9 Ways to Stop Your Novel from Stalling
by Tracey Barnes Priestley
I would be willing to wager that most writers have made New Year’s resolutions regarding their writing practices. I know I have.
Curious about this, I canvassed a few of my writer friends. Sure enough, many of them had frequently participated in this annual tradition that dates all the way back to the Babylonians. Each writer had faced January with a deep commitment and heartfelt enthusiasm for those resolutions. One promised herself she’d “finish the first draft” of her novel. Another told me she had written on her dry-erase board, in big, bold letters, “I will clean up the dialogue mess that’s drowning this book.” The least experienced of them, an as yet unpublished young man full of enthusiasm for his craft, swore he would “silence my inner critic and keep writing, no matter what.”
I followed up by asking them how successful they had been in keeping those resolutions. Unfortunately, all had experienced the same thing: disappointment. No matter how hard they tried, they had ultimately been unable to make good on what they had resolved to do.
I knew exactly what they were talking about. I gave up creating New Year’s resolutions about my writing years ago when I found myself at the end of yet another cold January, with nothing more to show for all of my efforts than an exercise in futility. I was left feeling a range of emotions, from guilty to downright silly.
It’s actually quite comical just how few of us keep our New Year’s resolutions. It’s estimated only 45 percent of the population even tries to resolve making changes in the New Year. Of these brave souls, a mere 8 percent are successful.
Yet I’ve wondered if writers might be even more inclined than the general public to approach the New Year with a list of things we want to change, accomplish or do differently. We seem ripe for this kind of experience. As creative thinkers, we face a unique set of circumstances when it comes to producing our work. Alone in whatever space we can manage for our writing, we pound away at the keyboard, with our thoughts, our characters, our struggles and the never-ending reality that we aspire to a tough, highly competitive profession. Why wouldn’t we try to capitalize on the fresh start, the clean slate that January offers us? Magical thinking is right up our alley!
Why Our Writing Can Stall
In my work as a life coach, I’ve come to believe that our writing can be derailed because of two fundamental processes. The first, naturally, is the very nature of our craft, the writing process itself—think plotting, character development, etc. Unfortunately, this intrinsic set of challenges dwells right alongside our individual writing processes—complete with procrastination, destructive thought patterns, negative experiences, ambiguous motivation, unrealistic expectations, etc. And we wonder why we can’t keep our writing resolutions.
By now you’re probably ready to chuck your computer out the window. Don’t! Think of these two processes as valuable tools. Once you understand how they may be driving your inability to meet your writing resolutions, you will be poised to utilize effective strategies that support you and your writing every step of the way.
What’s Holding You Back?
Let’s begin by identifying the warning signs that your writing may be about to stall out. Consider current or previous writing resolutions you failed to keep. Ask yourself if you have experienced any of the following: lack of initiative; inability to prioritize writing tasks; frequent distraction; failure to establish a consistent writing pace/routine; inner dialogue that is one negative message after another; finding yourself simply “too busy” to get anything done. This is hardly an exhaustive list. Reasons writers stall can be varied and unique. Your task is to be as exact—and as honest with yourself—as you can in identifying what gets in the way of your ability to make progress on your projects. Make a list.
Next, evaluate this list from the perspective of the work-in-progress itself. As an example, let’s use my writer friend’s resolution to finish her first draft.
Every time she sat down at her computer, this writer felt lost about where the story should go next, and unclear about the relationship between her two main characters. She found herself thinking, This is useless, and, It’s not a strong enough idea for an entire book—maybe I should ditch the entire thing.
First, she tried to address the problems in the work itself. She sought craft and technique help with her plot and eventually resolved some backstory problems that had delayed the action and confused things between her characters. But the problems with her own lack of clarity persisted. Now she was fairly certain that the problem was within her writing process.
That meant facing off with her inner critic, which is always the most efficient place to begin. She looked her frustration in the eye and began to unravel the negative messages ricocheting around inside her head. Why exactly was this project “useless”? After some contemplation, she surprised herself with her answer: “Because I don’t have the patience for anything but short stories—certainly not a full-length novel.” This statement got her wheels turning in a new direction. She rethought her word choice (she is, after all, a writer) and decided it wasn’t really a lack of patience—this gifted writer was actually lacking confidence. She found herself wondering:
I’ve had some success with short stories, so why am I risking my time and energy on something I don’t know much about? She realized she’d been rationalizing away the entire project, even though writing a novel really was something she wanted to try.
Once you are able to identify what is really preventing you from pushing ahead, you’ll be freed up to construct writing goals that will actually yield productive results. For my friend, this meant not just correcting her self-defeating thoughts, but lifting the expectations she was unconsciously placing on her unwritten manuscript. It didn’t have to be a “success,” as her published short stories had been, to be worth her while—or at least, she needed to redefine what success meant to her. Once you decide that writing something you want to write is never a waste of time, regardless of whether or not it’s published in the end, you might just find that those negative voices quiet down on their own.
Let’s consider another example, the young writer who swore he would “silence my inner critic and keep writing, no matter what.”
When he viewed his writing from the perspective of each of these two processes, he discovered some distinct problems. He admitted to himself that he felt foolish in the eyes of others for turning his back on the profession he had trained for—engineering—and that he felt like a fraud because he had not been formally trained to be a writer. Those were demons he had to face if he ever wanted to get past Chapter 1.
Next, from the perspective of the writing process, he realized that while writing a novel was on his bucket list, he had not really worked out enough of a story idea to be able to take action on the page.
If you’re intimidated by the prospect of writing an entire novel (and who isn’t?), why not set a goal of writing, say, three chapters? By the time you meet that smaller, more achievable goal, you might just find you have an idea for Chapter 4. When it comes to writing, the laws of momentum apply—it’s infinitely easier to move toward something when you’re already in motion than it is to start from a dead stop.
How to Avoid Stalling: 9 Ways
Now that you’ve seen how fundamentals that have very little to do with actual words on a page can derail a writer’s progress, let’s take a look at what else we can to do make sure we keep moving.
1. Ditch the word resolution entirely.
It’s a setup, one that has been riding on the backs of people for thousands of years. Instead, set a goal, objective or even intention.
2. Understand what truly motivates you.
For some writers, identifying a positive outcome and working toward it is the most effective form of motivation. Conversely, other writers are spurred on by a degree of unrest, even fear.
Write down exactly what is motivating you to meet your writing goal. Is it a good fit? Does it ring true? If not, identify a more appropriate motivation. When finished, post it where you can see it when you are writing.
3. Break it down.
It can be quite worthwhile, exciting even, to set large goal. “Yes, I will finish my novel this year!” But make sure it’s specific—which usually means breaking it down into smaller goals you can cross off along the way. Remember my friend’s resolution, “I will clean up the dialogue mess that’s drowning this book”? It would have been more attainable to separate this vague notion into three separate goals: (1) When I hear myself saying negative things like “I’m drowning this book,” I will stop, write the negative message down, put it into my complaint box and get back to work (a good practice for anyone working toward any goal, by the way); (2) Over the next two weeks I will identify the dialogue passages that are giving me grief; and (3) By the end of January, I will have rewritten at least one scene that includes dialogue. Note that the goals are not just well defined, but action oriented, and that the second and third goals include a targeted time frame. Most of us will be more successful if we give ourselves reasonable deadlines.
4. Be realistic.
Changing behaviors, attitudes and habits is a process. Rarely does change occur because of one event or a date on the calendar. (Curious to know more about why this is? Do some research on the neuroscience of change—you will be astounded by what is required for our poor brains to shift into a new mode.)
5. If you feel frustrated, pick a single task—the smaller the better.
It should be related to your work-in-progress, but it doesn’t have to be what chronologically comes next in your manuscript’s progression. It does, however, need to be so simple you can’t possibly fail. For example, it may seem like rewriting one page should be easy enough to accomplish, but if you’re not succeeding, the task is too big. Instead, aim to rewrite one paragraph or even just one sentence. When you are finished, move onto the next small task. This approach fights frustrations with success, and builds forward progress into your writing practice.
6. Pair up.
Ask another writer to join you in working toward your individual goals in the months ahead. You’ll both benefit from being accountable to one another, and the mutual support will motivate you to follow through.
7. When all else fails, take a break.
It can be as simple as getting up from your computer and walking around the house, or as significant as putting your project on hold for a month. Stepping away from the source of our frustration can give us a fresh perspective and renewed momentum. But be sure to designate an end point to this refueling period to ensure that it is in fact a break—and not an excuse not to get up from that chair and never sit back down.
8. Realize that setbacks are part of the process.
Every writer’s road is full of tight curves, jarring potholes and unexpected bumps. Accept this inevitability, and you won’t be as surprised when you slam into something that brings you to a screeching halt. By eliminating the element of surprise, you minimize disappointment, which will help you to recover and get moving again.
9. Above all, be patient!
Meeting your writing goals takes time and effort. When you throw out that laundry list of resolutions and focus your attention on just one or two well-crafted objectives, you’re already one step ahead of where you were last year. Remember that 12 months is plenty of time to accomplish your writing goals if you approach them with understanding, clarity and objectivity. Here’s wishing you every success in 2015. Happy New Year!
About the author: Tracey Barnes Priestley is a columnist, blogger and novelist. She is the author of the novel Duck Pond Epiphany as well as a life coach who teaches writers organization, communication and stress management skills useful for today’s publishing world. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org