The first step to troubleshooting your writerly woes is to ASSESS YO’ SHIT

That means looking at your novel and all its issues with an objective eye and figuring out why the frick you’re finding it so hard. It also means letting go of perfectionism, guilt, and feelings of inadequacy you might have over your writing. 

Writing a novel is an epic journey. And no one starts off with a full set of gear and a map. We’re all scrambling naked through the wilderness most of the time. So give yourself a break and accept the fact that hitting blockages and sticking points is inevitable – whether you’re in the first, second, or umpteenth draft of your book. Whether this is your first novel or your twelfth. It’s part of the process. 

Hitting a sticking point does not = failure. 

Going through a writing drought does not mean you should give up. 

Realising your novel is riddled with problems does not mean it’s not redeemable. 

But before you can move past all of that, you need to do some troubleshooting. Pew pew, mothertruckers.

GIF of cat firing bolts of power from its paws, caption: pew pew pew

Let’s start with broad strokes. There are a million different reasons why you’ve got yourself stuck, but they can usually be grouped into four main categories: 

  1. Practical and emotional shit – in which life in general is getting in your way.
  2. Structural and logistical shit – in which your plot probably needs re-tweaking.
  3. Character shit – in which your characters need developing.
  4. Technique shit – in which your craft needs honing.

That’s a lotta shit, right? But the good news is, by decompartmentalising all your story’s issues, it makes it MUCH easier to tackle each issue one at a time, piece by piece, and make un-sticking your novel less of an overwhelming task. 

We’ll be working through each of these, erm, ‘shits’ throughout the course, but for now let’s look at number one on that list, because it’s a biggie, and usually where a lot of writers get stuck. 

Practical and Emotional Shit 

This shit actually often has very little to do with writing. It’s more about the circumstantial, practical stuff that makes it hard to prioritise your writing, or the emotional, psychological stuff lurking in the back of your brain that makes you procrastinate instead of write. If your main problem with writing your novel is that you’re simply not writing your novel then chances are this is where your issue lies. 

If there are no glaring issues with your plot or your characters but you find yourself constantly putting off writing, it’s time to ask yourself why…

Practical and logistical shit getting in the way

Maybe you’ve got too much other work to do. Maybe you’re having a shit week and just feel like flopping on the sofa with a box set and some ice cream. Maybe your kids are driving you nuts and your head’s about to explode. Maybe your partner is being a dick. Maybe you’re ill, or depressed, or anxious about the state of politics. Maybe you use a computer all day for work and can’t bear to stare at a screen to write. Maybe your only time to write is in the evenings and by the time you get down to it you’re just too tired to focus. Maybe you find it hard to write when your house is a mess and you’re *just* gonna do a little hoovering before you get started… (2 hours later) …oops.

Psychological and emotional shit getting in the way

Maybe you weren’t happy with the last chapter you wrote and it’s niggling at you. Maybe you panic at the sight of a blank page. Maybe you’re frozen by the fear of failure. Maybe you’re never satisfied with the quality of your writing. Maybe you’re anxious about what your friends and family will think when/if they read your book. Maybe you can’t stop thinking about that brand new shiny project you have in mind for after this one. Maybe you don’t value your own time and aspirations enough to prioritise your writing time. Maybe you can’t stop comparing yourself to others. 

Or MAYBE you’re just a big ol’ flake who has a serious social media addiction, twenty-seven tabs open at any given time, and the attention span of a- ooh, look, shiny thing! In which case, we say to you: STOP FUCKING ABOUT AND START WRITING. 

Image of a text quote on blue background: “Writing a novel— actually picking the words and filling in paragraphs— is a tremendous pain in the ass. Now that TV’s so good and the Internet is an endless forest of distraction, it’s damn near impossible. That should be taken into account when ranking the all-time greats. Somebody like Charles Dickens, for example, who had nothing better to do except eat mutton and attend public hangings, should get very little credit.” - Steve Hely, How I Became a Famous Novelist

The thing is, all these reasons – whether practical or emotional – can (mostly) be neutralised and overcome with a little effort. HOW? First, by acknowledging what’s really stopping you write. 

Is it a practical issue that can be sorted by rearranging things or asking for help? Eg: House is a mess? Get your partner to sort it, or get out of the house and write somewhere else so you’re not distracted by it. 

Too tired to write in the evenings? Save your writing time for the weekend and value yourself enough to prioritise your writing over all the other shit you get wrangled into. 

Just generally feeling a bit meh? Give yourself a break. Recharge. Daydream. Then pull yourself together and develop a little writing discipline. Commit to finishing your book. Take some tips from our 14 Days to a Solid Writing Habit course. And lower your expectations. Every little helps. Even just re-reading what you’ve written or scribbling some thoughts in a notebook is progress, and will keep your story ticking over in your brain. 

The bare minimum is still something, and so long as you don’t stop entirely, you’ll get to the end eventually.

Or maybe it’s one of those pesky emotional reasons stopping you – in which case, it’s highly likely that your lovely creative brain is wallowing in imposter syndrome and self-doubt and a whole load of other bullshit responses to fear and uncertainty – none of which are remotely useful to anyone EVER. 

Dissatisfied with the quality of your writing? Fuck’s sake, this is just a draft, give yourself a frickin’ break. 

Not feeling confident about your story? Revisit your plot outline, post in the forums for some feedback and pep talking, find a beta reader, or just plough on with a scene you’re actually excited about. 

Can’t get past the fear of failure? Dude, we feel you. But we also need to slap you. It’s for your own good. ‘Cause how can you even get to the failure point if you never write this thing? And how can you possibly know it’s going to fail? And even if it does, who gives a toss? Well, you, obviously, but there are other quantifiers aside from critical recognition, fame and riches – such as the fact that you WROTE A FUCKING BOOK. That, alone, should be your reward, no matter what happens next.

And remember: these are BIG concepts/problems, and we don’t expect you to work through/around them overnight, but even just acknowledging them can be a good first step. 

Do that now – give yourself a little mantra or statement of intent based on what you think your BIG blockage might be, eg: 

Logistical: “I’m going to prioritise my writing and make time for it” or “I’m going to turn off the WiFi when I’m writing to stop me getting sucked into social media when I should be writing” or “I’m going to make good use of my 40 minute commute and make notes/edit/write.”  

Psychological: “I’m going to stop worrying so much about how crappy my first draft is and just get it out” or “I’m going to be a little bit more patient and accept that I’m not going to finish this novel in the space of a week” or “I’m going to be brave and let someone read my work and give me feedback.” 

Whatever your big issue is, there’s no need to beat yourself up about it – just look for a reasonable and achievable solution. 

So you watch too much Netflix when you could be writing. So what? Maybe you can do both ! Write for half an hour after dinner, and then binge-watch the night away.

So you keep getting distracted by new story ideas that detract you from your novel. Okay, so keep a notebook or file dedicated to those fresh ideas, and when one occurs to you, write it down, then set it aside and get back to work. Simple. 

Big issues can easily be made into tiny ones with a bit of self-reflection and a ‘no-bullshitting’ attitude. So pull up your bootstraps, face your procrastination head on (or just kick it in the balls), and get back on that literary horse.

GIF of two men with horse masks on high fiving

Next up: Identify exactly what it is that’s causing roadblocks in your novel and plough through them like a mofo.

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