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.

A Novel Approach, pt. 3, (Write for Love)

(Continued from yesterday.)

But enough about why you should abandon a project. Let’s talk instead about why you should stick with a project and then move on to how to go about doing it.

The best advice I have is that you should stick with a project because you love the project.

Steve Almond is one of my favorite writers. You may have heard of his books Candy Freak and Not That You Asked. They got some play on NPR a couple of years ago, and his short fiction collections—the most recent of which is called God Bless America—are wonderful. What I’m trying to say is read some Steve Almond before doing anything else today.

Steve Almond has a short book on writing called This Won’t Take But a Minute, Honey, and I plagiarize most of my advice on writing from it. One piece of advice that he gives in this book is that excessive emotional involvement is the whole point of writing.

In his words, “You didn’t become a writer for the money or the health insurance plan, did you? It wasn’t to make your parents proud. And if you turned to prose in the hopes of becoming famous, well then, brother, sister, you deserve more pity than contempt.”

As an aside, I should point out that he just said in three lines what it took me two pages to convey. Again, he’s a really good writer. And he goes on to speculate that the real reason most people become writers is that “certain volatile feelings went unexpressed in your family of origin and seeped into the groundwater and you are now hoping to articulate the most shameful of them via the wonders of fictive disguise.”

Later in the book, he puts this sentiment another way: “What should you be writing about? Anything you can’t get rid of by any other means.”

My interpretation of this is that you need to write about the things that won’t leave you alone, the things that keep you up at night. The ideas and issues and concerns that keep your head spinning when you know you should be focused on other things: the lesson you need to prepare for your next class, the meal you should be enjoying, the movie you just paid twenty dollars to see, traffic signals.

This was my experience for the first (and, so far, only) two novels I’ve completed. My first novel was about a suburban soccer mom who becomes addicted to cocaine and turns to dealing to support her habit. I didn’t want it to be a novel. In fact, it started out as a short story. But after I “finished” the story, I kept thinking about it. I created this character and stuck her in a terrible situation and just left her there. Would she get out? Would she clean up her life? And what about her daughters? How would they fare?

I kept telling myself to forget about it. I kept telling myself, “Don’t turn this into a novel. Because it’s not a novel. It’s a short story.”

And then one day, I just kind of shrugged and said, “Okay, who are we trying to kid? It’s a novel.”

Six years and who knows how many drafts later, it turned out that I was right. But I wouldn’t have been able to get through those six years and multiple drafts if not for the fact that the story I was telling kept drawing me back in. Even when I was sick of it and decided to put it aside for a while, I couldn’t resist. I couldn’t keep myself from going back. Something about the story made me want to keep returning until I was satisfied with it.

I had the same experience with my second novel. It was initially inspired by a personal tragedy. A friend of mine from high school committed suicide, and I learned about it a few months after the fact. It was something I couldn’t shake, and the feelings I was carrying around with me felt intensely private and painful, the kind of things I sure as hell wasn’t about to share with the world.

When the notion that these feelings might form the basis of something—I didn’t even want to call it a novel yet—occurred to me, I pushed the thought out of my head immediately. At the same time, though, I knew there was no escaping it. Writing this book was going to hurt a lot, I told myself. But I had to do it.

(Continued tomorrow.)

Exercises in Character, pt.3, “Out of Character”

As anyone who’s ever read or written fiction knows, characters need to remain relatively consistent. Consistency, after all, is what allows us to get to know people both in real life and on the printed page. At the same time, however, we all probably know people who have done things that we might describe as “out of character.” In other words, they act in ways that aren’t consistent with our expectations. When this happens in real life, we might react with shock or disappointment, but our disbelief can usually be tempered with a simple explanation—usually it’s something along the lines of someone having a bad day or a moment of weakness. When these inconsistencies happen in fiction, however, readers need a slightly stronger explanation. If handled correctly, a lapse in judgment can lend depth to a character.

For this activity, take one of your characters and have that character do something that may at first glance be out of line with who that character is. If it’s a “good guy,” you can have the character do something bad. Conversely, if it’s a “bad guy,” think of a situation in which that character might do something good. (It doesn’t have to be a big thing; it can be a small gesture.) As you write this piece, ask yourself why the character is doing what she is doing. What has pushed the character to this decision? What kind of internal struggle does the character have to go through in order to do something that is not in line with his or self-image? And how does the character react to this action after completing it? Does she feel guilty? Is she proud of herself? Does she try to justify it? For greater effect, think about a way in which one of the flaws you examined in Exercise One might play into it.

(Click here for Exercises in Character, pt. 2)