Writing a novel makes your fingers hurt. It makes your head hurt. It makes your heart hurt. It puts you in a place where you have to acknowledge certain truths — about reality, about other people, and, most of all, about yourself. Writing a novel is like being an actor filmed in a low-definition movie and suddenly projected in hi-def on a screen the size of a football field.
All of your tiniest flaws are on display to the world. You can no longer hide the grime, the sweat, or the over-sized pores. You can no longer hide your heart, and you have to hope and pray that nobody laughs at it.
So when you’ve made this commitment to laying your naked soul on a sacrificial altar for the world, what really kicks you in the gut is when the novel, this lifeblood-spilling work, just refuses to go anywhere. You’ve risked all, you’ve let them film your grit and tears — and right before they show the film, somebody packs it into a container and hides it away in the bunker from the final scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark.
All that sacrifice, all that heartache. For nothing but a screeching halt to everything you hoped. Some of the thoughts that go along with this screeching halt sound like this:
Every time I sit down to work on my story, my mind goes blank.
My characters took the story in a new direction, and I don’t know what to do now.
I don’t feel like writing — the inspiration just isn’t there.
My writing feels stilted.
I’m just no good at this.
Here are a few reasons why that screeching halt happens — and a few hints on what to do about it.
5 Reasons Why Your Novel’s Getting Nowhere
1. You haven’t started writing it.
This one’s kind of a duh, right? Of course, it’s impossible to keep a novel going if you haven’t actually written any of it yet!
But that blank page — whether it’s lined or unlined paper, a notebook, or a word processor with blinking cursor — it’s awfully intimidating. It jeers and sneers at you. It knows your fear of failure. It speaks doubt into your mind and despair into your heart.
In Stephen King’s Misery, writer Paul hears a question every time he sits down to write: Pauly, can you? Every writer hears that question (most of us minus the “Pauly” part) — and too often, faced with getting started on that new story, our answer to that question is, “No. I can’t.” And so we don’t.
The solution to this problem is complex. Each of us has reasons for our fear of the blank page. Failure. Rejection. Ridicule. The belief that we don’t have the right to write. And a myriad of other mental/emotional buggaboos. Overcoming these fears can take years of dedication (and a lot more heartache). Sometimes, whether or not we overcome these fears depends on just how far we’re willing to go in knowing ourselves.
But the answer boils down to the simplest of phrases: Just write. Sit down, pull out your pen and paper, open your word processor, and just write. Write anything at all, even if it’s not your story. Engage in the simple act of getting words out of your head and into visible, tangible form. The rest might just take care of itself.
2. You don’t know where it’s going.
Ack! This plot! I had such a fantastic concept for how this book would go. But first the main character quit talking, then that supporting character just up and died, and then there was a major plot hole I didn’t know how to fill, so I changed direction somewhere around the middle, and now I’m getting to the climax and it doesn’t make any sense in the context of the beginning of the story, HELP!
You’ve been there, haven’t you? Please tell me I’m not the only one.
Not knowing where the story is going will kill your novel. The fix? Figure out where you want to go before you start. This means work, my friends. It means prewriting: outlines, character descriptions, synopses, and the like. You might not need all of these; you might need only one of these. You might need pre-writing in a form unique to your writing and working style. But you need to figure out your roadmap before you start the story, or you’re going to end up in a sticky rut.
If you’re already quagmired in the middle of your story, all is not lost. It’s going to take some tricky effort to extricate yourself, but you can do it! Sit back, plot it out, outline it, and take a close look at your story arc. You’ll figure out where you went wrong. And who knows? You might discover some side paths you overlooked before, and they might just lead you to something sparkly and grand.
3. You’ve forgotten the whys.
Why is he walking down the street with a machete in one hand and a lemon meringue pie in the other? Why is she standing in the middle of the market with nothing on but her hair curlers — and a smile?! What turned him into the kind of person who picks at his cuticles every time someone mentions faulty wiring?
If you don’t know why your characters do what they do, then eventually they’ll (a) do nothing the story needs them to do, or (b) do nothing at all. You must, must, must know their motivations, and you must know these motivations on an intimate level.
And once again, this means prewriting.
You need solid backstories for these people. These backstories might never make an actual appearance in your novel; your readers might never know about them. (Unless you become wildly famous and all your fans clamor to hear so much more about your characters that you have no choice but to broadcast their life stories to the world.) But you will know. You should know. Because that personal history is what makes your characters who they are today. And who your characters are should be your story’s driving force.
4. You’re not getting any feedback.
Oh, I know. You’re not writing this story for other people. You’re writing it for you — so why should you need feedback? You should be able to figure the whole thing out on your own, right?
We writers are blind. Every last one of us. Yes, yes, we see the world in ways that others might not, and we see things in the world that others might not. But when it comes to our own writings, we’re a bunch of blind mole rats. We fall in love with our characters, plots, and turns of phrase — and we’re incapable of seeing their collective flaws.
Fellow writers, there are a bunch of sighted people out there. They are called beta readers, and we need them like a blind mole rat needs…well, whatever it is a blind mole rat needs to get along. I’m guessing it’s more than a cane and a seeing-eye cricket.
In other news, I seem to be digressing into a really bad metaphor. The point is, we writers need objective feedback on our work. Our characters and stories deserve it. Without it, our craft will stagnate, and our stories will die. And if you’re stuck in the middle of your novel, the wisdom of an objective beta reader can get your novel started again in cramazing ways.
5. You’re waiting.
I have sad news to share with you, my friends: Inspiration doesn’t strike. Inspiration’s not an ethereal, graceful lady clad in something sheer, whispering the right words into your ear at the right moment. And inspiration doesn’t just show up out of the blue to help your novel along when you get stuck.
Inspiration, sadly, is a greasy little creepazoid twerp who’s never going to show up at work unless you show up there first. And if you expect him to do so, he’s just going to sit back in his worn-out, grimy easy chair and point at you and laugh.
Okay, so I lied. Sometimes, inspiration does strike — but you can’t count on it, and you can’t wait for it. If you’re waiting for a random hit of inspiration to get you out of your noveling rut, you’re going to be waiting for the rest of your life.
There’s just no way around it: You’ve gotta put in your butt-to-chair time. You’ve gotta make yourself sit down and write, even if every single word strains your mind and makes pulses visible in your forehead. It’s hard work, and it hurts. (Hmm, where have I heard that before?) But if you want your novel to go somewhere, butt-to-chair time is the price you have to pay.
And sometimes, the creepy inspiration dude won’t even show up then. Sometimes, you have to wrestle him into the chair beside you, hold a knife to his throat, and tell him to start talking.
The great thing is that once you’ve got him in that position, the guy usually won’t shut the heck up. And that’s when it turns glorious.
So, there we have five reasons for our noveling woes!
What other reasons have you experienced?
How did you turn the problem into a solution?
Are you still stuck? And what do you want to do about it?