We’ve all had this experience: you’re thrilled about your new novel idea, and when you sit down to write, the words just pour out of you. You race through the first forty or fifty or sixty pages like it’s nothing, and you just know you’ll have a finished first draft in no time.
Until suddenly, you stop. This story and the characters that were so clear at first have vanished, the words have dried up, and you have no idea where to go next.
In a recent Writers’ League of Texas podcast, “How to Turn a Mess of Pages into a Novel,” four Texas authors discussed exactly that problem, sharing their strategies for getting a novel back on track when it’s fallen off the rails.
1. Get Organized
Caroline Cohagen (The Lost Children, Time Zero, Time Next) is a self-proclaimed “pantser” (meaning she writes by the seat of her pants rather than making an outline), and for her, when that first rush comes to a halt, it’s time to get organized. So she goes back through what she’s written and makes a list of everything she’s teed up: characters, plotlines, key moments, and anything else she’ll need to resolve by the time the novel ends. Then she’s got a clear sense of what she needs to accomplish from there on out.
2. Get to Know Your Characters
For Stacey Swann (Olympus, TX), the rush ended when she felt as though she’d been kicked out of the world she’d built for her novel. It suddenly no longer felt alive or accessible, and she knew she needed to find her way back in. Swann realized that, though she knew everything about her characters as adults in the context of her story, she didn’t know anything about their pasts or how they’d become the people they were today. So she started writing character studies, exploring her cast as children, teenagers, and young adults. Fifty thousand words later, Swann knew everything about their histories and the old wounds that guided their relationships and their journeys, and she’d found her way back into the world.
3. Explore the World
Even the most fantastical novel, said Rene Perez II (Seeing Off the Johns), is grounded in reality. And for him, the key to getting his novel back on track was diving as deep as he could into the world he’d built, researching the town it was based on, walking its streets, studying its maps, and learning about its inhabitants. What they eat, what they listen to, and how they talk and relate to one another. By really immersing himself in the time and place that grounded his novel, he was able to find the frame of mind he needed to keep writing.
(Building a fantasy world? Here are a few pointers.)
4. Tune In
Both Perez and Evelyn Palfrey (Going Home, Everything in Its Place, Dangerous Dilemmas) also talked about music as a way to keep themselves in the right headspace. For Perez, it’s about stepping into the novel’s setting. Whether it's a Texana playlist to evoke geography, a ’90s pop playlist to evoke time period, or a breakup playlist to evoke tone, he’s found the right music can keep him grounded in the project. For Palfrey, music is more about tuning in to specific characters. When she was writing her first novel, she identified each of her male characters’ “anthems.” When she turned on any character’s song, she said, she was immediately dropped into his mind-set.
5. Give Yourself Choices
Palfrey also suggested two strategies she uses that allow her to move onto something completely different when she hits a wall. First, she doesn’t write linearly. Often, she said, she’ll write the first chapter or two, then move on to the end, then jump around in the middle of the manuscript as she’s inspired. Of course, this approach almost requires having a clear outline before you get started. Second, she keeps several projects going at once, working on whichever one is speaking to her any given week. These strategies mean that, when she runs into an obstacle, she can turn a different direction and keep working.
Every author confronts writer’s block differently, and if none of these strategies resonated with you, you can find a few more here. How about you? What are your favorite strategies for keeping a novel moving even when you feel stuck?
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