Difficult Books

Some books just fall out of your head, you know? But there are other books that take more prodding to get onto the page—like the one I’m working on now. If you’re also fighting with a story that demands more effort to get those words out, here are a few things I’ve been doing that have really helped:

1. Make small goals.

I use Scrivener, which allows the user to set target dates to finish the draft by. Then, Scrivener will calculate how many words a day you must write to reach that goal. (You can set it to take days off, too. Yay!)

This is one of my favorite things, but because sometimes I feel like I should be able to write an entire first draft in two months, I end up with ridiculous daily goals. I mean, occasionally I hit those goals! But more often, I don’t quite make that goal and the daily target goes up and up until I have a meltdown.

But when I adjust my deadline (this one totally self imposed), the daily word goal goes down and I feel like I have a chance of making it. A good chance, even. And when I go over my goal for that day, the next day’s goal is lower.

Sometimes, it still takes all day to get that 600 or so words, but I made it, so job well done to me! But usually, I find that once I hit that goal, it’s a lot easier to go past it.

2. Ease off the pressure.

Some books just require breaks for thinking. It’s okay. Let it happen.

This has been really hard for me to accept, because when I draft something, I want to draft that thing and move on to revision. But not every book works like that, and sometimes I have to pull back and have a day of thinking or discussion with someone else in order to get my head around something I’m struggling with. Sometimes I have to take the day off and knit or read or go to that mystical place called The Outside. *shudder*

And it turns out that just giving myself those little breaks to let my brain recharge or untangle something in the plot? That actually saves time, and I get more done, because I’m not just hunched over my keyboard all day doing absolutely nothing.

3. Go over the details often.

The manuscript I’m working on now requires a lot of this. Mostly because every time I talk to someone about the book, I have to give them the whole run down and answer questions. But it turns out that’s really helpful, because sometimes people will ask about details I’ve overlooked, pieces that don’t quite fit with what I’ve set up, or even things that might be inadvertently offensive.

For me, it really helps to just think about the story, characters, and world until they’re as seamless in my mind as the real world is. And the more real the story feels to me, the more that carries over to what ends up on the page.

Some books are just Difficult. It’s okay. (In my experience, those usually turn out to be the best, and all that hard work is worth it!) If you, too, are working on something that doesn’t just fall out of your head, I hope these tips help!

And if you have other tricks to dealing with Difficult Books, let’s hear them in the comments!


16 Responses to Difficult Books

  1. jeffo Sep 11 2015 at 6:26 am #

    I’m currently in the midst of one of these difficult books. My current strategy has been avoidance, but what I really need to do right now is just read the thing front to back (again).

    • Jodi Sep 11 2015 at 9:05 am #

      So sorry to hear you’re struggling, too! But you’ll get there. Rereading is definitely a great way to get back into the rhythm of the story.

  2. Marc Vun Kannon Sep 11 2015 at 6:59 am #

    The most difficult book I ever wrote had no plot, mo theme, and no genre. I originally conceived it as a horror/mystery, and was two chapters in when I discovered I could write neither. The only thing I could do at that point was follow the characters around and let them tell me the story. I reread what I wrote before to get back into the flow of the story logic and hopefully it will carry me a few more words downstream before I run out. Then I do that again until I get to the end. For my most difficult book I forced my way to the end, wrote down something, put it away, and then had an “Oh, that’s what it was all about moment” two weeks later, so I revised a little to bring the story in line with that, which didn’t really take a lot of work.

    • Jodi Sep 11 2015 at 9:06 am #

      Wow, that’s interesting! It sounds like it was a long character study until you put some plot on top of that. Were you satisfied with how it turned out? Did you ever do anything with it?

      • Marc Vun Kannon Sep 11 2015 at 9:39 am #

        Always and extremely pleased, since my first consideration when writing anything is that it please me. (My working assumption is that something that pleases me will probably please other people.) I consider St. Martin’s Moon to be the only book in a genre I created as I was writing it. It’s a werewolf novel set on a haunted lunar colony, which was published back in 2011 mainly because my publisher takes my word for these things and doesn’t ask me to try and synopsize anything I write. (I think of my stories as sort of a sculpted hedge. From a distance it’s clearly a bunny rabbit or an elephant, but when you look inside, the main branches go every which way, and you just get confused trying to follow them all.)(And Ghostkiller is even stranger, since some branches in that one actually have to fuse together for the plot to work. Trust me.)
        St. Martin’s Moon has five main characters, and the plot is ‘fuzzy linear’, five separate and unrelated plots as each character goes about his business, but they all relate and react to each other. The focus is on the people who become werewolves, rather than the werewolves, and how they react to the presence of a werewolf hunter in the colony. No one person carries the story all the way to the conclusion, nor do they even know what that conclusion is.
        The source of conflict in my stories is usually some natural force or unexplained phenomena, to which everyone else, including the bad guys, are responding. The heroes are usually focused on beating the bad guys rather than explaining or countering the phenomena, so no one is actually trying to solve the real problem. I can’t describe my books as a man trying to achieve a goal, in opposition to a bad guy trying to achieve a counter-goal, since it’s a crowd in action, no one has the same goals, and the goals they do have are all wrong for solving the real problem until taken in combination.
        So maybe my working assumption is wrong.

        • Jodi Sep 12 2015 at 10:43 am #

          Very cool! I’m glad to hear it all worked out for you. Sometimes books just need to get finished and then have their space. 😀

  3. JJ Sep 11 2015 at 9:12 am #

    I’m working on one right now. ??? This is a book I keep coming back to between writing all my other books. I think I finally cracked the plot, but I’m struggling with voice. I might also be procrastinating. I’m THINKING about it a lot, but my research and mulling tactics might just be avoidance…

    • Jodi Sep 12 2015 at 10:44 am #

      Hah, yes, there is the danger of avoiding the story, too. But I’m sure you want the book finished, right? And the more you work on it, the sooner it will be finished. 🙂

  4. Julie Sep 11 2015 at 12:09 pm #

    Jodi, I love this post! I find that I don’t have “difficult books” as much as every book has difficult sections. These tips are so helpful. I really appreciate your advice about small goals. There’s nothing worse than that snowballing feeling of failure when you’re not making your wordcount goals, and that sense of failure can begin to contaminate the whole book. Thanks so much for this! <3

    • Jodi Sep 12 2015 at 10:45 am #

      Difficult sections — yes. I find that too, even with the “easy” books that just pour right out of my brain.

      And ugh, yes, the snowballing sense of failure. That makes everything so much more difficult.

  5. Virginia Anderson Sep 11 2015 at 1:00 pm #

    I follow your advice to make small goals. When I began my current WIP, I told myself I need only fill up one college-ruled notebook page a day. The second practice that makes this work is telling myself that what I put on that page doesn’t ever even have to end up in the book–it’s experimental, to see what happens. Put two people in a situation (this idea of the “situation,” not the plot, driving what happens actually comes from Stephen King) and, as someone else on this thread has said, just see what they have to say to each other. These days I’m having to make myself stop after three and four pages. But when I get to sticky parts, I tell myself, “You only have to write one page.”

    • JJ Sep 11 2015 at 2:54 pm #

      I really love this. I also love that you write by hand! I may have to adopt the “You only have to write one page” rule.

    • Jodi Sep 12 2015 at 10:47 am #

      Writing by hand is such a good way to work!! That’s definitely something I should have mentioned int his post. I had to do it a lot with Mirror King. I think putting an actual pen on paper was the only thing that saved me a few times.

  6. Stacey Sep 11 2015 at 3:32 pm #

    The outside? I can’t even… argh. I identify with this post so much. Sometimes you just need time away from your own head.

    • Jodi Sep 12 2015 at 10:46 am #

      Agreed! I’ve been thinking about this a LOT lately because this book has been so difficult. But I think it’s going to be worth it.

      (Try not to think too hard about The Outside.)

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