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Writer’s Craft #94 – Out of Time

October 15, 2012
Suzanne Reynolds-Alpert

Suzanne Reynolds-Alpert

Suzanne writes speculative fiction and poetry from her home in Massachusetts, where she lives with her husband, two kids, and two mischievous black cats. She is currently writing a novel about the teenaged embodiment of the Goddess Kwan Yin. Find links to her published works, notes from the trenches, or snippets from the dark recesses of her brain at http://suzannereynoldsalpert.blogspot.com/ or on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/suzwrites.   Suzanne tweets at @suzsmuses.


All writers inevitably face this problem: You’re excited about your story and you’ve quickly zipped off several pages or chapters. The protagonist is just right. The story’s unfolding as you imagined. Then suddenly you face the “sophomore slump” equivalent of writing, and you’re just stuck.

Perhaps you’ve written your protagonist into a situation and can’t figure out how to move the action forward. Or another character has done something you didn’t plan. If you outline your story before writing you refer back to it, scratching your head. If you don’t outline you curse yourself for not doing so.

A tactic that has worked for me is to write ahead—or as I refer to it, “writing out of time.”

Recently, I found myself in the “sophomore slump” of my novel-in-progress. I played with different scenarios in my head and attempted to write several of them. Nothing worked. I finally jumped ahead in the story and began to write a key scene where two main characters reunite. It worked—it got me writing again—and it also got me back in touch with my heroine.  I was again immersed in her thoughts, her motivations, her burdens. I decided to continue writing from that point forward.

As characters reveal themselves through the writing process, they teach you more about who they are. I have faith that I will go back and successfully pen this novel’s “sophomore year,” knowing was has occurred to them after.

It’s okay to craft your stories out of sequence. As a writer the most important thing you can do is to keep writing.

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9 Comments leave one →
  1. October 15, 2012 6:30 am

    I faced precisely the same thing just a week ago. For a year I was not able to continue my story. And then I’ve tried a different angle. I’ve decided to replace one protagonist by three with braided storylines. Then I switched to one of these other protagonists, who appears only several chapters later. And, while writing about the “future”, I’ve learned much about the past.

  2. October 15, 2012 6:48 am

    Nikolay, the more writers I talk to about our craft, the more common I realize this is. I think that when many of us start out, we have this romanticized perception that a novel just “flows”–from beginning, to middle, to end. Not usually the case!

  3. October 15, 2012 6:27 pm

    Personally, I write all the significant scenes first, then fit them together. Well, that’s assuming they all fit; sometimes I’m left with a gaping hole, sometimes I have two or more scenes that accomplish the same goal. Luckily, it all works out in the end.

    • October 23, 2012 2:16 pm

      Jennifer, do you consider that outlining? Just curious.

      • Jennifer Allis Provost permalink
        October 23, 2012 3:08 pm

        Hmm. I’m going to say no, because I tend to write out of order.

  4. LeahDH permalink
    October 16, 2012 11:11 am

    This was probably just what I needed to hear right now. I have more than one project that’s been in the works for a year or more (or in one case, several) and I haven’t been able to complete ANY of them. I always end up starting at the beginning, usually because I have this idea that if I don’t have down what comes first, I won’t know how to approach the later scenes. (I do try outlining but that always…crashes and burns.)

    Time to give this a go! thank you, Suzanne!

    • October 23, 2012 2:19 pm

      Leah, Don’t you love when you find “just the right message” at “Just the right time?” I have often started at the beginning myself, thinking I MUST proceed roughly sequentially. But as Jennifer pointed out above, that is often not the best strategy. You need to find what works for you–and what that is may change over time or from project to project. Good luck!

  5. October 17, 2012 6:56 am

    This is what a first draft is all about. Never stall out stressing about a particular section. Just skip over and keep writing. What is critical is that you work on what you feel inspired to work on. If you are taking a shower and suddenly think of the perfect ending, wrap a towel around yourself and go write it. If you are working on story A and you have a sudden inspiration for how to work a part of story B, don’t waste time telling yourself, “No, I must finish story A first.” (Unless, of course, you are on a deadline.) Go work on story B until your inspiration is spent. Then return to apply yourself to story A. If you have something to say.

    If you have writer’s block it means you are trying to force something that isn’t there. Life is too short to waste it staring blankly at a keyboard in frustration or pounding out 5,000 words of crap because that is the goal you’ve set for yourself. Unless you’re a journalist or you are writing under contract, what the hell is your hurry? What will you accomplish by sitting on the pot if there’s nothing substantial coming out?

    It’s like working on a puzzle. You see a piece of sky that matches another, and you fit them together. Then you see a batch with flowers, and work them together. You find all the edge pieces and put them together. Ah, that’s where the sky chunk goes. Ah, that’s where the flowers go. And the image begins to take shape. There is such a burst of satisfaction when you see how something fits together. And sometimes you have to put aside your preconceptions about where something goes or how it fits. (No, that isn’t a piece of sky; it’s a part of the blue boat — no, this doesn’t happen to protagonist A in chapter 5; it’s protagonist C in chapter 12)

    Creation is stubborn, willful beast which resists order, method and schedule. Ride it where it wants to go.

    • October 23, 2012 2:20 pm

      Absolutely Justine! I love this from you–“This is what a first draft is all about. Never stall out stressing about a particular section. Just skip over and keep writing.” There are always opportunities to go back and fill in those gaps.

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