Stalled and Happy: How to Keep Writing When You’re Not

John_Bourne__Woman_and_ChildHaving written five nonfiction books and countless essays, I’m now at work on a novel, and it’s going well. When it’s going at all, that is. Often it isn’t. Going, that is.

Nonfiction, for me, advances briskly and pretty much according to plan from the moment I have a picture of the completed book in my head. When I sit down at the computer, I know what I’m going to write.

Fiction, by contrast, develops in spasms or spurts. Like a living creature. Like a daughter, to be specific—one day cuddling on my lap, trying to figure out which one of us loves the other the most, another day slamming the door and refusing to talk at all.

This is not a new observation. Countless novelists over the centuries have reported that their characters seem to have minds and lives and schedules and intentions of their own, that they and the novel’s resulting plot shapeshift continually throughout the novel-writing process.

So it is, in this case, with my novel. I seem to be discovering my characters’ stories rather than inventing them, and my discoveries come on their own unpredictable, unschedulable timetable. Some days I can’t stop writing to make a pot of tea or eat lunch or speak civilly to whoever happens to be around. Other days—or weeks, even months—I have nothing whatsoever to write.

I used to find this timetable upsetting. I found, that is to say, the stalled part of the timetable distressing. And, while the spasmodic spurts were exciting, they were also hard to keep up with and seemed always to come when I was nosing some deadline or needed to be reading and responding to a looming stack of students’ writing or looking after Christmas guests. Never has it been the case with this novel, as it was with my other books, that I could sit just down at the computer on my designated writing days and simply write. Instead, I’m either frantically trying to set down a scene—before it evaporates from my brain, as I always fear it will, never to return again—or else I’m sitting before a blank screen, incapable of writing altogether. Idealess. Sceneless. Wordless.

All this to say, I have devised a simple method for getting through this problem that really works for me, and I thought there might be someone out there struggling with the same problem who might profit from my experience.

Before I reveal my method, though, let me just say that I do not consider my problem to be writer’s block. I refuse to let myself call it that, in any case. And I’m deep down convinced it is not writer’s block. (I’m protesting too much. I know that. Don’t point it out to me.)

But consider: I am progressing. I have characters, a plot, twenty-eight chapters, some eighty thousand words securely anchored in my hard drive. (And backed up on half a dozen USBs in case of theft or a house fire or accidentally substituting an ancient draft for the most current one. I’m kind of maniacal about the possibility of losing everything and not being able to start over again.) However slowly and erratically this novel seems to proceed, I’m nevertheless inching along toward completion. And the stalled moments, I like to think, are as important to my progress as the precious periods of frenzied writing. When I’m not writing, I’m thinking. Or, that is, not thinking so much as just letting the child poke around in the world I’ve created and experience it and respond. I need to forget about the whole project for a while and give her space and time to grow up and become someone I like.

Enough of that monstrously mixed metaphor. (Is the child the novel itself or my protagonist or the writerly impulse in me or what?) On to my method of taking advantage of the weird stopping and starting that is how this novel has been toddling forward. It’s simple, as I’ve said. Hardly worth writing about, except that, for me, it’s been transformative.

Here it is: When I’m stalled, I reread from several chapters back, correcting as I go. It’s like a magic charm. Long before I catch up to where I stalled, I invariably have new ideas, new words, and, before I have a chance to think about it, I’m frantically writing again.

I call my method recursive—that is, it progresses by means of looping backwards, as in cursive writing. Or, more exactly, as with those lines of loops we were made to draw when we were first learning cursive writing, before we ever got to stringing the loops together into actual words and the words into sentences and the sentences into our second grade stories.

Or it’s like bicycle-riding, in which progress forward depends on looping our feet backwards, over and over again.

One worry: This recursive method of writerly progress violates a primary rule of many resources out there on novel writing, and it’s a rule I have promoted to my students over the years—namely, squelch your inner editor and save revision for when the draft is done.

But, oh well. You gotta do whatever it takes to keep moving along.

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Using a Plot Board to Plot Your Novel

Way back in Mid-August, I posted here about how a Plot First Novelist Builds Character(s). I admitted to being a plot-first writer and a dedicated ‘Plotter.’ Boy howdy, if you want to divide a room full of novelists quicker’n Shergar won the Derby, ask who is a plotter and who is a ‘pantser.’

But, though novelists fall mostly into two camps, each side often wonders about how the other manages to write books using their method. I thought I’d give you a peek into my plotting method.

I use a plot board. I first came across this idea on the Seekerville blog where a guest had a photograph of her own plot board. Since I’m a visual person, I glommed onto the idea and created a board of my own to see if it would work for me too.

And it sure does! There are so many things I love about using my plot board. The plot board allows me to see at a glance how many scenes I have, who is the point-of-view character, and the characters’ Goals, Motivations, & Conflicts. It forces me to write out, however briefly, the internal and external goals of the characters and really think about what it is I’m trying to say with the story. Oh, and I get to play with post-it notes. 🙂

One other thing I love is that it’s easy-peasy to change your mind about something. You just move the post-it to a new place or throw it away and write out a new one. I found this particularly appealing, especially since I tend to change my mind a lot while plotting.

The top half of my plot board is divided into 20 equal sections and numbered across the rows. Each of the numbered boxes represents a chapter in the story.  (Twenty is just a starting point. I lengthen or shorten the story based upon what is needed. But there is only room for about 20 boxes on the plot board. If I need more, I have to scrunch things and overlap.)The bottom half is divided into two parts with six equal sections in each part. These are for the characters.

Prior to writing anything out for the plot board, I’ve researched, ruminated, and spent days and weeks reading and thinking about the story. I’ve got a few high points of the plot in my head, and I have a fair idea of setting, time period, etc. I have a rudimentary idea of the characters, too. This pre-plotting prep is necessary for me. If I dive into plotting too early, before the story has had a chance to marinate in my subconscious, I find myself staring at the blank plot board the same way I stare at a blank screen if I haven’t plotted beforehand.

When it comes time to begin filling in my plot board, I start at the bottom of the board with the two six-chambered grids. On each side, one column is labeled External, and one is labeled Internal. This is where I put the Goals, Motivations, and the Conflicts for each of the two main characters. Since I write romance, this means the hero and the heroine. What do they want, why do they want it, and what is keeping them from getting it? I decide what personality types my characters are (click on the first link in this post to see how I do that) and start plotting the story.

 
Then I grab my smallest post-its, about 1.5 x 1 inch. I write the major plot points out and stick them to a notebook page. (Things like Avalanche hits Train, or Finds Out He’s Adopted.) As fast as the ideas come to me, I jot them down, keeping it brief and fairly broad. When I think I’ve got the big ideas of the story set down, I start arranging them on the plot board. I keep them in chronological order, but I don’t sweat too much whether they are in their final position or not. I know it’s probably going to change as I go. When I have the bones of the story down, I start making logical connections with scenes. What has to happen in order to get the character from major plot point one to major plot point two?  I use the next larger size post-it for these in various colors. Pink for the heroine’s POV and blue for the hero’s. Orange, yellow, purple, chartreuse…those are for secondary characters’ POV scenes. By color coding the post its, I can see at a glance if I’ve kept a good balance of his/her scenes and if I’ve lost anyone in the shuffle.

One thing I mustn’t forget to mention is that the whole time I’m doing this, I’m talking. Usually to my daughter. (When we finished plotting the last novel, she crashed on her bed and I had to take a picture.) By talking it out and letting someone not as familiar with the story ask “Why?” kinds of questions, I minimize the plot holes as much as I can up front. My daughter is great at this, and I plot much better and quicker when she’s involved in the process.

When I get all the scenes filled in, I tell the story once more aloud, making sure I have it the way I want it. Then I use the plot board to type out a chapter-by-chapter, scene-by-scene synopsis, including what I want to accomplish in each scene. I know without a doubt that when I have that road map in my mind and in my hands, I write much faster than if I’m feeling my way around with no idea where I’m supposed to be going.

So there you have it. My plotting system. It works for me, and it’s been tweaked and refined each time I go through the process of plotting a new story. I hope you can glean something that will help you.

Question for you: Plotter or Pantser? Does the thought of using a plot board excite you or make you want to run screaming to the nearest bag of chocolate chips?

Post Author: Erica Vetsch

Erica Vetsch is a transplanted Kansan now residing in Minnesota. She loves history and reading, and is blessed to be able to combine the two by writing historical fiction set in the American West. Whenever she’s not following flights of fancy in her fictional world, she’s the company bookkeeper for the family lumber business, mother of two terrific teens, wife to a man who is her total opposite and soul-mate, and avid museum patron.