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.

28 comments

  • Excellent post.

    The only thing that ever worked for me was asking myself could I actually imagine giving up on the novel I’ve been blocked on. The answer was always usually a big resounding hell no inside. From there it’s all about picking yourself back up again, I’ve found, and just getting the damn work done whether its writing a first draft, editing or somewhere in between.

    There’s part of a song I love by a Hawaiian musician named Anuhea that gets my attitude about this across pretty well i think.

    Relentlessly
    I hold my breath till the pressure fades
    And i’m saved, so wash all my worries away.
    It’s okay
    Don’t be afraid
    You get to start all over again.
    ‘Cause everybody knows, stay away from the undertow
    To get knocked down is going to hurt but don’t fight through the flow.
    Let go.
    Keep your head above the water line
    And decide
    Do you want to sink or fly?

  • Tricks? You want tricks? We’re talking about writing, right? Right.

    Lately, I’ve been writing Wendig-inspired flash fiction for an hour and slapping it up on my blog and then, like magic, people come over and tell me they love it or it made them laugh. I don’t even KNOW some of these people and haven’t yet figured out how to bribe them. I’m working on that. Because, wow, what a great feeling.

    Seriously, there is nothing quite like having people say Nice Things about your writing to motivate you to write more. So find a way to share some of it. Really. Be brave. And in ref to the last post, to all you readers out there, do not think for even one minute that your kind words or thoughtful reviews are not valuable to writers. They are priceless. I think the most important thing to a writer is a receptive and responsive audience. In a vacuum, we wither and die. You keep us doing what we do, at whatever price.

    Also, offer to critique someone else’s work. A writer friend sent me her first 50 pages and I read them this weekend. Let me tell you, she’s an incredibly talented writer and a gifted storyteller. Characters so well defined you feel you know them, setting so well described you are right there, and sexual tension that makes you want to– ahem, never mind. But she needed a little help with conflict. Because there wasn’t any. So I sent her about six dozen emails in which I beat the crap out of her and brainstormed different ideas for possible conflict. She thanked me profusely and claimed it was helpful. But then again, she’s also a very nice person. For a writer. Funny thing is though, working through all that helped me see a way to solve a problem I was wrestling with in my own ms. Find a way to engage in creative thinking. About anything.

    Other than that, I find mimicking “the grace and aplomb of a drunken moose” works pretty damn well too. Sort of my specialty.

  • In my most recent novel, which is my eighth or ninth (too lazy to give a shit), I used the dynamite. I actually used the phrase “lob in a plot grenade,” but same thing. I blew the hell out of that mofo, and now it”s freakin finished. Oh yeah. Hey, it worked in the last season of Doctor Quinn Medicine Woman, so it must be better than willow bark tea.

  • So maybe I should read your whole post before I reply, so I can say everything in one post instead of two, and get fewer backlinks, and… uh… never mind.

    So I had this novel, same one as before, and my notes told me to lob in a plot grenade, but I didn’t actually have a grenade yet. Months later, I decided to read THE BOOK THIEF again, and the narrator was Death, and I thought “that’s what I need.” Nah, not Death, but a different narrator. So between the new POV and the plot grenade, that bad boy was ready to roll.

    Seriously, I stretched myself in ways I never did in the seven or eight novels before it, and don’t be too salacious about people who stretch themselves in new ways or you’ll go blind, and no you can’t stop when you need glasses, and quit reading this shit and write a book.

  • One of my tricks, of dubious quality to be sure, is to do some other writing thing when I get stuck. So when editing gets to me and I start frothing, i switch to writing flash fiction, good short stories, or totally self indulgent power trips.
    Oh thats a second idea: totally self indulgent power trips. Write weird shit. Explain nothing, fight scenes, fan fiction, hot sex scenes, self insertion. Just do it. Or as my friends would say: do it NINE TIMES. It can help get the words going again and you can relax now that that urge is out of your system. Odd I think I just encouraged literary masturbation.

    And finally: go do strange shit. Hit up a club, eavesdrop a little in public, go to a new town or part of town, a new place to eat. The big thing is that you are in an environment outside of your normal bubble, and preferably near people. You would be amazed what ideas start coming to you. And if that fails at least you had an interesting time in the club/store/bad part of town/restaurant.

  • I swear by writing sprints/word wars. It’s only 30 minutes, surely you can write SOMETHING. And if you find a friend to join you, then it’s a race and bam, you’re off. Works like a charm if you’re at all competitive.

  • Going back to the drawing board has worked for me a few times. not to scrap the novel, but just to see how things have come out so far, where they’re going, and how far off the tracks I’ve ran the damn thing. Pulling back can give perspective, and even if you can’t figure out where you’re going next, you can see where you need to be at 5 o’clock, and work out the in between time from there.

    Doing flash fictions, or working on other things can also help. I wrote a fan-fic on a friend’s dare, and for the writing practice along with having to use a set universe, and it jostled loose a ton of ideas for other projects I’m working on. Also found some characters I really like in it, and may return once more into that universe for ye olde shites n’ gaggles.

    You and the novel sittin’ in a tree. H A N D J O B. First comes love. Then comes marriage. Then a Tijuana Donkey Show from a Maiden’s Carriage!

  • Everyone’s already touched on mine (including ego stroking and word sprints). The only thing I could maybe add is to remember to decompress once a day and do something totally unrelated to the novel – read a book, watch your favorite tv show, etc. Something you love, or at least holds your interest and sends you brain pistons firing in a different direction. Solutions tend to pop up out of these things that are very different from my own work. Jot ‘em down and see if it’ll still work in the morning.

  • not sure how much help this advice will be in jumpstarting one of my (many) dead novels but this?…

    “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?”

    … this is quite possible by next story. I can see it now! “The Mystery of the Four Dead Disney Strippers”

  • What helps me most is to step away from the book for a while and work on something else. I was stalled with Stolen Prey for a while, not sure which direction I wanted to take (plus I was so busy I didn’t have enough time to properly devote to it). I started re-editing The Lothgoliar. After about six months, I came back to Stolen Prey, re-read it with a more objective view, and then just wrote a chapter. I think sometimes you have to write things that aren’t much fun to write but are necessary for the plot, and that’s where I became stuck. Once I got through that chapter, ideas came, and the rest is history.

  • The last time this happened I took a sidekick and made him a traitor. I threw his ass under the bus and it worked beautifully. I think my subconscious was going that way but my original outline didn’t match up so I stalled.
    Novel before that one I actually wrote separate back stories for a few characters. It really did the trick and gave me so much more material to work with.

  • Very timely…almost…too timely. You’re stalking my computer, right?

    I literally started rewriting a book I stalled out on yesterday. I was convinced the book was an utter piece of crap, and abandoned it at 20K. I wrote another novel, and the idea wouldn’t leave me alone. When I read through what I already had, I realized it wasn’t crap at all. It was pretty good for a rough draft.

    So I made lots of notes about where I stalled out and why. Things like not knowing the plot well enough and a fuzzy middle. I find that trying to figure out why I am stalling on the novel, and making a plan to fix it, really helps me. Sometimes losing interest is your subconscious’s way of sending up a distress signal that you’re making a wrong turn, or you don’t know a character as well as you should.

    Make a note, take the necessary action to patch the problem, and get writing again. When I said patch, I really mean patch. A quick fix to get yourself back in the game. This is not the time to procrastinate writing the novel.

    I am also switching the book from multiple first person to third, and it’s a PITA.

    But fun, and the novel feels alive again.

    Thanks for the great post!

  • I got stuck-ish on my own most recent chapter. I can’t even put my finger on why, other than that it marked the halfway point of the book, so I figured something pretty keen ought to be happening. I knew what needed to happen, but didn’t have all the details worked out. Sat in it for longer than I intended to.

    Looking back at it, I did three things to get it moving again:

    1: I decided, y’know, it’s a first draft. It’s perfectly okay for this chapter to need work, as long as I get past it and get the plot moving again. That’s what rewrites and editing are for.

    2: I took away some of the POV character’s knowledge. In its original form, everything Went According to Plan. Which meant there was no building up of tension. So one of her allies did something she wasn’t expecting, and she had to react. It suddenly flowed a bit better.

    3: I threw in a fight scene. Not quite dynamite-planting, but the second half of the chapter switches to a different POV. It’s a character who hasn’t yet been seen doing the thing she does best. Original form, she and her partner followed the villains, found their lair, and called it a day. Booooring. So they got caught, and she got to kick some ass.

    The chapter went longer than I’d intended, and I’m not sure if I’ll keep a couple of the reveals I tossed in there, but damn, it’s good to be moving again.

  • This may be my favorite post to date! I do most of this already, and it sure is nice to know I’m not the only one who has to resort to this kind of crazy shit in order to drag the damn story kicking and screaming out from whatever blockade its been hiding behind. Last time I got seriously stuck, I conjured up some new character – I had no idea who he was or what he was for, I just threw him into the lion’s den with others and said “here, have fun!” Caused quite a fight, it was great.

  • My incubation chamber is my car and doing chores, especially the dishes.

    Other tricks I use are word wars and just write. The first words may suck, but they more often than note develop into a flow and soon I forgot I was struggling at all.

    A timer works well for me too to the point that I keep writing even after it goes off. And distraction free word processors.

    When you’re faced with a word processor that takes up the whole screen and the word war or timer just started, your brain is pressured to do something, anything. Thus, I write, discovering there was stuff I could write about that I wasn’t aware of before.

  • That old gray mare, she ain’t what she used to be. But usually I can polish her back up to her original luster in a couple ways.

    Like you, I incubate: in the shower, in the car, while walking the dog, and — my personal favorite — in departmental meetings. I’ll hop off the beaten nag and take a different route entirely. I’ll place Tom Arnold atop the lava duck, and shake the fuck out of Santa Claus.

    But if none of that works, I cheat on her.

    I leave my novel at home, and throw myself into the loving embrace of a naive little thing that means nothing to me. She’ll be nothing like my former flame — much shorter, perhaps a bit on the wild side, and not rooted in reality — but it’s okay, since I’m not looking for anything long-term. I’ll have my way with her for a few days or weeks, then cast her aside like a bunch of old blankets and return home to my novel, my passion for the ol’ nag renewed.

  • If walking away for a few days doesn’t work, I go back to some scenes I’ve already written and make up a few utterly ridiculous “what-if” scenarios.

    Worked for me on my latest book. My protag was taking a shit-kicking, and I thought “What if she gets rescued by… elves?” No, this was not a fantasy novel. Ridiculous, right? So I introduced some wacko role-playing guys. Added some humour, got everything moving again, and tied in nicely later in the book, too.

    Works for plot, too. Sometimes I stall because I’m bored. I know how it ends. Yawn. So I take a couple of steps back and make a hard left-turn. What happens now? Write your way out of this one, baby.

    Sometimes it’s just silly enough to break the stalemate and get me back on track with the original plot. Sometimes it makes the story so much better that I run with it. Either way, I’m writing.

    Four dead strippers, you say? Hmmm, wonder what would happen if…

  • Timer on for 5 minutes. Write or Die works but I just do it myself these days. How hard can it be to write for five minutes? Trick is, don’t stop. Then at the end, take a breath and work out whether to continue down that road.

  • So how hard did you pat yourself on the back when you realized handjob had the same amount of letters as kissing? Cause that’s truly something to be proud of. Seriously.

    Classic.

  • There’s definitely a no-beverage rule when I read this blog now. Seriously. I can’t keep cleaning coffee off the table, the computer, the dog. Actually, the dog cleans herself…

    I find flash fiction (especially 50-word stories) to be an excllent mental laxative.

  • This is almost too shallow for me to mention it here, but it works for me and I’m sticking to it.

    What gets me motivated again is to read shitty writing. This is exactly the same process that leads me to watch chat shows or Hoarders on TV when I have a mental breakdown because I think my life is a bag of dog turds. There are a few ways I do it:

    1. Read online snark. I tap veins of rich frothy goodness and drink of the sweet milk of “Why the shit was this published?!!??”, and then I know I can do better. I shall not reveal my secret sources. It’s out there, trust me.

    2. Buy a book that, when opened, stinks of newspaper pulp and shame, perhaps with Papyrus on the cover and a snarling dog. I got one recently that was audacious enough in the opening to say “The land of Twilight (no not that one)”. BRING IT AWWWWNNN

    3. Write a snarky book review on book bought in (2).

    4. Most shamefully: read a sampling of the breathtakingly bad fiction that unpublished writers spew out online in the hopes of getting a publishing deal. The blog Slushpile Hell is a slightly less soulless way to do this, but for the times when I can’t squeeze one more word out of myself, I have an internet full of bad writing to appease me.

    My secret is out. God help us all.

  • Usually, when I write, I force myself to do it kind of chronologically. I like the endings of my stories to have the most punch, and I always find the most emotional scenes the most fun to write. So I save them, like little treats and make myself write the other scenes by promising, “get through this, and *then* they can kiss.” But if I get stuck – and this happens a lot – one of the ways I get around it is by skipping ahead and either writing a scene that I had planned to write, or skipping ahead and writing a scene that doesn’t really make sense, but that is fun and entertaining. Then I write backwards and try to reconcile the new scene with the existing story.

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