The Real Reason You Can’t Finish Your Book

You’re a writer. Writers are supposed to write, but you’re stuck. No matter how hard you try you just can’t seem to finish your novel. The words won’t come or you write pages and pages and then delete them. We’ve all been there.

Being a writer isn’t easy and getting stuck is something that happens to all of us.

Here are some practical tips I’ve used for getting unstuck so I can finish a book.

Look at Structure

We all write differently. Some of us start with detailed outlines, some of us just jump in and start writing, some of us do something halfway in between. No matter what your method is you can still get stuck.

One of the things that has helped me most is to let go of the thing I’m stuck on and take a step back to look at the structure of my story. This works for non-fiction too by the way, everything is a story. What are the bones of my story? Where does it start, where does it end? What are the steps in between? Usually when I’m stuck it’s because I know something is wrong, I just don’t know what it is. Stepping back will usually help me find it.

Have a Chat with Your Characters

Who knows your story better than you do? The people in it. When I’m really stuck sometimes the key to getting unstuck is to have an imaginary chat with my characters.

  • “If this happens, what are you going to do?”
  • “How will you feel if this happens?”
  • “Why are you doing this?”

Engaging with my characters like this helps me to look at the story differently. When I try to force a scene, my writing feels stilted and awkward. Talking to my characters and engaging with them as real people with real reactions, feelings, and goals takes the focus off the mechanics of writing and allows the story to flow in a way that feels authentic.

Do an Inventory

Take some time to go through what you’ve written and do an inventory of what’s actually there. What happens in each scene? This goes for people who start with a detailed outline too. Just because you started with an outline doesn’t mean you followed it! Once you have your inventory you can look at it and ask yourself these questions:

  • Does it flow?
  • Does it make sense?
  • Is anything missing?

When I do this I always find something that needs work. I start there and the words start flowing again.

Take a Step Back

Sometimes when I’m stuck it’s because I’m fixated on something small: a problem in the story, a particular scene, something that just won’t flow or make sense, or what happens next. I’ve been known to spend days working on the same scene writing it and deleting it or staring at a blank page berating myself. The only thing that works for me when I’m stuck like this is to take a huge step back and ask myself “Why?”

Look at your story as a whole. Ask yourself these questions:

  • Why are you writing this story?
  • What are you trying to convey?
  • What do you want your readers to feel?

Write down the answers then go through the inventory of what you’ve actually written (seriously do the inventory!) and ask yourself:

  • Does what I’ve written do the things I set out to do?

When I’m stuck the answer is almost always, “No.” Now I’m not stuck anymore, I know what the work is. It’s not usually easy work but writing isn’t supposed to be easy. If it was, everyone would have a finished novel!

So next time you’re stuck, listen to yourself. Your intuition is telling you that something is wrong, something is missing, something isn’t working. Have a chat with your characters, take a step back, take an inventory, figure out what’s missing. You can do this, you’re a writer!

Laurie MacNevin, HF Associate Editor

Laurie is an editor, writer, and researcher. Her deep love of stories led to an Honours degree and a Master’s degree in English Language and Literature from the University of Windsor. Originally from Southern Ontario, Laurie has lived in Manitoba for more than ten years, exploring the stories, landscape, plants, and people of some of the most remote parts of the province including three years in Churchill and two years in God’s Lake Narrows First Nation. Laurie and her family now live on an acreage outside of Carberry.

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