In my meandering path to becoming an author, I’ve discovered that nobody reads quite the same way that writers do. We read for pleasure, but we also read to improve our craft, gain inspiration to create our own stories, learn more about genres and themes we aren’t yet familiar with, discover tropes and trends… the list goes on and on.
So with people who are both readers and writers on my mind, since April is Read Self-Published month, I thought I’d use today to share a few tricks I’ve used in writing to jumpstart a story when it feels like it’s flagging. I’ve been using it to resuscitate my current WIP, so it’s a good time to do it. These suggestions have been culled from dozens of things I’ve tried, so they may not work for you the way they have for me–but they’re always worth a try!
1. The quick recharge
When you’re slogging through a story and you can’t seem to make headway, it’s important to evaluate what the problem is. Is the problem the story, or is the problem you? The first step is making sure you’re present and focused, ready to work. And the first step in doing that is… walking away from your WIP for a few minutes. No, really! If you can’t focus on your work, there’s obviously something else nagging for your attention, whether you know it or not. So if you can’t get going, back up and restart by taking a few minutes to clear your head.
Take a quick inventory of how you feel, both physically and emotionally. Have you eaten? Have you had enough water to drink? Are you tired? Have a headache? Worried about someone? Still stressed after work? Address any of these that need to be solved before you try to work. If you’re just feeling scatterbrained, there are a few things that can replenish your focus. A short walk is a great option if the weather is nice, especially since the job of writing requires us to be unpleasantly sedentary.
Otherwise, consider doing a few stretches, breathing exercises, or meditate for a few minutes before you sit down to write. Audio always helps me focus, so consider something soothing like MyNoise.net or even binaural beats, like what’s available on brain.fm. It may light a fire under you to set a timer for 15 minutes and just plan to write until the timer goes off. Or you might just need to establish a ritual to help you sink into your work; I try to make myself a cup of tea before writing sessions. Plus, the caffeine is always great for an extra little kick of motivation.
2. If a scene (or book) is boring to write, it’s not vital to the story being told.
I’m not talking about difficult scenes; every story has those. The one you dread, the one that puts your stomach in knots, the one that challenges and drains you to write. In some ways, these are worse. They’re not difficult–they’re just bland.
If you’re in love with the story you’re writing, you should be excited to sit down and write. If it just feels like a slog, the best thing you can do is sit back and figure out what exactly went wrong. One solid way to do this is to ask one question: What does this scene do to help me reach the ending?
If you can’t answer that question, you’ve found your problem.
Regardless of content, every scene helps propel us toward the story’s end. If you’re bored writing it, people will be bored reading it. If the scene doesn’t have a meaning, inject one. It’s okay to have slow parts and it’s okay to have fluff scenes like a character learning to cook, so long as they’re achieving something. But if it’s not helping your character grow, helping them form connections, or pushing them toward the story’s ultimate goal, it’s time to back up and revise… or consider cutting the scene entirely.
3. Take a shower.
The internet loves “shower thoughts” – those poignant realizations we only seem to have when we’re alone under the shower head with no one to voice them to and no way to write them down. Showers are soothing and restorative, and feeling refreshed can make it easier for you to tackle your next piece of writing.
Whenever I find myself stuck in a story, there’s no faster way for me to solve the problem than to get in the shower while I’m thinking about writing. As soon as I can’t commit anything to paper, solutions just start spilling out, and the plot problems I’m trying to solve dissolve faster than the fancy bath bombs a dear friend sent me. The mental exercise of trying to remember everything I come up with until I can reach a pad of paper is good for me, too, even though it can be a tad frustrating.
4. When you’re out of ideas, bring in a guy with a gun.
This is an old piece of advice from the days of pulp fiction and it’s still incredibly valuable. If your project is flagging, there’s a very real chance it’s because the stakes aren’t high enough. If you hit a lull, it’s time for a guy with a gun to walk in the door.
This doesn’t have to be literal, of course, but it’s reflective of something true of every story: The stakes are always death. Sometimes it’s the death of a romance or relationship, or the death of a dream or career. Others, it’s actual, literal death for your character. Whatever the case is, figure out what blow will push your characters to the next level of struggle within the story. Then write it, right where you are, dropping it into the story with no warning. You can iron out the transition later, but it creates a pivotal moment in your story that will put your readers on their toes–and you, too.
If that doesn’t work, consider the George R. R. Martin approach. Story stalled out? Just pick someone and kill them off.
5. If all else fails, shelve it.
Sometimes you just can’t escape it. If nothing you do breathes life back into the story, it’s a good indicator it wasn’t ready to be told yet. It’s still only half-baked, so the best thing you can do is put it back in the oven and let it cook a while longer.
Ideas don’t have expiration dates. The story I’m working on right now has been shelved for years. The first time I tried to write it, it tanked immediately. Nothing I did could get it going, so I put it away. Now that it’s had time to bake longer, I’m better prepared. After all, I’ve had the problems in the story slowly working themselves out in the back of my head for years. So now, it’s actually moving; not well, but for different reasons. The story itself is ready, but as I work through it and discover the changes I have to make to the original plan, I’m calling the previous four solutions into play.
Yesterday’s word count was 665, done in two ten-minute sprints, so I’d take that as a clear indicator it’s working.