Two Things To Do When Your Story Has Stalled Out

I love fast drafting — falling in love with my characters and my story as I write my manuscript without stopping to edit or going back to rewrite.

Yes, I love fast drafting … until my story stalls out and I’m staring at my computer screen, muttering, “What happens next?!”

Stalling out is unavoidable, even when I’ve worked through The Book Buddy and charted out my story, including developing my characters, determining the spiritual journey, and figuring out the Disasters (Ds). Getting stuck when you’re fast drafting is often the writer’s version of “not being able to see the forest for the trees.” I’ve got all the details down, but I’ve lost track of the big picture of my story.

At this point, I’ve learned to do one of two things:

  1. Go back to the beginning and review the foundations of my story. I review my Story Question — the ” great what if” that fuels my story from page 1, chapter 1 all the way to The End. The Story Question functions like fuel for your car — it keeps it running. If you lose track of your Story Question, your story loses focus. I remind myself that as I write my story, my hero and heroine are answering the Story Question. It may be something like “Is it ever wrong to love someone?” (The Story Question for my novel Somebody Like You). I also make sure I understand my characters. Sometimes I interview them again, let them talk to me, to make sure that I’ve got a good handle on them and am portraying them correctly.
  2. Go back to the beginning, tear up the story, and start all over again. Starting all over again, especially when I’m on deadline, is crazy-scary. But sometimes starting over is the best thing to do. Sometimes when I’m backed into a virtual corner it’s not a matter of un-muddling the middle of my story. No. It’s a matter of realizing I’ve written the wrong story. The tension is pretense. There is a better way to tell the romance hidden somewhere in what I’ve written. So I don’t try to salvage anything except the characters. I stare down the deadline and start over. Is it stressful? Yes. Is it the right thing to do? Absolutely yes. I’ve never regretted starting a story over when I’ve known it was the right choice.

Are you just starting to fast draft? Don’t be surprised when your story stalls out. Just remember to try one of these techniques to get your story going again. Already stalled out along the writing road? Then it’s time to take charge of your manuscript again by going back to the beginning and either reviewing the foundation of your story or starting over.


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Jumpstarting your NaNoWriMo Story!

It’s Day 2 of NaNoWriMo! How is it going? Your brain hasn’t shut down yet, right?

I liken NaNoWriMo to running the 400 in track.  The first 100 meters you take off, you’re cruising and getting out in front of the page.

You then have to round the first curve and you settle into your rhythm.  Sure, a  few people might pass you, but you’re at a pace you love.

Then, you approach to the second curve.  You know you need to kick it up because you have to sprint that last 100 meters, but your muscles are starting to ache, and the tension of keeping up your pace is burning through you.  You could shut down, but the fact you’ve come this far keeps you going.  You muscle through the curve, and gear up for those 100 meters.

Finally, here comes the ending sprint.  Only it doesn’t feel like a sprint—you feel like you’re barely moving through sludge.  You are willing your body (and brain) to keep fighting all the way to the end, eyes on the prize.

And you cross the finish line.

You did it!  And it wasn’t easy, but you pushed through.  The key was—setting your eyes ahead, on the finish line before you even started.  And, of course, having a few tricks along the way to keep the story moving.


This month, I’m going to run the race with you and give you those tricks you need to keep going.


Leg 1:  The first 100 meters! (Aka: Act 1!)

When you’re just starting off, that first Act is a lot of fun. You’re establishing your characters, building their home worlds, causing their Inciting Incident and starting on the journey.

Along with the fun, however, you have to start your story in the right place, with the right balance of character information and action.  (notice I did not say backstory!)  So, how do you find that right balance?

I have 5 essential questions that I use to help build my beginning chapters:

First thing I do is start with the END. in mind – the things our reader MUST know by the end of the first chapter, things  I want to communicate through the action and dialogue: Competence, Lie, Fear, Focus/Want, Ignition/Inciting Incident.  I like to start with the deeper issues, and then build forward, sort of like a house – the bones first, then the pretty stuff.

I made it into a nice little acronym for you, because that helps me remember everything as I write, and because that’s how my brain works.  J.

Think of your first scene like a CLIFF . . . and you are about to send your character off it.  You want us to see him before he goes flying into the story.

  • Competence: Show that your character is good at something and can eventually win the day with these skills.
  • Lie: Where will your character start their inner journey (at MBT, we call it the lie they believe…which sets them up later for the “truth that sets them free.)
  • Ignition:  Set up the Inciting Incident. Perhaps it’s just the hint of the II. Maybe it is the actual II.  But hint that that something could be happening…even if you are setting up a perfect world situation, we will then suspect your character is about to fall, hard. J
  • Fear:  We want to know what your character fears – maybe he sees something, eh says something, it’s usually very subtle, but something that we can look at later and say, yes, we saw what he didn’t want to have happen!
  • Focus:  We want to see what your character wants, what his goals are.  What is he about?

Because you know your character, you should be able to craft this scene.  If not, start with a character interview.

Questions to ask you and your character to help build the first chapter

  • Competence: What are you good at?  What are your super power skills that we can highlight now to show how you’ll save the day at the end?
  • Lie:  What Lie do you believe and how do you show this in your everyday life?
  • Ignition:  What will happen in this chapter, big or small, that will change the life of your character and ignite him on his journey?  Inciting Incident!
  • Fear:  What fear hangs over the book and how can you (the author) hint at it in this first chapter?
  • Focus/Want: How can you (the author)  express your characters focus in this chapter?  Show who they are and what they want?

It’s key to go through these questions step by step, so you understand your character and what you need to accomplish in this chapter.

Now that I have all the elements I want to end up with,  I’m going to go back to the beginning and start forming my HOOK, those things that actually help me build the first line.  I call them SHARP. 

  • Stakes – What is at risk? What happens if they don’t meet their goal? If you’re writing a suspense, How can you weave in the danger of the suspense, or hint at the stakes of the story.  Think:  What can/will go wrong in this story and what will happen if they don’t save the day?  You don’t want to give us a chunk of narrative, but rather layer in the hint of the threat so the reader knows there is something at stake.
  • Hero/Heroine ID  – Emotion/Mood – What is your character feeling right now, and how are you embedding it onto the page? And how will we show that in a compelling way in the first scene? What situation, as the story begins, is most compelling, most sympathetic?  You are trying to get your reader to relate to your hero/heroine, and putting them in a situation that readers can relate to emotionally is paramount.
  • Anchoring – Storyworld, including the 5 W’s – Who, What, Where, When, and Why.  What storyworld location can you use to create a sense of danger/suspense?
  • RUN – remember to start your story On the Run – meaning, the story already in action, as if you’ve simply thrown back the curtain to see the story in progress.
  • Problem/Storyquestion – what is the inner question that will drive your reader/character through the story?  AND, How can you end the scene with something worse, even the inciting incident that will propel your story quickly into the Noble Quest?

Now, pull out your first scene draft.  What elements from this first scene reveal your character’s identity?  Add that to the recipe.


As a review, here are the Big 10 Elements you want to have in your first chapter:

  1. Have you created sympathy for your character so we love them?
  2. Have you shown us your character’s home life, so we know where their journey begins?
  3. Have you shown us your character’s competence, and their identity?
  4. Have you given us a glimpse of your characters greatest dream?
  5. Have you given us a hint of your character’s greatest fear?
  6. Have you given us a hint at your character’s lie?
  7. Have you delivered the story question that will drive us through the book?
  8. Do you have crisp, interesting dialogue?
  9.  Have you honed your hook to include the Storyworld, including the Who, What, Why, When and Where’s of the story? Have you used the five senses?
  10. Finally, have you ended the scene with a disaster, or something that makes the reader want to turn the page?


Start the first scene with your character on the edge of the CLIFF…ready to take off into the story.  Build in the 5 elements: Competence, Lie, Ignition, Fear, Focus, then build the SHARP elements and you’ll have a powerful first chapter.

Next week we’ll talk about rounding that first curve and getting into a rhythm—Keeping your Story Flowing with Scenes Rhythm!

Have a great writing week and Go! Write something Brilliant!


Stalled in your writing?  The Benefits of a Quick Read!

I read a quote recently that said if you look at the state of your house, office and garage, that reflects the state of your inner being.

Hmm…I just came off a week of celebrations – my daughter graduating from college, my son graduating from high school – and the ensuing parties and houseful of guests.  All my adult children, plus extended family hung out at our house, playing games into the wee hours of the night.

The morning light revealed piles of coke cans, Doritos wrappers, blankets, shoes and pillows scattered around the family ottoman or kitchen table, the evidence of, well, fun had the night before.

We capped off our week with a hike up to a local waterfall, where we took a few minutes to sit down and reflect on the accomplishments of our graduates, as well as looked ahead to the future with hopes and dreams.

Amidst the fun of the game playing and cake-eating, the three hour hike afforded us with an opportunity to cherish the important stuff.

In the middle of writing a book, we can get caught up in the drama (and challenge) of writing, moving from one climatic event to the next. But somewhere in the middle we sometimes lose steam as we look ahead at all the scenes we must yet accomplish. Our progress begins to slow and suddenly we find ourselves standing in the middle of the room, looking at the debris, wondering how we got here, and how we might find the strength to continue.

It’s time to do a Quick Read of your book.

Reading what you have so far will charm you back into the story, into the big picture, and charge you with momentum to finish.  You’ll see what you have accomplished – and the reward of staying the course.

Here’s some advice on how to maximize your Quick Read:

  1. Don’t edit each scene as you go. If you stop to edit, you’ll find yourself suddenly reworking essential moments, slow your progress and you might even change something that will affect your ending.  Instead, TAKE NOTES on your story – outlining possible changes.  You might also highlight areas you need to pay special attention to later.  Remind yourself that you WILL go back and re-write, and give your story a deep edit when you’re finished.  Now, you’re just trying to reignite your inspiration.
  2. Keep an eye out for shallow (and unfounded) emotional responses. When you’re writing that first pass, you’re still getting to know your characters and their emotional responses. A second read through, after you’ve gotten to know them better will unearth deeper responses, more meaningful reactions, and add to your emotional layering of a scene.  Again, don’t rewrite it yet, but make notes on how you might react to this differently.  Then, on your editing pass, you’ll have a springboard from which to rewrite the emotions.
  3. Make notes on where you might need more storyworld, or perhaps even an additional scene. You might even find a redundant scene.
  4. Pick up plotting threads you might have forgotten as you’ve trudged through Act 2. Make a list of all the threads so you remember to wind them up at the end.
  5. Ask: WHAT DO I LOVE? I always ask myself this as I’m reading. What do I love about this book?  What character moments, plot twists, dialogue, prose – I go ahead and highlight it so I can remember why I’m writing this book, and I’m encouraged that yes, it’s a worthwhile venture to continue.  Seeing all those pink highlights is encouraging as I’m scrolling through my kindle, ready to start moving forward away.

Finally, doing a Quick Read of your book, especially while you’re busy with other events (e.g. family graduations!) utilizes that “non-writing” time and helps build your momentum for getting back on track after the party has died.

Life gets in the way of our writing – (or rather, writing gets in the way of life?), but you don’t have to let yourself get derailed.  Or, maybe you simply have lost your steam.  Stop writing, sit down and start reading.

You might just discover you’ve found your next favorite author.

Go! Write Something Brilliant!

Susie May



Writer’s Math: Prep a Scene with 5+5+1

As a novelist, I thought I’d escaped all things numerical. Fine with me, as the mention of numbers is reason to cue the white noise in my brain.

Through the years. I’ve learned that even wordsmiths like to devise equations for the writing process. Susie and Rachel have developed a variety of writer equations and — Surprise! — I’m formulating a bit of writer math myself.

I love the process of fast drafting — writing the first draft of my manuscript without stopping to rewrite, using it as an act of discovery about my characters and my plot. But how can I ensure that even my fast draft is as strong as it can be?

Simple. Whenever I write a scene, I remember the equation: 5+5+1.

5 + 5 + 1

The first 5 stands for the 5 Ws: Who, What, Where, When, and Why. Before I begin writing a scene, I type out the 5 Ws of the scene. I like to do this in red so that it stands out. I list:

Who is in the scene? Specify the main POV character and any other key character

What is going on? Focus on the main action.

Where does the scene takes place? In a castle? On a boat?

When does the scene happen? What time of year is it (if that’s important) or what time of day is it?

Why is this scene important? What is the goal of this scene? Is it an Action or ReAction scene?

5 + 5 + 1

The second 5 stands for the 5 Senses: Touch, Sight, Taste, Smell, and Hearing. I consider the main character for the scene I’m writing and then run their POV through the list, one by one. (I also type this out in red.)

EXAMPLE:  What if my main POV character is a shool teacher and the scene takes place on the playground? My list might look like this:

Touch: the chainlink of a swing, a young child’s hand, some stray trash blowing across the schoolyard, an abandoned lunchbox

Sight: children climbing on the monkey bars, one child sitting by himself off to the side, a kick ball soaring over the fence into the street

Taste: bitter aftertaste of coffee

Smell: hint of autumn on the breeze, scent of cherry chapstick she applied

Hear: children laughing, footsteps running across asphalt, the sound of a school bell

Sometimes as I write out the 5 Senses I stumble upon a possible symbol to weave through my scene.

5 + 5 + 1

The 1 stands for the main emotion of the POV character in the scene. I’ve discussed the importance of determining the specific emotion the POV character is feeling in other posts. Use one word: anxious, rejected, elated, content. Write this down too — yes, in red.

Now that I’ve done my prep work, which takes 10-15 minutes, I’m ready to start writing. I don’t have to interrupt my forward motion by wondering about Storyworld — what my character might see or hear or touch — and knowing the character’s main emotion keeps the scene anchored.

TIP: You can also use the 5+5+1 Prep a Scene Equation as you finish writing for the day. Consider the scene you’ll start writing tomorrow and type out the 5 Ws, the 5 Senses, and the POV character’s main emotion for it before calling it quits. You’ll have a jumpstart on tomorrow’s word count.

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