June-October 2021: I was pretty much not working on my novel at all, because I was stuck. There were other projects that needed my attention as well, mostly nonfiction.
November-December 2021: This is when I started slowly coming unstuck. This whole period was a busy blur, but here are the main factors that helped unstick me.
I spent most of my time during the gap organizing my notes and streamlining my research process for blogging. These were the two aspects of all my projects that consistently got me stuck. I’d collect and produce so much material that I couldn’t wrap my head around them.
Out of necessity, I caught up on indexing all my physical notebooks and file cabinets, and collected all my digital notes into a Notion database. It made a huge difference in being able to find the right notes when I need them, and forget about them the rest of the time.
Media and Inspirations
The other thing I did during the gap was reading and watching a lot of media, both in my genre and outside it. This was another recommendation from my developmental editor, but I hadn’t found time to do it. I watched a few old favorites like Monsters Inc, and read The Fifth Season and the Winternight trilogy for the first time. I got pretty intensely into Hamilton.
Reading and watching these stories after spending months thinking about plot changed the experience. I could get engrossed in the story as I always did, but especially on rewatchings, I also started noticing details of how the authors structured the scenes and set up interesting conflicts early in the story.
Noticing the underpinnings was exciting, like I was in on the secret! These lessons made writing in my novel feel achievable again.
Working Out of Order
Since my my novel was on my mind again, I started watching YouTube videos on writing craft.
One in particular, Abbie Emmons’ video about how she organizes her Scrivener project caught my interest in particular. The way she set up her project to include the manuscript, research, inspiration, playlists, character profiles, etc, reminded me of my research organization system in Notion.
An approach I could take to worldbuilding became clear to me. I’d make a database, like the one I used for research. Instead of collecting links and notes, I’d collect pages with brief backstories or descriptions of every element of my story world.
I’m not sure why it took so long to figure out that what I’d been doing in May, trying to go strictly in order by finishing my current draft before attempting more worldbuilding, wasn’t working at all.
I think part of the trouble was that I didn’t know how to tackle the questions, and I kicked the can down the road to avoid them. I’d rather struggle through my current draft instead. Even though there were dissonant world elements getting in the way of the story and I knew I needed to figure them out.
Something about this parallel structure of the worldbuilding database, where I could write many short files instead of one long description, finally brought the worldbuilding side of the project within reach.
I’ve heard a lot of advice or warnings against getting too bogged down in world building, because it seems to be a common pitfall among fantasy writers to endlessly generate backstory, lore, and magic system information, at the expense of actually building a story. I think this is true for some, but it turned out I had the opposite problem.
With this inspiration in hand, I made a bunch of Notion pages for research, world building, plot threads, and jumped between them with abandon.
Since I’d gotten better at research for my blog posts, it made the research for fiction that much easier. Researching for fiction is much ‘softer’. I don’t need to analyze and fact-check endlessly. All I need to do is find interesting material that sparks my creativity.
In my worldbuilding database, I created elements of the world and wrote a very short passage about each of them, just enough that I had my impressions offloaded out of my head and ready to develop. Freeing up some working memory was a huge relief and let me explore further, covering more ground. The material I’d already created sparked ideas constantly, both when I was looking at the database and when I was wandering the house, making coffee, or sitting on the patio.
All of the notes and research helped me create a richer, more textured, populated, and atmospheric world. At some point, the elements clicked together abruptly, and I was suddenly ready to analyze the plot. And then I was ready to draft. Because I’d done just enough behind-the-scenes work to feel ready.
When I went back to rewrite my scenes, I could imagine the setting, social dynamic, and conversation much more vividly. The dissonant elements that kept pulling me out of the story were gone. It made a huge difference in being able to drop fully into a scene and let my imagination run wild while I wrote it.
These successes were more validation that I was figuring out my process. Learning to write this novel felt agonizingly slow and painful in places, and the jumping around between story elements felt risky, so I was glad to see it pay off in rapid writing progress.
To be continued.