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6 Steps to Jump-Start Your Story

Sooner or later, we all get stranded in the middle of our manuscripts. Use these 6 steps to jump-start your story so you can keep on driving. by John Dufresne

T here are precious few experiences quite as exhilarating as diving headlong into your new novel. You write your opening sentence, “Call me, Bob!” and you’re off. Immediately you’re imagining a brave new world and creating goodly creatures to inhabit it. You find yourself an inquisitive stranger in this newfound land. You’re going where no one else has ever been. Your job here at the outset is to wonder and to wander, to make yourself susceptible to the provocations of this exotic place, to absorb the rich and telling details, to welcome interaction with all these fascinating made-up people, and to follow your curiosity wherever it leads. You can’t wait to see what’s around the next corner, behind the next door, or over the next mountain. The world opens itself to you for its unmasking, as Kafka said it would. It writhes at your feet. And you’re burning to tell your readers all about it.

You give your darlings one problem after another, because you know that writing a novel is taking the path of most resistance. You trail along behind your characters, writing down what they do. They surprise you, they delight you and they alarm you. The story intensifies, the themes resonate and the mystery deepens. You think, This novel-writing business is such a blast! Not all of the writing has made it to the page just yet, but it’s all there in your copious notes.

You’re writing serenely every day. You’re coming to know your characters’ secrets, their dreams and their shame. You’re feeling clever, invigorated and beneficent. But writing a novel is a marathon, and it can be difficult to sustain the composure, drive and passion that inspired and launched the project. Today you’re sputtering a bit. That subplot you constructed isn’t panning out the way you had hoped it would. Bit of a dead end, really.

Not only that, now you realize that all of those problems you slapped your hero with need to be addressed, if not resolved. You put down your pen and scratch your head. Here you are in the middle of your novel, and you’re not sure where it’s going. And that character who you were certain was going to shine so brightly has dimmed, hasn’t he? In fact, he hasn’t walked on stage in five chapters. Perhaps he’s failed the audition.

Your graceful and sleek narrative turns out to be ragged and shapeless. It’s just one thing after another, isn’t it? You need a plot. You knew you would. You do know what a plot is—a central character wants something, goes after it despite opposition, and as a result of a struggle, comes to win or lose—so why can’t you write one?

There is no experience quite so humbling and disheartening as the inevitable creative slump that arrives in the middle of writing your novel. It’s the price you pay for your hubris. You’re in the doldrums now, adrift, and you’re starting to panic because you’ve invested so much time and energy, and you’d hate to see it all go to waste. (It won’t, of course, because everything you write today informs everything you will ever write. But that’s no consolation because right now you’re thinking you may never write again.)

Your confidence flags, your resolve weakens. You’re losing faith in your material. You’re intimidated by the magnitude of the undertaking, shamed by your vaulting ambition. What had seemed like an exciting and noble endeavor now seems foolish and impossible. And so you put pressure on yourself, which leads to your reliance on habitual thinking and rational problem solving, neither of which will get your novel written. Because a novel is not a quadratic equation. You’re not solving for x.

This setback is part of the process.

So relax.

Remember that no matter how much you have revised and polished as you’ve been going along, if you haven’t reached the end—and you haven’t—you’re still writing a first draft. And first drafts are explorations and are for your eyes only. Don’t expect to get it right; just try to get it written. Expecting too much from an early draft results in frustration and disappointment. You write a first draft in order to have something to revise. It will be a failure. Writers are the ones who don’t let failure stop them.

Beginnings are relatively easy because they come out of nowhere. You start writing before you even know where you’re going. (Consider how easy it is for you, when you’re stuck on a novel, as you are now, to get an idea for a better novel, and to begin to write it. Don’t do it! Take notes on it, but learn to finish this one first.) And even endings can seem to write themselves, following as they do on preceding events and having nothing to foreshadow. It’s here in the middle where things get dicey. The muddle in the middle is what separates writers from those who want to have written.

When you’re mired like this in the Slough of Despond, slog on! The only thing you can’t do is stop. If you’re lost, don’t wait for rescue: No one’s coming. Get moving! Write, don’t think! If your car won’t start, you don’t go back into the house, have a coffee, read the paper, stroll back out and expect the engine to fire. No, you look under the hood. You get your hands dirty.

So, let’s look under the hood.

Step #1: PUT IT IN PARK.
First, this might be a good time to take a short break from your manuscript. Try this: Reread a novel by an author you admire, if for no other reason than to remind yourself of the significance, beauty and nobility of what you’re trying to do. It’s your favorite novel or it’s the novel that made you want to be a writer in the first place. Read with a pen in your hand and take notes on scenes, characters, language, point of view and so on. Keep a list of everything this writer did that you can emulate in your novel. When you finish reading, write down what you’ve learned from the novel and what you will apply to your writing. And then get back to work.

Turn your attention back to your own work-in-progress. What you need in order to persevere is enthusiasm. You have to be excited again by your characters and themes, and by the nut of the nascent narrative. You should enjoy and relish what it was in your characters that first aroused your fervor, the qualities that struck you about them and to which you felt your enthusiasm respond from the get-go. Any time you start to feel your creative spirits fade, stop and remember why you started this journey in the first place: You wanted to get to know these people you were intrigued with. What was so beguiling about them? Why were you fascinated? Go there. If you don’t already have a notebook where you record notes for your work, designate one now, and write your answers to all these questions in its pages. Rejuvenate yourself. Get back in touch with your captivation.

Now it’s time to dig deeper. Ask yourself why you’re bogged down, and answer honestly—in writing.

Maybe you think you don’t know your hero well enough to know what she’ll do next. Well, here’s your chance to spend some time with her. Ask her what’s on her mind, and write down what she tells you. Are you buying it? Is she holding back? Why would she do that? Ask her to tell you something about herself that you don’t know, a secret about a secret. Ask the questions provoked by her revelation, and answer those questions as specifically as you can. Send her on a trip. Where does she choose to go? Why there? Does she travel alone or with someone? Have lunch with her, and write about that. What does she order? Is she on a diet? Talk about movies, discuss politics, gossip about the other characters in the novel. Ask her, “Why do you think Bob hasn’t returned your call?”

Or maybe you think what you’re writing about is not important enough, and irrelevance is giving you an excuse to quit. You don’t care whodunit anymore! Not so fast. Return to your notebook. Write about what keeps you up at night, what you’re afraid of, what you don’t want to know about yourself. Write about what you’re ashamed of. If you think there is evil in the world, give that evil a shape. Write about what makes the world a miserable place. And then, once you’ve realized that you do care after all, work what you’ve unearthed into your draft.

Another common reason for stalling mid-novel is that not knowing the ending is making you crazy. The key is to recognize that often the ending is implicit in the beginning. Go back to your opening chapter and see if you’ve left yourself any clues. Then, make an exhaustive list of possible endings. Pick the most surprising one and write toward it, staying flexible as you go—what you encounter along the way will likely and fortuitously change your direction.

Start reading your manuscript, beginning with your opening scene, and look for moments there that are begging for embellishment, exploration and resonance, for opportunities that you wrote into the scenes but have yet to exploit. Now you get to open those scenes up, not close them down. Often these moments are those when you were surprised by what a character did or said. Or there might be something, an image, a notion, a theme that you started in the opening that fades away, fails to resonate. You need to see where you might reintroduce that something.

Take note of places where you forget you’re reading and enter the world of your book—these are the parts that are working. Examining the good passages will help you strengthen the weak ones.

Each time you read the manuscript over, you’ll see something new. Note the thematic connections, the narrative tangents. Listen to your story. Listen with a pen in your hand and jot down notes. What is the novel trying to tell you?

Every novelist is a troublemaker, so make some trouble. Follow Raymond Chandler’s advice and bring in a man with a gun. Actually any weapon will do, of course. Your man with a gun might, in fact, be a teenage girl armed with sarcasm. Or a golden retriever that lopes up to your hero with a human foot in its mouth. As you write about what happens next, you’re looking for moments that are beyond what you thought was going on in your book. Let the phone ring at 3 in the morning and have your hero answer and get the alarming news. Or maybe he’s in his doctor’s office, and the doctor closes the door, sits back in her chair, picks up the results of the biopsy, taps the file on the desk, clears her throat.

Ask yourself what else could possibly go wrong in your hero’s life—his car breaks down; he loses his health insurance; his child is caught dealing dope; he’s falsely accused of a crime; his mom’s been in an accident—any of the trouble you’ve had in your life or that you are afraid will happen to you or to someone you love. That’s exactly what makes a plot compelling—things that you would not want your family to suffer through. Deaths in the family, divorce, infidelity and so on.

Now it dawns on you that writing a novel is itself very much a plot. Novels are about characters who want something. And you want something, too—to understand the lives of your own characters, which means resolving the trouble in your protagonist’s life, which means completing the novel—and you want it intensely. If you don’t finish, your life will be significantly diminished. And so you pursue your goal and battle every obstacle, not the least of which is your lack of confidence, your obstructionist tendencies, the world calling for your attention, the chaos of the characters’ lives, those elusive words, the befuddling muddle, and so on. You sit day after day. You struggle and at last you finish your novel. Plot’s resolved. 

Not sure if your story structure is strong enough to woo an agent? Consider:
Story Structure Architect

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