I write at several lengths, from flash fiction to short stories to novellas and novels. Each length presents its own challenges, but one thing that I find common to all lengths is something I call the “writing doldrums.” In almost every story, I inevitably reach a point where that initial rush of excitement at starting a new work wears off, the end of the story is still so far down the tunnel as to be hard to see, and the flow of words slows. While certainly a more common challenge in lengthier pieces, I’ve had it happen in flash stories, too, so the writing doldrums are not restricted to novella and novel lengths.
I know to be a successful writer, I need to finish my stories, which means finding the motivation to work through the doldrums and cross the finish line. I’m not always successful at this, but over the years I’ve become more successful at fighting through the doldrums because I have figured out some of the main reasons they happen to me, and that is most of the battle.
If I understand my enemy, I improve my chances of defeating it.
The most common reason for me hitting the writing doldrums is that I don’t know my story as well as I should . While every writer is different, I’ve learned that I should not start writing a story until I know at least my main character and the ending of their story. The better I know this, the easier it is for me to get to the finish.
So where does the challenge come in?
Sometimes I don’t know my main character as well as I thought. Perhaps I don’t really understand their intended character arc, or motivation, or their conflict. That makes it particularly difficult for me to get from point A (the inciting action) to Point B (the resolution). In extreme cases, this could even turn the original ending I have into the wrong ending, so I no longer have a target towards which to write.
I find this my underlying problem when my story starts to wander around without much purpose, or I’m stuck going around and around in the same scene, or I am writing a series of scenes that are uninteresting because they lack or fail to build tension. When this happens, I know I need to stop writing and flesh out my main character, especially their character arc. Once I clearly understand what they want and their climax, I can usually think of a series of scenes and challenges that can act as intermediate milestones. Then I can write to these closer points, and even if the words are coming hard, I can usually brute force my way through to the end. Once there, I can solve a lot of the remaining issues during revisions.
Alternatively, I sometimes get fascinated by a side character, and this secondary character will take over a scene or sometimes even the story. This tells me my main character is not interesting enough to me because I don’t understand who they are and what they want. To solve this, I again need to step away and delve into my main character’s conflict and motivation. Understanding who a character is, and most importantly why I should care about them, usually allows me to figure out a path forward, and like above, I can come up with a series of scenes and challenges to milepost my story to the end. Sometimes during this “fleshing out” process I realize my original ending was the wrong one, and if that happens, the new ending usually becomes apparent, which I find can also solve a lot of my problems.
The second most common reason for my writing doldrums is simply that writing can be tedious and hard work. After that initial shiny new story glow rubs off, the act of putting words on paper becomes like running a marathon—I just need to keep putting one foot in front the other until I get to the finish line. For me, this one is easy to identify because I tend to know exactly where I am going, and what the scenes should be accomplishing. It becomes more a matter of just making it happen. The best way I found to combat this form of the doldrums is to simply write every day and make small progress. I use a daily word count approach, where I ensure that I write at least 500 words every single day. Most days I write more, and on occasion I write less, but my goal is to average at least 500 words every day, which works out to over 182,000 words a year, or about 1-2 novels worth of words.
My reasons for hitting the writing doldrums are likely specific to me, but I think for any writer to be successful, they need to figure out how to finish stories. When you hit that wall in your story, you need to find a way through it (or over it or around it), and I think the best way to do that is to figure out the root cause of the problem. Once you do that, the chances of finding a workable solution should increase. That doesn’t mean it will be easy—if writing were easy, everyone would be a bestselling author—but figuring out how to overcome writing challenges is critical to your success, regardless of where you are a writing novice or a pro.