It is inevitable, at least in my experience , that when I'mm working on the first draft, I'm bound to hit a slump.
Maybe you have had this experience too. The story is going swimmingly. For the first few chapters, you rollick through your story world with delight. You have just finished a scene, written the header for your next chapter, and then...
You feel absolutely blank. Maybe you know a few things that are going to happen eventually, but it's not time for those yet, and you feel lost about how to get there.
You drum your fingers on your desk. You peek at the vague outline or synopsis you made at the start of the process. There are no magical answers hidden in there.
You make coffee. You open the Pinterest board you created for this story, and you hunt for inspiration. Maybe you even pull out a piece of notebook paper and write out a few ideas for what the next scene could be, but none of them seem like they're quite it.
Maybe this last for 10 minutes. Maybe it last for 10 days.
Either way, it's 100% normal.
As a new writer, I often took these first draft slumps as a bad sign. A sign that there was something wrong with my book. A sign that the idea wasn't as good as I originally thought. A sign that I should find a different story idea to write about.
While sometimes a slump does indicate a story problem, a weakness in the idea, or that now isn't the right time for this particular book, there are all kinds of other reasons for these blips in creative energy.
Let's explore some of them now:
Your personal life
Try as we might, we cannot entirely separate our writing from the rest of our life. This means that if you did not sleep well last night, if you are having a fight with a friend, if you are worried about a college essay, if you are plagued by self-doubt, those emotional effects will creep into your writing.
They may even cause you to stall out for a bit.
This is why, among other reasons, it is very important to take care of ourselves. Exercising, eating well, getting quality sleep, nourishing healthy relationships, and taking time for other hobbies we enjoy outside of writing.
But you only have control over so much. You can't help it if you are battling anxiety, depression, insomnia, chronic health issues, stress within your family, or many other things.
While I wrote The Lost Girl of Astor Street and Within These Lines, I had quite a bit of stressful activity going on in my family. All stuff that was out of my control, like my son having epilepsy.
What I learned to do—since I had deadlines and not-writing was a not-option—is to sit in front of my computer with my eyes closed. I would give myself a little time to think about the things that were stressing me out. Then I would remind myself that those things—the laundry, Connor's seizures—would still be there when I was done with my writing. I could think about them again when I was done.
This didn't always work, but more times than not it helped me to push through and have a productive writing day.
Your uncertainty about how to get from where you in the story to where you want to go.
Sometimes, even if you spent a lot of time outlining, the story just doesn't work the way you thought it would. Often when this happens to me, it's because I don't yet have a firm grasp on who this character is.
This happened when I was trying to write my opening chapter for Taichi, my Japanese American character in Within These Lines. I felt very nervous about writing a male point of view character, and it didn't help that he is from a culture that—at the time—I was unfamiliar with. I rewrote his opening scene several times before feeling happy with the result.
In general, I am all for writing imperfect first drafts, but sometimes it's best to dig in your heels and get it right before moving forward. This was one of those times. I wanted to make sure that I started his story in the right place and with the right tone.
A trick I have used other times is to work backward. Like if you know in a few chapters your character will be making a difficult decision and you just aren't sure how to push them into a corner where they make that decision, instead of trying to work from where you are to where you need to go, try working from your end destination backward.
You can also jump to what you do know. This isn't a trick I use very often, but sometimes if I don't know what happens in the next scene or two, I jump forward several scenes. In general, I'm not a fan of writing out of order, but in this case it is better than not writing at all.
There is also something about focusing my attention on a different part of the story that can sometimes unlock the piece that I'm stuck on. As I'm writing, I can sense the holes between that last scene and the current scene, and my imagination will automatically begin to fill in the gaps.
I have lost track of how many times I have struggled through a story problem on my own for days, only to have my critique partner, Roseanna White, fix it for me in about two seconds when I break down and ask her for ideas. And I've done the same thing for her.
There is something about being removed from the process of creating the story that can help unlock creativity. Obviously the person you're consulting with needs to know something about the story, but I'm routinely shocked by how little context Roseanna or I need before we can throw out about ten solutions.
For me, writing in isolation (by which I mean not letting anyone see my first drafts) is the only way for me to write authentically. But sometimes you just need to send out an S.O.S. to your writer friends.
Your Personal Writing Pothole
This is my own personal writing pot hole. It's a place where I frequently stall out. I have come to expect this, and I can now say to myself that this is normal and it will pass. I have learned to trust the process.
But when you are writing your first, second, third, even fourth novel, you maybe don't know this yet about yourself.
Maybe this isn't the right book. At least not right now.
How do you know? There is no clear way. I've said this on the blog before, but putting away a book for a season does not mean putting it away forever. Several of my contemporary novels were put away multiple times before I eventually finished and published them.
I don't know about you, but I nearly always know the difference between when I am truly blocked versus when I am being tired or lazy.
Remember our mantra for this year? You're not just writing a book, you're growing an author. When you're doing something hard, struggling is natural.
It's normal when you are working on a first draft to sometimes feel like writing is the easiest and most fun activity in the world. And then other days to feel as though each word costs you something.
Do you have tricks for getting yourself out of writing slumps? Do you have places where you routinely struggle during the first draft?