Thursday, March 05, 2009

Drawing a Blank -- Part I


Ever been in the middle of writing a novel and drawn a blank? What do you do? Recently on a novelist's E-mail loop James Scott Bell threw out a question about the issue to garner discussion. I've received permission to run his question and the answers from numerous novelists here, in order of their appearance on the loop. We'll look at some answers today and some tomorrow.

James Scott Bell: One of the first writing books I ever read was Leonard Bishop's Dare to be a Great Writer. 329 techniques. I highlighted and Sticky noted that thing all over, and like to look it over from time to time. Was doing that today. He has a section in there called Writer's "Blanks." These are places where you're writing along in a scene and all of a sudden you don't know where to go next. He has a list of things he suggests, but I'd like to hear what you do. This would seem to apply more to the NOPs among us, you seat-of-the-pantsers, but really it can happen to anybody. You're writing, and things seem to be dragging and you just don't know how to get some juice out of the scene. What do YOU do?

Linda Hall: A long time ago I read a suggestion in a Writer's Digest magazine. It was just one of those articles where they poll writers and write their comments in little gray boxes. One author - and I can't remember who - writes the first couple of chapters just to get going, and then numbers her paper from 1 to 20 and writes '20 Things That Could Happen.' The idea is to keep writing and brainstorming until all 20 spaces are filled up. I do this ALL the time - and have done this for all my books so far. When I get to a 'stuck' space I write: 20 More Things That Could Happen. And I write until all spaces are filled.

It's simple - but it always seems to work for me.

Susan Meissner: If this happens in the middle of say, chapter 10, I go back to chapter 9 and re-work it so that my characters have a different place to be than where I’ve presently got them languishing. I go backward in time, one chapter, maybe two, and pick a different path.

Terri Blackstock: I ask what the reader expects to happen, and if I can, I do the opposite. But usually my problem is with immediacy rather than plot twists, so I begin writing in first person to get deeper into the point of view, and then put it all back in third.

Patricia Hickman: This is my practice also, Terri. I journal it so the character's response is in front of me. I attach it, very often to the protag's inner conflict.

Gaylen, why are you sad?
Why are you hiding it from Delia?
Is changing Delia going to make you happy?

At the end of a novel I might have numerous files full of these notes. When I think the novel is finished, I revisit these notes to see if my instincts played through. Painted Dresses wound up with five big manila envelopes packed with notes.


Annie Jones: I ask myself: 1) is this scene really necessary or just pretty writing or an easy expectation, 2) is it being told from the right POV or in the right setting? 3) if I think both of those are right I skip ahead - write the next scene I KNOW is coming and connect the dots later (sometimes that means erasing some dots).

BUT one of the best pieces of advice about this kind of thing comes from the old writer's advice - when I get stuck I blow something up or if your plot slows down drop in a dead body... the idea of throwing in a plot device. It came from a reader talking about a well known author - he said he didn't want to read her anymore because the structure of the rest of the book couldn't support the plot twists. Actually he said, "She's not a good enough writer to pull off what she tried to do." (And she is a good writer, but obviously the twists made good writing look sloppy.)

Yvonne Lehman: After years of staring at the blank page, trying to figure out what to do, a thought occurred to me (sometimes, it takes a while). I decided it's not because "I" don't know what to do, it's because my character doesn't know what to do. So, I must dig deeper into the characterization and a way of doing that is to start writing something like, JANE HAD NO IDEA WHAT TO DO. SHE COULD ASK HER MOM. NO, HER MOM WOULD SAY, "YOU MADE YOUR BED, NOW LIE IN IT." SHE COULD TELL HER FRIEND, BUT IT'S HER FRIEND SHE SUSPECTS IS HAVING THE AFFAIR WITH HER HUSBAND. SHE COULD TALK TO HER HUSBAND BUT SHE'D HAVE TO GET THE GUN OUT OF THE HOUSE FIRST.

I let the character decide what she would do. If she still can't decide then I write, JANE HAD NO IDEA WHAT TO DO--TALK, SCREAM, DIE, OR KILL. Then I go on to another character, scene, POV, and let them do their thing.


More answers tomorrow. So what do you do when you draw a blank?

12 comments:

Grady Houger said...

Those are great ideas, thanks for passing them on to us Brandilyn!

I get stuck a lot. It helps to pray. Also to write anyway when I don't know how to say what I want to, but not let the words sit there, rewrite them, write the same thing differently, until the words get fluid and I can start to get somewhere.

lynnrush said...

These are helpful.

When I get stuck, I switch gears. Close the book down, work on another manuscript. Or do some editing for my crit groups. Sometimes I'll put on some of my favorite songs and blare them really loud.

If it's a bad one, I'll go for a long road bike or run. That usually helps.

Great post! **Smile**

Bonnie Lacy said...

I go for a walk, (in NE it could be a walk around the dining room table!) or clean (ick!). When I get back, I can start again. Good stuff.

Nicole said...

I take a break. This is just me, but it's like the Lord says, "Enough for now." That break can last up to a couple of weeks, but He brings me back to rumble--or ramble--on.

Hannah said...

Whenever I hit a blank, I stop writing. I'll try doing something else -- writing emails, catching up on some reading, etc. -- and then go back to my manuscript. If that doesn't work, then I pray about it, and talk (aloud) about the worst things that could happen to my protagonists. This usually includes some pacing, arm gestures, and Earl Gray, but hey, whatever works.

Blinky St. James said...

Before when I wasn't sure what to do I'd end up just writing a very boring scene. Not a good idea. ^_^ I'll keep these ideas in mind when I come to another boring scene. ^_^ I think writing down what happens to the characters helps, like an outline, that way if you're writing a conversation, you can better see what they have to talk about.

Adam Blumer said...

To be frank, this doesn't happen to me very often because I don't normally start writing a chapter until I know where I'm going. So for me, the real question would be, did I plot well enough before I got to this point? If I did, then I should know where to go next. If I didn't, then I'm in trouble. So for me the bottom line is whether I spent enough time planning before I began writing. For me, most of writing a novel is planning (the hardest part of all). The writing is the easy part. Thank you for the great advice here.

~ Brandilyn Collins said...

Adam, I wish I could be more like you. I know all the basics of my story--premise, twists, ending--but I'm never sure exactly how to get to each point. I so wish I could plan out everything in advance. Then writing WOULD be easier. But I have to figure it out as I go along. That can be torture.

Sally Bradley said...

Brandilyn, I'm like you, and right now I'm stuck entering the middle. What on earth gets me from A to C?

I have done what Terri Blackstock does regarding immediacy. I didn't know anyone else who did that (not that I've asked around a lot) so it's nice to see I'm not the only one.

Hannah said...

Ditto, Brandilyn! With the story I'm currently writing, I only know the skeleton of the plot. I tried plotting it out (figured it would help me stay at the right word count), but my characters only told me the basics of their conundrums and left me to figure out the rest. Writing Seat of the Pants is actually more enjoyable for me, except for when I get writer's block and have to beat my head against the computer for a few days.

Hannah said...

Ditto, Brandilyn! With the story I'm currently writing, I only know the skeleton of the plot. I tried plotting it out (figured it would help me stay at the right word count), but my characters only told me the basics of their conundrums and left me to figure out the rest. Writing Seat of the Pants is actually more enjoyable for me, except for when I get writer's block and have to beat my head against the computer for a few days.

dsmith77 said...

I don't know if Patricia Hickman's reader was talking about John Baldwin but he did say that if you get bogged down, just kill somebody.

Source: How to write a novel in 100 days or less - Day 14, http://peacecorpswriters.org/pages/depts/resources/resour_writers/100daysbook/day014.html

Personally, I liked Yvonne Lehman's approach best. It's not you, it's your character!