Deadlines can be wonderfully motivating things. I pride myself on being professional, rarely missing a deadline. Indeed, for a long time I struggled to write anything that didn't have a deadline attached. That makes developing speculative work difficult, because there's no deadline and therefore no ticking clock to help provide motivation. So you have to find motivation from elsewhere.
I've written a lot of licensed genre novels featuring other people's characters, concepts and universes. I'd like to write novels featuring my own characters, concepts and worlds of imagination. But if I want to get paid for that, I need to put in hard work upfront without promise of payment or publication. I have to do some speculative work first in the hope it will accumulate enthusiasm from others leading to a commission and a nice accumulation of money.
I want to write broadcast drama, but people don't offer those opportunities on a plate, especially if you've no track record. So I studied for a MA in screenwriting, using the course to learn and experiment and network and improve. Now I'm trying to build on that, make best use of those lessons. One thing the MA helped me grasp was the importance of theme in any kind of narrative. It also taught me to listen to a little voice at the back of my head.
There are two questions to be asked of any story. First, what is the story about? That's asking for a precis of the plot, the mechanics, what happens when and to whom. Second, what is the story really about? That's finding the theme, a meaning, asking the writer what it is they're trying to say. When a narrative misfires, it's easy to get bogged down fixing plot mechanics, rather than the underlying problem - treating the symptoms, not the cause.
Yesterday I wrote a two-page treatment for a story, and was fairly happy with the results. It ain't perfect, but it's got some juice. I moved on to another two-page treatment, but couldn't get happy with it. Tried tweaking this and twisting that - still not right. At that point, the little writing voice in my head told me to step away from the story with my hands in the air. Better to sleep on it, see if my subconscious couldn't solve the problem.
Woke up this morning and realised I wasn't sure what my story was trying to say. It's got plenty of incident, a decent structure and some characters I'm eager to write - but where's the theme? Not so evident. I need to put this narrative to one side and develop another in its place. I'll come back to my misfiring effort in future, when time will have given me a solution. For now I need to leave it alone. Put simply, when you're in a hole, stop digging.