This weekend I was invited by the First Unitarian Universalist Society of Ithaca to read and discuss Endpapers. At a time when the conservative right is pushing harder than ever to ban books about race, sexuality, and gender from schools and libraries, I’m incredibly grateful for the publishers, booksellers, librarians, educators, and faith leaders who are working so hard to give marginalized writers a platform. It truly means everything.
In that spirit, I was excited to see the list I made for Shepherd of my favorite books about queer people on the edge go live on Monday! I hope you read them all!
This weekend I also hit the 20k-word mark in my new (very queer, very feminist) novel — I’m a quarter of the way there! And while I’m celebrating the accomplishment, just when I should be feeling the momentum building, I’m getting to a point where I have no idea what happens next or how to get my characters where they need to be by the end.
Everything behind me: exciting! Everything in front of me: black hole.
And not only am I stuck, I’m also in a rut. Meaning that even when I do have more story to tell, the writing itself feels uninspired and workman-like, a means to an end.
The good news is that instead of freaking out and believing this project is done for, I’ve decided to trust myself. Or to at least trust the excitement I’ve felt for this novel from the first spark, the love I feel for the characters, and the urgency I feel about the themes I’m exploring.
What does that look like this week? For one, I’m writing through the current scenario, putting one foot in front of the other, hoping it will take me, like my characters, to the next point in the story. And while I do that, I’m occasionally pausing and looking backward. My own backstory as a writer is that I have a complicated history with it. My first novel was full of it — the chapters went back and forth between present and past, and I was very attached to all of it, but my readers could never see how most of the material connected. Over years of revising, I slowly and begrudgingly cut most of the backstory. In the end, I had to admit my readers were right. But ever since, I’ve been afraid to write too much of my characters’ histories.
Now, however, it’s clear that I need to know more about where my characters have come from, even if only a small amount of that information ever makes it onto the page. In my years of writing so far, many of my best ideas have come from exploring my characters’ pasts, discovering things about them that help drive their story forward. It allows me to make them confront their biggest fears and reach for their loftiest goals, and to know intimately why they’re doing both.
To that end, I’ve drafted a list of questions for each of my three main characters (maybe four), and slowly I’ve been exploring them:
To arrive at this point, what were you running away from?
What were you running toward?
What did you have to sacrifice to create the life you have now?
Was it worth it?
What have you gained?
Would you do it again?
What’s still missing?
What are you willing to sacrifice now to get what you want?
What are you unwilling to sacrifice?
Who supports your life choices?
Who tries to hold you back?
What relationships have been the most formative?
Starting today (or yesterday by the time you get this), at the end of every scene or chapter I write, I’m pausing to take notes, answering whichever of these questions inspire me in the moment. Already I’m beginning to see how helpful it is.
Meanwhile, I’m plodding along, laying words down on the page, trusting that the creative spark will return when it’s ready, as long as I keep showing up.
But what I want to leave you with for now is this: What’s needed to get unstuck is a deeply personal matter and different for every writer, so whether you need to keep showing up or take a break, keep writing forward or pause to dream up backstory, or any of a million other strategies, I hope you’re experimenting and having a good time — and ultimately finding what you need this week.
Until next time.
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I love this list of questions! I'm absolutely going to borrow these the next time I'm stuck (& there's always a next time).