In which I alienate my writer friends…
You’d think in a trade built on putting words together, most of the practitioners would be people who can put words together on the spur of the moment, always have something to say, and can work under any circumstances. Actually no. Most writers I know have a horrible time doing that. They get distracted, they have no idea what to say, or they just don’t enjoy it at all. My wife, for example, writes beautiful prose, and has a great facility with metaphors and similes, but when she sits down to write (if she does), very little comes out. This is a fairly common experience. It’s not just that writing is not her main thing. She has a very stressful job, and listens to people all day, and doesn’t have a lot of time to just walk the dog and think about stuff to write. Even when she has time to write, she has a lot of trouble. I have a hard time relating. If I have time to write, I will write.
My problem is I don’t always get those moments. I often have more time to think about what to write than I have for the writing itself: I am cooking, cleaning out the chicken coop, waiting for my kids to finish play rehearsals, sitting in the waiting room at the dentist, sitting in the chair at the dentist, playing with a five year-old while the two older kids have swim lessons… . I try to write from three in the afternoon until about five when I make dinner. During the summer, when my kids aren’t in school, I get up at 4:30 in the morning and work for two hours. This is a fairly common strategy, especially among writers with kids or other jobs. I have a lot more energy during the summer and don’t sleep as much. I also have time later in the day in which to work. Usually when I get those moments, I can get a ton of words (1500-2000 in a day is not a big deal) or do a lot of editing in a short period of time.
But this week was different. I missed some sleep by staying up late to work on a video project, which left me in a weird state. Last week I’d finished two chapters from one point of view and it was time to switch to another. This is the infamous middle of the novel (Firesage) where subplots build and threaten to intersect. I already have a rough draft of this and the plot is good. I had scenes worked out, each with a clear sequence of rising action. The main action was the secondary POV wizard delves into an ancient manuscript while he tries to find a way to capture and contain a rival wizard. He has a student and tries to get his student’s sister (a recently-discovered magical talent) close to this rival to get more information. That part was all okay. It made sense. The plan was for him to look at the manuscript and suddenly realize he didn’t need the girl to find the weakness. Fantasy hijinks ensue, magic gets out of control, and stuff blows up.
The scenes were all planned out, but…
The problem was I didn’t know how to write it. Where was the conflict or tension in having the main character looking at the manuscript? There was plenty of conflict in the surrounding scenes, and there was even conflict within the ancient manuscript itself, but having the character stare at the manuscript was not making it apparent to the reader. I sat there and stared at my monitor with a dull feeling and dozed with my head on my fist. I’d check Twitter, then Facebook. I quickly realized I was going to have to make radical changes.
My first approach was to go into worldbuilding mode and actually outline the manuscript itself. Then I could clearly communicate how it would solve the main character’s problem. I even had a model in Nagarjuna, the Buddhist monk from the University of Nalanda who was the primary shaper of Mahayana Buddhism. I identified five precepts the Ancient One would have written down. I figured I could write down the meaning or interpretation, then encode these into cryptic phrases and make a lightbulb go off in the character’s head as he searched into his teacher’s commentary on the ancient text. I love ancient manuscripts, so I thought I should write my own.
Wordlbuilding to the rescue! Everyone wants to know the backstory!
I did this for about two days of writing time. It’s okay, I told myself, I’ve got plenty of time. I’m halfway through this book, and I don’t have a deadline other than the one I gave myself. I came up with a fairly elaborate set of symbols and reasons why the ancient one would have said these things, and it all explained why the magical academy is the way it is these days. Backstory. I just love backstory. Keep in mind the whole time I was doing this through writing.
At the end of two days, however, I diagnosed myself with Worldbuilder’s Disease: the problem wasn’t that the reader wouldn’t know enough about the ancient text or that the main character had to figure it out. The problem was the scenes were boring. Having quoted passages at great length does not keep the reader in the present moment of the character (of course, you don’t have to do this, but this is my style), it doesn’t show the conflict of what the character himself is going through, and it doesn’t move things forward for him to suddenly go “Ah! I see it!” without any use of psychic mechanisms. Unless the reader has the same realization, it just doesn’t work.
Furthermore, there was a conflict in the scene directly before it, and the character didn’t react to it: why is the guy just sitting at a desk to solve his problem? I realized what he really would have done was get up and grab someone by the collar, so that’s how I’m rewriting it. I deleted the entire chapter and will rewrite it from scratch. The chapter I had reminded me too much of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, which was mostly backstory that added very little to the overall story. A counterexample is the Columns of Rhuidean in Robert Jordan’s The Shadow Rising. That backstory adds a lot, but only after a huge emotional investment in the history of the world, and it’s a story in itself, told in an innovative way.
So what helps? I doubt there’s a general cure for Writer’s Block. Some people are blocked no matter what, but does it help to ask yourself some hard questions?
- Is this the best action to describe the conflict?
- How would the characters react to the conflict in previous scenes?
- Is this just boring? Is there really not much happening?
- Do I need to stick to the version in the draft I have or can I just delete it and rewrite the whole thing so it’s more interesting?
- Are these characters total assholes?
This sort of boredom had happened to me before, and it took a few days to figure out. I always thought I would recognize it when it happened, but it took me a few days to see it.
Another thing is planning. If you don’t know what your characters would do, does it hurt to stop and brainstorm about how the character would react to a particular conflict? Does it hurt to stop and talk to yourself at your desk and say “Wait, but if he does this, she’ll do that.” Play chess, and try to think two moves ahead. You’ll last a lot longer.
The idea of “pantsing” was very seductive to me. Especially nowadays there’s this big idea of “You’re great just the way you are!” running through our culture, we think we shouldn’t have to work to think out how our stories should go. But that leads to inconsistency pretty quickly.
Stephen King said “just write!” and I thought “Great, that’s what I do anyway! It will be so spontaneous and fantastic. I’ll be Jack Frickin’ Kerouac.”
I don’t know if this is a cure for the “uninspired” blocks other sorts of writers get, so I’d like to know what your experiences are: Does this happen? How does it happen for you? Do you have any kinds of solutions? Do you get both Worldbuilder’s Disease and the regular “uninspired” sort of block?