What To Do When You’ve Hit the Wall

Writing Breakthrough

Here I am nearly 10,000 words into my novel, Swallow’s Landing, and I’ve hit a WALL. This wall is made up of boredom, distraction, and self-doubt, each a brick or more in number. All three of these feed into each other, so in what follows, I try to tease out how to break through them individually.

Boredom

We writers have all experienced the moment when the characters and situations appearing on the page just don’t interest us anymore. Yet, at the same time, the overall idea that propelled us to start writing in the first still does.

For me, this usually stems from my getting lost in writing a scene without having an inkling beforehand what I want it to do. I’m just throwing down words at that point, and words without purpose are boring. (Spilling may be all right for a first draft, but one does want to come close to hitting the mark, right?) So what helps me in this situation is to refocus on what I want the scene to accomplish in the overall work.

K.M. Weiland’s Structuring Your Novel points out that Scene with a capital S is made up of two parts with three building blocks each:

  • scene (action)
    • goal
    • conflict
    • disaster (outcome)
  • sequel (reaction)
    • reaction
    • dilemma
    • decision

If my fictional dream is meandering through the poppies and putting me to sleep, then I just need to get back to laying the building blocks of Scene by answering the questions proposed by Stephen Koch in The Modern Library Writer’s Workshop: A Guide to the Craft of Fiction (MLWW):

  • What does the character want?
  • Is he/she going to get it?
  • If yes, how, and if no, why?

Finding and then following the road map through your Scene can help you re-engage with your characters and in turn make them come alive again in your imagination.

Distraction

Boredom often leads to distraction. The symptoms include yielding to the temptation to open the browser, taking one too many breaks during a writing session, or in my case lately, opting to work on short stories instead of the novel. Besides boredom, distraction is fed by impatience. I have all these unfinished writing projects and so I’m impatient to tackle what strikes my fancy at the moment. The problem with that (as I well know) is that you end up with a lot of half-unfinished, half-finished work lying about.

The solution for this is to fight boredom and FOCUS. Stephen Koch in MLWW says that, if possible, you should write out the first draft of a short story in one sitting and the first draft of a novel in a season (three months). Steven King says the same thing in On Writing. You don’t have to adhere to those timelines, but the point is that by focusing, you can get the story down on paper. You can outstrip your boredom (above) and your fears (below). You can get it done.

Self-Doubt

Doubting the vision of what you’re creating is perhaps the most crippling for a writer. Giving in to the doubts convinces you that what you’re writing is boring not only for you but also any potential reader, that you’d better just give up and do something else (distraction), and that you’re not “worthy.” This gets me often. I will ask myself, “Will anyone want to read this? Who are you to write about the Hmong experience? Does anyone care to read Serious Mormon Fiction (SMF)?”

In these moments, I run my fingers across the spines of the books on my shelves and breathe in and draw upon the faith of those who have gone before. Rainer Maria Rilke said:

“Believe that with your feelings and your work you are taking part in the greatest; the more strongly you cultivate this belief, the more will reality and the world go forth from it.”

It’s cliche, but you must believe in yourself. Again, I quote Stephen Koch in MLWW:

“But”—you may say—”I don’t even know my story yet.” My answer is: “Of course you don’t know your story yet.” You are the very first person to tell this story ever, anywhere in the whole world, and you cannot know a story until it has been told. First you tell it; then you know it. It’s not the other way around.

Believing is seeing.

So stay focused, take an interest in the fates of your characters, and believe that what you’re about is an act of creation that when revealed to the world will give you a sense of pride for having acted on your dreams, and your readers an appreciation for having found your works.

Read, Write, Execute!

Photo credit: Brett Jordan, flickr.com

Author: Michael Andrew Ellis

I write literary fiction at the confluence of Mormonism, Hmong culture, and the human condition. Here on my blog I write about Mormon arts and letters, Hmong history and culture, classic and contemporary literature, existentialism, and my journey as a writer.

4 thoughts on “What To Do When You’ve Hit the Wall”

  1. When I get bored or find myself reluctant to write a scene, it’s a big red flag that I’m going about it the wrong way. I’ve tried soldiering through that boredom before, only to later say, “Hey, I should do it this way instead!” and have to rewrite everything.

    Instead of forcing it, I step back and rethink first. How can I do this better? I don’t keep going until I have an answer. I’ll skip around and draft other scenes if I have to, and come back to that one later. After all, if it’s boring to me, that boredom WILL shine through to the reader.

    As for those lows when you feel like everything you do is pathetic garbage? I don’t think anyone doesn’t have those! It’s cyclical, it’ll pass. It’s lame, but sometimes I make myself read positive reviews I’ve received in the past, just to remind myself that I don’t completely suck. 😉

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