Whether you are a participant in NaNoWriMo or not, all of us have (most likely) experienced what it is like to hit the middle of the story and . . .
Some call it a brick wall, others talk about being stuck in the muck, and still others may not have a name for it but simply refer to the weeping and wailing that happens when the story is just stuck.
There are probably others who have written about why we get stuck in the middle, but I want to suggest some tips for getting out, based on how I FINALLY emerged from a draft that took me three times as long as anything else I’ve ever written.
1. Stop letting your desire for perfection become a form of procrastination.
I think all of us know that the really good writers are really the solid editors and revisers, but a lot of times knowing something and believing something is really far away from each other. There is a temptation to get so caught up getting the setting and the characters and the emotional impact and the pacing just right that knowing we aren’t makes us spin our wheels – or worse – stop writing in the first place.
Dear writer? It is okay to leave yourself notes. It is okay to suggest to yourself that double-checking a research point or the emotional chords you want to play even if at the time you are writing them, you aren’t in the headspace or the heartspace to write that during that draft. Remind yourself what you want to the reader to feel or experience at a certain place, and continue with the parts of the story that you know.
2. Write the story out of order.
Chances are, twenty years ago, this would have been really difficult. I had a professor who realized, after he’d written his doctoral thesis, that things were in the wrong order, so he cut it up, a paragraph at a time, and took over the living room, placing different thoughts where he thought they needed to be realigned. He also told everyone not to open the front door.
Now? Whether you are a Word writer or a Scrivener writer, moving scenes around, or even whole chapters can just be one more step in the revision process. In the case of my most recent draft, I knew how the story ended. I wanted, so much, to wait to write those as a dessert for the work that I was doing, but I couldn’t move on. So, I wrote the last two chapters (it’s a dual narrative story). I made the theoretical tangible and it absolutely unlocked something within me. (I didn’t write THE END then. That’s a mental celebration that I knew wasn’t authentic yet.)
3. Readjust how you think about the remaining work.
When I got really stuck, I was at 67,000 words. Most of my first drafts are right around 90,000 words, so I knew the math I was shooting for. (Okay, I may have double checked it a few times with the calculator – don’t judge me.)
Then I was having a conversation with a colleague who is also a writer and asked him about his current WIP, asking how many words he had left. And what he answered fundamentally shifted how I think about my work.
He said he didn’t keep track of how many words were left, or even how many words he’d written (not all the way). Instead, he’d blocked out how many scenes were left, and he knew how many of those he needed to write.
I plotted how to get from where I was to where I knew I needed to be in sense of chapters, and I discovered I had 18 left. That’s a lot easier to think about than 23,000 words. And the work became simply to write that chapter.
4. Create boundaries to protect yourself.
This is one of those pieces of advice that I am really good at giving to other people, and less than stellar at following myself. I was involved in lots of conversations that would occur throughout the day, and I didn’t realize how much emotional and mental energy I was tossing out to all sorts of people, thinking it was my job.
Yes, there are certain boundaries I don’t get to set on my own. I have three teenagers, I work full time, I’m married to an entrepreneur, I’m about to start an MFA program, I’m running unopposed as president of my favorite a writing organization. I signed up for those things, I need to follow through with the various obligations that come with them.
But what I realized recently was that I have also been taking on a lot of things as obligations that just aren’t. Part of this aha came at the same time that my primary religious leader issued a challenge to participate in a 10-day social media fast. I uninstalled all social apps from my phone and started to feel the weight of all kinds of things lifting from me. I saw the ways I could sneak in little things that could allow me to nurture the writing part of me, and I even allowed myself moments to sit and be still. This last part is essential for my mental health and allows me to better connect with the creative side of me.
Social media is back on my phone – it’s how I engage with some of my dearest friends who live all over the place, but I don’t get notifications for any of them. Not a little badge, not a banner, nothing. I have declined to help some people with things that I previously would out of guilt, and allowed myself, instead, to use that time to write. This is not to say that I live a fairy tale writing life with inspiration and opportunity and rainbows and unicorns. But I am done breaking promises to myself (inspired significantly by this book). I am done violating the trust my creativity has placed in me. And I’m slowly working on having less guilt for isolating myself to pursue the writing that I love.
Do you have any suggestions for how to negotiate inspiration or motivation when your book feels stuck?
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Tasha Seegmiller believes in the magic of love and hope, which she weaves into every story she creates. She is passionate about helping women nourish their creativity, is a member of the Women’s Fiction Writers Association,and trusts in the power of Diet Coke. The former high school English teacher now assists in managing the award-winning project-based learning program (EDGE) at Southern Utah University. Tasha married a guy she’s known since she was seven and is the mom of three teens. She is represented by Annelise Robey of Jane Rotrosen Agency.