Overcoming “Story Panic”

It started as a niggling feeling in the back of my mind, like an earthworm tunneling through the soil: You don’t know how to fix this story. And then it grew, like a python squeezing me, making it hard to breathe: You cannot write a novel. It’s too big, too many moving parts.

Sigh. It’s not the first time story panic has crept up on me. And it probably won’t be the last. So, while I shift my focus to a few short stories for the time being, I’m spending my spare time thinking about my soon-to-be novel Goblins and Grimoires. I mentioned in my last post that the story has some structural issues. So before I dig back into it and add about 20,000 words and do some major rewrites, I’m taking some time to read a few novels, examine how they handle each of the four parts of story structure (setup, response, attack, resolution), and consider what’s missing from my story and how I can fix it.

So yes, the panic is there. But I’ve been writing for years now, and I’ve learned how to handle it. I know I cannot let it stop me. I just breathe through it and keep moving. Here are a few lessons I’ve learned:

1.) As Nora Roberts said, I can fix a bad page. I can’t fix a blank one.

Though my story needs a lot—a lot—of work, draft 1.1 is done. Draft 1.2 will expand on that first draft, fill in the blanks, let it breathe, add layers. But if I hadn’t finished draft 1.1, there would be nothing to add layers to. So it’s important just to get something on the page, and then shape it.

2.) I can shift gears.

Sometimes a big project like a novel can be overwhelming. Sometimes it’s good to pen a short piece in between drafts of a larger project. This can be a piece of flash fiction, a short story, even a poem. Just something quick to give our brains the time to focus on something else. It allows us to return to that larger project with a sense of satisfaction that we’ve finished something else, and we can also come back to our novel with a fresh eye. In short, shorter works can be rejuvenating.

3.) I can fill the well.

Take a long walk in nature. Write in my journal. Meditate or do some yoga or tai chi. Read a good book. If you have a hobby such as knitting or painting, you can indulge yourself in some colorful yarn or a set of watercolors and create something. Even baking some cookies can help. I’m a practicing Pagan, so working magic can be a creative exercise for me. Monday night, in the midst of reading through my story, I took the time to honor both Litha (the summer solstice) and the Strawberry Moon and work some midsummer magic, listen to some Celtic music, and reflect on my connection to the goddess and nature. Anything that fills the well and gives us the space to breathe, to rejoice, and to simply be human can alleviate story panic and rejuvenate our creative self.

4.) I can reflect on what works in the story.

If panic is overtaking you, take a few minutes and jot down a few things that are working in the story. For example, in Goblins and Grimoires, I feel like the romantic arc is stronger in this work than it has been in some of my other stories. And both the hero and heroine have strong, cohesive character arcs. Just realizing that took some of the stress away. So stop beating yourself up for everything that isn’t working and focus on what you’ve done right. Trust me. It helps.

ROW80 Round 2 Wrap-Up

I entered this round fairly late, so there’s not a whole lot to report. Here’s what I accomplished:

  • I’m about halfway through a third draft of my short story The Faerie Key.
  • I finished a first draft of Goblins and Grimoires. It’s currently about 29K and I’m planning to expand it to somewhere between 45K and 48K—but that’s a goal for next round.
  • I finished a first draft of a short story, Spirits of Embers.
  • I managed to read four books on the craft/business of writing: How to Make a Living with Your Writing by Joanna Penn, How to Write Fiction Sales Copy by Dean Wesley Smith, How I Sold 80,000 Books: Book Marketing for Authors by Alinka Rutkowska, and Story Engineering by Larry Brooks.

In between rounds I’ll be reading a lot, working on a couple short stories, and doing some plotting and planning for draft 1.2 of Goblins and Grimoires.

A Round of Words in 80 Days is the writing challenge that knows you have a life. Click here to cheer on fellow participants.

What about you? Have you ever experiencing “story panic?” How did you resolve those feelings? Did you meet your goals for Round 2?

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14 thoughts on “Overcoming “Story Panic”

  1. I have been through that before. I am currently going through that with an older project I want to query agents with. I’ve rewritten in 5 times (and this is over the course of over 10 years, so there have been long periods of inactivity). . I know I need to stop at some point, but some things still aren’t gelling. But it’s getting closer!

    The story structure framework makes sense, and is the simplest I’ve seen. I will need to keep that in mind for the future.

    Good luck with your rewrites. 🙂

    • I have a project in a similar state. It took me years to figure out how to fix one of the major plot point problems in that story. Every draft takes that story a little closer to being ready for the world. So hang in there!

      Thanks, Erin! 🙂

  2. “Story panic.” I love it! Not that I want you to panic. It’s just so real. And that’s what I love about you. Goodness, that’s where I am. In the middle of the book. I’m not sure it’s sagging. I want the right thing to happen next and it is taking a while for my brain to spit it out. I’ve been filling the well. But I think I need to apply #1, “Nora Roberts said, I can fix a bad page. I can’t fix a blank one.” I best get busy. 🙂

    • I’ve found that self-doubt can be paralyzing at times, and in my career I’ve worked to find ways to work through self-doubt rather than being stopped in my tracks by it. I hope that my experiences help fellow authors to deal with these issues. I can’t say I have all the answers, but I hope what I’ve learned can help others.

      Good luck with your story, Karen! Middles can be tough. I’m currently working my way through John Truby’s “The Anatomy of Story.” You might find it helpful. 🙂

  3. Denise, this is brilliantly expressed. I think the trick is to know what works the best for us as individuals living our lives. For instance, I always have a diverse collection of goals. When something isn’t working and I start to feel that “story panic” feeling, I have something else that I can work on. With a mix of high and low intensity and time frame projects, I can take a break from anything, and still have creative challenges to focus on.

    That’s my best answer to the “stuck” feeling, and I’ve found, over and over, that shifting gears to something else often allows the ideas to flow more freely, and that gets me unstuck again with a lot less fuss and angst.

    I love what you say here, and would be honored if you’ll allow me to reblog this post.

    • I like the idea of high and low intensity projects. I’d never really thought about it that way, but that sounds like a good way to find balance in the creative life. Good idea!

      Feel free to reblog this. Thanks, Shan Jeniah! 🙂

  4. I like the idea of having more than one project to work on at a time, too, so that creative energies are pulled in different directions and hopefully grow stronger. Love the title Goblins and Grimoires!

    • I used to be very strict about having only one project going at a time, but I’ve found I’m actually more productive when I juggle two or three projects at once. That way, if I get stuck on one, I can transition to one of the the others for a little while. Thanks! 🙂

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