Monday, April 9, 2018

How To Break Free Of A Writing Slump

Stephanie Morrill is the creator of and the author of several young adult novels, including the 1920s mystery, The Lost Girl of Astor Street (Blink/HarperCollins). Despite loving cloche hats and drop-waist dresses, Stephanie would have been a terrible flapper because she can’t do the Charleston and looks awful with bobbed hair. She and her near-constant ponytail live in Kansas City with her husband and three kids. You can connect with her on FacebookTwitterPinterest, Instagram, and sign up for free books on her author website.

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 dosince I had deadlines and not-writing was a not-optionis 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 thingsthe laundry, Connor's seizureswould 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.

Or should I say, how to get your character from where they are to where you need them 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 thatat the timeI 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.

Being alone

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

I almost always hit a slump somewhere between 60% and 75% of the way through the novel. That's when I have pushed through my big middle scene, and everyone has struggled with the fall out. Now I need to be gearing all my characters up for the climax of the novel. And... Now what?

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.

Just to muddy the waters, there have been times that I've hit a slump because this is not the book I should be writing. Or at least, it is not the book for me 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?


  1. This was so timely, Stephanie! My current manuscript is being a SERIOUS pain and I have no idea what on earth to do with it. I think all of my characters (which I loved and thought so original when I started writing it at the beginning of this year) have decided to turn into bland little peanuts on me, and that's probably half the problem xD. But thank you for this post! Now I'm encouraged to keep pressing through ;).

    ~ Savannah | Scattered Scribblings

    1. Oh, ugh! I have SO been there! Sometimes the best thing is to just keep moving forward and tell yourself you can fix it in edits.

  2. I'm in a writing slump right now with the second book of a tirlogy. All three books happen simultaneously and I've reached a point in book one where I really need to know what happened in book two up to this point, but I'm finding that the MCs of the second book don't have as many jobs in the scheme of the main plot (vital jobs, but not a lot of them) and I'm having trouble effectively building a new plot around the main plot for them. I know what I want to happen, mostly, but I'm having trouble executing it properly, and I think I don't know the main characters as well as I thought I did.
    I've been keeping it to myself because I was hoping to give it to a specific person once it was done to experiment with different people reading the series in different orders, but I think it might be time to give it to her now if she's interested.
    Thanks for the post!

    1. That sounds super cool, to have them be simultaneous, but also REALLY hard. I agree. Sounds like it's time for some outside feedback!

  3. I think my personal pothole changes places depending on how well I've plotted my story. For a poorly plotted story it's only a few chapters in. For a well-plotted story it's in the first half of the second act. I'm there right now and really struggling to figure out what goes next.

    1. That makes a lot of sense to me! That's a wise thing to have noticed, Christine.

  4. I'm in a bad writing slump, and I currently dislike my wip very very much, (although I still love it at the same time?) I'm very conflicted. :/

    This is super helpful, thank you for the encouragement to press on!

    1. I think all writers can relate to that feeling, Gray! You can do this!

  5. Thank you so much! My friend just messaged me saying she had writer's block and I just sent her this post :P She's doing Camp NaNoWriMo and I have a feeling this will help her push through the struggle!

  6. I've been stalled our for a few months, and I'm super discouraged. I'd like someone to read my manuscript and help me, but I don't know where to go for help. Plus, it's a Christian Bible study I'm writing, so that makes it kind of difficult to find beta readers since it's so specific. :-( What should I do?

    1. Anna, I also went through times where I didn't have anyone who could read for me. It was very frustrating. Is there someone at your church who would want to read it?

  7. My CampNaNO project just came to a screeching halt after the first few blissfully fun chapters, so this post came at a wonderful time. :) Thanks so much, Mrs. Morrill!

    1. I'm glad the timing worked out so well. I hope you're back to writing real soon!

  8. Thanks for the article. I'm in a writing slump. An editor edited my novel and told me it showed promise. He offered to add depth to the novel. I guess I'm conflicted as which way to go. That is, rewrite a fair portion of the novel or allow the editor to do what he wants.

    1. I don't think there's much reason to pay an editor to do writing stuff for you. That's really not what their job is.

    2. Thank you, Stephanie. Your comment is very helpful.

    3. Happy to help. A good editor is one who understands and believes in your vision of the story, and who helps you identify places that you can improve it. But at the end of the day, it's yours, which means you get to make the decisions about what advice to take and what changes are worth it to you.

  9. This is exactly what I was having a problem with! I thought maybe the reason I couldn't write like I wanted was because I was losing my touch, but this post gave me new perspective. Now I have promising ideas of how to help myself. Thank you!!