Peek behind the curtain long enough, and you’re bound to see a writer hit a wall. I banged my head against just such a wall this week.
The wall of doubt.
I tortured myself with the question: Is this really what the character wants? Because if it is, then how do you explain what happens in chapter twelve? Maybe she wants something different.
I pulled a half dozen writing books off the shelf and skimmed the chapters about character objectives, wants, and needs. I took walks and ruminated, running scenarios through my head, bearing down on my brain, trying to squeeze out the right answer. I spent a day obsessing about this question, unaware of anything else in my life, and the only result was that my brain felt like it had gorged on too much meatloaf.
And then I got sick. Not from all that mental meatloaf (although that may have set the stage), but from something else. Something that forced me to take a break from my writing and acknowledge that I have a body, too.
One of the rules to writing is to figure it out on the page, not in your head. We’ll get to rules another time. Obviously, I’m not following them.
Try as I might, I couldn’t think my way through the problem. I needed to step away, take my mind off it altogether, and allow my subconscious to provide the answer. In the quiet, I could hear:
This is a learning process. Don’t be so hard on yourself. You don’t need to figure it out this minute or even today. And you don’t have to go it alone. Sometimes you need help. A new set of eyes.
So I reached out to one of my beta readers, a brilliant woman with an impish grin I’d met in an advanced fiction writing workshop. There were eight of us in the group. I had brought this particular manuscript to that particular group and received positive feedback. I emailed her and asked if she would look over the mess I was making. She remembered the story and was honored, she replied, that I had thought of her.
Honored! This woman is an ace literary writer. And oh how I admire good literary writers. She has an advanced degree in Creative Writing. I’ve got an A.A. In Theater Arts.
Don’t short-change yourself. You’ve studied on your own. You’ve sat at the keyboard practicing your literary scales for years. Don’t short-change yourself.
Tentatively, I approached my desk again. I opened the document on the screen. I printed out the first chapter. Immediately, on the printed page (and I don’t care what anyone says, the printed page is a far better vehicle for catching mistakes than on a screen), I saw what wasn’t working. I marked red slashes through entire pages. When I found an area that needed rewriting. I set the timer. I flowed for five minutes, and I honored the ding. I allowed my editorial eye to scan the hard copy until I found another section that needed work, and I repeated the steps.
Then I emailed the first two chapters to my writer friend. Until I hear back, I’m going to take a break. Go back to practicing scales.
This week I hit a wall. Hard. I slid down, my head reeling, and then I reached out for a boost upright. It happens. It will probably happen again. It’s all part of the process.
Takeaways this week:
If you don’t have a beta reader, try to find one.
Figure it out on the page, by writing, rather than obsessing about it in your head.
When editing, edit. When you need to rewrite a section, set the timer and allow the words to flow. Don’t try to edit and flow all at once. That’s like stepping on the gas and the brake at the same time.
Take time away to have fun, relax, and be in the world outside your head. Clear your mind. Meditate. (If you have other mind-clearing tips, please let me know!)
Chapter 15 in Immediate Fiction lists tips for getting unstuck.
In case you missed it, my rewriting journey began here.
I love books on writing, and you gave Immediate Fiction an amazing review! Just one question! I like planning. I don’t go overboard, but I do love outlining. I’ve also read a lot of writing books that have left me felt a little berated for not being spontaneous enough. Is this book like that at all?
I envy you. I think if I planned more, the rewrite would be easier.
I don’t think he berates anyone for outlining. He just doesn’t see the need for it as long as you’ve got the character’s want, obstacle, actions, and resolution in place. Which sounds a little bit like planning, if you ask me.
Have you read “Blueprint Your Bestseller” by Stuart Horwitz? It’s an architecture method for revising a novel. “Revision and Self-Editing” by James Scott Bell is another good one.
(Oh man, I obviously meant “left me feeling…” above. That’ll teach me to multitask when I’m commenting.)
Awesome! I’ll have to check it out, then. In fact, I haven’t checked out any of those. I spent last year reading a bunch of personality-driven writing books, like Steven King’s “On Writing” and Anne Lamott’s “Bird by Bird” and they just drove me nuts. I haven’t read a lot of books on writing since then.
These all sound like they’re focused on stuff you can do, and that sounds way more up my alley than the more philosophical stuff. Thanks for the recommendations!
You bet! And don’t give a second thought to that typo. I do it all the time when I’m commenting. I’m learning to let go of perfection. Ha!
The wall, it’s always there! Sometimes I think it lies around scattered as bricks to trip me. I’ve been agonizing over a specific revision, then my electricity went out…like for 24 hours! I spent 22 of them panicking and the the final 3 I found a brilliant vein on paper that got me through; one I might not have thought of if I’d had electricity. So that’s my tip–shut down the juice! Thanks for sharing your insights and process.
Great idea! And since I can’t read my own handwriting, I’ll spend the time eating s’mores around the campfire.
Sounds like you had a rough week Diane. I hope you’re feeling better and I’m glad to hear you’re going to relax a bit. Take care of yourself!!!
Readers are so important and they help tremendously. But try not to use one until you’ve completed the entire first draft. I’ve read this in every single book on writing I’ve ever read, and that’s a lot of them. The reason is that once you get that first little bit of advice, you’re going to consciously or unconsciously write the rest of the book to please that one person.
I try not to overthink the first draft at all and just kind of puke it out onto the page. How do you reconcile what the character wants with what happens in chapter 12? I think that’s just real life for most of us. My life never works out according to what I wanted even a few months ago.
Good advice, Scott. I agree. I’ve already written the first draft, but I am over-thinking the rewrite. I like your reasoning…”that’s just real life for most of us.” I wonder if that would work with an editor? Probably not. But it would help me get past the stuck-point. And who knows, maybe it will all fall into place by the time I get to chapter 12.
You always have such great advice. It’s hard to take time away from writing (at least it is for someone as impatient as I am) but it’s never wasted time.
Thanks for your kind words Dawne. And for the support! There’s a fine line, isn’t there, when taking time away from writing. When I start to feel antsy, I know it’s time to get back in the saddle.
One of the things I’ve never seen in any writing book is the sad fact that by the time we get to those last stages of editing and polishing, we’re pretty sick of the whole thing. It’s hard to see a piece of writing from the point of view of a fresh reader. That’s part of the wall of doubt, I think.
So true! I try to give it a month at least before looking at a piece again.