A Writer’s Troubleshooting Guide


What are the hardest parts of writing for you?  I ‘m not talking about the business side here — finding an agent, getting published, making a living with the written word.  All that is really hard.  But I’m talking about the craft side of writing.  What are the things that slow you down every day, that get in the way of completing your book or story?  And how do you overcome them to get the work done anyway?  As with so much else in writing, the answers will probably be different for each of us.  But they might also be illustrative; sharing them might offer solutions for other writers.  So with that in mind, here are my toughest obstacles and the ways I deal with them.

Problem 1:   I always have trouble starting a book a story.  I find that I work best on any project when I’ve built some momentum with it and so, naturally, the beginning will be difficult because I’ll have yet to overcome that initial inertia.  I’ve said before that it takes me about as long to write my first 100 pages as it does to write my last 250.  As a corollary to this, I also find it hard to get going on a project when I’ve had to stop working on it for a while.  If, say, I’m three hundred pages into a book and then we go on vacation for two weeks, the first week back, when I try to get going on the book again, will be very slow.  

Solution:  How do I overcome this?  In part, this is a classic Butt-In-Chair issue.  Sometimes the only way through a problem like this one is to sit in front of my computer and force myself to write.  I’ll keep track of my word count and every 250 words I’ll allow myself some kind of little reward:  I can check my email, or take ten minutes to play around on the web, or I get to play a hand of solitaire.  The other thing I do, particularly early in a book, is give myself permission to write sucky prose.  Sometimes the hardest part of starting is that feeling of having to Get It Right immediately.  It can take a while to get the voice right for a book or a new character, and I often find that my books improve as I go along.  In a way then, I already know that I’m going to have to come back and edit the early pages, so I might as well allow myself to write a bit looser early on.  The initial draft might be sloppier, but at least I’ll be on my way, building up some of that much needed momentum.

Problem 2:  Okay, I’m in to my book now.  I’ve got some momentum, and I’m getting work done every day.  But I’m starting to realize that the action is flagging, that my characters are kind of spinning their wheels.  I know where my plot is supposed to go, but the narrative seems to have stagnated a bit.

Solution:  This is where Faith will kill a character.  Seriously, read back through her posts.  When things get too quiet, she kills someone.  That can be a great solution, but it doesn’t always work for me.  By the same token, though, the general idea does work. When things get too quiet, I know that I have to shake them up.  It’s not always a murder, and it’s not  a matter of creating action for it’s own sake (what Faith calls an Apple Cart Moment).  But it should be a trauma for the lead character.  And I’ve been known to ask myself:  “Gee Character X is trying to do this right now; what would be the worst thing from her perspective that could happen at this very moment?”  And then I make that thing happen.  It’s actually kind of fun.

Problem 3:  I’ve started down a narrative path with one of my characters, but it suddenly doesn’t seem to be working.   The character is being forced to do things that don’t seem to fit with who she is; the plot is moving further and further from where it ought to be going; or, the plot is suddenly falling apart.  Things that I thought I’d figured out already suddenly don’t seem right.

Solution:  I touched on this in a comment to one post or another last week.  When these things start happening it tells me that it’s time to backpedal and cut.  These problems are usually symptomatic of a bad narrative decision.  I’ve allowed my characters or my story to take a turn when I should have exerted a bit more control and kept them moving forward.  There are times when we have to let our characters and stories roam.  Sometimes they know better than we where a story needs to go.  But they’re not infallible.  Occasionally they take us down narrative cul-de-sacs, and when they do they start behaving strangely or the story starts to falter.  The trick is to back up to that wrong turn and take the story in a different direction.  How will you know where that wrong turn was?  Not to be too glib about it, but you’ll just know.  Look for the place where the story diverged from what you originally had in mind, and ask yourself:  Does this change work, or is this where things started to break down?  Chances are, you’ll find that it’s the latter.  I should add that there’s a flip side to this.  There are times when I haven’t gone down a new path, but I find that my characters are fighting me, wanting to take the book somewhere I don’t think I want to go.  Opposite problem in a way, but it demands the same thought process.  In this case I ask myself whether my original plot idea might not need tweaking.  The bottom line is this:  If your characters or narrative don’t seem to be working, it may mean that you need to rethink prior decisions.

Problem 4:  This is one that happens to me with almost every book I write and I know it happens to other writers, too, including Catie.  I’m about two-thirds of the way through my book and suddenly nothing seems to be working.  I knew what I wanted to do with the early part of the book and I had an ending in mind, but I can’t get there!  There’s no story here!  There never was!  I’m an idiot for even trying to write a novel!  I should have been a vet!  I’ve always liked animals; why couldn’t I have been a vet…?

Solution:  Well, step one would be to eat a piece of chocolate or drink a glass of shiraz or set up a valium IV.  And once you’re calm, go back and read what you’ve written thus far.  Don’t bother editing; that comes later.  Just read it.  Chances are you’ll find that it’s pretty good.  Then think about the ending you’ve been envisioning all this time.  What’s going to happen?  How does your hero or heroine come through it?  Chances are you’ll realize that your idea for that is pretty good, too.  So now you need to build a bridge from where you are to where you want to be.  How do you do that?  Well, that can be the tricky part.  One thing I like to do — and I’ve mentioned this before both here and in convention panels — is brainstorm at the keyboard.  I open a blank document, ask myself questions, and type in answers as they come to me.  It works not only at this two-thirds panic point, but also when I’m first conceiving a new project, and everywhere along the way.  It’s a great exercise.  I recommend it.

Problem5:  I’ve heard this one from beginning writers quite a bit, and I’ve seen professionals have the problem and, in my opinion, handle it poorly.  Here’s the set-up:  I have a plot problem that needs to be resolved, but I can’t seem to resolve it without breaking the rules I’ve established in terms of one of the following:  my magic system, my worldbuilding, my character development, OR, my narrative approach (ie.  I started with just one point of view character, but suddenly I need to be able to tell this piece of the story from another POV, or I started with 3rd person limited but need to switch to 3rd person omniscient).  If I could just bend one of these rules, I’d be fine.

Solution:  Not to put too fine a point on it, but too bad.  You have to find a way of solving the problem within the contextual and narrative framework you’ve created.  If the only way to solve a problem is by breaking a rule, you’re going to tick off your readers.  If you really are backed into this kind of corner, chances are you’ve let the story get away from you in some way as discussed in the solution to Problem 3.  Or you’ve planned your story poorly.  Either way, you need to fix it in a way that keeps your book and storyline internally consistent.  Otherwise what you’re doing is introducing a Deus ex machina, a plot contrivance, in order to save your butt, and that’s not good storytelling.  

Okay, enough of my problems and solutions.  What are some of the toughest problems you encounter, and how do you solve them?

David B. Coe

19 comments to A Writer’s Troubleshooting Guide

  • […] A Writer’s Troubleshooting Guide by published author,  David B Cole. Great article with helpful tips to fight those bumps in the road. […]

  • I usually find starting difficult as well. Then, afterward, I look back and think, “What was so hard about that?” LOL

  • I know exactly what you mean, Mark. There’s nothing that complicated about starting a book, but for me there is this somewhat irrational emotional block that makes it hard to begin.

  • Well, as I’ve said a few times before, my biggest problem is keeping focus and motivation. It’s never seemed really an issue with making it too easy for characters or any of the other things mentioned here. I’ll start strong, real strong, and come up with a story idea and figure out pretty much a beginning, middle and end and some key scenes that I want to incorporate, but then as I write it, other ideas pop into my head for other works and I end up switching gears…heck, switching cars, and going off on something else.

    My latest is the first time I’ve actually been driven to complete what I started, which I think has several factors going for it. The first is that I came up with a detailed synopsis for it. I usually don’t. Usually, I either keep the info in my head and write it or I jot down the key elements I want to incorporate and run with that. I end up with super strong beginnings and then nowhere to go. And then something else will strike my fancy and I go off on a tangent, not coming back. It sucks because I have a whole slew of story ideas sitting around unfinished that some of the people I’ve shown them to want to see finished, but I just can’t keep focused on them. So, I think now I’m going to go back later and flesh them out with a full multi-page synopsis like I did the current one and see what transpires. I have another I did a full synopsis for as well and it was flowing along, slow, but nice too before I heard of the open submission for the anthology.

    A second issue is that I’ve learned that I work better on a deadline, but I can’t just give myself an arbitrary deadline. This WIP has…well, HAD a deadline. It was originally supposed to be for an anthology, but it’s too big, far too big. It’s going to hit novel length and there’s nothing I can do about that. Still, I’m keeping the same deadline. I have to get the first draft finished, completed, long before that deadline and get it out to people to give me feedback, then the edits have to be finished by the deadline for the anthology submissions. I’ve pretty much got another month to do this in, so if I can keep the current momentum and can get enough people to give me a quick turn around on feedback I should be able to pull it off. Yes, at this point it’s an arbitrary deadline, but I’ve already got the momentum and I’m rocketing down the hill toward the finish line now.

    Something I’ve found seems to help me is word goals. I’ve been trying to hit 2,000 words a day. If I can hit more, great, but I want at least 2,000. Sometimes it doesn’t happen due to external issues, like chores or fixing a mower…, but generally, it seems to be helping. And using the NaNoWriMo word meter gives me a physical progress chart to look at, which keeps me motivated too. Occasionally I’ll have slow days, especially if I find out I have to go off the beaten path a little and add a scene I hadn’t planned, but makes sense. Any time I don’t hit my word count I write part of Saturday as well to get the count up. I’ve also been chronicling my progress, which gives me something to look back on to keep my motivation up.

    I’m completely thrilled that I’ve gotten so far on the current work. I’ve not gotten this far on a project since my RPG supplement, which is, in my opinion, actually harder to write due to writing the rules end of it as well and making it all work together. That work was around 80,000 words and took me easily several months or more, not counting edits and playtesting modifications, to write (when I look back on it now it seems a blur). By comparison, my current work is coming up on 50,000 words and I laid down the first 2,000 words on May 29th.

    I also have a new work space that feels more writer-like. It’s still in the living room, but with a three year old in the house all day with me I can’t really close myself away in an office…not that I have a room I could use as an office. I’m tempted to buy or make a Shoji screen to place on one side of the desk to sort of turn it into a less distracting environment.

  • Sarah Adams

    When I was in college we had a guest lecturer who wrote for children (chapter books, not picture books.) She said that writer’s block is the editor in you strangling the author. In other words, the fear of not being good enough is keeping the words from flowing. She said the solution is to give yourself permission to write a crummy first draft, knowing that the internal editor will get a crack at it later. Or as she put it “you can write and you can edit, but you cannot do both at the same time.” She was so right.

    My other big problem is the “now what?” problem – I’ve lost track of my point, I don’t know how to get to the ending from where I am, I’m just floundering with no plot direction. I used to give up on projects at this point, but I’ve learned that for me the solution is often more information. If it’s an academic project, I need to do more research. If it’s a fiction project looking backwards at my characters’ histories, asking more questions about the world I’m in helps me look forward again.

    If all else fails I’m going to take Faith’s advice and kill a character. Seriously.

  • Daniel, it sounds as though you’ve got a good handle on your process and the problem solving necessary to keep it flowing. Well done. The one solution I can offer has to do with the arbitrary deadlines thing: if you have readers to whom you show your work, give them a specific date for when you intend to get it to them. It’s not as though they’re going to do something terrible to you if you don’t make the deadline, but sometimes just telling someone when you think you’ll finish can be enough to motivate.

    Sarah, your guest lecturer is absolutely right. I had a college writing instructor who used a great phrase with me. She encouraged me to keep writing the book I was working on then and said, “Don’t retreat into rewrites.” I love the phrase and use it on myself all the time. Keep writing. That’s the key to this business. As for the “Now what?” problem, the stream of consciousness/brainstorming exercise I mentioned should be perfect for dealing with that. I really do recommend it. And, yes, if it fails you can always kill off a character….

  • >>Not to put too fine a point on it, but too bad.

    David you crack me up! I like this and shall surely steal it and add it to my swing tips. Too Bad. Fix it! (snerk.)
    Great post!

  • Thanks, Faith. Glad you liked that.

  • David, nice post. Problems 1-3 have certainly come up. Although I’m currently excited about my new novel, not knowing about the first one keeps creeping into my brain. The unknown status of other projects is slowing me down.

    Do you have another list of common authorial distractions beyond web surfing, email, facebook, etc.

    P.S. I hear vets have bad days too!

  • Great stuff, David. Thanks. My biggest problem is figuring out how much I need to know about what is still to come in my story as I write. Sometimes I know too much and my writing gets formulaic as I lay out plot points just to get past them, and some time my writing starts to meander because there’s nothing happening. Who needs actual events when I can write a thousand words on how much character X likes his eggs? I don’t have tidy solutions to these, except to do as David does: go back and fix it and, in the meantime, keep going (i.e. with actual story, not a chapter on character Y’s fondness for bacon).

  • Mmmmmmm, bacon ……

    One problem I can get stuck in is research. Sometimes, I have to force myself to put down all the books, articles, and what-not that I’ve been getting information from. I have to remind myself the whole point of the research is to write a story — not just do more research. But when the subject fascinates me (as it should, if I’m writing a story about it), then it’s too easy to get lost in the books. I have no real solution other than guilt which then kicks in my will power to get writing.

  • Thanks for the comment, Dave. Yeah, I have a list of distractions, but that could be a future post all by itself. Actually, now that I think about it, I think I did such a post a while back. http://magicalwords.net/david-b-coe/a-labor-day-post/ That one was stuff I’d rather be doing than writing. And then there’s this one: http://magicalwords.net/david-b-coe/distractions/

    Andrew, yes, that’s another one I’ve dealt with, too. Do I have enough to finish the book? Do I have too much to come it at a reasonable word count? Do I have to rein in my characters too much or can I still let them roam? Thanks for the comment.

    Stuart, I know lots of writers who have the research problem. They just love that aspect of the process and can easily get lost in it. I think getting my Ph.D. cured me of that. I get my research done and then I get out, because I really don’t enjoy it as much as I do the actual writing. But that’s just me — I know far more people who feel about it as you do.

  • One trick I’ve heard of is; start in the middle, then figure out how things got that way. Let’s say your hero finds himself with a broken leg, under siege by irate goblins, and finding out his cell phone payment was not processed by his phone company, so getting assistance is going to be a pain. How did he end up in that situation?

    So then maybe his story started out with, “Voice recognition software hates me. Even when it’s supplemented by the latest in arcane enhancements it has a hell of a time understanding what I’m saying. So it was I was having no luck getting a response at the phone company. While, at the same time, attorneys from a goblin clan were impatiently waiting for me to disembowel myself in propitiation for a blog post regarding the same sexual peccadillos goblins normally take great pride in. Probably because my assessment of the escapade was less than laudatory.”

    Just an idea.

  • I like the opening, Alan…. When brainstorming, the start-in-the-middle strategy works fine for me. Very well, in fact. I can fill in ideas on both sides. Once I start writing, though, I have to work linearly. It’s just the way I write. I can’t jump from scene to scene or write the middle and then the ending and then the beginning. Some folks can, and in a way I envy them, because it can help them overcome issues. But I just can’t do it.

    Thanks for the comment.

  • Leah

    The biggest problem I’ve had recently is due to the format of the story I’m telling. I’m writing a trilogy, and I discovered about halfway through book 2 that there were too many things that needed to be retrofitted in book 1. I ended up pulling the book from my agent. I’m about 1/3rd of the way into book 3 now. Fortunately, all the fixes I came up with for book 1 seem to be holding — and while I’m writing book 3 I’m only seeing major problems in book 2. Once I finish the whole thing I’ll go back and rewrite all three novels. Then I’ll send the whole shebang back to my agent.

    If I ever write another trilogy, I’m not exactly sure how I’d avoid this — it wasn’t so much character changes (though there were a couple of those) as world building. Some of that world building happened as a direct result of solving plot problems in the later novels. I’m not unhappy with this process, though I am looking forward to doing a stand-alone novel next!

  • Okay, um, to the person who put in the pingback link, it’s David B. COE, not Cole. But thanks for the ping…..

    Hi Leah! For those of you who don’t know Leah Cutter, she is a marvelous writer — among her books: PAPER MAGE, THE CAVES OF BUDA, THE JAGUAR AND THE WOLF. Glad to see you hear, my friend. Welcome. I find when working on a series that I need to plot things out pretty carefully so as to avoid those kinds of issues, particularly with respect to plot points and worldbuilding. This is not to say that I don’t wind up with problems anyway, but it is one of the reasons I’ve never been a seat-of-the-pants writer.

  • Sorry about that. My fingers are always getting away from me. If you want to delete that ping you can. I didn’t initiate it, it must be a WordPress thing.

    Your article is invaluable! I’ve bookmarked it so I can refer to it while I write my first novel. Thanks!

  • It’s no problem, Amanda. I was making light of it — it’s not a big deal. And if people at this site don’t know my real name yet….. Thanks very much for the comment. Glad you found the post helpful.

  • Hi! I like your srticle and I would like very much to read some more information on this issue. Will you post some more?