Tuesday, June 03, 2008

It's Writer's Block, You Blockhead

I get really ticked at people who say writer's block doesn't exist. I get even more ticked when I hear writers say it.

What they're really saying is they, for some inexplicable and completely unfair reason, have never experienced writer's block. Therefore it doesn't exist. So those writers who say it does are just lazy and unwilling to park their rear end in the chair.

Perhaps we're not talking about the same thing. Just to make sure my rant has some solid foundation, let me explain what I mean by writer's block. It's when I don't know what happens next in my story--and no matter how hard I think, the plot points Just. Won't. Come.

Some novelists advocate free-writing during this blocked time. Sit down and write a page on something--anything. Doesn't work for me. What's the point of writing a page that goes nowhere? I'm on a deadline and need pages that count.

Perhaps the more accurate term for my problem is "plotting block."

I had a major plotting block in my current story. I knew the main character and the premise and where that story leads. Sort of. But that was only half the book. I needed a whole different set of characters in a whole different plot that would in time coalesce with the first. And it wouldn't come.

Maybe I expect too much from my plots. They have to be tightly woven, contain a lot of action, yet be character driven. And they have to include major twists. Now some other novelist may just be able to pop such ideas right and left. Ain't me.

In struggling with this story I could literally sit at my desk all day and write down plot points, or pick up some line of thought and run with it--and nothing would work. In fact, I didn't sit at my desk trying to figure it out all day, because I know my pea brain. I can't force it to create when it's not ready to create. In the end the answers came to me in little drops and over time. A looong time.

There are certain things I do on a regular basis to help feed my creativity. I watch my true crime TV shows. I read the newspaper. I watch people and pay attention to conversations. And I pray. In the middle of a crunch I pray a lot. In the end, God leads me to the ideas and gets me through.

So how did this current half of a plot come to me?

I was watching a true crime show on Mafia hit men. Boom. One piece of the puzzle fell into place.

I prayed.

I was blowdrying my hair one morning, not even thinking about my book--boom, a second piece. I had been trying to make the plot work with a lead male character. It occurred to me the character should be female. In that second I felt a shift in my gut. Like I could get excited about the story. Whatever the story was.

I prayed.

Based on the true crime show I bought a book for further research. Good ol' Amazon. I ordered it one morning and it was on my doorstep the next. Yes, I had to pay more for the overnight shipping than for the book, but it was worth it. I read the book that day, underlining key passages. Certain phrases and bits of dialogue stood out to me. The aura of one of the supporting characters in the plot started to take shape.

I prayed.

I went on the Internet and googled about one of the crimes I considered using in the plot. Got a bunch of hits on real life cases. Read those articles, printed some out. Yeah, I could use this type of crime. I could combine aspects from the various real life crimes into mine to make it more authentic.

I prayed.

During some of this time I wrote the half-plot that I did have, knowing I would be inserting the other plot in between chapters. But there came a time when I'd written all I could of the first story without having the second. That's when the days without writing started to pass. Did I have writers block? Oh, yeah. And I didn't like it. But this is so typical with me. Seems I reach a point like that with almost every book.

I've realized the bottom-line problem, and I don't there's anything I can do but learn to live with it. In Myers Briggs I'm an ISTJ. I like everything planned. No happy-go-lucky spontaneity for me. I would love to write that way. Plot everything ahead time, down to each scene. Know exactly where the story's going, then just sit down and write it. Piece of cake. If I know where I'm going, I can do the pages. But I can't do this. I've tried all the plotting devices out there, and none of them work for me. I simply can't plot out an entire book first. I get the premise, the basic characters, I know the end. But doggone if there's not this missing middle.

I love to do brainstorming sessions. I'm not proud, I'll take all the help I can get. I did two sessions for this book, one with a group of people and one with one very talented, idea-popping person. Out of each session I gleaned only one thing--a very important fundamental thought for the character or story. So those sessions weren't wasted. But they certainly didn't yield anywhere near a fully-plotted story.

The only way I can find the missing pieces is to start writing. Sometimes the rest of the story unfolds along the way, and I don't miss page-writing days. Most of the time I hit that wall. Weeks can pass. Yeah, weeks. Each one of those aha moments listed above was separated from the previous one by days.

Whatever you call it, writer's block or plotter's block, I get it. It's real. If you've never experienced it, yay for you. Be very grateful. Just don't tell me it doesn't exist. I just might have to kill you off in my next book.

Or maybe the current one.

When I know the plot.


Anonymous said...

I can so relate, Brandilyn.

Robin, who is two weeks and 20k words from the deadline and have no idea what is supposed to happen in those 20k words or how the book will end.

Pam Halter said...

I don't have a deadline .... yet .... but I can still relate. Walking along the river helps, but brainstorming with my writing partner helps more.

Still, if the idea isn't there, you can't rush it .... no matter how hard you try.

But you gotta love the in the shower or blowdrying hair inspirations! What IS it with soap and water that makes the ideas flow? Then you have to hop out of the shower, soaking wet, looking for something to write on and hope you don't destroy it with your dripping hair. HA!

I love being a writer.

Rebecca LuElla Miller said...

I think "writer's block" is different from "plotter's block." I do think there are some writers who think writing should be easy, that inspiration will hit, and they have no part but to record the ideas as they flow freely. Those writers experience a serious block when the ideas don't flow freely.

Sometimes I find the words coming faster than I can get them down, but there are also times I have to slug and slog and slosh through to the other side of a difficult scene.

Then there is plotter's block. Brandilyn, you've described it well. Interestingly, Karen Hancock (of the Guardian King series with Bethany House, of the four Christy Awards) describes her writing stalls in almost the same terms you did, except she does not write in a linear, sequential manner. Not what you'd call a planner, at all.

I've referred to writing as problem solving, and I love to problem solve. But sometimes, the answers seem so elusive, so impossible. The shower does seem to be loaded with solutions, for whatever reason. So does the sink, with a good dose of cleanser and a sponge in hand.

But for me, what I learned from writing short stories, is to ask questions. And yes, brainstorm the answers. Sometimes I pick what seems to be the best answer and plunge ahead, only to change directions. Thing is, I would not have gotten to the new direction without starting out.

Still, I'm with you. I think prayer is the most important element. For some time, I had a group praying for me that I would figure how to get my protagonist out of a swamp. And now I think that scene just might be my favorite one.


Gracie said...

Amen, Brandilyn! Writer's block most definetely exists. There are days when I think, "Lord, I just don't know what to do -- send some heavenly aid please." And He always comes through; just not always on my time.

I can't plot very deeply either. I can only delve into the idea enough to know that it works, then I have to write it. Usually the characters come first, or a snippet of a scene, and the whole story gets built aroud that.

In the meanwhile, blessings and prayers to you.

Timothy Fish said...

I don't recall having problems with writer's block or plotting block either. If that is unfair, I'm glad it's unfair in my favor. While I don't believe writers who are experiencing writer's block are too lazy to work through it, I think the approach we take to writing a story may contribute to or prevent writer's block, if it really exists.

It figure the best thing a writer can do when she doesn't know what else to do is to kill the protagonist.

Merrie Destefano said...

Such a great description of writer's block--I love it. Plotter's block. And it even sounds like a dastardly metaphor for all the twists and turns that take place in a suspense or thriller.

I can totally relate, Brandilyn.

I have a feeling that the same people who don't believe in writer's block don't believe in PMS either.

Oh, thou unbelievers.

Jenna said...

Well, I can't say I have a lot of experience with writing (I'm only 15), but I definately know writers block exists! I started writing a story a few weeks ago and I thought that everything was going perfectly, I had all these ideas, nothing seemed to be going wrong...and now I have no idea where I'm supposed to take it next. I have the ending...getting there is a slight problem though. I'm glad to know that this does happen to professional writers too! Thanks!!!

Christina Berry said...

I'm in the midst of it right now. Started a killer manuscript, everything flowing smoothly, meeting my daily word counts, freaking my critique group out--then found out that the hero's occupation (it's romantic suspense) means that he can NEVER ethically be romantically involved with the heroine. His occupation is central to the plot! I've been stuck for two weeks = 0 words. Trying to find ways around it, but the nuances of the ethics are murder. :-)

The easiest thing would be to have some romantic tension that cannot develop, but that would make it "suspense" without the romance. I'm not prepared to write in the same genre as you, BC.

~ Brandilyn Collins said...

Yikes, Christina.

I lost two weeks in the middle--well, more about 2/3 through--writing Crimson Eve. When I finally pushed through the plot point--it was great. And it just hit me over the head, out of the blue. I was so excited. Somehow I think the brain works on these problems while we're stewing about the fact that it isn't working.

Hang in there.

Craig said...

You mentioned your plots being "character-driven." I've heard this term before, but must confess I don't know exactly what that means. What is a "character-driven" plot and are there any other types of plot? If you've already addressed this on your blog, I apologize. Perhaps you could point me toward those posts?

~ Brandilyn Collins said...

Craig, often we talk of character-driven versus plot-driven. On one far side of the pendulum are the literary books, which are all about character and may have little plot. Emphasis is on things such as description, inner thought, character growth. On the other end of the pendulum are purely plot-driven novels such as many suspense novels. The characters are fairly shallow. What's at the forefront is the clever plot. In my suspense I have a lot of plot and action, but the characters--who they are, their weaknesses and strengths, their Desires--drive that plot. You couldn't take a character from one of my books and place her in the plot of another, because her actions wouldn't be the same, therefore the conflict couldn't be the same. For more information on character and how it drives plot, check out my how-to book Getting Into Character. You can read about it, and an excerpt, on my website.