How To Get Unstuck On Your Novel
Are you stuck on your novel? Have you tried several different approaches, only to end up stuck again?
I experienced this with my most recent novel, The Beached Ones.
It took me years to get past that stuck place. Talk about frustrating! I thought I was going to have to give up on the story.
You may be feeling the same way. If so, I’m here to tell you: I got through that stuck place and went on to win a publishing contract for the book. You can too.
When You’re Stuck on Your Novel: Ask Yourself Why?
Before you can figure out how to get unstuck, it helps if you can figure out why you’re stuck in the first place.
Here are the five most common reasons:
- Fear: The subject matter scares you for some reason, and that fear is holding you back.
- Weak creative muscles: You haven’t been writing consistently, and your creative muscles are stiff and weak.
- Lack of knowledge about story structure: You need more help with inciting incident, rising action, climax, etc.
- Fatigue: For whatever reason (illness, grief, chronic stress, recent super busy period), you’re really tired and wrung out.
- Approach: The way you’re trying to tell the story isn’t working. You need to try another way.
It’s possible to have a combination of these issues affecting you. Figuring out which applies to you and your story right now can help lead you toward a breakthrough.
REASON # 1: Stuck On Your Novel Because of FEAR
Signs this may be affecting you:
- When you’re working on your story, it dredges up traumatic memories for you.
- You worry about what other people you know might think about this story.
- When writing difficult scenes, you find yourself making things too easy for your characters.
We writers don’t have a lot of choice in what we write about. For most of us, it comes from a place deep within us that we can’t identify.
Maybe you didn’t want to write about sex abuse, abandonment, alcoholism, or homicide, but your fingers betrayed you and before you knew it, your story had those elements in it.
That might scare you. “What would my family and friends think?” you say to yourself. “Will a publisher ever accept a story like this?”
If you had any thoughts like these before you got stuck, it was probably fear that caused the problem.
SOLUTION: How To Get Unstuck from Fear
To get unstuck, address the problem head-on. Ask yourself one question: “What am I afraid of?” Freewrite on the answer for 10-15 minutes for three days in a row. Then decide whether you are brave enough to return to your story or not.
If you are, don’t allow fear to hold you back. Stay true to your characters and your story and plow through. Remember: It’s always up to you whether you go on to publish this story. But meanwhile, it’s important to finish it. Finishing will allow you to go on to the next story, and will also give you valuable experience in writing and finishing a story about difficult topics.
REASON # 2: Stuck on Your Novel Because of a WEAK CREATIVE MUSCLE
Signs this may be affecting you:
- You haven’t had a regular writing practice for a while.
- When you sit down to write, not much happens. You find yourself staring at the blank page.
- You’re consuming stories more than you are creating stories.
- You like to talk about being a writer, but you’re not really
Your creativity is a muscle, much like the muscles in your legs, arms, and abs. If you’re not regularly exercising it, it will weaken. Then when you try to do the heavy lifting of writing a book, you’ll struggle.
It’s like trying to run a marathon when all you’ve been doing is walking to the mailbox and back.
SOLUTION: Strengthen Your Creativity Muscle
Writing every day (or nearly every day) strengthens your creative muscle. If you are stuck on your novel, you can write something else: a short story, poem, children’s book, etc.
The daily practice of writing helps you tone your imagination so that it’s more likely to help you get unstuck. Other good ways to strengthen this muscle include:
- Come up with five new ideas for stories each day.
- Or come up with five new headlines for blog posts every day.
- Come up with three different endings for your story each week.
You get the idea. You need to challenge your brain and get it back into creative mode. Put yourself on some creative training and within a few months, you’ll be feeling much more fit!
REASON #3: Stuck On Your Novel Because of POOR STORY STRUCTURE
Can you break your story down into 3 or 4 acts? Do you know what your inciting incident is? How about your characters’ inner and outer motivations? Do you have rising and falling action? A strong climax?
If you can’t answer “yes” to all these questions, this might be what’s causing you to be stuck. Here are some other signs this may be affecting you:
- You don’t know what your main character really wants.
- If someone asked you to put your story into the 3-act structure, you wouldn’t know how to do it.
- Your antagonist lacks real purpose in the story.
- Your story gets slow and boring in the middle.
Many writers believe they know how to write because they like playing with words and have read books all their lives. These attributes are great, but they don’t mean you know how to write a story.
Story structure is the backbone of your novel. It’s the logistics of the story—the order in which you tell the events, and how you build from the inciting incident to the conclusion. And it’s not something most writers know instinctively. It’s something we have to learn.
SOLUTION: Learn More About Story Structure
My first few novels suffered from a lack of strong story structure. I had to set up a class for myself to learn more about it. I used books, workshops, blogs, videos, and more to get up to speed on this, and I continue to learn more all the time.
There are many different types of story structures. You can find the three main ones at the self-publishing school blog. The important thing is that you know and understand story structure so that you can apply it to your story.
If you haven’t educated yourself this way, you can easily get stuck on your novel when things stop flowing as they should. MORE: Why Being An Expert At Structure Helps Your Writing
REASON #4: Stuck On Your Novel Because of FATIGUE
Let’s face it: it’s overwhelming sometimes to be a writer. (Sometimes? How about most of the time!)
We all know this. In addition to writing and editing, which take enough brainpower as it is, there’s all the book marketing, platform building, and “getting yourself out there” to do. After finishing a novel or launching a new book, we can easily find ourselves feeling exhausted.
That fatigue can easily cause you to get stuck on your novel because you’re just too tired to be creative.
It’s also a constant battle to manage our writing lives with our regular lives. If you experience upheaval in your regular life—lose a job, hurt yourself, or go through some sort of trauma—it’s going to bleed into your writing life, and could cause you to get stuck.
Signs this may be affecting you:
- When you sit down to write, you feel like your brain is fried.
- You see writing as a chore instead of something you enjoy.
- You feel more tired after writing than you did before.
- You’re questioning whether you’re cut out to be a writer.
SOLUTION: Take a Break and Regroup
If this sounds like you, it’s time to take a break and regroup.
Simply stepping away from writing, though, will not be enough to solve the issue. Yes, you need some rest, but you also need to inspire your creativity once again.
The best way to get unstuck when fatigue is causing the problem is to get away somewhere. You need to jolt your mind out of its regular routine and go somewhere you can relax and expose yourself to sights and sounds that will inspire you.
If travel is a problem, try going somewhere that’s only an hour away. But stay somewhere else than in your home. Drive another car. Eat different food. Expose yourself to new experiences.
Researchers conducted an experiment in which participants engaged in virtual reality. The first group experienced unusual and unexpected events, while the second group experienced more normal events.
Results showed that the unusual experiences increased “cognitive flexibility” or creativity more than the normal experiences.
So get some rest, yes. Cut back on your activities so you can recover. But then break out of your routine to get your creativity humming again.
REASON #5: Stuck On Your Novel Because of Your APPROACH
This was the reason I was stuck on my novel, The Beached Ones. But it took me a long time to figure that out.
For the longest time, I didn’t know what was wrong—just that something was. The story wasn’t flowing the way it should.
Looking back, I can identify some warning signs that will hopefully help you spot this problem sooner than I did:
- You get to the middle of the story and realise it’s not going to pan out the way it needs to—it’s not driving toward the climax. It’s petering out too soon.
- The story lacks drive and momentum.
- The stakes are too low—your characters are not in danger, or the danger is too easily resolved too soon.
- You’re losing interest in the story halfway through.
SOLUTION: Change Your Approach
It was when I went to see a certain movie that I experienced my breakthrough. In the movie, the heroine didn’t know what had happened to her. She was experiencing memory lapses because of her heavy consumption of alcohol.
After seeing that movie, I realised I could change my approach on The Beached Ones. Rather than the hero knowing where he was and why he was there first thing, I realised it would be much more realistic and compelling if he wasn’t so clear on these facts.
I rushed home and scribbled out a new outline based on this new approach and voila, found my solution. I started the story again, sailed through the middle, and went on to a satisfying climax.
You, too, can consider other approaches to your story:
- Revisit the different types of story structure and see if your story may benefit from using a different one than you have.
- Make one of your other characters the main character.
- Change what your character knows and doesn’t know at the beginning of the story.
- Start your story in an entirely different place, either further back in the past or farther along in the future.
- Put your characters in an entirely different setting—or in a different time.
You can experiment with different approaches in outline form to find out more quickly which may work for you. Use your imagination and have fun with it.
Don’t Give Up When You’re Story is Stuck!
I’m so glad I didn’t ‘give up on my story so I could see it through to the end. Experiencing a breakthrough after being stuck for a long time is incredibly rewarding.
I also think the whole experience made me a better writer. I now know that I can change my approach if needed, and that being stuck—even stuck really badly (like, for years!)—doesn’t mean I won’t eventually figure out how to tell the story in the best way possible.
Have you ever been stuck on a story? How did you get unstuck?
A QUICK PRACTICE
Choose a project that you’re currently stuck on. Now shift the time frame completely. If the story takes place in the present, push it 100 years into the past or future. Then spend 15 minutes writing in that time frame. (Start with the first chapter if this is a novel.)
When you’re finished, post your practice in the comments section. And if you post, be sure to leave feedback for a few other practitioners. What did you learn from this exercise? Did it help you free up your imagination? Did you figure out why you were stuck and what you need to do to fix it?
BIO: Colleen M. Story’s latest release, The Beached Ones, is forthcoming from CamCat Books in June 2022. Overwhelmed Writer Rescue was named Book by Book Publicity’s Best Writing/Publishing Book in 2018. Find free chapters of her books for writers here, check out her author site (colleenmstory.com), or connect with her on Twitter (@colleen_m_story).