What to do When Your Work-In-Progress Hits a Snag

Roadblocks are the most frightening and frustrating things that can happen to your fiction writing; if you allow them, they have the power to stop your Work-In-Progress dead in its tracks. You know the kinds of snags I’m talking about. No matter which approach you take you just can’t make it work. You flirt with the notion of scrapping the project altogether. You tried; nobody can say you didn’t. Time to face facts: the scene isn’t going anywhere, so it must be utterly unsalvageable.

But fuck that: you’re stubborn. You try tinkering with some of your word placements for a while, but nothing seems to stick. You’ve now read it so many times it sounds like gobbledegook. You know in your head how you’d like for it to sound, but for reasons unknown your vision just won’t translate.

Then, as your frustration reaches its zenith, it happens: you let go. It’s not that you stop caring, you’ve just reached your limits; you can’t fret about it anymore, because it feels like you’re this close to losing your marbles. You try doing some gardening. You bake a nice cake. Then you watch an episode of 30 Rock, because 30 Rock is a great show.

Time passes. Then while you’re out there livin’ la vida loca, you remember. You remember that sticky little scene – yes, it still exists – and all the trouble it caused you. Curiosity bests you and you pull up the file. It takes less than three minutes for you to notice: the solution’s staring you right in the goddamn face. It was there all along. You were just too close to it to realise (cue that Pink song about clingy partners – ‘Go away, give me another biscuit. Say goodbye, it’ll make me want a biscuit’). Well, Writer Person, looks like you’re the butt of another of the universe’s jokes.

Of course, the solution is not always this simple. Maybe the answer isn’t staring you in the face so much, but something’s definitely different. Now that you’ve gone and got some perspective, you assess the scene again. Since you’ve stopped agonising, you’re free to calmly pick up where you were before: moving words and commas about like pieces on a chessboard.

It happens during that ever-crucial ninth re-read. You notice something. No … It can’t … Does– does the scene now … flow? Somehow you’ve done it: you’ve breathed life into the story, reanimated what was once on life support.

But how can this be? There was no grand Eureka! moment. Nowhere in that last hour of work did you feel yourself ascending a tier of the wisdom totem. So how is it that your once stilted piece now sings?

I’ve come to learn that this is the magic of the redraft. Great prose manifests not with a bang, but with a whimper. Keep this in mind and it will help abolish the fallacy that good writing comes only during wild, fleeting spells of inspiration.

If you believe this popular mistruth, as I once did, you’ll be putting yourself right in discouragement’s line of fire. And you know what discouragement’s good for? Squat. If good writing only came from sporadic bursts of inspiration, there’d be no need for bookstores – there wouldn’t be enough published works to fill them.

By buying into this myth, you’re sending yourself the message that it’s not worth writing if the words won’t come easily. You’ll be resigning yourself to waiting for that pesky Muse to show up – and believe me, you can’t rely on the Muse. The Muse spends six months at a time living it up in Barcelona (it has a timeshare). Can you afford to wait six months for any progress to be made?

If you assume any writing you force out is automatically crap, you’re dead wrong. In my experience, my best work – that is, the stories I’m most proud of – come the hardest. Unfortunately, for the most part, they’re also the most tedious to work on. They refuse to reach that point where I know they’re as good as they can be, which causes me great distress. And so come the moments where I question my ability (trust me, there are a lot of these); surely if I was a real writer I’d have found a way to make the piece work by now. In my darkest moments, I even wonder whether these difficult stories are worth persisting with at all.

By now, though, I know this is all part of the routine. I think I must have some mild, undiagnosed form of OCD, because once I cross a certain point with a story (usually around the halfway mark) I become unable to walk, even if what I’m writing seems fundamentally broken. I’m glad this is true of me because I’ve come to notice that in the act of persisting you’re forced to really think about your story at a fundamental level. It’s painful, but this is the best way to diagnose what is and isn’t working with the story (this is usually the point where I’ll ask for an outsider’s more objective opinion).

The more time you spend thinking about this sort of stuff – whether on a conscious level or a subconscious one (i.e. distracting yourself with a nice walk) – the more likely you’ll come across a solution, or a stronger way of doing something.

It’s hard to believe, but it’s really that simple: the only time a story’s ‘unfixable’ is when you walk away from it. If your story’s royally fucked, then I’m not going to pretend that fixing it will be simple. But it is achievable, if you’re willing to get your hands dirty – figuratively, of course.

You only get out of a story what you put into in. Like Nutri-Grain. So you should relish the difficult ones because, in my experience, they’re usually worth the trouble. View them as challenges. Similarly, you should regard the ones that come easy with nothing but suspicion. Not that I’m discrediting work that comes from a random burst of inspiration, but you have to remember that great writing is supposed to be work. Even for The Greats.

So, learn to embrace challenges. Try new things. Allow yourself to become hopelessly, hopelessly stuck. It may seem like these stories are trying to break you, but really all they want is for you to rise up and meet the occasion, to raise – and continue to raise – your own standards. That can only be a good thing.

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