Posts Tagged writer’s block
Ghostwriting, writer’s block, researching a novel … and training a horse. Interview at @officialSNWfest
How do I tackle writer’s block? How much research do I do before I start writing – and what kind of information do I look for? What’s the hardest thing about writing and what is the most joyful? And… what’s it like to write books for other people as a professional ghostwriter?
On Sunday 25th April I’m presenting a session on ghostwriting at the Surrey New Writers Festival (you don’t have to be in Surrey to attend.. we are Zooming!). So here I am on their blog, talking about how I work, how I keep working when it isn’t necessarily easy, and other strategies for a productive author life. Oh, and they asked about a little horse. Do come over.
Meanwhile, if you’d like more concentrated writing advice, I’m teaching the second part of my self-editing masterclass at Jane Friedman’s next Thursday. It’s all available as videos and transcripts if you can’t make the live broadcast. Find it here.
You might also like my Nail Your Novel books.
If you’re curious about my own creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. If you’d like to support bricks-and-mortar bookstores use Bookshop.org. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk (and my very exciting new novel), look here. You can subscribe to future updates here.
We’ve probably all had a note in a critique that tells us we’ve failed to include an important scene. Eg – ‘We know these characters well and have seen their lives in close detail. When the cousins died in that boating accident, where was the funeral scene? What about the period where the family adjusts to the tragedy?’ (Indeed, that’s not just a missing scene; it’s an entire story thread.)
Sometimes this happens because, well, we were concentrating on a million other plot developments. We do a lot of dumb, impulsive things when we can’t see the wood for the trees. The omission only becomes apparent when we give the book to a reader who isn’t lost in the forest of book decisions. And the easiest remedy is:
Replace it with something less drastic
Well of course it is. Ask yourself: why did you include the event? Was it only to bring some characters together? To show passage of time? Brainstorm some other solutions that will be less disruptive.
The second option is to embrace the disruption, drop the bomb and enjoy mopping up.
So far, so obvious. But sometimes, the workings of the writer’s heart are more complicated – especially first-time authors who aren’t yet confident with story-wrangling. They might have the gut instinct that it’s ‘right’ for the cousins to die. But something stops them writing the scenes that explore the aftermath. When I’ve seen this, I’ve found there are two main reasons. (And here are the remedies.)
They feel unequal to the challenge
We all worry from time to time that we won’t do justice to a tricky scene or issue, especially if it’s beyond our own personal experience. But that isn’t an excuse to dodge our duty to the reader.
If we don’t feel we can tackle a situation authoritatively, it shouldn’t be in the book. Friends, we are fictioneers. We can use our empathy and curiosity to invent with truth. I’ve never (yet) been in a room with a dying cancer patient but I can find the resources to write about it convincingly and with respect (My Memories of a Future Life). Crime writers manage to find out how murderers think. If lack of life experience is stopping you using a plot idea, take a break to research it. Most of human experience has been set down in other novels or real-life accounts. Find them. Live your events in the imaginations of others until you feel armed to write them.
Here’s a separate reason why writers might avoid that funeral episode.
They assume the characters won’t do anything surprising. It’s just a funeral, right?
Many of us are reluctant to write a scene if we fear it will be predictable. That’s often good, but equally there are events that can’t be avoided without leaving an obvious hole. So we think we know what will happen at the funeral? We think the reader has seen it a dozen times before?
No they haven’t. Not with your characters.
You just set yourself a high-stakes challenge. So rock that funeral. Set up character developments the reader didn’t expect. Heal rifts. Or create them. Set your story on fire. Brainstorm the way to present the funeral, wake, mourning and fallout in a way that is not predictable.
An alternative suggestion: if you want the funeral to be fairly routine, you can show the impact with a light touch – perhaps a montage of details that are vivid enough to remain in the reader’s memory so that the event is marked. A character will put on a seldom-worn smart suit, which tells us there’s a formal occasion. The extended family reprioritise their diaries, all clearing the same date. Perhaps possessions are redistributed. Someone is dismayed to be bequeathed an ugly lamp but doesn’t feel they can refuse it because it belonged to the departed cousin. The mixed feelings this generates will be an interesting way to log the gravity of the event. Get creative. Have fun.
There’s a lot more advice on plotting in Writing Plots With Drama, Depth and Heart: Nail Your Novel 3.
Have you ever had feedback that told you you’d skimped on an important plot development? Do you remember your reasons for doing so – whether active avoidance or absent-mindedness?
When you sit at the keyboard (or seize your writing irons), how certain are you about what you’re going to write?
I’m a big fan of plans, but sometimes they’re frustrating. We know the next point in the story but can’t get the characters there. We need to set up a development and it won’t work. Or we need something, anything to darn well happen.
This week I heard the broadcast journalist Libby Purves (@Lib_Thinks) ask two creatives about their processes, and the results were rather interesting (listen to it here) . They weren’t writers, but what they described was exceedingly familiar.
The moment when you get the pencil out
Fashion designer Katherine Hooker (left) @KatherineHooker and furniture maker Peter Korn (below) (who has written this book about creativity) were asked about the moment ‘when you first get the pencil out and think now I’m going to create something‘.
Peter Korn immediately modified the idea. ‘Getting the pencil out is a challenging moment. You don’t know what’s going to happen. You don’t know if you’re going to succeed or fail, or how long it will take to come up with something pleasing, until the pencil stumbles on the right thing.’
Katherine agreed. ‘Rather than making it happen, you see it happening. You see it presenting itself. And then you’re away, thinking this is good.’
Beginning without knowing what you’re aiming for.
Exploring until you stumble on the right thing.
Hold those thoughts.
So – what has this got to do with being stuck? And writing??
It’s this. Often I’ve found that when I’m stuck with a scene, or frustrated because I can’t find a the right story development, the thing to do is to step back. Remove the expectations.
Usually I’m blocked because there’s a possibility I haven’t seen. Or I’m forcing an unnatural direction, or a phase in the story is missing. Or I’m repeating a beat and haven’t yet recognised it, but the creative elf has put the brakes on. No, we can’t go there again.
Whatever the reason, I’ve found the way to solve it is to forget the plan and just write. I don’t know how long the solution will take, or how much I’m going to delete, but eventually, like Katherine, I’ll see it happening.
What’s more, I’ll find something more new and surprising. (Indeed, over the years I’ve come to see the creative process as a search for questions, instead of answers. More about that here. )
And this spirit of exploration was how these two people, one creating clothes and the other creating furniture, discovered what they wanted to make next.
Here’s another remark I liked from the interview. Peter Korn said: ‘If you draw a lot, you get to the stage where you can remove yourself and the pencil can do the thinking.’
That’s us with our craft, adding the building blocks of story and character, shaping the idea into crescendoes, crises, conflict, protagonists, antagonists, hooks, midpoints.
Blank page panic
We often fear the blank page, especially when it presents at an inconvenient time. But those who do discovery exercises, such as free writing, already know that if you start the fingers, the muse can spring wonderful surprises.
I’m sure someone is about to say ‘trust the process’. Sometimes that’s our craft knowledge. If your narrative’s flagging, check the structure, look for repetition, create more contrast in your subplots. Strengthen a character’s motive. Sometimes it’s our tools like beat sheets or Undercover Soundtracks.
And part of that process is also allowing time for invention and knowing when to welcome the blank page. Tailors do it. Table-makers do it. This is invention at its most pure. (pic from katherinehooker.com)
So in summary, here are my tips for moments when you’re stuck:
1 Back up – are you trying to race ahead to the next development? Do you need more steps?
2 Is the next development really the right one? Subtract your assumptions and see if that frees your ideas.
3 Don’t expect results. Write, and accept that you don’t know if you’re going to succeed or fail.
4 Keep going until the solution presents itself – listen to your intuition, you’ll know when the right idea comes along.
5 Add craft – and stir. Or, with reference to Ursula K Le Guin, should that be steer?
There’s lots more about unblocking techniques in Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon Books & How You Can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence, and lots about plot and characters in the other two books in the series.
When you’re blocked, what do you do? Have you learned any interesting insights from creative people in other media? Let’s discuss.
This week’s guest discovered by accident how music could be such a useful a creative partner. She found that whenever she got stuck on a scene or a character, the most distracting thing would be the silence around her. She began playing music purely so she wouldn’t hear it – and magical things started to happen. The novel she’s talking about in her post is a romantic suspense with a whiff of murder, and her first book was a finalist in the Poolbeg Write A Bestseller competition. She also writes short stories for the UK women’s magazines Take a Break and My Weekly. She is Louise Marley and she’s on the Red Blog with her Undercover Soundtrack.
The first symptom I noticed was irritation. A character in a scene I was revising was annoying me. I quickly figured out why. In previous scenes I’d been writing from her point of view. Although I had a strong idea of what she wanted from the inside, when viewed by another character she was a blank nothing. She didn’t feel like real flesh and blood. I couldn’t describe her.
(I’m not talking here about whether her eyes are blue or she likes sharp suits – the physical attributes we can bestow almost without thought. I mean the essence of her. A good character description makes you understand what it’s like to be in their presence. For instance: this is from William Boyd’s Brazzaville Beach, which I’m currently reading:
She had unusual eyes, the upper lids seemed heavy, as if she were dying to go to sleep but was making a special effort for you… She was very thin. I imagined that in the right clothes she would look elegant. I had never seen her in anything but a shirt and trousers.’)
So I needed to give my nebulous character some physical heft to make her more real. I considered which actress might play her in a movie, no one seemed right. I considered whether real-life friends or acquaintances had a quality I could borrow to start her off. No one fitted. She remained faceless, presenceless.
Perhaps I’d given her the wrong name, which had then conjured the wrong impression about her. I wondered whether to rechristen to appreciate her afresh. I rolled some possibilities around. None seemed to suit her better than her existing name.
Accessing a difficult personality
I’ve often written characters who I found hard to access immediately; this is the challenge of creating people who are not like you. Gene in My Memories of a Future Life was the stubbornest beast to channel. Writing his dialogue was like trying to guess the desires of an inscrutable and unpredictable monarch – endless patience and guesswork. When I made the audiobook, he gave my voice actor unsettling dreams.
A line she would not say
So I did what I often do in that situation – began editing, guessing new dialogue, and hoped the character would join in. In the first draft she’d asked an important question – and this became the sticking point. Now, she wouldn’t do it.
I tried all sorts of segues to allow it to arise naturally, but it felt fake. I tried the opposite – to let her avoid tackling the situation so that another character could step up. That wasn’t right.
A hole in my knowledge – and the clue
It was clear the problem went much further than her physical presence. There was a hole in my knowledge of her. Despite all the work I’d done on what she wanted or didn’t want, there was something important I hadn’t yet identified. I was writing someone whose true motives and feelings were very unclear to her, and confused. And this scene was bumping up against it.
The lines she wouldn’t say were the clue.
And then I got it. They weren’t my block after all. They were hers. They were the issue she didn’t want to confront – and didn’t realise.
Two days it took me to guess that minx’s heart. But now I have, I’ve pinned her down. I’ve found the inner voice that justified her during this scene. I knew what she’d say. And it fits. It flows. And not just with her, but with the overall arc for that episode of the story. Understanding this question about her was a valve to let the entire narrative flow again.
I’ve reminded myself of three principles I consistently return to:
- The truth about a scene may lie much deeper than we think. Even with a lot of preparation work, there may be more to learn. We must listen to the instinct that something is wrong.
- The thing your character refuses to say or do may not be a story problem. It might be their most important issue. Try working with it.
- So much of our work is done away from the page, from carrying the problem with us as we walk to the station, from thinking, refining and persisting.
And my character? Now she’s not bland at all. She’s in a lot more trouble than I’d suspected.
There’s more about characters in Writing Characters Who’ll Keep Readers Captivated: Nail Your Novel 2.
Has an episode of writer’s block helped you solve a problem? What do you do if a character refuses to enact the plot? Do you have any tips on how you create fictional characters? Let’s discuss!
Does your plot have enough going on? I see a lot of manuscripts where the story seems to lack momentum, or the characters are spinning their wheels doing not very much of anything. But the funny thing is, the writer isn’t short of ideas. They’ve simply not realised where they are hiding.
Today I’m at KM Weiland’s blog, with 4 places to find the ideas that are right under your nose.
And while we’re at it, let’s discuss: have you discovered your plot ideas were hiding in plain sight?
A conversation on Twitter about online writing groups made me remember I had this post, written nearly 4 years ago. I tweeted it and got so many messages about it I thought it might be worth an official rerun. So – if you’ve been with this blog since 2011 you might have a sense of deja vu. If not …. I hope this is useful.
I’ve had this email from Vanessa, which is a fairly common problem.
During the past 12 months, I rewrote my novel 8 times as part of a critique group, and now I’m wondering if I should just go back to my first draft and start over. My book is different now, in some ways better, in some ways worse. I’m not even sure I can work with it in its present, 8th incarnation. I’m feeling a bit discouraged and don’t know how to recapture the original freshness. I think there are some good changes in the revisions, but also a lot of bad direction. How will I sort through it?
Discounting the fact that some of the advice might be misguided, inept or even destructive, even the most accomplished critiquers will offer different approaches when they spot a problem. You get a lot of input and you don’t know which to ignore. You try to knit them into a coherent whole and then realise you’re lost. And the idea is worn to shreds.
A brainstorming draft
If you’re feeling like Vanessa is, you have to see this as is a brainstorming draft. It’s full of other people’s solutions – some good for your book and some a bad fit.
A learning draft
It is also a learning draft – in it you learned how to sketch a character, how to show instead of tell, how to introduce back story without clogging the pipes, how to pace. You could almost view some of it as exercises that have helped you to write better – but some of those exercises will not be pieces that need to be in this book.
Now you will undoubtedly be more practised and more aware. You need to take control of this brainstorming/apprenticeship draft and make a novel out of it again.
As a BTW: one thing you find as you grow as a writer is that other people’s solutions are rarely right for you. You have to pay close attention to the problem they have identified rather than what they tell you to do. If lots of people are saying something is wrong it probably is. But their solution is probably not right for you, even if they’re an accomplished writer.
Get back to your vision of your book
First of all, have you had a break from the novel? Here’s how you can tell. Do you view most of the manuscript as a problem? If you read it through right now would you be beating yourself up for what’s not going right?
Put it away so that you can read it without wanting to have a row with it.
When you’re ready, don’t read that latest version. Find the material from before the crit group, when it was just you and your idea. I always advise authors to keep their first draft because although there will be much to blush about, there will also be glorious tumbles of inspiration. What can vanish after multiple revisions is the raw inspiration and even if you didn’t express it well when you first wrote it down, the spirit of it is usually there.
Read through this and enjoy your original idea. Look out for the interesting edges that have been smoothed away and make a file of them.
Now to your manuscript
Then read the latest version. Make a copy so you can mess about with it. Paste into a new file the sections that your gut wants to keep and that you feel are an improvement on what went before. Clip away those you feel don’t belong – but don’t junk them because they may be useful later or for another book. Don’t try to rework anything yet – just examine what’s already there.
Any sections you don’t mind about either way should stay in the original file. You now have 4 files:
- 1 initial gems with rough edges
- 2 gems from the reworked version
- 3 don’t-minds
- 4 rejects.
File 2 is your new essentials for this story. Now work out where the gaps are and how you’re going to join the dots. Yes it’s very much slimmer than the draft file, but it’s what you like about the book, in concentrate. Look at file 1 and consider how to add its contents in. Look at your ‘don’t mind’ file and figure out if you could work up any of the elements to fit with the new vision. From this you’ll build a new book that you do like from a draft you’re ratty about.
If you’re going to play with the story order a lot, you might find it useful to play the cards game from Nail Your Novel. If you’re not going to reorder you don’t have to worry about this.
Feedback is essential, of course, but you can get lost. This especially happens if you’re feeling your way, as first-time novelists are. While you have been writing with group feedback you have been putting the controls as much in their hands as your own. Now you’ve grown up a little, you have to close the doors, get to know the novel again and plan how you’re going to do justice to it.
Have you had experience revising with critique groups? And what would you tell Vanessa? Share in the comments
Thanks for the pic Hugo 90 on flickr
More about handling critiques and drastic edits in Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon Books and how you can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence
If you’d like help with your own writing, my Nail Your Novel books are here. If you’re curious about my work, find novels here and my travel memoir here. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, here’s my latest newsletter. You can subscribe to future updates here.