How to Write When Struggling – Part 1

When struggling with characters, plot, interest, or the writing

In wanting to write a new blog, I started going through my TO BE WRITTEN file of blog ideas. I came across a copy of Maggie Doonan’s blog, “4 Signs It’s Time to Quit a Writing Project,” remembering how much I had originally disagreed with each one of those signs even though much of what she had to say was good advice. Those 4 signs in her blog are:

  1. You’re struggling to flesh out your characters
  2. You can’t get the plot to make sense
  3. You’re not excited by the story
  4. You’re finding writing harder than normal

I think in the beginning of my writing career that I might have agreed with that list but I rarely threw anything out. In thinking about my own writing career and projects that I started, put aside, and ended up working on later, I disagree with each one of those signs and here’s why.  

When struggling with characters

In the early days of my writing when there was no Internet, I submitted through the mail. One particular rejection that I still remember forty years later was that my characters were flat.

Having flat characters is a common problem for both new and experienced writers. My characters are always flat in the beginning. Why? Because I don’t know enough about them. Oh, I might know their hair color, height, their goal for the story, and the external conflict they’ll face, and possibly even an internal conflict, also known as their wound—usually emotional or psychological—but I don’t know why they have that internal conflict, that angst, that deep, dark wound that is buried so deep and is so secret that it drives every bit of their goals, words, and actions.

My job is to go digging. Or, as I call it: journaling. I write in first person as if I’m that person, writing a journal/diary entry. Usually, it starts with where *I* went to school, what I like to do, who my friends are, and by the time I’m into the second page—of a single-spaced document—I’m fully in that character’s head. I have become them. I’m able to feel their emotions and start asking questions as if I was a third person interviewer, How did you feel when that happened? What did you do? Why do you think you’ve hung onto those feelings all this time? And, so forth.

By the time, I’m done, I often have three-to-four full pages. I’m exhausted. But, I always discover that deepest, darkest secret they never want anyone learning. I learn how it drives every decision they’re making now. That secret/wound becomes their character arc, the thing they have to resolve before they can achieve their external goal, which will include getting the girl or guy if the story is a romance. If not a romance, it’s a toss-up whether the story will be bittersweet or happily ever after.

When struggling with plot

Generally, I discovered I was struggling with plot because I didn’t know my characters well enough. After all, without character, there is no plot. Their external goal drives their initial action(s), but it’s their internal wound that drives their reactions both in thought and deed.

If I was still struggling with plot after going back and digging deeper into my characters psyche, then I don’t have enough external conflict coming at them. I don’t have a conflict equal to their strengths and knowledge. Every main character has to have an adversary that has a great chance of taking that character’s goal away from them. Dealing with plot is all about heaping on the drama, the tragic events, the problematic people.

When I’m struggling with interest in the story

If I’m becoming bored with the story, it’s either because I don’t know my character(s) well enough or I don’t have enough drama blocking their way.

Plus, if I’m bored with the story, readers will be bored, too.

The only way to fix my characters is to work with them, digging deep into inner cores until I’ve fallen in love with them and want to be with them even when away from the computer because they’ve become more interesting than even my best friends.

If they can make me laugh, make me sigh, or make me cry, then that disinterest has disappeared.

I know I’ve succeeded falling in love with them when I forget to eat, lose track of time when at the computer, and when I wake up wanting to be at the computer as soon as possible.

When I’m struggling to write

I’ll admit that I can be a procrastinator, one who is highly side-tracked with the ring of new mail, seeing the number of notifications sitting in Facebook or Twitter. I can get lost in the rabbit hole of research of some new science, a moment in history I never knew about, or as in today’s news, the political scene, or the new numbers of this pandemic virus that has a stranglehold on most of us.

Generally, when I’m struggling, it’s because I’ve allowed myself to be distracted.

To create a better writing habit again, I now have an accountability partner. Most every day, we communicate by video or text where we set our writing goals, and then at the end of the day, we message each other, stating what we did, whether we met those goals or not. As a result, both of us are writing far more than we’ve done in the past.

Is there ever a time I leave a project behind?

Rarely.

Some projects have taken time. Grendel’s Mother, which I published in 2016, was a ten-year project from start to finish. For most of that time, in two different large chunks of time as in years, it sat on the shelf. The first time was because I was stuck with the plot. I discovered I needed to do more research. I went and reread Beowulf again and got some more ideas. The second time was because I’d returned to school for my last degree.

Another project was a children’s novel I had written. The story was cute, but not interesting enough. Also, it had been the first full novel I had written and served as a learn-as-you-go project. I wrote it when my oldest daughter was in fourth grade. Three decades later, she’s teaching fourth-grade and when helping me go through my shelves one day, she said that the characters were still memorable. At least I got that element right back then! Today, we’re planning on rewriting it together adding some sci-fi to the plot…someday.

There were two short-short children’s stories that I finally and recently tossed. The market just isn’t there for me. Plus, I wasn’t interesting in investing any more time in them.

Also, I tossed out a number of ideas that didn’t have any real writing behind them. They were just ideas and today, I have no enthusiasm for them.

My first romance ever written—the one where the characters were flat? I recycled the setting, leaving behind the characters and plot and wrote a different romance. Traditionally published in 1997, I revised and updated it, changed the cover, and the title from New Beginnings to Love’s New Beginnings, publishing it last year. The book got a 5-star review rating from Kat Henry Doran, the owner of Wild Women Reviews.

All this said, these past few months have not been normal. I, too, have struggled to write during March and April. Eventually, in May, I found my way.

My next blog will talk about how I’ve been able most of the time to overcome this unusual time as we cope with a dangerous virus. They may be tricks you can use both in the normal and abnormal times.

About Diana Stout

Screenwriter, author, former English professor
This entry was posted in #amwriting, Characters, Failures, Inspiration, Motivation, Persistance, Procrastination, writing and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to How to Write When Struggling – Part 1

  1. Oh hey, that journalling tip looks pretty handy. I’ll be trying that myself. I struggle with everything else too, but this one resonated with me. Thanks for sharing, Diana!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Diana Stout says:

      You’re most welcome, Stuart. The journaling really works! One time I had my daughter read both the hero and heroine journals and she asked who wrote them? I said I did. She said, No who wrote them? I did, I replied again. In a lower, slower voice, she said, No. Who. Wrote. These? I replied. I. Did. She said, you couldn’t have; they sound like two different people and not you. Bingo! I had captured both of their voices. That story is now my Determined Hearts book.

      Like

  2. Patricia Kiyono says:

    I’ll have to try the journaling, too. I love the characters in my WiP, but can’t figure out why they fall in love with each other – which isn’t good for a romance. So maybe if I get inside their heads I’ll find out! Great post.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Diana Stout says:

    Have fun in your explorations!

    Like

  4. Diane Burton says:

    I’ve done the journaling (I called it interviewing) my character. Definitely gives a better understanding of that person. I think not knowing the character well enough can stall a story. Good suggestions.

    Like

  5. Lucy Kubash says:

    Great post and very helpful. I’ve always made notes about my characters before I start writing the story but have not done interviews or journaling. Might try it this time around.

    Like

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