When I wrote my first novel, Dark Wood Dark Water, I didn’t know how to write a novel, despite lots of time thinking about it. I am not a planner. I had a scenario and an ending and I just started. Every three chapters, because I didn’t know what I was doing, I got stuck. This happens to a lot of writers when the excitement of the first few chapters (or pages or paragraphs) wears off. You have to find a way to get on with it. You do want to finish after all, right? You can learn how to get out of the doldrums and get through to the end, as I did.
I have just finished writing my second novel. It was easier in a way, although writing any novel is hard (but fun) work. The reason it was easier is that I kept a thought in the back of my head, being careful to never look too closely at it.
I’ve done this before. I can do it again.
I still got stuck every few chapters or scenes. Here’s why.
- I can’t plan. It bores me. So I don’t know what’s going to happen and only have a couple of scenes in mind before I start, usually a first and final one.
- I let the characters, settings and scenarios develop as they go along, so anything could happen, taking me away from the road to stumble around in the dark.
- I’ve somehow left everyone ok and having their tea.
I respond to these problems by setting the laptop aside. I sit somewhere quiet and write down the names of the characters I’m juggling and tormenting in the story.
Solving Problem 1: The Not Knowing What Comes Next.
- I think of my characters as people. This helps to make them three dimensional and real.
- I note where I have left the characters and what happened to them last.
- I ask myself what those characters would do in real life to get out of the problem or cliff hanger or rut. This doesn’t mean plotting the whole story out. As an example, it just means that I ask the character what she wants, who she wants, and what would she do when hanging from a cliff. Shout OK Google and get the phone in her pocket to ring for help? Use previously illustrated skill in gymnastics (which she gave up because of injury or not winning the gold) to backflip and swan dive into the ocean below? Finally accept that she comes from a culture of shape changers and become an eagle to fly to safety? Whatever it is, think of your characters as real people telling you a story. Sit there rapt while they tell you what they did to get out of that situation. No way, you’ll say. That’s cool, and you did tell me earlier about how you rejected your eagle relatives. You get the idea.
- I write down what has to happen to get those characters from wherever I’ve left them, to the end. This might be something like she has to make peace with her father and his clan, so that together, they can defeat the eagle hunters of the neighbouring kingdom. So, the next scene might be your protagonist going to her father and facing his wrath and his desire to see her marry the strongest eagle in the clan. With each conflict solved, another arises.
Solving Problem 2: The Going Astray
This one is simple and brutal. I think of it in terms of gaming. You must return to your last save point and start again in a different and better direction that doesn’t lead to a dead end. For you as a writer, go back to the place where everything felt good and right. Delete everything that came after that. By all means, save it in a notes file, just in case, but you will probably never use it, because it wasn’t right. Learn to recognise that queasiness that feels like guilt and frustration. Be honest with yourself. I know you have got to 33,000 words and that’s lovely, and you have to cut back to 29,000 words and that’s rotten, but you have to excise the bad stuff and start from a clean, uninfected place. Once you do and get going again, you will feel so much better.
This can happen to plotters as well. The best plan in the world can go off track when characters start doing stuff by themselves or you follow an interesting thread which leads you astray. When you are lost in the woods, retrace your steps to the last familiar place.
In his book On Writing, Stephen King talks about how he got stuck while writing The Stand. He went for a long walk (always a good idea when you’re stuck) and pondered the problem. It occurred to him that he had a lot of characters all in one spot, starting to make all the same old mistakes that the previous society made before it was destroyed by the superflu. He needed a drastic solution to get out of the dead end. So, he had one of his characters build a bomb and take care of the overpopulation, which sets the survivors on a different path, the one that leads them to the right ending.
Remember, even while you are writing about people you feel to be real, and you want the direction you take to make sense, it’s your world, your creation. There’s nothing wrong with a drastic set back for your characters. Such a device is a way of making your people face the darkest moment when failure seems inevitable, only to find the courage or the means to finally defeat the bad guy.
Solving Problem 3: Your people are safe after the last big thing.
You need peaks and troughs even in the most thrilling story. If they’ve been in the trough for too long and they’re still drinking tea, look at your setting and antagonist and subplots for new obstacles and dangers. What is the antagonist doing right now to come at them again for what he wants? Is there a secondary character who has been resenting the heroine for getting as far as she has got and can no longer restrain herself from cutting the brake lines, or going to the antagonist to tell him the heroine’s most secret vulnerability?
After this bit of work, you know where your characters are, or you know to bring them back to where they should be. You know what they need to do to get out of the immediate situation and you know what new trouble that will put them in. That should bring you about three chapters before you get stuck again.
Repeat as required.
Here’s the thing. Solving problems with your novel is part of the job and part of the fun. Don’t despair, just dream up some cool stuff and keep on going.
You’ve got this.
(c) Tina Callaghan
About Dark Wood Dark Water:
Something is wrong with the town of Bailey. Something dark, something dangerous. Something evil.
Josh’s brother has just drowned. He meets Kate and Gabe, who also have lost family to the river. When they seek the help of a local historian, Naylor, he tells them that there is a sinister longstanding pattern to such tragedies.
But some unknown force is trying to help Josh rid the town of its curse. Why is he dreaming of a ship s captain, a hooded monk, a dark familiar with a knife? What is being demanded of him?
Soon greater horrors than ever before are set loose. They are fighting against time, as evil has turned its baleful eye upon them.
Order your copy online here.