One of the most common questions authors get is how to deal with writer’s block, and one of the most common answers we give is “go back and see if you made a wrong turn somewhere.” Which is absolutely great advice. Sometimes our subconscious knows when something is off, even if we don’t yet understand what’s going on.
But how do you go back and figure it out?
Sometimes, the answer’s already there. Last month, I’d just reached 80,000 words in Fallen Isles 3, and I knew several things that I needed to go back and fix, but I’d let them be in favor of keeping up my momentum. But when that momentum began to waver and I knew I’d done something that made the story jump off tracks, I went back to revise from the beginning.
I trimmed excess scenes and paragraphs in the opening chapters (useful for a first draft, to get me grounded, but unnecessary for the actual story), established and clarified motivations, and added a plot item I knew I’d been missing but hadn’t been able to identify until I’d gotten farther in the story.
It was that missing plot item that got me back on track, but I wasn’t able to identify what I needed until I’d already moved past the problem and fixed some of the others. Then, after a brainstorming session with my agent, I was able to add the missing piece, and rewrite the last couple of chapters that no longer worked.
And here I am again, about to write the climax of the book (at last!!!), when I realize . . . something is wrong. The last chapter I wrote felt off, and I couldn’t figure out why. After chatting with a friend, I have an idea why it isn’t working, but I haven’t figured out the fix yet. But I will.
Here’s how I’ve been going about identifying and fixing what isn’t working:
1. Talk out the story with another writer or person who knows the story.
As I mentioned before, I talked to my agent (who know this book as well as I do), and a writing friend. And even though my friend has only read the first book in this series, just explaining the events that built up to the climax led her to give me a solid piece of advice that changed the way I saw the ending of the book.
2. Talking out the story to anyone who will listen often helps.
My husband is usually on the receiving end of this. He doesn’t always know what’s going on, and he rarely even asks questions. He’s just there while I talk out my problem. Sometimes, just hearing myself explain the plot shines a light on things that need work.
3. Going back to every choice the character makes.
I ask myself if my character’s choices are driving the story, and if they’re choices the character would honestly make. I make sure all the motivation for out-of-character choices is on the page. If the choices are my choices — to help me get to the next plot point — not the character’s choices, that’s the first place I look at adjusting.
4. Are all my characters on the board?
It can be easy to forget about characters who aren’t there actively being a love interest or best friend or an antagonist. I like to go back and make sure I know what my cast is doing — and make sure they’re all doing something! That alone can solve a lot of problems. (All the characters outside my viewpoint character/s are still off living their own lives, trying to achieve their own goals.)
5. Are all my plots in motion?
Same thing as the character question. Is everything moving along together, or have I left a plot behind somewhere? That was definitely the case with my first pause on this book!
6. Reread from a few chapters before things started to go wrong.
This is what I’m doing now, actually. I went back a few chapters, to where I knew things were okay, and started rereading (and revising because I can’t help myself). I’m looking for the moment where things start to feel weak, or illogical, and from there I’ll dig in a little more to see what exactly I need to work on.
It’s also not a bad idea to take a step back and just let things simmer for a day or two. Sometimes, I need a break to let things sort themselves out. (Sometimes, this leads to laziness. I have to be honest with myself!) One thing I have to remember: figuring out where I took a wrong turn takes active work. Taking a step back can help let the subconscious do its thing, but I also have to take a careful look at what I have before I can go take a nap and let my backbrain do its thing.
Do you have anything to add to the list? I’d love to hear your thoughts on how to go back and identify the wrong turns.