Jumpstarting A Stalled Novel

You whip the old nag with a coat hanger.

“Move, you dang horse!” you shout, frothing over with piss and vinegar. You kick it. You pitch pebbles at its head. You hook cables to a car battery and stick ’em up its equine nether quarters and jam some voltage deep into the beast. And still it doth not move. Not a whinny. Not a tail-flick. You nicker at it. You pull your hair. You mumble something about this is why cars replaced you dipshits. You give up and stomp off.

Are you done? With your little poopy-pants hissy-shit-fit over there?

First, that’s not a horse. It’s not even a dead horse. It’s just a bundle of old blankets. You’re embarrassing yourself. Everyone can see what you’re doing. Plus, your underwear is showing. Tighty-whiteys? Really? With your name and the day of the week stitched in the hemming? For shame.

Second, that bundle of old blankets is a stand-in for something else. Come on, don’t lie. You’re a desperate novelist (or screenwriter or transmedia cyborg) and that heap of smelly fabric is a representation — a living emblem — of your stalled-out story. The old nag just won’t move and you think, “Well, you can just nuzzle my turgid teat, you stubborn old coot of a tale.” You lay blame upon it, heaping sins atop the pile the way they used to fill up old goats with present sins. But it’s not the story’s fault. It’s your fault. The story doesn’t exist outside you. Your characters don’t do things you don’t want despite what so many writers will tell you. It’s all you. That hill of nasty blankets will only move if you pick them up and move them. It’s your story. You have authorial agency.

Your story has stalled out because you stalled out. You are the reason that yet another unfinished novel will get shoved into the teetering tower of forgotten stories, reverse-Jenga-style.

And I’m here to jumpstart your heart-shaped derriere and shove your brain back into the game.

Your manuscript needs a cranked-up jolt of adrenalin. For that, I got a buncha tips to jam into your aorta. The first bunch is all about you as a writer and changing your habits. The second batch is about things you can do inside the story to kick free the story scree and get the whole thing moving again.

Think of this as a narrative laxative.

Flip It, Switch It

Sometimes, our brains get vaporlock. We’re idiots, us writers. A gaggle — nay, a mighty parliament — of OCD assholes. A handful of “stupid writer tricks” will go a long way into fooling yourself into overcoming your own tangled web of foolish fuck-brained folly. Here’s one: make a change as to your writing habits. Maybe for a day. Maybe for a week. Do you normally write in your office? Go write at the dining room table. Or at a Starbucks. Or at a Hungarian bathhouse. Do you write in the morning? Write at night. If you write on a laptop, switch to a desktop, or an iPad, or write a chapter long-hand. Sometimes, jostling your habits shakes loose some of the bad juju that’s gumming up the novel.

Discover Your Incubation Chamber

I have three primary incubation chambers: the shower, the lawn-mower, and outside taking a walk. No, these are not the places that I secretly masturbate. Sure, you could diddle your happy buttons on a riding mower, but dang, man, I have a push mower. Plus, I don’t need the squirrels judging me. No, an incubation chamber is my fancy made-up term for “a place you go or a practice you undertake where you can zone out and think.” In other words, you need to find time to let the story incubate. Take time. Bandy some shit around. Play the “what if?” game. “What if my protagonist became his own grandfather and then committed suicide inside Hitler’s bunker?” A good place to incubate stories? Right before bed. Set your brain like a slow-cooker. Introduce a problem or question, then go to sleep. Low and slow like beef brisket, bitches.

No Author Is An Island, Dumbass

Don’t internalize. Contact somebody. Call ’em. Write ’em. Just have a chat to discuss. Creativity lives on agitation. Call up a writer buddy and tell her the problem and see if you can’t work through it. Doesn’t have to be a writer, either. Any conversation can free it. Surely you have friends? You’re not just some mournful cave troll, right? Who do you normally call with your problems? If you were to call somebody and say, “Hey, okay, so. Ahhh, here’s the deal. I have four dead strippers. I am goosed to the nines on mescaline. This isn’t my shirt. And I think I’m on the Disneyworld monorail. What do I do?” — who would that person be? Identify them. Whoever it is that would help you with four stripper corpses is also the same person who can help you talk through your novel’s plot problems. Frankly, put that dude on your payroll, but quick.

A Little Dab Will Do You

Dear sweet chemical intervention. Hey, I’m not advocating illicit substances, but I do think that sometimes a mildly modified state of perception can be a win for a writer. It can be the machete to cut down through all the built-up bullshit inside your story. Caffeine is good to get the pistons firing. Liquor is good not necessarily during writing, but I’m not averse to a little responsible drinking after-hours where you can jot some notes down in a notebook or puzzle out some story problems in conversation with a buddy while under the influence of some adult beverages. Exercising releases other powerful chemicals, too, which can be good. Maybe take a little St. John’s Wort? Or eat a piece of chocolate for Chrissakes. Just a little stimulant. Bzzt. Zzzzt. Zap. No meth, though. I mean, seriously. You ever see a meth-head? Ghouls.

Write A Masturbatory Love Letter

You loved this idea once upon a time. You adored the book. I know you did, because we made fun of you on the playground. “You and the novel, sittin’ in the tree. H-A-N-D-J-O-B. First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes the Tijuana donkey show.” I think that’s how the rhyme goes. Anyway. This sounds super stupid, but bear with me: you need to fall back in love with the novel again. Write a letter. Or an email. Or a goddamn postcard, I don’t care. Start reminding yourself the things you loved about this book. Jot down why you wanted to write the thing in the first goddamn place. Surprise, surprise: you’ll find old reasons, yes, but you’ll discover some new reasons to love it all over again.

Envision The Cover

This? The epitome of shallow, but fuck it. I know, blah blah blah, you’re writing the book because you love the story, but sometimes you can’t help but look forward and get geeked while imagining some silly future shit. “On my wedding day, angels will descend from heaven and bring with them seven harpsichords.” “When my son is born, a wise shaman baboon will proclaim him the chosen one to rule the jungle.” “The first time I have sex, the hooker I nail will have two vaginas, and one of those vaginas will dispense chocolate coins.” So, hey, if what gets you going is looking forward and thinking, “Man, this book is going to look bitching on the shelves at Your Favorite Indie Bookstore,” then do that.

Boom Goes The Dynamite

Blow something up. (In the story.) Plunge the plunger. Light the fuse. Stephen King did this in The Stand, by the way, to jump start that stalled novel. He couldn’t quite figure out how to move the story forward and felt that the characters were… well, lost. So, in the second act he blew up the Free Zone with dynamite. Now, you don’t need to rely on an actual explosion in the text. “Explosion” is just another way of saying “Some properly dramatic shit that shakes everything up.” A murder. A breakup. The assassination of Santa Claus. The next Biblical deluge. The appearance of a cyborg orangutan from the future.

Feng Shui That Motherfucker

Feng Shui is probably bullshit. “This room has no flow. The chi is getting all gummed up in my heating vents. I need a mirror on that wall. I need something red on the opposing wall. In the corner? A duck carved from lava rock. In the other corner? Tom Arnold. And from the ceiling fan we must hang ribbons woven of my own chest hair and dyed with the blood of the infidel.” Still, there’s something there that’s altogether less mystical. “Hey, the arrangement of this room isn’t right; things feel off.” That can happen in the novel. So, rearrange some stuff. Start the novel at a different point. Change the flow. Move the timeline around — Chapter 5 is now Chapter 2. May require a little rewriting to bridge it, but just some minor rearrangement can feel productive. Rewriting and readjustment can be good voodoo.

Flip It, Switch It: Part II: Revenge Of The Switch-Faced Flippenator

Another flip, another switch. Change the point-of-view. Change the tense. Maybe you’re writing in third-person but it feels like you’d write it more easily in the first. Or, could be that writing past-tense isn’t as urgent as what you’d get out of the present. Yeah, sure, this requires rewriting, but, uhh, shut up. Nobody said this shit wasn’t work. Look at it this way: sometimes you gotta break something to fix something.

Turn Left And Take A Narrative Day Trip

Deviate. Deviate big. Start writing in a different direction. Pick a new character to follow. Explore some untold aspect of the storyworld. Create a sub-plot out of thin air involving submarines and the Christmas gifting habits of human-squid hybrids. See that door ahead? Forget it. Turn left and kick a hole in the wall. Walk through that. No, you may not use this stuff. Or maybe it’ll open up the novel in the same way that knocking down a wall in your house might open up a room. You gotta try something.

Shut Up And Put Your Back Into It

Alternately, if none of the above crap works, just shut up and do the time. Write through it. Flail about like a beached carp on your keyboard. Vomit words. Make shit up. Spasm. Smash together sentences with the grace and aplomb of a drunken moose. Writing isn’t magic. The end result may feel that way, but it’s just putting one word in front of the other. Do that until you feel the novel find its groove. It’ll happen. I swear. You might even go back and look at those vibrating word-spasms and think, “That was actually better than I thought. I expected literature on par with the holy books penned by a tribe of trilobites, but this is at least on the level of what a headless chicken could manage if you stuck a fountain pen in his neck stump.” There’s this feeling in exercise where you hit the wall but then, if you keep pushing past it, you suddenly get a surge of go-juice again. This is like that. Keep writing until you’re out of the dark and into the light.

Oh, and stop whining about it.

Howabout you, word nerds? What tricks do you use to fool your brain into lubricating the arthritic joints of that sluggish nag you call a manuscript? Share and share alike.