessies for the whole of January.

  1. I know that’s tricky for some of you Northern hemisphere types given that it is literally below freezing right now and I’ve heard tales of people in Canada dying of exposure when they went out to get the paper and the door slammed behind them []


  1. Diana Peterfreund on #

    Great advice, Justine. Another thing I’ve noticed is that when I’m stuck in writing, it’s often because I’m doing something that I know in my gut is “wrong.” So I just go back a scene or two and start again. You don’t have to delete. Just put stuff you want to get rid of in a “cut” file and start over.

  2. lisa on #

    [Square brackets, I love them!]

    I use them all the time! Sometimes I write [something] or [no idea], other times it’s a more specific marker like [Sunny Side Hotel night].

    Another thing I use is the XX. I never stop writing to check details so I use an X-marks-the-spot scheme. Then when I’m rewriting/uninspired I can return, do a little research/thought and fill in the missing details. Like, on the 14th day I walked XXkms, he rang XX times, etc. My current manuscript has a lot of XXs.

  3. Lianne on #

    Thanks so much for the great advice! I had this story idea that I loved but, I stopped writting because I felt the story was going nowhere. But, I think that I am going to go back and try to work with the idea some more!

  4. Celeste on #

    Very true and super advice. I can’t say how many times I’ve written and rewritten a section until it finally drives the story forward where you want it to go. Sometimes you even like the drivel a little bit and think you want to save it, maybe even recycle it. So like Diana, I keep an “outtakes” file that makes me feel safer. I can look at the outtakes any time I feel like it. I almost never re-use outtakes though. They never seem to fit anywhere! But I’m okay with that.

  5. Karen on #

    Going for a walk in my part of the Northern Hemisphere is fine if you are dressed for it. I walked to work on Friday and it was -37°C. Though generally I prefer indoor distractions (vacuuming, laundry) when I’m stumped about a scene, especially in January. You’re right that it works to get away from the computer.

  6. Gillian A on #

    Thanks Justine. Goes off to ponder advice.

  7. Leahr on #

    That is brilliant advice, Justine. But telling us to get away from the computer when we’re reading your blog….you aren’t really helping me to do that, here. 🙂
    can you talk about characterization next? like, when all your characters seem flat and annoying and you want to make them more appealing?

  8. Justine on #

    Leahr: Clearly, reading all these posts on writing is not procrastination and can only help.

    I am answering the questions in the order that they come in on this post. But you’re in luck I think some has already asked for a post on characterisation.

  9. sylvia_rachel on #

    This all sounds like excellent advice — thanks 🙂

    Boo on the Canada-hating, though. We are a very nice country with very pretty snow and a wide selection of gear to keep you warm while you play in it 😉

    I also keep an “outtakes” file (I call it “deleted scenes”) for each project so that I can get rid of things without actually losing them. They rarely end up back in the story, but knowing they’re still there if I need them is v. liberating.

    I do the thing with the square brackets, too, except I use asterisks and red text and yellow highlighting, and write things like (most recently) “**Thursday eve. (late): David reckons it’s safe to open up some of the Jutras boxes and look inside. So WTF does he find in there??**” And then stride briskly away and hope my back-brain will come up with some really cool McGuffin while I’m not looking …

  10. Jessica on #

    “It’s very hard to diagnose what’s wrong with an unfinished manuscript.” Yeah… and it’s hard to figure out what’s wrong with a scene if you don’t know the rest of the story. My brother is very slowly writing a novel and at one point asked me to help him figure out what was wrong with this one scene, and I was like… “I have no context!” Sometimes, of course, you *can* tell what is wrong with a scene or paragraph or sentence without the larger context, but sometimes you can’t. He didn’t believe me. 😛

  11. keenai on #

    How do you figure out what the worst thing is?

    I read somewhere that the thing to do when you’re stuck is to ask yourself two questions:

    1. What does my character really want?
    2. What is my character really afraid of?

    And then you can move the plot in an interesting way. Ever since reading that I’ve noticed it in good stories. For example, in 40-Year-Old Virgin, there’s that scene where Steve Carrell’s character is scared that the woman he’s dating might want to have sex, and he picks a fight with her, and the viewer knew that the fight was because of what he really wanted and was really afraid of even if he or his girlfriend might not have known.

    I wish I remembered more specifics about the scene, but it struck me as the perfect example of finding something plotty to happen, if that makes sense.

  12. Alexa on #

    Great advice, thank you. I was actually futzing about on the evil, distracting internet but it lead me to your post, so this time it had a positive outcome 🙂

  13. Cheyenne Maxey on #

    Well I wright a lot of stories for a living and I do get stuck all the time.The way I get unstuck is that I go back and re-read what I have all ready got and think of ways that I could improve it.Then I put tose improvemeant into the next part of my story.
    And if that does not work for you thats ok. I think that if you are writing something that YOU think is fun then YOU should make the choses!!!!!!!!!
    HAVE FUN!!!!!!!!

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