On Stuckness

I’m really excited about my next novel, The Unaccountable Death of Derelict Frobisher. It’s my best work to date—very funny, very deep, very me—and friends who have heard bits are figuratively hounding me for more. The draft is probably 85% complete. Problem is, I’ve got no idea what words to write next.

It’s a complex and multi-layered problem, made worse in some ways by the fact that I don’t really put much stock in writer’s block. I’ve always been of the mindset that plumbers plumb, coders code, and writers write, and if you’re so precious about your writing that you’re willing to let a little thing like not knowing what words to write next stop you, you’re at best an amateur, at worst a self-indulgent dilettante.1

So I guess I’m an amateur or, as the case may be, a dilettante, because I’ve been largely putting this problem off for months now, busying myself with other jobs that are definitely very important and not an excuse to avoid Frobisher.

Some of the reasons I’m stuck include:

  • I wrote all the fun easy parts first, which means all I’ve got left are the tricky complicated bits
  • Most of what remains is the brilliant climax where everything comes together, all the threads get resolved, and the clever twists and solutions occur, and that’s all really tricky to figure out
  • In my absorption with the aforementioned fun easy bits, I never really exactly figured out who the villains are or what they did when or why. Turns out this is a useful thing to know as you wrap up a story.
  • Existing draft is very complex—lots of scenes in various states of incompleteness, of which an as-yet-undetermined subset won’t be in the final draft—so it’s often tricky to figure out quite concretely which bits to start putting more words onto

Here are some things I’ve been doing to start getting unstuck:

  • Actually sit and think about it.
    • Turns out I overestimate the value of vaguely letting my subconsciously allegedly brood on an issue. You could say I’m mentally leaving the dishes to soak for four months. Focused thought and effort move things forward way more quickly. (Surprise!)
  • The kitchen timer method, in which you do nothing but write your work-in-progress or write in your journal for a set time. I wrote more about it here.
    • So far I’ve spent almost all of the time in my journal, and it’s starting to lead to productive breakthroughs. I think it’s useful to give myself permission to spend writing time on productive journaling instead of just adding manuscript word count.
  • Asking “What’s the next question I need answered?”
    • For example, in the final climactic showdown, I knew Hastily Dobbs and his people would thwart the Society for Entrepreneurial Insurgency using some sort of genius inter-planar cleverness. But I wasn’t sure what the cleverness was.
    • On further digging, though, I realized I wasn’t even sure what they were thwarting.
    • That led me to ask what the SEI is actually doing in this scene.
    • That led me to ask why they’re doing…whatever they’re doing. What’s their overarching goal? Once I answered that question, the knot began to unravel.

In summary: Trying to intuit my way through four layers of ignorance at once is ineffective. Not even trying is even more ineffective. Put differently, work works.

As it happens, this neatly resolves my impending dilettantism. The key to not being an uncommitted amateur is to commit and do the work, even if, in a periodic tight spot, the work consists of figuring out what words to write instead of writing more words.


1 From the German Dillentante, or “pickle-aunt,” an insult common among the 18th century pickle barons of the Weimar, implying that the insultee’s pickle-making was of a caliber comparable to a doddering aunt who, having canned some gherkins for pickling, quickly forgot which jars had been put up in what years, resulting in pickles of highly inconsistent quality and, in many cases, unacceptable mushiness.

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