Finding Your Story

I sometimes get stuck while writing a story or a novel, and it feels like writer’s block. But what’s really happening is that I’ve moved the story in the wrong direction, and some part of my brain is aware of this.

It’s spooky to admit that the conscious portion of our brain isn’t aware of what’s happening elsewhere in our noggins, but some really freaky experiments back this up. This is why, when the writing is going well, it feels more like reading or discovery than it does writing or creation. It feels as though the story could go no other way than the way we’re writing it. Like it existed before us.

When we get stuck, one way to “find” the right path for the story is to try a few paths. And if they don’t feel right, try something else. Set the last few chapters aside (paste them into a blank document). Resume writing from the last place you felt engaged with the story. Try something else this time.

Ever had the feeling you were forgetting something as you left the house? You walk around, wracking your brain, trying to figure out what it is. Exhausting every option, you decide your intuition is wrong. It isn’t until you’re half an hour away from the house that the missing thing percolates up to the conscious level. This is writing. You know what happens next. The challenge is remembering.

27 responses to “Finding Your Story”

  1. This is very true and your advice is sound. Unfortunately a lot of the other writing advice about this situation is to just keep pushing through because it is better to keep with the story to the end than to stop and try to fix it. While I get this, if you constantly stop to fix everything you’ll never finish, I also disagree with it because as you said, you’ve gone wrong somewhere and you don’t want the rest of the book to be based on that mistake.

    I like a mix of the two approaches. I am a pantser through and through. No plotting ever. But I do usually have a general idea of how the story is going to end, so if I get lost or stuck instead of going back, I jump ahead and write my ending then I work backwards until the beginning and ending match up. That way I can press forward and keep writing, but I don’t write 30,000 words that don’t align with the rest of the story.

  2. This is why I have a water-resistant board to write on in the shower. I usually figure out what happens next about the time I have my hair all lathered up on top of my head.

  3. When that happens to me, it’s more my gut than my brain telling me. It just feels wrong. I’v learned the hard way to listen to my gut.

  4. Very true. I refuse to call it writer’s block too :) I prefer to label it as having taken the wrong path somewhere. This happened with my recent book. I got to 60K words and thought, ‘Something’s not right.’ Took me a week to go back and address the issues I had with the MS.

    I’ve found Evernote vital for those ‘Crap, I best write this down before I forget it!’ moments. I have been known to park the car, pull up Evernote on my phone, and write a summary of a vital scene down. Have also done this at 3 am, when the boys in the basement (as King calls them) decide to stir.

  5. My husband irritates the hell out of me. If anything goes wrong, if a decision needs to be made – he simply relaxes and states “it will come to him”. And you know the worst/best part – it actually does. He is calmest person I know and really believes in the “unconscious mind” – if that makes sense. But for him, it works.

    Now the freakiest part, when I’m in trouble and follow his advice. It works too. All the time. But the logical/number part of my brain, due to years of number crunching, always fight this. But then again, I guess this is why when I first plot out a story, it barely resembles the same story when the characters take over.

    On a side note – sometimes I really believe writers are really crazy people. Is it really normal to have all this stuff running around in your head? You’re in a meeting and suddenly Jane Doe pops up and tells you why X is so and not this because of Y. And you’re thinking no that it can’t be because of Z. And suddenly the person besides you asks what did you say?Only to realize that you’ve just spoken to your character out-loud. Or you’re taking a walk and your arms are wildly gesticulating as you go from scene to scene. And the craziest part, once you create a character, they never truly leave. Even months or years later, you can tap into their “lives” and see into their world. Yeah….

    1. Lisa – Those are affectionately referred to as “the voices” in psychologist offices. :P

  6. Hugh – great advice, and I think you’re right. I’m currently going through one of those right now. I know where my characters need to get to, but I’m struggling to find the right path, and keep wondering if I shouldn’t be taking them there via some other route. I think I’m just struggling to let go of the 30k or so words it’ll take to go back and change paths…. ;(

    1. It takes 10 times as long to fix 30k words as it does to write better 30k words from scratch.

      1. Axel Blackwell Avatar

        “It is easier to give birth than to raise the dead.”

    2. I went through this exact thing. Even worse, I had promised my readers the book would be done by a certain date, and the setback meant that, no, it wouldn’t be done when I said.

      You know what?

      Every single one of my readers appreciated that I took the time to ditch half my story and steer it in a better direction, and everyone was happier in the end.

      If you aren’t ‘feeling’ it, cut it. It’s a win for both you and your audience.

  7. Great post Hugh!

    I’m an artist in addition to being a writer. My coping skills for “blocks” when it comes to art are sharp, and come as second nature now. My coping skills for writing angst were nil until I managed to translate my existing skills, into language that my writing brain understood. When painting or drawing, it’s incredibly common for the image to drift. Artist’s are always kvetching about the disconnect between brain and hand. The image on the page is so often a poor forgery of the masterpiece in our head. So we keep painting, exploring that particular theme until we’ve either exorcised it, or molded it into what it was meant to be. The images that are created as part of that journey are still worthy, still beautiful. Often, their birth was a necessary part of the journey towards the final result.

    I was 50,000 words into a WIP for a pen name a few months ago, when I had to set it aside. The drift away from my original story idea was epic. The writing was good, the dialogue interesting, but nothing else remotely approached the point. I’m starting over, from scratch, but I needed to write what I wrote before, to get here.

    I rarely sweat the process when it comes to visual art these days. I’m finally learning to do that with writing too.

  8. I’m definitely a pantser too. My subconscious mind is a much better story teller than the little tyrant at the top of my head who calls herself me. The hardest part for me as a writer has been learning to trust that deeper part of my mind. I get stuck when my conscious mind, my ego, doesn’t want to listen to my gut and starts second-guessing every choice. The more I learn to ignore that critical editor while writing the initial draft the better I do. Sometimes I have to write a lot of crap to get where I need to go. It’s wrenching to later cut pages of words, but for me in those instances the only way out is through. When I trust the process, I end up with a much better story. It might take a little longer, but the end result is worth it.

  9. I wanted to recommend the book, Creativity Inc. by Ed Catmull, co-founder of Pixar Animation. He details how he and the crew at Pixar came up with the technology and stories for Toy Story, Monsters, Inc. One of his colleagues Andrew Stanton had a mantra, “fail early and fast” and “be wrong as fast as you can.” I was drawn to buy the book by Mr. Catmull’s description of their first cut at projects saying they were terrible. And the book is about creating a climate that encourages and supports failure as the basis of originality. If you only get to one chapter, please read “Fear and Failure.”I am like most writers paralyzed by that first look at something as a whole, its inadequacies. I think your column is about taking the “be wrong as fast as you can” advice. Catmull’s book has a lot of great advice on creating a managerial climate for discovery, a net for when you do those acrobatics, and I think it is applicable to create that in your own head. Writers, artists, filmmakers are on an uncharted journey to create a project, that by its nature has never been done before. Our own book or story, its structure, its techniques is a ‘one of a kind.’ Don’t underestimate the complexity of that.

  10. How true this is!

    When I was writing my first novel, I had a polished second draft done in August of last year (roughly 120k words at the time). Though it was received very well by the few friends and family that read that version, I knew there was something off about it. They all told me just get the story out there and not to worry, but I couldn’t shake the idea that it lacked that fourth leg that would keep the chair from tumbling down, so to speak.

    As it turns out, the idea of just how I was going to fix it didn’t come from weeks of studying and writing. It came from weeks of letting the story marinate in my head without touching it. Then, one random day last Fall when I was driving across town, the answer found me when I wasn’t even looking for it. I actually pulled over in a parking lot and took out my phone, jotting down every little idea that started pouring from my noggin. Now that the book has been updated, polished, edited, and released, my friends who originally begged me to release the novel last year can’t fathom the story without that critical fix. It only added 21k words in the end (making my novel 141k total) but honestly, those were some of the best 21k words in the entire book!

    I think Burton Rascoe said it best: “What no wife of a writer can ever understand is that a writer is working when he’s staring out of the window.”

    If only we could force ourselves to spend more time looking out of a window quietly and less time punching away at something that isn’t working.

    1. EXACTLY. I am so the same way. I have to let it sit and fester, and talk it over and over in my head, and then leave it for weeks, until one day, often while driving or (even more inconveniently) riding my horse, I will have that moment of realisation that will change the whole direction of the story.

      I submitted a polished draft of my second novel to several people. My friends all came back saying it was amazing, wonderful, perfect. I read it through, and was disappointed. I knew it needed a lot more work. My mother, bless her, agreed with me, and sent me a long list of helpful notes with suggestions on how to fix it – some of which I dismissed, but many I took on board. And the book was much, much better for it.

      I’ve just completed my third novel, and I handed the draft to my mother with a bit of trepidation, knowing she’d be as brutally honest as ever when she read it. Fortunately this time she loved it, but I will still be going over and over it before I let it out into the wide world.

  11. Little is more frustrating than realizing your story is going in the wrong direction. I’ve done it a few times, and it always feels like a bad relationship – I know I should get out and start over, but I’m so invested that I don’t want to leave. Still, it’s better to realize the mistake, suck it up, and go back to a natural point where it diverged from your vision than to stay in something you know is a waste of time.

  12. I find that when I’m writing my first draft, there are parts that make me feel vaguely ill at ease but I can’t really identify what the problem is and so I move on. When I send my finished draft off to my beta readers, they usually comment on those parts and bring to light the problems I was experiencing but couldn’t quite identify. When you’re very close to the story, it’s hard to experience it as it reads to someone outside the writing of it.

    That’s why beta readers / first readers are important IMO. Often, writers do things they shouldn’t because we are like gods in our worlds and can do anything. Sometimes, we shouldn’t do those things, but we can’t see it until it’s pointed out to us. Usually, in almost all cases, I find myself nodding my head while reading beta reader comments. I think, “Yeah… that’s right. That’s the problem… ” I am then invigorated and eager to revise. The first draft is you telling yourself the story, working out the story problems. It’s always rough and needs work. Yes, writing the first draft is hard work and thrilling at the same time, but revision is the essence of writing. It’s where the real magic happens.

  13. Hugh,

    Thanks for posting this.

    Last night as I was trying to fall asleep a story idea I’ve been batting around for awhile suddenly came to life. It took about an hour and a half to note everything down and when done I was exhilarated and exhausted. It was such an amazing feeling!

    But, as I was falling asleep I started doubting.

    It was too easy. I felt like Mozart in the movie Amadeus, where he’s sitting at a billiards table writing down the opera The Magic Flute. It’s fully formed in his head; he’s just listening and putting it down on paper. However, I am not Mozart, and having the story flow so easily scared me. That was why, as I fell asleep, I decided the next morning I would toss it and write something else.

    Then I woke up, sat down at my computer to grab some early morning writing time and decided to take a quick look at your blog before starting. And I saw this post. I felt like it was written just for me. I looked at my work from last night from the perspective that “when the writing is going well, it feels more like reading or discovery than it does writing or creation….Like it existed before us.” And I am no longer afraid that the crazy story I outlined last night is the crap I was sure it must be.

    So, I thank you, very, very much. Your words made the difference between my story existing in the ether forever or being born in the here and now.

    Thank you!


  14. One approach is to go directly to the end of the path, then backtrack and find a way to get there.

  15. […] author Hugh Howey has also written a thought provoking post this week on Finding Your Story. He talks about writer’s block and discusses that really, it’s our brains telling us […]

  16. This is perfect and the comments are great. Thanks Hugh, and everyone.

  17. Oddly, I find the best cure for “writer’s block” is simply to write something else. I’ll go write in my blog, write a response or two in a forum, or even work on a different story. It keeps me writing, and seems to work well in clearing the pipes of creativity.

    When I get stuck on a particular scene, I’ll use the “Comment” command in Apple’s “Pages” (MS “Word” has it, too) to highlight the problem spot, use the comment to tell myself what I think should happen, and then simply skip on to the next scene. When I go back through the document, the blob of color from the highlight stands out readily as a reminder I need to work on that one spot.

    Related to this, in that comment note I write to myself, just writing the description about what I’d like to see happen at that point is sometimes enough to shake the obstruction free and let the idea come out.

  18. […] don’t think either of us can nail it down, exactly, but I do think it links to something Hugh Howey said, that I’ve referenced before, that we’re not writing these stories – we’re […]

  19. […] read a blog post today by Hugh Howey that resonated with me. He wrote […]

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