“I need to be working on my novel!
But I don’t have the time/mental clarity/emotional energy/anything close to ideal conditions to draft a chapter.
But I need to work on my novel!
Aaaaaagh. What do I do?”
Does this sound like the inside of your head? Because sometimes (heh, ok, more than sometimes) it’s a verbatim transcript of the inside of mine.
Yes, there are times when I have the perfect blueprint of my next chapter brewing in my head and ready to explode out onto the page. These are the times I invariably have childcare duty, a copywriting deadline, or something in the kitchen that smells like a rotting corpse and needs to be dealt with ASAP.
Then there are the times when I’m all set to go: I’m ensconced at the library or cuddled into the corner of a cozy coffee shop, laptop in front of me, matcha latte at my side, and…. I just can’t do it. Maybe I already wrote a chapter that day and need time for the next one to marinate. Maybe I’m just back from vacation and my brain isn’t working yet. Who knows.
Sometimes I just have to slog through it and write. But other times, I’ll take a “cheat break” that isn’t actually cheating. How can you work on your novel without actually writing or revising? Here are some ideas:
1. Draw a Map
World-building is an essential part of any novel, and sometimes the best way to build a world is to make a map. Whether your novel takes place in a tight-knit small town or far-flung exotic planet, a map can help you visualize your world and figure out those tough transitional sections.
The book I’m working on right now takes place on a wilderness trail, so I recently used some “stuck” time to grab a pen and draw a trail map (on a piece of paper towel, because I am not one of those “prepared’ writers who carries a notebook everywhere). This not only helped me get in touch with the landscape for descriptive purposes, but helped with plotting. Now I know how far the characters are going each day, and where they’re staying each night. I even drew in plot points. And as a bonus, when I’m stuck again I can look at my (poorly-drawn, paper-towel) map for inspiration.
2. Hold a Casting Call
So you probably have a decent sense of what your main characters look like, but what about those secondary and tertiary ones? Are you starting to get to that point where everyone is tall and thin with short, spiky hair?
I got there the other day, so I held a digital “casting call” on Shutterstock. This is a fantastic, easy way to waste time while still feeling productive, and it can fuel your writing later by giving you a concrete photo to look at when you’re writing about someone. I did it for all my characters and was surprised at how generic even my main squeezes had become in my mind. Interestingly, I found the photos I selected of them helped gel their personalities: the bitter punk-rock queen gained some soft edges, and the petite queen bee now has a goofy, sarcastic side.
I know “dream casting” is a thing authors like to do once their book is slater for publication, but why wait? You can use celebrities if you like, but I personally prefer stock image randos—watermarks and all.
3. Fill in the Blanks
You have blanks in your manuscript, right? Places where the character finds X kind of flower but you’re not sure what kinds of flowers grow in that part of the world at that time of year but you’re writing too fast to research and so you just scribbe a [TK] and tell yourself you’ll come back to it later?
Guess what: your “stuck” time counts as later. Time to go back, do your research, and fill in the blanks.
These are a few of my favorite ways to simultaneously waste time, feel productive, and put time and thought into my novel without writing or revising.
How do you work on your novel without working on your novel?
Let me know in the comments. And thanks for reading!