Writing a novel – How to get through the tough bits

Getting through the tough bits of your first draftThere are times when writing is a joy. When the words come pouring out, the plot ticks along nicely, and the characters stay in character and almost write the thing for you.

There are also times (sometimes a lot of them) when writing is nothing at all like that. When it’s a struggle to find the next sentence to move the story along, let alone the whole next scene. When you wonder if you’re cut out for this whole business of authoring.

Perhaps the idea you had for what happens next no longer seems like something your character would do. Or your plot has veered in an unexpected direction and you actually have no idea what should or could happen next. Or you’ve come to a scene that you know needs to happen, but you just don’t want to write it.

In my opinion, dealing with the tough bits is the difference between wanting to be a writer and actually being one. If you want to finish a book, a short story, whatever it might be, you have to get through the tough bits.

Of course, knowing that doesn’t make it any easier! And while it might come down to BICHOK (Butt In Chair, Hands on Keyboard) at the end of the day, sometimes we all need a bit of extra help. So here are my tips on how to push through when the words just aren’t coming:

Magic cookies

This is a way to get around the scenes you know you have to write, but really don’t want to. Best of all, you do it by turning them into scenes you do want to write!

Both the term and the process have been shamelessly borrowed from Susan Dennard, so I’ll let her explain how magic cookies work.

I only discovered this a couple of months ago when I signed up for Susan’s Misfits and Daydreamers newsletter (seriously, you should do that!) but I’ve already used it a few times and it’s made so much difference!

Word sprints

A word sprint is a very simple but very effective trick. You set a timer – usually between 15 and 30 minutes – and try to get as many words down in that time as possible.

But Jamie, you say – isn’t that what we’re doing every time we write anyway? Well, yes, to a point, but having a deadline does focus the mind. The idea is that in order to meet the challenge, you have to stop thinking so much, and just write whatever comes into your head. Choosing the perfect word, deleting a line of dialogue that sounds a little clunky, and so on, all take a back seat to getting the next word out.

This comes into its own in NaNoWriMo season, when Twitter, the NaNo forums and any writers’ social media group you care to mention are packed full of people ready to compare sprint wordcounts to give them the impetus to meet the daily wordcount requirements. But you can make it work for you all year round, especially if you’ve got writing buddies or an encouraging friend. Or just a crazy competitive streak; I’ve had some pretty good sessions simply trying to beat my own personal best.

If you need a little more of a push, there are programs like Write Or Die which take the pressure of a word sprint to a whole new level, punishing you if you stop typing for too long with flashing screens, unpleasant noises and even randomly deleting words. You can even adjust the settings and goals to make it realistic – or as challenging as you like – for your own typing and thinking speed.


Otherwise known as rewards, but hey, let’s call a spade a spade.

I’ve been known to bribe myself with anything from turning off RescueTime so I can aimlessly browse the Internet for half an hour, to a bar of chocolate to a new notebook and pen (hey, I am a writer!), if I meet an immediate writing goal. It could be reaching my daily wordcount or slogging through a scene that’s been troubling me for a while.

Notebooks in Paperchase Tottenham Court Road
My idea of heaven

Of course, this only works if you’ve got the willpower to hold out and not just give yourself the reward anyway. After all, that chocolate bar probably looks like exactly what you need to deal with the frustration of writing that’s not going so well…

Take a break

If all else fails – give yourself permission to come back later. Make some notes about what should be happening, then do something completely different. Take a walk, do some gardening, call a friend for tea and a chat. Sometimes it helps to leave the problem scene stewing for a while and go write a scene that wants to be written. Then at least you’ll be back in a writing frame of mind.

Come back with a fresh pair of eyes a few days later and your notes (combined with any of the tips above) should get you going.


If these tips helped you out of a sticky spot – or if you’ve got other ideas for getting through the tough bits – please share in the comments!


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