The 6 roadblocks to novel-writing: How to break through with minimal damage
This is a post by Novel Publicity President, Melissa Storm
Ah, writer’s block. We all know it, hate it, dread it. One second you’re zooming through your story, and the next you’re hopelessly stuck. What’s a wordsmith to do?
The best thing you can do for yourself is learn how to spot the signs and find out what you can do to counteract full-blown writer’s block. This is especially important now that I’m going to lay some horrible, horrible news on you:
There isn’t only one kind of writer’s block; there are six!
Never fear. I’ll let you know where you’re most likely to get hung up and what you can do to bust through the barricade and journey on.
Block #1: Can’t start your story
Are you one of those people who decides to write a novel, races out to buy some reference guides, and plops yourself in the local coffee shop, only to find the words won’t come? Maybe you’re the person who has a great idea for a story but is overwhelmed by all the what-ifs and ultimately rendered inactive.
Writing is a tough business, and you know that. Sometimes our craft is belittled by the general populace who reason, “I can speak, therefore I can write.” Few will look at the painting of a master or listen to a beautiful symphony and say, “Huh, I can do that.” But many think they have what it takes to write. People who claim to have a book in them are ubiquitous, which may make the business of words seem easy to someone who hasn’t been there, done that.
Are you one of these people who claims to have a novel bumping around that brain of yours but will never have anything more than a great idea? Maybe, but I doubt it. You’re trying to learn more by reading this article and have likely read many others. That means you don’t have the whisper of an idea, you've probably been longing to write that all-important first novel for quite some time. It can be done, but first you have to set aside some very big and somewhat unbudgable expectations.
What to do: Write through it. Remind yourself that this first novel doesn’t need to be published. You are learning. Perhaps one day it will be good enough to put out there, but for now, you must assume that you’re going to make a lot of mistakes. That’s okay! It’s how we learn. You wouldn’t run a marathon without conditioning for it—at least, I hope you wouldn’t. But too many writers assume that their first attempts at full-length fiction will blow the minds of the literary world. I was one of those people too, but as I learned more and more, I saw just how many mistakes I had made in my first (still unpublished) novel. I worked at it, studied, learned how to identify, correct, and preempt my struggles and then applied these lessons to book #2, Farsighted, which is all the better for it. When you give yourself the freedom to enjoy the process, you’re much more likely to see it through.
Block #2: Ugh, this middle part
This is what people think of when they hear the words writer’s block, getting stuck in the middle of your story. The creative faucet squeezes shut, and your well runs dry. As I’ve said before, I don’t generally have to deal with writer’s block but rather writer’s detour—when you’re blocked you’re not moving forward; when you take a detour, you’re moving in the wrong direction. Anyhoo, I have hit blocks before too, and they suck. Block #2 usually hits you in the middle part of the story, but it can happen at any time once you get past the first obstacle and begin to trek forth into your fictional world. There are two things I’ve found that work well for me; both involve changing your dimensional plane (ooo, deep).
What to do: Time and location. That’s the way. I coffee shop hop during my active writing sessions. I’ve worked at Borders, Biggby, and now Panera. Usually one location will serve me well for several months. I love writing outside my home, because A) COFFEE, and B) driving to the new location puts me in a writing frame of mind. Every now and then, a location will stop working for me. I’ll find I’m getting distracted, plugging into WiFi, and goofing off during my designated writing time. When this starts to happen, I prepare myself to make a change and find a new go-to location to preempt a blockage.
The other option (and the far more dangerous one) is to take a break and attempt working on your story again after a set period of time. The danger is you can over-relax, and you may never get back into it. Insert a tortoise and the hare analogy here. If you do go this route, mark a date on your calendar on which you will return to your manuscript—make it non-optional.
Block #3: Draft 1 is done, now what?
Yippee! You finished your novel. Throw some confetti in the air and appreciate the hugeness of this accomplishment. I openly wept in public as I typed the last words of my manuscript and hit save—you may find yourself a tangle of emotions as well. Finishing that book took a lot of work, I know it. But guess what? That was the easy part. Yes, I just called that tedious climb up Mt. Never-thought-I-could easy.
What to do: Strap yourself in for the next stage of your journey, and don’t you dare try to skip ahead. Get feedback from people you trust, and make sure they know you need honest criticism as opposed to blanket compliments. Read more and more writing reference guides, pay attention to the examples, and identify your foibles. We’ve all got ‘em, and it’s time for you to own yours. Pick up a machete (metaphorically, of course) and prepare to murder your darlings, as Faulkner famously said.
That hilarious scene with your protagonist’s great aunt? It adds nothing to the story, get it out of there. That 30-page dream sequence that so nicely sums up your plot? What were you thinking? Slice and dice it. Listen to your beta readers and consider bringing in a professional content editor. Solidify your story. Know that there is work ahead. You want to do justice to your story and characters, right? Polish until it shines. It’s better to wait too long than it is to throw a novel that just wasn’t ready to market.
Here’s a personal aside for you: I’m currently working on the 9th draft of my first unpublished novel with the help of my very talented editor. I’m hoping this will be the last one, but I’m not so foolish or pig-headed that I’m closed to a 10th go-through. First novels are tough; they’ll take a lot of work to make ready. Be sure *you’re* ready too.
Block #4: The traditional publishing loss of confidence
Here’s a quote from me: Querying will destroy your soul. And it’s true. What writer hasn’t been damaged by too many “not for us” form messages? It’s hard not to take the rejection personally. Our stories are a part of us. Bravely, we send them to the faceless gate-keepers of our would-be profession. When we’re told our soul is ugly and not deserving of its day in the sun, we feel miserable and question our desires and aptitudes. This psychological stoning is enough to stop some writers dead in their tracks.
What to do: Turn to your friends. Reach out online and through your community, find friends who are writers, because your “real life” friends will not fully understand—it doesn’t matter how hard they try. You need someone to reassure you of your talent and remind you that your dream isn’t crazy. Without a support system, you won’t make it through.
Send out a few letters at a time (and please, please personalize them for each agent). Pay attention to the type of feedback you get. Be prepared to make adjustments. Try again. Always keep trying. If what you’re doing isn’t working, try something else.
My personal anecdote: I received close to 60 rejections for my first (still unpublished) novel, The Iron Pillar. I became so frustrated that I stopped querying altogether, and in a very brazen (still can’t believe it worked) move, I said, “Screw them. I’m done chasing after agents. I’m going to let them come to me.” In late December 2010, I set-up a blog and a Twitter account. I wrote a post called “Why finding a literary agent is like playing a game of Mortal Kombat,” detailing my soul-crushing experiences in a humorous way. An agent, found it, liked it, approached me via Twitter… And the rest is history. As a bonus, I found I was really good with social media and was able to start Novel Publicity and quit the day job. Hooray!
The moral of the story is this: never give-up, and always be prepare to come at your problem from a new angle.
Block #5: The self-publishing loss of confidence
You give-up or decide to skip the agent search altogether. Now it’s time to self-publish. I’m assuming you treated the task professionally—hiring an editor, cover designer, the works. You put the best possible version of your book out there via KDP, PubIt, CreateSpace, and/or Lightning Source. You sit back and wait for the sales and the glowing reviews to come in… Except for they don’t.
Why can’t people recognize the significance, the unadulterated brilliance, of your novel? If they would just read it, they’d love it. Right?
Wake-up call: People aren’t just going to find your book. You have to lead them to it. This is where all that book marketing and social media stuff we love to gab on about comes into play. This part of the process is even more difficult than the editing. Notice how this whole thing becomes increasingly difficult?
What to do: So you put in time, you learn, you work, you network, and you see some improvement. But for the hours of time you’re spending here, you’re making next to nothing. You thought you could quit your day job and retire to New Zealand on the income from this book. Now you’d settle for making enough money in a week to take your spouse to Applebee’s for dinner.
I’m not going to lie. There is no magic bullet. And we haven’t got a secret handshake. It’s all hard work, quality of product, and a little bit of pixie dust thrown in for good measure. Be prepared to work your tail off, and, yes, it may never pay off. But you can’t know until you try.
Some writers will stop here once they see the enormity of the task. Maybe they’re too tired, too burnt out, too disillusioned to write the next book. We don’t judge them, because we know how hard it is. Take a few deep breaths and give it everything you’ve got while minimizing your expectations. Remember that this is your dream, and few people ever get to experience theirs. Enjoy the process, so it doesn’t eat you alive.
Block #6: Can’t start your story (revisited)
This is where several of my friends are right now, and I only JUST broke free myself. It’s the scariest of all the forms of writer’s block. You’ve prepared for the journey, slain the dragon, and saved the princess; you don’t want to be taken down on your way home. But it happens to many a good soldier. The exhaustion of getting your book out there makes you question whether it’s something you’d like to do again.
Worse still, now you know what the public thinks of your work. It’s hard not to fixate. You may receive 100 glowing reviews of your book and only one slash-and-thrash negative review. Which one are you going to obsess over? Yeah, I thought so. This is a reprise of block #4, in that, strangers tell you your baby is ugly, and it’s hard to dismiss them. We write for the readers after all, and we so desperately want them to like the products of our imagination.
It’s enough to render even the most talented, successful, and self-assured writer immobilized. So what can you do?
What to do: Give yourself time. Don’t jump headlong into the next novel while you’re still prepping the first for publication or are still marketing it with gusto. If you push yourself too hard, you’ll surely break down. All in good time. Rest and recover before climbing that next mountain.
Find a support system. Yeah, friends are important. Show me a writer who is not hurt by a bad review, and I shall kiss her feet. Throughout the writing journey, you’ll need a group of friends—each bringing her own special brand of encouragement. If I receive a bad review, I email Heather Cox, and she promptly reassures me of all the reasons why she loved my book and says, hey, it’s not for everybody, but that’s the way the cookie crumbles. We all need more Heather Coxes in life!
Learn from the process. Einstein has famously defined insanity as, “Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Pay attention to what your fans loved about your book and what your critics didn’t. Incorporate that into your next novel. Play on your strengths and improve your weaknesses.
Remember why you write in the first place. Throughout this whole process, keep that fire burning bright. Read great books, tell the stories that excite you, and never ever stop believing in the dream.
About this post's author:
Melissa Storm was born with a fountain pen grasped firmly in her left hand (true story). Novel Publicity’s mascot is a sun conure, thanks to her obsession with birds–and she gets to decide anyway since she is the company’s founder and president. Her first novel, Farsighted, won the prestigious Writer’s Digest Self-Published Novel of the Year award in 2012 for the YA category. She now writes most of her fiction under her real name, Melissa Storm. Learn more or connect with her her author website: www.melstorm.com or via Goodreads, Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn.