Tag Archives: writer’s block

Writing Days

Summer is winding to a close. The hot days that press down on the prairie like a sizzling iron have eased to moderate temperatures, thanks to the hurricanes pounding the coasts. My brain is starting to wake up and revive from the stupor that three-digit temperatures always induce in me. (My roses feel the same way, perking up and putting on their fall flush of blooms.) Autumn in the prairie cauldron is a short-lived season, one to be seized with joy and gratitude because finally we feel revived and able to get a few things done.

Like write.

Yeah, I know that the sun is mellowing into the golden radiance that late September and October bring, the kind of light that lures me outdoors despite my best nose-to-the-grindstone intentions.

I know that it’s time to clean up the yard, clear off the patio, put away the lawn chairs, wash the windows, treat the grass, buy pumpkins and pansies, plant tulip bulbs, tarp the AC compressor and cast iron patio table, decorate for Halloween, contemplate how many Christmas trees I might put up in November, find my flannel shirts and–more importantly–my socks, and generally get ready for winter, but I need to write.

So many distractions swirling like the north wind that will soon have brown, red, and golden leaves skipping across the lawn–and yet, I need to write.

I am this close to writing the climax of my current work in progress. It was supposed to be one of two books completed this summer. Alas, that objective was not reached. My sights have lowered to the all-important task of getting this one manuscript finished. I can do it. I just have to ignore the beckoning autumn weather, park myself in my writing chair, and type those final scenes.

Back in the days when every summer was a race against the ticking clock of looming publisher deadlines, involving the writing of long, large-cast, complicated novels before my return to the university campus, I typed like a madwoman. The final days of rough drafting were crazy, nearly round-the-clock sessions of writing, eating, writing, crashing to sleep, and rising to write more. I refuse to count the number of years I spent on that particular work treadmill, and how I pushed myself to meet the challenge again and again.

This manuscript is not that complicated. There is no deadline, except the one I’ve set. I have savored the luxury of taking my time. It doesn’t mean I’m writing better. It doesn’t mean this light adventure has any depth. But I’m writing, and for this year–this summer–that is enough.

Here’s a quote from Louis L’Amour that I like: “Start writing, no matter what. The water does not flow until the faucet is turned on.”

We can let ourselves freeze up from doubt, anxiety, and uncertainty. We might be facing the kind of story we’ve never done before. We might feel we don’t know what we’re doing. We might feel we’re too rusty, too untrained, or insufficiently talented to write what is filling our heart and imagination. As creative people, we can invent a dozen reasons why we shouldn’t try.

But as L’Amour says, turn on the faucet. Sit at your keyboard and type. Make your protagonist talk to someone, even if it’s the nosy little girl next door that has nothing to do with your plot outline. Type anyway, until your story sense takes over and the real scene starts to flow. You can always cut out the little girl later. Or, you might decide to keep her.

Roll with it.

Write.

Enjoy the fall weather after your writing session for the day. Whatever your daily page quota happens to be, meet it, even if some pages are too weak or inane to keep. And during the days when buying pansies beckons, reduce your page quota–if your deadline will allow–so you don’t feel guilty and you don’t miss the fun.

And, for as long as you need to write, do it.

 

 

 

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Growing Acorns

“Sometimes … the smallest things take up the most room in your heart.”  –A.A. Milne

Through my career, I have often been asked by newspaper reporters or newbie writers how I get ideas. It is not a good question, or a useful question, or even an insightful question. Most professional novelists sneer at it. Some might even label it “dumb.”  Innumerable jokes have been generated by it. When asked, you feel superior and clever. You try not to smile or burst out laughing, if you’re a courteous person. And if you’re a kind person, you might even answer this question with some degree of honesty, especially if the inquirer is a new writer genuinely trying to understand. But if you’re neither kind nor courteous, then you could succumb to the terrible temptation of being flippant, disdainful, or even misleading.

For a long time, I found the very notion of seeking an idea to be laughable. My imagination was teeming with so many plots, characters, and settings that I despaired of finding time to write them all. I had no patience with anyone that claimed to suffer from writer’s block. I felt that anyone lacking in ideas should go and do something besides write.

These days, I’m less arrogant. I’ve learned that you can hit emotional dry holes that leave you empty, too drained or distracted to create. It’s not the same as being blocked–not exactly–but the result is similar, in that you sit at your keyboard but produce nothing beyond a new Pinterest board. I’ve also realized that some new writers feel so timid and unsure that they can’t judge any idea that comes to them.

Fear and uncertainty can kill ideas by draining away all the belief and excitement generated by creativity.

Expectations that are too high can blight a story idea before it barely gets started. I’ve known beginning writers so determined that every word be perfect, so focused on the mistaken belief that their first writing effort would not only be amazing but an instant bestseller that they could not move their project past an endlessly polished Chapter One.

And good ideas can starve and wither when an unprepared writer lacks the skills, experience, or craftsmanship to write them well.

Writers at all stages seek ideas every day, and every day good ideas come to them. Some will make a writer clap hands and chortle with glee. Others don’t look like much at first glance. They get pushed aside, ignored or even forgotten.

But often the best ideas are much like the Milne quote I began with. They are small and quiet. They creep into your mind when you’re paying no attention to them at all. But unlike your grocery list or your promise to walk the dog after supper, they aren’t forgettable. They take your notice, fade to the back of your thoughts, then return. And each time they come again, they’re slightly bigger or they’re better or they shine with a gradual brilliance that finally forces you to look at them, thump them, tug them this way and that, and at last to start testing them for inherent conflict, unpredictability, and marketability.

Milne wasn’t writing about writers when he penned that sentence I’ve quoted. His simplicity of expression, that bell-like quality of purity and the direct thinking of childhood, is what grabs our reading attention and makes us think, Hey now. That’s profound. I’ve pulled this quote from its original context and applied it to our topic without any straining to make it fit.

As writers, what takes up the most room in our heart? The big overblown, over-plotted, grandiose story with a cast of hundreds? Or a story of smaller scale that’s deeper and more complex? Either or none or both?

You decide.

But the little idea can grow into something large and worthy. Don’t be too quick to judge it invalid. Don’t dismiss it as foolish. Don’t call it silly. Don’t criticize it to death to prevent others from potentially picking holes in it.

Evaluate it by all means. Ideas have to be turned into plots, and that process involves stringent tests and plenty of thought.

But don’t try to make it bigger than it wants to be. And don’t throw it away because it’s only a short story idea and you wanted a novel or it’s in a genre you don’t want to tackle or it’s sweet when you want to be dour and mysterious or moody when you want to write romantic comedy.

Listen to it. Think it over without prejudgment. If it stays in your heart and grows, give it a chance.

 

 

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Sweet Victory

Lonely writer … lucky enough to be under a deadline … but stressed because the book has stalled. It should be a simple scene to write. No dialogue subtext to agonize through. No complicated dance of too many characters in the scene. Yet there sits the writer … stuck, stuck, frustrated, and stymied.

WHY?

Deadline pressure can be an insidious force. You can tell yourself that you’re lucky enough to have a contract. You can chant the mantra of “Be glad you’re working” over and over, but when the story stalls, panic can set in. If you aren’t careful, you may find yourself struggling against the plot problem, or against the lead-footed characters who won’t move or take action, darn it! or against the antagonist who won’t say what you intended for him to say.

The more you struggle, the more stuck you seem to become, like car wheels spinning deeper into the sand. And the deadline clock tick, tick, tocks in the back of your mind, making you sweat.

Solution? Back off a little. Stop gnawing at your daily page quota for a few hours and take the pressure off your imagination. Ask yourself, what’s wrong here? Why have things stalled? What have I overlooked? What have I missed? What have I left out? What else should my characters do? Why am I bored here? If I were reading this, what would I want to happen?

Don’t force the answers. Let them come to you.

The majority of the time, we get stuck simply because we’ve made a mistake of technique or our plot has reached a soft spot in our synopsis. Our story sense has put on the brakes to help us. We should listen to it, regardless of our looming deadline.

So listen. Think. Put the writing on “pause.” Figure out the problem. The solution always is there. We just have to find it.

Often, I need to cook up a plot twist or something unpredictable to throw in, something that will fit my plot and where I want the scene to go but is unexpected and fun. It brings life back to the story. It revives my enthusiasm.

The solution arrives. You may have to rewrite a scene or two, or maybe only a couple of pages. But now you’re energized and ready to flex the writing muscle. The pages fly. The story gains speed. Your characters are on the move.

It feels sweet indeed.

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Beware the Twilight Zone

You’re writing a scene or chapter that you’ve meticulously plotted and planned ahead of time. You know where your story is going. You know what you want your characters to do. As soon as you finish with this plot event, you know where your story will go next.

You are–in effect–prepared.

Then something weird happens. An unseen force reaches out from the blinking cursor on your computor monitor and enters your brain. Your plans go fuzzy. The character dialogue becomes circular. The plot bogs down and will not move forward. You fume and strain and retype, and still you cannot advance. The next plot event seems to be receeding from your grasp.

Why, you wonder, won’t your characters go there?

The reason is, my friend, that you have fallen into an alternative dimension of writing, where the best-laid plans go awry. This strange place is a trap, where your words become as meaningless as the angry buzzing of a fly bouncing into a glass windowpane again and again … and again.

Baffled and frustrated, you check your outline. There’s nothing wrong with your story. Your events are sequential, with no illogical gaps. You check your characters. Each is well drawn and outspoken. In fact, your characters are talking too much. You seem unable to stop them. What they’re saying is rather witty.  Yet the story is not advancing.

How can you escape? Is this some type of advanced writer’s block? Has your story sense abandoned you? Have you developed some mysterious variety of writer’s blight?

No, my friend. You have omitted the element of “Connected Conflict” and utilized “Random Conflict” instead.

This problem is usually caused by the absence of a key character–the central story antagonist.

This individual has a vested interest in thwarting your protagonist’s actions, and this individual is strongly–and logically–motivated to stand in your protagonist’s way.

Yes, yes, I know all that, you may be saying. But for the first five chapters, my villain needs to be in Hoboken.

Especially when writing series fiction, it’s easy to fall into awkward plot situations where the central antagonist is off-stage for a large section of the story. This leaves your protagonist to deal with incidental or minor antagonists instead.

It looks like it should be okay. You’ve designed conflict. You’ve got arguments and the kind of story action where characters are moving here and there to some degree of urgency.

But if you’re honest, you’ll realize there’s something phoney about the whole thing, something contrived, something that doesn’t quite click the way it should when scenes are crafted well.

But the story has to BE this way! you may be insisting.

Does it?

Without the connection of antagonism between protagonist and antagonist, the story will quickly devolve into incidents loosely strung together. You lose the internal logic of cause-and-effect. The plot begins to soften and bog down. It becomes more realistic and less constructed. As a result, you’re left with author contrivance and a series of episodic skirmishes between randomly appearing individuals.

This will shunt you into the spongy dimension of bad story dynamics faster than you can realize you’ve exited the road.

Solution?

Stop.

Back up.

Figure out exactly where you left the central antagonist behind.

Plot a way to re-incorporate this character actively into the story.

Watch the knots in your scenes untangle and see how the story zooms forward once more.

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