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?