We've all been there. You're about halfway through the first draft of your current novel. Or maybe you've even finished the rough draft and you're sitting down to revise and you're just... a little lost. You're not sure what to tackle first and you're not even sure who your characters really are.
Maybe this isn't as much of an issue for the Plotters out there, but for us Plantser/Pantser set, it can be a little more challenging when trying to tame an unruly first draft or whip a second draft into shape.
Here is one tried and true strategy that I've leaned on in the past, and has helped tremendously in rekindling inspiration, or just better understanding who I've created on the page.
What is a non-canon scene?
It's a scene that has nothing to do with your plot. You know, the kind of scenes you end up trimming from a first draft during revision or editing. Sure, you like it. Hell, maybe you even LOVE it, but it doesn't fit in with the current theme or arc of the story and you trimmed it. You gently, but decisively decided to copy/edit/pasted it into a separate word document and it lives there now, forever in your memory as a beloved treasure meant only for you and maybe your beta readers, never to see the actual light of day.
If you don't already have one of those scenes, then it's your lucky day my friends, because it's time to WRITE THAT SCENE.
I dashed one of those off because the idea and the imagery arrived fully in my brain one day and it would not let me go. It didn't work with the story structure at the time, but I wanted to get to know one character in particular, a little bit better, so I cracked my knuckles and hammered it out.
And now it's chapter 2 of Metal Heart. It felt like, at the time, it had literally nothing to do with the story and it was pure fan-service for myself. And then I was like, OK, but I like this character interaction. For some time, it lived in a different section of the book and now it's chapter 2 and it does everything I've asked of it.
And I didn't even know at the time that I needed it for the story. I just knew I needed to write it. And once it was typed out, I l fell in love and was like... "this needs to go somewhere." It inspired me to find a home for it in the book, but most of all, to keep WRITING the rest of the book so it had a place to live and flourish.
Why should you write a non-canon scene?
First of all, because it's fun. What's better than no-pressure, zero-expectation, responsibility free writing? What's better than a scene with characters that you already love, doing something wild or inane, that has no actual bearing on or consequences for the rest of your story?
I promise you, you're not going to break the back of your book with this scene. There's nothing riding on this moment. It's just for you and the characters. You're taking a little breather. You're trying something new and invigorating.
In essence, it's a bit like writing a little fanfiction of your own book. And who doesn't love fanfiction?
It will put you in a different mindset or mood. It will let you be creative, and still live in the world of your story, with the people who populate it, without feeling like you're going to mess everything up if you write the wrong words or have them do the wrong things.
It's the writer equivalent of a sandbox, where you can build a beautiful castle and "destroy it" without worrying about the effects it has on the structure of the story, or the canon progression of the characters.
How to write a non-canon scene.
The two biggest tips here are to pick either some outrageous scenario like fighting a dragon or something super mundane like cooking a dinner together.
You could also have them do something canonically in-world, but still not story-canon. For my non-canon scene, I chose an activity that I imagine Eleni Garza would have done on an annual basis. I didn't even know that Rabbit Santiago would interrupt her until he showed up and then I was like, "of course he would."
He would also be the kind of guy who would go to confession or to pray on a quiet Tuesday because he was guilted into it by his mom.
You want to keep some of your character quirks and motivations. The point isn't to write them so completely off-base or off-character that you don't recognize them. The idea is to place them in a different scenario, completely different to the scene or plot hole you're stuck in, and let them do their thing.
Be creative and write. I promise it's a whole hell of a lot easier when you take away the anxiety of thinking that it will one day be spit-polished for public consumption.
You write because you love to write. But when you're writing a book and trying to get published, you often find yourself writing for someone else. For an audience. For your ideal reader. For fame and fortune.
It's helpful to have a little tool like this in your belt. Take it out when you need to, dust it off, and don't let anyone else's expectations determine what you create. This scene and moment is purely for you, for your process, and for no one else. And hell, if it's good enough, maybe it DOES become canon.
But that's not the goal. The goal is to make it. Get it out of your system. And in the process, see what kind of new understandings of your characters and of your world unfolds.
Other Writer's Block Strategies
Melinda Jasmine Crouchley, YA science fiction author and professional editor.