Posts Tagged block

Stuck or blocked? How to keep writing anyway

2558534957_b675fe77a3You’ve got a gap in your story. Or you’re revising and it’s clear a drafted scene won’t do.

Usually, the best remedy is to give up and do something else.

But Charlotte Rains Dixon reminded me in a comment here a few weeks ago that sometimes it’s good to push through. Even if you’ve run the tank dry. And sometimes deadlines mean you don’t have the luxury of a break.

Here are some ways I get my muse to pick up.

Seek inspiration

Behind your pesky page there’s a seductive internet. And you’re sitting there, annoyed with the way your creative day is going.

Do not open your browser. Surfing turns so easily into skiving.

If I’m trying to break a block I go to my reference bookshelf. Not the dictionaries, although The Fontana Dictionary of Modern Thought can provide a surprise or two. But beside these sensible titles I have a collection of oddities that friends have given me (probably because it’s easier than guessing what fiction to give a fussy novelist). Thus I am the lucky owner of Never Hit A Jellyfish With a Spade – How to Survive Life’s Smaller Challenges. The Z to Z of Great Britain. And Mirror Mirror on the Wall – Women Writers Explore Their Favourite Fairy Tales.  Any of these, consulted at random, can provide a wild card to astonish the imagination.

Poetry collections are handy too, to remind me to look beyond the surface for deeper significance. Especially if I’m asking myself if I’ve missed the real reason why a scene or event has to be in the book.

nynfiller2Diagnose the problem

It also helps to define a few parameters.

  • Work out what can’t happen – both for this individual story and for the readers of your genre as a whole. Then you know where you should be heading.
  • Ask yourself what matters in the scene. Why it’s important to the story and to the characters. (If it’s not, job done.)
  • Quite often if you’re stuck, your brain is telling you you’re trying to write the wrong thing. Are you forcing the characters to say and do things they would find unnatural? Should you listen to what they would rather do?
  • Are you stuck because the scene repeats an idea you’ve used elsewhere in the book? Now you know to make it different.
  • Are there hidden significances or issues you’re glossing over? That ‘stuck’ feeling might be your helpful writerly subconscious telling you you’re wasting an opportunity.

Still stuck? Push on anyway

Now this is what Charlotte was talking about. Write anyway. Yes it works. Sometimes you’ll be surprised by what comes out. It’s like having an interrogator refusing to let go.

‘What happens now?’

‘Bah, I don’t know.’

‘That’s not good enough, I don’t believe you don’t know. Tell me again – what happens now?’

When I do this, my first attempts are risible, and I keep deleting. But after a while I find the scent. I’ve often resorted to this in revisions, and written some of my best scenes because I stayed stubbornly in the saddle.

Desperate measures

You could follow the lead of science fiction author A E Van Vogt. When he was stuck, he would move to the spare room for the night and set the alarm to wake him after an hour and a half. When it went off, he would force himself to try to solve the problem, inevitably falling back asleep. He repeated this all night and in the morning, voila.

Which just goes to show what it can be like living with a writer sometimes. You can find other less unsociable tips in Nail Your Novel. :)

Thanks for the cat pic turkeychik

Tell me what you do when you get stuck and time off isn’t an option. Share in the comments!

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Stuck on your novel? Write yourself a five-star review

No, I’m not telling you to go on Amazon or Goodreads and cheat. This is an exercise for the novel you haven’t finished yet. Especially if it’s giving you trouble.

I first suggested it in my purple writing book Nail Your Novel, as part of the section on revision, and it must have struck a chord because time and again it gets picked up by other writers around the blogosphere. Here’s KM Weiland and here it is most recently being passed on by Larry Brooks, at all stations from Jenna Bayley-Burke to Porter Anderson.

Since it’s proving so useful, I thought I’d take a more in-depth look at why we might do this.

But first, here’s what you do (from Nail Your Novel)

Imagine you are writing a blurb or a review and that you have understood everything the writer was trying to do. Be specific about the story, the themes and the mood…

When might you do this?

You could do it when you embark on major revisions, to firm up your ideas before you hack and slay. Or any time you’ve got in a muddle and lost faith. What you do is step back and write how you would like the book to work if all problems were solved. If you step away from the details and look at the big picture, you often find you are not as lost as you think. Whether you knew it or not, you have strong, specific ideas about what the book would be.

What should you put in it? Everything distinctive and exciting about your novel. This might be any or all of:

  • how the themes will work
  • the influence of the setting and what it brings to the story
  • the functions the characters might perform; perhaps whether they will be likable or not – and why that will be enjoyable
  • what the set-pieces are
  • why the big reveals will pack such a punch
  • the literary traditions the novel might fit into, if that’s your bag
  • the kind of readers who might enjoy it
  • if you’re planning a non-linear structure or something tricksy like two narrators, why that was a clever move.

You can probably see you have to do a bit of head-scratching, so this exercise is good for making you justify – and understand – your creative decisions.

The other times you might do this

The title of this post suggests you do it when stuck, but it’s also a very useful exercise to do it at the start, as a mission statement for what you hope the book will be. Especially in that first flush of enthusiasm when the idea is seductive and brilliant. When you’re courageous and undaunted – you simply know it will be good. It’s good to harness that for later when the honeymoon’s over.

Novels take so darn long to write that there usually comes a time when we’ve lost perspective. We confuse ourselves with infinite possibilities. We may even suspect we’ve ruined everything. If you wrote your ideal version review to start with, you have something to pull you back together. Even if the novel changes substantially in the writing, it’s useful to have a record of this early, optimistic vision. (It might have got richer, more sophisticated. Or you may find that fundamentally you’re still on course.)

Confidence

Most of all, this exercise gives us confidence. By confidence I don’t just mean feeling better; I mean clarity and boldness in the way we handle our material. We can pitch the mood, decide what themes to highlight, what word choices fit, what’s superflous. We can strengthen character motivations and plot. Novels that work well know where they’re going.

So if you’re feeling lost, write yourself a rave review. Spoil yourself and strengthen your novel.

Thanks for the pic Bidrohi >H!ROK<

Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon Books and How You Can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence is available on Kindle and in print. Sign up for my newsletter!  Add your name to the mailing list here.

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It took me years to write my first book. Does it get easier?

Yes. And here’s what you can do to help it along.

Joanna Penn was writing this week about how she’s smartened her writing routine as a result of what she learned while writing her first novel, Pentecost. I thought I’d share the ways in which I’ve found my own writing sped up from those early, stumbling days.

It’s as if we write our first novel with a blindfold on. We have an idea for a story and off we go, grabbing things, finding they’re not what we thought, discarding them, discovering holes. At some point we pay more attention to learning to write. By the time we roll out a manuscript that will please our most critical readers we’ve come a long way.

Obviously by novel two that learning curve is behind us. We know what a story needs, structurally and emotionally. We appreciate the needs of our genre. We’ve worked with editors or feedback groups and we understand how outsiders see our work.

Establish a method

As I’m sure you’ll appreciate from reading this blog, writers who produce reliably establish a method for getting the work done. I put mine in Nail Your Novel and it seems to work rather well for a lot of people

All that is part of the craft. But there’s the other half of the writing process as well – the creative one. That’s harder to control because with ideas we tend to get what our inspiration gives us. To an extent, we still have the blindfolds on.

Make your muse work smarter

When you’re arming yourself to tackle another novel, it helps to look at the way you handle creative problems. You will probably find you hit a number of blocks the first time round, and you can take more control of them now. With a bit of analysis, you can reduce periods where you’re scratching your head because you don’t know what’s wrong or you have no ideas at all. In other words, you can fend off the dreaded block.

Ask yourself these questions

Where in the story did you waste time on things that didn’t work? Were they a particular kind of scene?

How long did it take you to find out what engaged you about your story? Are there questions you could ask yourself to drill down to that more quickly so that you know where your story is going?

How could you have prepared better for writing each scene in close up?

What darlings did you keep on life support that you ended up killing anyway?

Where did you go around loops of a maze instead of taking a straight line?

Where were you lazy – and unmasked by your editors or crit partners?

Where did you contrive situations to get something in that wasn’t going to fit?

Where did you get in a tangle with continuity and could you have made things easier for yourself?

What did your beta readers or editors identify as your weaknesses? What can you do to pre-empt those problems this time around?

What kind of research did you need to do and what was a waste of time?

Thank you, Mockstar on Flickr, for the picture. Have you ever diagnosed where your muse could have worked smarter? If you do it now, what would it tell you? Share in the comments!

 

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