Adventures in Writer’s Block: The Birth of Captain Panther

I was a few chapters into what would eventually become my first published novel, The Singular Exploits of Wonder Mom and Party Girl. I had my characters. I had my setting. I had a narrative voice that I was really starting to enjoy. I even had conflict and tension and all the stuff that’s supposed to go into a novel. And then it happened… I hit the wall. I had no idea where to go with the story that I was just beginning to fall in love with.

Boy, was I pissed, but I refused to give up. I sat in front of my computer screen and stared at what I’d written. My protagonist, a beleaguered mother of two named Audrey, was getting in way over her head with what she at first thought to be a casual drug habit. She had an inkling that she might have a problem. But she needed someone to help her see it. She needed someone to serve as a bulwark against the influence of the friends who encouraged her drug use. At the very least, she needed some kind of impetus to get her to start thinking about clawing her way out of the ever-deepening hole she’d dug herself into.

But what would that impetus be?

At the time I was writing my first draft of the novel, I could see a nursery school from my office window. More to the point, because it was summer and my windows were open, I could hear a nursery school from my office window. Usually, it was just the sound of kids playing, but on this particular day, I could hear a drumbeat and someone shouting into a microphone: Come on out, Tigerman!

The shouting went on for a good thirty seconds until Tigerman came out and proceeded to rap about a number of subjects, saying no to drugs and bullying being chief among them. It went on for a long time, and all the while I kept thinking, Would you please shut the hell up? Can’t you see I’m trying to write a novel here?

I was, after all, kind of cranky, as I’d been stricken with writer’s block all morning.

But then it hit me. This guy was rapping about saying no to drugs. It was exactly what my character needed to hear. Maybe the universe was trying to tell me something. Maybe what my novel needed was a real live superhero.

And so I started thinking about the kind of person who might make a living dressing up like a superhero and telling kids to keep away from drugs. And since Tigerman was obviously able to draw a crowd, I figured a feline superhero was the way to go. After a bit of brainstorming, I came up with Captain Panther, who turns out, I think, to be the unlikely moral anchor of the novel.

Needless to say, I did all of the grunt work of creating Captain Panther. That is, I invented a back story for him. I gave him a job in the real world. I wrote songs for him. I gave him insecurities and doubts and all of the other foibles that plague the rest of us. And I also gave him a good heart, so that he could be there to nudge Audrey in the right direction. But none of it would have been possible if I’d slammed my window shut and stayed holed up in my little bubble of literary paralysis.

If there’s a lesson to be learned in all of this, it’s probably that writers need to live in the world. The old adage that truth is stranger than fiction certainly held true in this particular instance. And by being open to that strangeness — by being willing to incorporate some of the wonder of the real world into a piece of fiction that I’d been struggling with — I was able to open my novel up to a whole world of possibilities.

So the next time you’re stuck, try stepping away from your manuscript for a moment and taking a look at the real world for a while. You never know what it might be trying to tell you.

Dealing with Writer’s Block: What’s Lurking?

At one point or another, pretty much every writer hits a wall. For whatever reason, you can be moving along at full tilt when, all of a sudden, you realize that you’ve either painted yourself into a corner or, worse, that you’re fresh out of paint. The technical term for this, I believe, is writer’s block.

The important thing to remember when you’re hit with writer’s block is not to panic. Instead, look back over what you’ve written and try to figure out what’s “lurking.” In other words, what remains unsaid? Where’s the potential for your story to grow? For example, is there a character you’ve mentioned in passing but have yet to develop? Is there a “gun over the fireplace” that you haven’t fired yet? Have any of your characters missed opportunities to meet? Is a character holding back on expressing her true feelings or revealing an important detail?

I recently saw the author Robin Black read from her wonderful collection of short stories, If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This. One of the things she said she does when she’s stuck is to go back and look for places where her characters don’t speak their minds because they’re trying to be polite. She’ll then remind herself that her characters don’t need to be as polite as she is, and she’ll allow her characters to say what she might never say in real life. From there, the story is forced to take a new turn.

By allowing something that’s lurking to creep out into the open, you give your work the opportunity to do something unexpected. When that happens, your work takes on new life. To go back to my initial analogy, it’s a little bit like giving yourself the power to paint a doorway into the corner you thought you’d painted yourself into—and then to step through that doorway and into the rest of your story.

Phrases to Avoid

In my capacity as a reviewer and editor, I’ve come across a lot of over-used phrases. My best guess is that writers use these phrases to give their writing a sense of personality—to make the storytelling seem natural, to proffer the illusion that the narrator is “just a regular guy.” The problem is that this regular guy uses trite clumps of words that hold no real meaning and, worse, come off as hackneyed and amateurish.

What follows is a list of words and phrases that really get under my skin. Granted, this list is probably largely subjective, and in all honesty, there’s an excellent chance that I’ve used these phrases myself from time to time. I also wouldn’t be surprised if some of my favorite writers allow these phrases to creep into their work. But I’m also willing to bet that these phrases show up far less in published fiction than in the manuscripts and self-published works that have come across my desk.

  • anyway: “Anyway, everything I spelled out in minute detail over the last three paragraphs was completely irrelevant to the main point I’m about to make. But thanks for hanging in there with me while I cleared my throat.”
  • don’t get me wrong: “Don’t get me wrong. I’ve given you a lot of miscues and irrelevant information up to this point, but I’m about to clear it all up with some clunky exposition that will make my true feelings painfully obvious.”
  • if you know what I mean: “That guy’s kind of a jerk, if you know what I mean. And if you don’t know what I mean, then either you’re an idiot or I’m not doing a good job of telling my story.”
  • mind you: “Nobody uses this phrase more than narrators in bad fiction, mind you, but I’m going to use it anyway because I want to underscore an obvious point.”
  • now: “Now a lot of people in real life begin sentences with this word, but a lot of people in real life aren’t writers.”
  • one of those: “He drank one of those beers that people are always drinking in fancy bars. Sure, I could have just said that he drank a beer, he drank a microbrew, he drank an imported lager, or even that he drank a fancy beer, but I threw ‘one of those’ into the mix to demonstrate that I’m just one of those regular straight-talkin’ guys.”
  • sort of: “I’m sort of worried that my writing will lose some of its impact due to my use of language that undercuts the full weight of the emotions I’m trying to convey.”
  • well: “Well, everyone I know told me that my story was great, so those editors who said it could use a little more work must all be idiots.”
  • what you need to understand: “What you need to understand is that this is just the way I write. If you don’t like it, then… Hey! Why did you stop reading?”
  • you might say: “You might say this guy has a real stick up his ass about overused words and phrases. Then again, you might also notice that the sentence conveys the same meaning if you simply write, This guy has a real stick up his ass about overused words and phrases.