Fiction Writing and Other Oddities

Thursday, March 02, 2006

HELP: Writer's Block? Stalled?

HELP: Writer’s Block? Stalled?

Like an airplane with the engine suddenly giving out in mid-flight, I sometimes stall and start a nosedive straight toward the corn fields below. This happens to me at least once a year, usually in late spring, early summer, and pretty much lasts through the summer. When the days turn cool again in late summer, I get a sudden surge of creative energy that lasts through the holidays. If I want to get any writing done, that’s when I need to do it, holidays, guests and unroasted turkeys be damned. Some years, I’ve written two complete 400 page manuscripts during the period from September 1st through January 30th.

While exciting, this is not the best way to manage your writing life, not to mention what it does to your personal life when you’re already juggling another (paying) job, a household and a 2 acre garden, not to mention family and friends who may feel a little neglected sitting down to the dining room table only to discover that the turkey is still sitting--raw--in its pan on top of the stove. (Just five more minutes--I swear I’ll have this scene done in five more minutes, honestly, can’t you just shove that pan in the oven for me? I’ll be with you in ten minutes or so, twenty tops, okay maybe thirty, but then we’ll have the whole evening Okay, I didn’t realize it’s past nine already, but I swear I’ll be down soon...)

So many writers complain about writer’s block or stalling out, but I know in my own case its due to several very specific things and if I can get control over them, I can beat that thing like an uncooked turkey. I suspect that many others have similar issues.

Before I go into long-winded psycho-babble, I will offer the solution right up front. The only solution to writers block or stalling out is to write. That’s right, just write. Write at least five days a week, every day of those five days. Set aside a chunk of time and just do it. There is nothing I can say that takes the place of this. It is the only way to beat writer’s block into submissions. Just write.

Now that you know the answer, you don’t really need to read any further, but I do have some other observations based upon my own, limited experience.

Over-thinking, or Thinking at All

If you stop to think about writing, to think about if you feel like writing, you’ll never write. When you’re feeling depressed about your writing not going anywhere or you feel like all your good ideas have somehow morphed into useless dross, then of course you’re not going to feel like writing. Nonetheless, you’re a big girl or boy now and you’ve got a job to do, so just do it. Don’t stop to get in touch with your feelings (gag). The last thing you want to do right now is to get in touch with your feelings because right now, you’re feelings probably consist of one or more of the following:

v My writing sucks. Why am I torturing myself this way?

v I’ll never be published. Why do I keep trying?

v This manuscript stinks on ice. Why continue with this worthless piece of stinky shine-ola?

v I’ve gotta be crazy to think I’m a writer. Who am I kidding?

v I have no idea what I’m doing. What am I doing?

Honey, every blessed one of us is convinced their life is one big desperate charade consisting of trying to make people think they know what they are doing (they don’t), that they are successful (maybe they are, maybe they aren’t, maybe they’re going to fail at any minute if they can’t keep those plates spinning on top their poles), and that people of the opposite sex find them hugely attractive.

Let’s face it, we all feel that way. If we don’t, then we’re probably psychotic sociopaths because those are the only people I know who are so filled with self-confidence that they think they’re smarter than everyone else and will never get caught. Not that I personally know any. Or at least, I don’t think that I know any.

What is the solution? Stop fretting over your feelings. Stop pausing to evaluate how you feel about writing. Just write. That’s all, just write. The more you write, the better you will feel about your writing, because your writing will get better. It can’t help getting better because it’s an art and like any other art, the more practice you do, the better your performance.

Stuck or Stalled

Sometimes you go on a vacation or take a break of some kind or reach a point in your manuscript where you sort of forget what you were going to do. Unfortunately, the longer you remain in this state and don’t write, the more stuck you become. You’ve walked right into the quicksand and you’re sinking and unless you grab a nearby branch and pull yourself out, you’re going to go down.

This happens to me for the reasons I mentioned above: I took a break and forgot what I was doing, or, I’ve hit page 150. You see, around page 150, my characters have taken on a life of their own and now control things. My plot, sketchy at the best of times, now no longer bears any resemblance to anything these people want to do.

At this point, I need to sit down and sketch out what I now think could happen. I need to review what has been done and renew my acquaintance with my characters and get their take on where they think things are going to go or should go. In other words, I re-plot it or I review my characters to make sure I still understand them.

Lest you think this takes a long time, I rarely spend more than an hour or two re-plotting. I just want to get a few more scenes and twists in my brain to carry me through the next 150 pages or so, bringing me to 300. At around page 300, I need to be thinking of the final chapters, which are admittedly the hardest for me (others say the endings are easy, but I find the end to be absolute torture to write). So when I hit 300, unless I’m on a roll, I sit down again for another hour or two and plot out the rest.

Lately, I’ve taken to writing the last chapter or two after I’ve written the first 150 pages because it eases my dread of the end of the book.

Now, when I say “plot” I’m being very loose with that term. My plotting consists of writing about three brief sentences, summarizing what I want to get done in a chapter. Each sentence equates to a scene. This is my formula and you will need to work out what feels natural for you.

Stubborn characters

Kill them off. The death of a stubborn character will often have a jarring effect upon the remaining characters and make them toe the line for you. The prospect of an early and grisly death will quite frequently make previously uncooperative characters very helpful and perhaps bring them groveling to your feet if you’re very lucky. If they aren’t, you can let lose a serial killer. There’s nothing like a little murder to improve the tension in a manuscript and get the action back on track.

Seriously, maybe that’s why I write stories that contain a mystery element. I find that a dead body will absolutely make the middle of the book come alive. No sagging middles for me.

For those who don’t like murders or mysteries, you’re going to have to sit down and have a serious discussion with your characters. You need to understand them and figure out what they are doing and more importantly why they are doing it. A really big problem for many writers is that they actually don’t understand their characters. The hero and heroine are just cutouts from a glamour magazine without any real personality or motivation. I suggest you go back through and create a grid of what your characters what, why they are where they are, and what they think they’re going to do next. This should help you bring the plot back in line with your characters’ conflicts and give you the impetus to write again.

Above all else, it is the characters and emotion that will sell the manuscript and drive the plot.


To cure writer’s block, you need to write. You also need to read and watch entertainments such as television or movies, because those will also sometimes set a spark to the creative spirit. The old, “Heck, I can do better than that” scenario. You want that. You need that.

You need to get back to work and write.

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