When Writers Hit The Wall

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Early in my writing career I noticed something happening when I got to around the 30k word mark in a manuscript. It was like I hit a wall. It’s not that I didn’t have ideas or know the direction of my plot. It was just a strange feeling like I wasn’t sure what to write next. I’d look ahead at the 60k or more words I had to write, and got the heebie-jeebies. What the heck was going on?

Luckily, I found out I wasn’t alone. Lawrence Block reported the same thing in his book Writing the Novel:

One thing I’ve come to recognize is that I tend to run into a wall at a certain point in all of my books…. I find myself losing confidence in the book—or, more precisely, in my ability to make it work. The plot seems to be either too simple and straightforward to hold the reader’s interest or too complicated to be neatly resolved. I find myself worrying that there’s not enough action, that the lead’s situation is not sufficiently desperate, that the book has been struck boring while my attention was directed elsewhere.

I got to thinking about “the wall” again while reading Kris’s post on settings and Game of Thrones. It put me in mind of the current plight of author George R. R. Martin. Now, I’m not an epic fantasy reader. I’ve never made it past the halfway point of The Fellowship of the Ring (stop with the singing already!) But I am definitely an admirer of those writers who excel at the genre. Especially Martin, whose page count and popularity I look at with awe. He is, at the moment, in the midst of a long patch of writer’s delay involving the next book in his series. Last year, he talked about it:

I know there are a lot of people out there who are very angry with me that Winds of Winter isn’t finished. And I’m mad about that myself. I wished I finished it four years ago. I wished it was finished now. But it’s not. And I’ve had dark nights of the soul where I’ve pounded my head against the keyboard and said, “God, will I ever finish this? The show is going further and further forward and I’m falling further and further behind. What the hell is happening here?”

This sounds like the wall and is completely understandable in light of the complexity of the books, not to mention the TV series running ahead of him!

Patrick Rothfuss, another popular fantasy writer, has also been in the midst of a very public delay for the third novel in his Kingkiller Chronicle (the second book was published back in 2011). Fans have expressed their displeasure—some going way over the line.

In an interview Rothfuss said something interesting:

“But I am moving forward. More importantly, I’m finally getting my life sorted out so that I can go back and approach my writing and my craft with the joy that I used to feel back in the day, when I was just an idiot kid playing D&D or working on my unpublishable fantasy novel.”

I think most of us can relate to that. When we first sat down to write a novel, we felt the joy of creation, the pure fun of making stuff up (see Jordan’s post on the “fun mojo” of writing). We shouted Huzzah! when we typed The End (or something that sounded like Huzzah. Maybe it was just Whew.)

But then we got the stunning news that what we had written didn’t work. We had to figure out why. We had to learn the craft. We had to work.

Then some of us got contracts and had to finish books with the cold, merciless wind of deadlines blowing across the backs of our necks. That chill was even more ominous if we found ourselves at a wall in our manuscript. So I developed some strategies to prepare for that dreaded moment.

1. The 20k Word Step Back

At 20k the foundation of my novel had better be strong. There’s a whole lot of words to write, characters to flesh out, plot twists to justify. So I stop around 20k to assess my plot:

A. Is my Lead compelling enough? Will readers care about his plight? Is he likable? Does he have qualities with which readers can empathize?

B. Are the stakes death (physical, professional, or psychological)? What can I do to ramp up the stakes?

C. Has my Lead been truly forced through the Doorway of No Return (when the book plunges into Act 2)? [Note: if your Lead isn’t forced into Act 2 by the 20% mark of your novel, the readers will feel it dragging.]

D. Do I have enough of an orchestrated cast? Do my secondary and minor characters have enough uniqueness about them? Are they sufficiently in conflict with other characters?

2. The Joy Factor

I’ve quoted this before, but it bears repeating. This is from a 1919 text on fiction writing by a man named Clayton Meeker Hamilton:

In the great story-tellers, there is a sort of self-enjoyment in the exercise of the sense of narrative; and this, by sheer contagion, communicates enjoyment to the reader. Perhaps it may be called (by analogy with the familiar phrase, “the joy of living”) the joy of telling tales. The joy of telling tales which shines through Treasure Island is perhaps the main reason for the continued popularity of the story. The author is having such a good time in telling his tale that he gives us necessarily a good time in reading it. (A Manual of the Art of Fiction)

“For the first thing a writer should be is––excited,” writes Ray Bradbury in Zen in the Art of Writing. “He should be a thing of fevers and enthusiasms. Without such vigor, he might as well be out picking peaches or digging ditches; God knows it’d be better for his health.”

Finding—and keeping—the joy in your book is thus absolutely essential, not just to break through the wall, but to elevate the entire thing. For me that means:

A. Going deeper into characters. This is a source of originality and interest. Giving even a little bit of backstory to minor characters creates all sorts of possibilities. You’re more likely to feel joyful when your novel teems with the possible coming out of characters.

B. Make things even harder for the Lead! Stop being so nice. Keep asking: what could make things worse? Oh, yeah? How about worse than that?

C. Keep a novel journal. This not only keeps you in the story; you can look back at early entries to recapture what got you hooked in the first place.

3. The Skip Ahead

If you’re still feeling hampered or unsure at the wall, get a long pole, back up fifty yards, then run like mad and vault right over the thing. Land a few scenes ahead. Pick the future scene you’re most excited about writing. Then write it!

Now, turn around and look backward. You should be able to plot a way to get from the wall to the scene you just wrote.

So what about you? Do you ever hit a wall in your writing? How do you deal with it?

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32 thoughts on “When Writers Hit The Wall

  1. Absolutely. Usually around the 1/3 mark and again around the 2/3 mark in my novels, I hit a wall.

    At the 1/3 point, I’m beginning to get bored. The excitement of the “new” story has worn off. I’m writing in my own voice, which is with me 24/7 and is therefore boring and bland to me. I read over (as a reader, not a critic) the last session I wrote, then take a deep breath and write the next sentence, whatever occurs to me. Soon I’m writing away again.

    At the 2/3 mark, it’s more of a panic. Maybe some things are not working out (to my conscious mind). I have no idea where things are going or how it’s ever all going to work out. Again, I take a deep breath, let my characters through and write the next sentence.

    It’s my characters’ story. At times I have to remind myself they can tell it much better than I can. I’ve learned and absorbed Story and craft mechanics all my life. I have to trust that and just let the characters move my fingers on the keyboard.

    I’m a really lucky guy. For me, it really is that easy (and that hard).

    • Good points, Harvey. I do think getting a little “bored” might be part of it. Those first pages are fun. The idea has excited you enough to begin writing. Then you realize hey, there’s actual work going on here.

      So yeah, remember the characters and just write that next sentence.

  2. All the time. It’s the part of a novel I call the “messy middle.” Usually, I’ll turn to a short story project (I can’t write two long pieces at once), or just back away for a while. Eventually, everything clicks and I can continue. Wish I had an easy way to get through the wall quickly.

    • Joan, I actually like your idea of jumping over to a short story for a bit. As long as it’s not a constant thing, which would be more like fleeing the hard work than letting the “boys in the basement” cook for awhile.

  3. Usually around the halfway point, about 50K for me. Where is this book going, and there’s not enough happening to make it novel-length.
    But I keep writing because I know it’s happened 20 times before. Check the conflict, check the characters. (throw in a dead body?).
    Then, at about 70-80K, I wonder if this book will ever end. Some of those threads are getting longer and more tangled. But eventually, everything wraps up, and it’s time to edit.

    • The dead body throw-in is great, isn’t it? Or any sort of twist.

      And yeah, those tangled threads. I’ve always said beginnings are easy, endings are hard, and that’s one of the reasons why!

  4. Usually for me around 20%, where I’ve worked like mad to set up “life as normal” so I can break it, and now it’s broken and I’ve got all those miles ahead.

    One thing that helps is what you’ve pointed out before, your pole vault to a place that excites me. Often that’s the ending, but another device I’ve used is what Harvey alludes to–letting the characters actually speak.

    I learned so much about my last villain by making up a monologue for him to tell what’s always been difficult for him–in the last case his being 6′ 7″ tall. I’d already set that up for what reason I don’t know, but when I let him talk about it, I got all kinds of angst he’s expressing when he harms others. He became a real person at that point rather than a shadowy meany, and I was able to move on.

    I can’t seem to write linearly, Chapter 1..2…3…all the way to 65 straight through. My attempts to do so chug to a halt before I’m half done–more like 1/5th. It’s important to realize that’s me, that’s how the process goes, and learn to live with it and make it work.

    Maybe that’s why I’m the guy with 1,000 first chapters. Oh, well…

    • I’m right with you, Dan. I’ve got 1000 openings, and 5,000 first lines, too!. A bit of exaggeration here, but you get the point.

      What you say about the villain’s monologue is extremely important. They do not view themselves as villains, but as justified. It’s crucial for an author to get into that justification. I counsel writers to write out a villains closing argument, as if to a jury, explaining exactly why he does what he does. Dean Koontz advised finding a sympathy factor, too. The cross-currents of emotion this creates in a reader truly elevate a novel.

  5. I wonder if Lee Zlotoff’s “The MacGyver Secret” would be of any help at these ‘walls.’ I haven’t tried his method but maybe others have. Here it is in a nutshell:

    THE MACGYVER SECRET

    STEP 1
    1-Write down your question or problem (longhand).
    2-Take your time.
    3-Be as detailed and specific as you can.
    4-Don’t sweat about overloading your inner Mac.
    5-Write down any quick answers that occur to you.
    6-Tell your inner MacGyver to work on it for you.
    7-Then let it go!

    STEP 2
    1-Do some enjoyable or necessary activity.
    2-Keep it physical.
    3-Keep it unimaginative.
    4-Keep talking to a minimum.
    5-Forget TV, reading, or video games.
    6-Set a time limit.

    STEP 3
    1-Return to your question.
    2-Ask your inner MacGyver for the answers.
    3-Then just start writing! Anything.
    4-And give yourself enough TIME to receive them.

    • I love this, Bob! Thanks for sharing.

      I often do some deep thinking about my story before nodding off. Then in the morning, first thing, write freeform notes on what’s bubbling in my head. So let’s add that to the suggestions in the post!

    • So does this make the Inner MacGyver is one of the “Boys in the Basement”?

    • 1) The book was great and loved the suggestions
      2) Anything that reminds me of Richard Dean Anderson is a very good thing. 😎

  6. The real reason Martin and Rothfuss can’t finish is that their celebrity has drawn them into Hollywood and other projects that are much more glamorous and financially successful than their next book. Why sit in an empty room with a computer when you can be chatting with Hollywood A listers? I weep crocodile tears for them. The fans are the ones who deserve my sympathy.

    If the middle is a brick wall, then you are probably a create as you go type. As a casual outliner, I only paused if I sensed that I’d gone off track or that I needed a few more complications or a beefed up subplot to hit the right word count.

    For those who write mystery, remember the adage that if the plot is slowing down, kill someone else.

  7. I hit it at about the same point, Jim. Unless it’s one of my 125K word space operas, then it’s correspondingly later. But your “leap ahead” suggestion almost always works for me. I usually know at least two or three scenes that have to be there, and 90% of the time when I jump ahead and write one of those, a light will go on. Then it’s “Oh, so THAT’S what has to happen back there!”

    My problem is admitting I’m at that point, that it’s time to quit being stubborn and running into that wall head first and go ahead and make the jump.

  8. The first 20K words are magical– and after that, it turns into a blob of something I’d find on the bottom of my shoe after a walk in the paddock with the dog. There are a number of unfinished novels in my writing folder because they stopped at the 20% or 20K word mark. No conflict. No idea who the characters are. No idea what I want to happen until the very end. They sit down for lunch or have a nap, and don’t bother getting up again.

    I’m having the same issue right now in two WIPs: something’s happened to the protagonist and I can’t figure out where to go after that. One protagonist’s gone down for a nap (she’s tuckered out after a long day), the other one’s been told to answer all questions truthfully and honestly during a welfare check.

    In the last week, for both of them, I’ve written the scenes that I wanted to write. I’ll use your backwards writing suggestion to plot my way back. I think I can come up with something… probably in the shower, or while I’m going on a run. Those are magical times where answers just pop into my head.

      • I’ve had story structure beaten into my head by a number of people (you among them), and have tried various ways of outlining. I’ll definitely check out Super Structure.

        Sometimes, I feel like those scenes where I’m stuck means the pacing is off or the stakes aren’t high enough. Time to go back and tweak the last scenes or drop in a dead body, methinks.

  9. I often hit the insecurity wall about 2/3rds of the way into a MS when I start to doubt the decisions I’ve made up to that point and often why I even started writing the &$%# book! At this point I usually just try to power through to the end…and then let those insecurities guide my revision process:)

  10. “The joy of telling tales.”
    What a telling phrase. I’ve written books that were an awful slog. But then there are those that just pour out, as if some psychic force is propelling you on. I can’t explain why each book is a unique birth. But not all are joyful in the making. Some are joyful for surviving the process. Onward….

  11. Very encouraging. As a novice, I’m learning all about the second novel syndrome. The first one was hard work but great fun. Every day was a new adventure and learning the craft was exciting.

    But my second novel fits your description perfectly. At 20K words, I stalled and began to find excuses why I couldn’t meet my writing quota. I felt like somebody had raised the bar and I wasn’t sure I could get over it. Fear of failure. Then a week or so ago, I suddenly became reinvigorated, but I’m not sure why. I think it was re-reading books on the craft of writing that pushed me forward. Or maybe it was that second slice of coconut cream pie.

    I’m bookmarking this page for future reference. It’s a keeper.

  12. Hi Jim, such a timely post for me! Around that 30k it seems like my best ideas are on the page and I think my story hasn’t got the legs to make it another 60k or so. Usually I brainstorm – write down every crazy idea that occurs to me. I may change something major that impacts the whole story, such as a change in setting. In my current WIP, I changed from first person to third person and that made an enormous difference. Thanks for your excellent post!

  13. Excellent suggestions.Thank you all. Although my writing journey began over two years ago, I’ve not experienced the path beyond the wall, yet. As a new writer, I started out writing an extended short story, if there were such a thing, and proceeded to fling words onto the page with NaNoWriMo in 2018. (I’m still sorting through the rubbish). I discovered Mr. Bell’s story structure, K.M Weiland, Jessica Brody, and several others. I should’ve known I would be a planner and plotter with my engineering/architecture background. So, after many weeks studying structure and even creating a colorful, artsy graphic as a collage of author’s story structure and beats, and plot points, I am now gathering all the various scenes and finding out if this WIP has a form. Do you have any other suggestions for a first time writer with a myriad of scenes, opening hook, conflict and resolution for each scene, ready for stitching them together and finding the “holes”? I wrote the final chapter, and after attending Donald Maas writing workshop, I pray I have settled on a first chapter. I purchased Scrivener for Mac, also. Oh, I do wish I had organized from the beginning. Blessings. Thank you in advance for your reply.

    • Patricia, you’ve done a good deal of right and proper prep. Now the thing to do, as a first timer, is to just plow forward and wright the thing. Do not stop in the middle and do not assess. Go until you reach the end. Then set it aside for a few weeks, print out a hard copy, and read it through as if you were an actual reader who purchased it. THEN find the “holes” and what needs to be fixed, and THEN find ways to fix them. You’ll find those answers in the resources you’ve already read.

      But you learn so much finishing that first novel. Don’t get it right, just get it written…THEN make it right!

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