Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Confronting Writer's Block . . .for Good!

As an editor, I can't tell you how often I hear writers talk about "writer's block". Over several decades of working with writers, I have come to believe there is no such thing. Rather, "writer's block" is a collection of issues that are usually very easily resolved. In particular, an editor you can trust comes in handy when you are trying to sort out why you can't seem to progress in a writer project. Furthermore, when a person doesn't seek help and/or is unable to resolve the conflict, they often put the work aside and it never gets finished. I wanted to take this blog to talk about some of those issues. I hope it proves helpful.

First, understand that every writer gets stuck. It's a normal part of a healthy writing process, and the mark of a writer who truly cares about the quality of their work. Discovering the cause sometimes takes some firm self-talk and some exploration into the subconscious. There are tricks to get to that. The brave, professional writer accepts that these temporary stalls are normal, and determines to work through them with the same enthusiasm applied to the actual writing itself.

Let's separate the chaff from the wheat: there is a proportion of "writers" who use "writer's block" as an excuse for laziness. These are those people who like to proclaim they are writing a book, but have no real idea how to do it, and more importantly lack the drive, commitment, and love of writing to get it done. They are the people who like thinking of themselves as a "writer" despite the fact they have finished nothing - they are after the adulation they imagine writers get; they want to be thought of as a special, creative sort of person with a terribly complicated inner life.  I have little patience with such people, not only because it's so phony - I feel they distract and subtract from what a real, dedicated writer does. Their posturing and pretense is insulting to the craft.

And writing IS a craft. It has to be practiced and honed, to be done well. I find that the best and most industrious really like the process of writing: they love the rush that comes from having written a passage and knowing it is well-done. They love counting their words every morning and evening and measuring progress, and watching the piece as it is molded into something with a life of its own. Mixed with feelings of triumph upon its completion, is a little sadness at letting it go out into the world. These people understand the process of birthing a book. I am addressing these kind of people - those who, despite loving the process, find themselves stuck without a clue why or how to get out of the rut.

These are the most common issues for a writer who can't move:
  • The plot structure is non-existent, sloppy, or simply needs reworked. 
  • The characters are not well-developed, and so the writer is unsure about their motivation.
  • The characters are very well-developed, and want to take the work in a different direction.
  • The narrative needs to be in a different voice. 
  • The wrong character is in the lead. (This is related to the point above.)
  • The spirit of your grandmother/parent/boss/spouse/Joe Public/God is reading over your shoulder.
  • You feel in over your head with a sex scene, a violence scene, or in the case of historicals, in terms of authenticity. 
Plot structure is a big one. The fact that your plot feels messy to you is a good thing: it is proof that you know enough to know a messy structure when you feel it. I'm not a big believer in "pantsing" - a word I really detest as an editor. Inevitably, when I work with a new writer who says they are a "pantser", the work is structurally a mess. (Experienced writers can get away with a little more chaos, because they know how to do the outline in their minds.) Again, writing is a craft. If you understand that as a writer, you respect that craft, and your own skill, enough to at least rough out an outline before you start. When you do, you see whether you actually have a plot or you need to work on the idea a little more. Although your outline will be altered as you work, its very existence from the beginning keeps you on track structurally. Often, when your structure starts to crumble, you give up a little and get stuck. If you don't see the road ahead, you stop, confused. The solution is to put the work aside and refer to your outline to see what isn't working. Or make an outline if you haven't. 

Characterization is a big issue in being blocked. I know several experienced writers who actually write out short bios of their main characters before they begin: even if they don't use all the material, they themselves have a good solid feel of who the character is as they write, and thus don't hesitate over motive. They instinctively know what this character wants and would do in a situation. When you try to push and pull and prod characters into directions that are illogical for them, you get stuck, and the work doesn't ring true.

Conversely, a very well-written character takes on a mind of his or her own and can insist on taking the writer in an unexpected direction. This happens commonly with experienced writers. The solution is to let them go. Fighting a strong character is a very common reason for a writer to feel stuck. "But that will change the whole plot!" So what? The end result could be brilliant, and will likely be better than your original plan. Trust your characters to take you in the right direction. If they are well-conceived to begin with, they will never be wrong. Think of it this way:  A great writer has deeply-developed characters from Chapter 1, then merely gets out of their way and lets them tell the story on their own terms. 

Wrong narrative voice.  I am currently working on a novel where I have changed voice four times. A lot of work? Absolutely! Frustrating? You bet! Enlightening? You have no idea. I don't regret a minute of it. This was my dilemma: First person lends an immediacy that took my reader into a past era in a very intimate way. On the other hand, limiting the voice to first person kept me from exploring other scenes involving other important characters in depth, since every scene has to come through this main character's perceptions. It's a complicated trick. I have her describing her brother's first experience in battle - and have to explain how and when and why he told her about it.  Ugh. I switched to third omniscient (too cold and removed), to limited third (better but still impersonal), back to first. I may end up in a sort of double first - switching voices between two characters. 

I have worked with dozens of writers who were struggling with a work. After talking to them about the story, I suggested they try another voice. When it works, it's magical. Sometimes when you feel you are struggling with a story - when it's hard to maintain the fire and care about the next chapter - when it all feels like a chore - you simply need to change voice. You should always feel the prose singing along. 

Wrong character in the lead. Oh boy. This is related to the above issue. Sometimes, the wrong character is in the lead role. Simply switching the point of view throws you into a new reality and that prose starts singing. Don't fight this idea - rewrite the first two or three scenes from a new character and see if it feels good.Try it. 

Critic over your shoulder. Even an experienced writer can fret over what people will think or say when the newest book hits the public. I have a golden rule for writers: Get it on paper, then worry about it in the edit. Just let that critic float away, and write from your soul, with the idea that not everything you write has to make it into the final draft. You'll be amazed how freely creative you will be. Chances are, when it comes time to remove some of it, you'll be so pleased with how it turned out that you'll risk the questions from Grandma. Or go to Plan B: Use a new pen name and Grandma won't know a thing! 

In over your head. This happens to the most experienced writers. With new writers, it's because once you begin to write a scene that is highly erotic, or very violent, or even very emotional, you have no idea how to come up with something that "sounds" remotely authentic. The truth is that these scenes are tough and take practice, and sometimes take guidance from an editor and/or experienced writer. 

I know a case in which a very experienced, talented writer, was confronted with writing a highly erotic scene in a novel because the plot demanded that it be shown. Her decision was a good one. Problem was, she wrote it - about two-thirds of the way into the book - like a porn scene. A bad one. Lots of dirty terms, moaning. You know what I mean. It was jolting to the reader, because up until that point the book had avoided eroticism. Plus, as I said - it was just bad. 

Now I have a theory as to why writers stumble over sex scenes: they are uncomfortable with it - and it is tough to do without some knowledge as to how to do it. I have another entire blog about writing sex here that you might check out. There is a way to do a graphic sexual scene that feels real, isn't porny, and doesn't hurt the quality of the book.

There is also a great way to do violence without making it sound overly-gory (thus amateurish - this isn't a video game for fourteen-year-old boys, after all!) or forced. But that also takes some knowledge and confidence, and perhaps guidance. 
People get into a lot of trouble with highly emotional scenes, particularly scenes with arguments or scenes with romance. The first ends up sounding illogical and forced and phony. The second can result in some hilarity: a scene between thirty-year-olds that plays and "sounds" like two fourteen-year-olds at a school dance.  

Sometimes you will feel stuck when you lack the background knowledge that you know will make the scene sound authentic. There are two things to do in this case: 1) Keep writing. Don't worry about how it plays right now - just get the bare bones of the scene written with the tools you have. You can add historical, forensic, or other details later when you have them. Then, 2) Go back and do the research, slowly and thoroughly. Enjoy it. Get excited about how you can work detail into the scene to give it an authentic feel. It isn't a chore to fill your head with authentic detail; rather, it's a fun challenge to make another world come to life for the reader. Watch how much the richness of that scene multiplies as you place those details here and there. Enjoy the process! 

In conclusion, let me say again as an editor and a writer, that when the method is sound, and you have given yourself great tools - organized plot, developed characters, researched setting, the correct narrative voice, freedom for the characters - the piece will write itself easily. It will sing along and you will enjoy the process of writing. This is how you should feel when you are working in a sound, healthy fashion. You should wake up in the morning thinking you can't wait to see what your characters can do next. If you find yourself hesitating to write forward - what we call "writer's block" - remember that you are hesitant for a reason. Don't feel defeated, but be proactive and out what that reason is. 

There is truly no such thing as writer's block - not in the sense that it is some magically paranormal roadblock suddenly thrown up in your way, and that you just can't conquer. NONSENSE!  You create every block for yourself by not using sound methods. Every. Single. One.  Knowing how to explore which of the above issues could be getting in your way is the road to taking control over your writing process, and throwing away the crutch of excuses so that you can really enjoy writing that book, beginning to end.