We’re coming into springtime in New Zealand. The change in season brings fresh optimism and a surge of motivation. It’s been a welcome boost of inspiration for writing my novel. I’ve made some progress recently, specifically in terms of character development, strengthening the plot, and restructuring the storyline.

I recently experienced a writing slump, which was due to a combination of things. Seasonal blues, the uncertainty and weirdness of the Covid pandemic, fostering income-generating work, lack of social interaction, and the disappointment of everything we’d been looking forward to being cancelled. When I lost traction, I also lost a bit of motivation to write. That’s when self-doubt creeps in. Why am I even doing this? I’m completely unqualified to be writing a book.

Stagnancy breeds self-doubt

This seems to be a typical part of the process that new writers go through. So I wrote a pep talk for myself about pushing through. I needed a boost, to tell myself to just get through it, keep writing, it doesn’t have to be good just keep going and DON’T STOP.

Since then, I have done a fair bit of work on the first three chapters of my novel. It’s about 22 pages, approximately 5,500 words. It took me a long time to edit those chapters but I felt like I had hardly anything to show for it. Am just the slowest writer in the world? Again, with the self-doubt! 

My writing in these chapters it’s a vast improvement on the first draft. There are just a few aspects that I will continue to develop before I progress further.

Restructuring the timeframe

One of the biggest dilemmas I’ve had with creating a dynamic and engaging book has been the chronology. This has been struggle from the start. I initially wrote the novel in a linear timeframe, from beginning to end. That was fine for the first draft – which is now serving as an over-inflated story outline – but now I need to build tension and allurement in the first few chapters to engage the reader. My task now is to retell the story.

The structure I’ve been playing with, which seems to work well, has the story unfold in three different time periods: The 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. Most of the action will happen in the most current time period – 1980s – but there’s a lot of plot and character development that needs to happen in the earlier times. The main character starts out as an early teen/tween in the earliest setting, then early adulthood, and finally an adult.

This is far more engaging as it can create a little mystery by drip-feeding information. The reader may see the result of an event without knowing how or why it came about. I have more control over how the story is revealed and paralleled than I would in a linear format.

The protagonist’s emotional journey

I’ve written up a rudimentary summary of the character development for my protagonist. It outlines the lessons he learns on his path to self-discovery. It’s not too different from where I started out, but it has more strength and clarity. I now have something more solid to work with so everything that happens – every scene, every event, every interaction – aligns with this intention for the plot and characters.

Creating dynamic scenes

My writing mentor has assessed my recent work and provided me with feedback. We’ve discussed making the scenes with character interactions more dynamic and interesting. Great, please show me how!

I find writing dialogue very challenging. I don’t enjoy it but, through guidance from my mentor as well as reading/watching scenes in fiction and real life, I’m developing and strengthening my skills. I’m learning more about the nuances of character interaction and the subtleties of those interchanges, such as a combination of exterior dialogue, inner monologue, and body language. Also, what it can mean when the communication doesn’t match up, i.e. a character says one thing but their body language expresses another.

My mentor has tasked me with an exercise as a way of digger deeper and exploring possibilities. I will take one scene – an important one that sets up the protagonist’s “normal” life early on, and flip it upside-down. How would it be if the characters said and did the opposite? What if their reactions were completely unexpected? What if the scene went in a totally different direction? Make a mess and see what sticks! Excavate to find the gold.

This is also something I’ve been wrestling with for a while – striking the right balance between being relatable without being predictable. And there’s nothing wrong with a few surprises – that’s where the treasure is!

Adding complexity to character development

I’ve been actively seeking to build complexity into my characters. This is what makes them interesting, vast, and colourful. Stories that have rich characters, whether they are a protagonist or an antagonist – heroes or villains, if they’re well developed they’re never just one or the other. It’s the light in the shade and the shade in the light.

Yin and yang is a principle that I’ve explored through my yoga training. This is when the world and life are in balance, with a touch of dark in the light and light in the dark. It applies to everything when you’re creating balance or homeostasis. It’s like putting that pinch of salt in a cake recipe. A splash of black in white paint to give it depth. 

yin and yang explained

So part of my character development journey is to consider what darkness I can bring to my protagonist. How do I create more richness and depth to his character – and my other characters – just with that touch of darkness? It could be expressed in a thoughtless moment, where he wasn’t considering the reaction or feelings of others. Perhaps it’s a moment of self-gratification? Something we can all relate to (without being predictable).

Keep going!

My writing mentor says that each sentence you write is a bridge to the next sentence. This is a great way of looking at it. When you’re propelling yourself forward, that impetus – that forward momentum – will carry you through. Keep progressing. You can go back and rework it later, but you just gotta keep going because if you stop there’s gonna be nothing to work with anyway!

I’m happy with where I’m at right now, but I’m still a little bit daunted by how much work I still have to do because every change I make has a ripple effect. If I change one small detail here it affects the whole timeline. During the retelling process, there are some characters that haven’t even been brought into it, so I need to evaluate whether they still belong in the story. Who stays and who goes?

Often we have our eye on the prize – a finished book – but the finish line seems to be moving further away. I need to let go of that and actually just surrender to the process. 

Whether you’re are a writer or working on your own creative project, I’d love to hear from you! Are you stuck? Are you breezing through? Wherever you are, please share your story in the comments below!

I think we can all do with a pep talk to help each other out. Writing – and other creative pursuits – can be a lonely journey, so the more we can share our struggles and challenges, wins and lessons, this is how we get through it. Let’s never stop encouraging each other!