When my progress stalls in writing a novel, I often find a bit of directed freewriting helps me get back on track.
This sort of freewriting differs slightly from the usual ‘anything goes’ variety. I still write whatever pops into my head but I try to gently focus those thoughts on identifying and solving my problem.
For me the process has three basic steps:
Step 1: START WHERE YOU ARE
When I hit a snag, I often experience fears about whether the story itself is any good. At the very least, I feel frustrated that the project isn’t moving ahead as quickly and smoothly as I’d envisioned.
These fears and frustrations can pull the knot tighter and get in the way of solving the problem. So when I sit down to do directed freewriting, I start by trying to clear away as many negative feelings as I can.
If that means complaining that I don’t know what’s wrong or venting fears that my story’s no good, my characters boring, then that’s what I do. I just write whatever’s ‘on top’ and then let it all go.
Step 2: DEFINE THE QUESTION
Once I’ve unloaded my negative feelings I’m in a better frame of mind to address the problem. As my freewrite continues I try to direct my thoughts toward pinpointing exactly what has gone wrong.
I do this by asking and answering a series of questions until I find the one at the heart of the issue. For me this is half the battle – I can’t solve the problem till I’ve asked the right question.
I start off with very general ones and gradually refine them down to more and more specific ones.
A typical question and answer progression might look like this:
Q: Why has my progress on this story slowed? A: I’m not excited about my main character.
Q: Why doesn’t this character excite me? A: He hasn’t shown any likeable traits in the last twenty pages.
Q: Where in the last twenty pages could my character exhibit some positive trait and what could it be?
Basically I carry on a conversation with myself. (Or perhaps it’s one part of my brain talking to another.) In any case I usually end up with a specific question that defines the essence of my problem.
Step 3: WRITE UNTIL THE ANSWERS COME
Once I have this specific question I can get to work on solutions. It usually takes me 20-30 minutes of freewriting about a problem before answers and ideas start to come to me. I just have to have faith and keep writing.
One thing I know from long experience is that the answers always come as I’m writing. For some reason thinking alone isn’t enough; I have to physically write out my thoughts before the ideas start to emerge.
The last thing that helps me get back on track when I’ve hit a snag is simply accepting that unraveling knots is all part of my writing process.