Characters have a life of their own — or they should. Most writers know the feeling of writing something that seemed to come from the mouth of their creation, bypassing the writer’s mind entirely. Or breathlessly chasing words and images that play like a film going at double speed, hoping that fingers can keep up.
You could call it flow. You could call it the Muse. You could call it a lucky break.
Reading this piece from Louise Foerster reminded me of a time when my characters deserted me.
My protagonist and antagonist were about to face off for the last time, but I didn’t know where and how. Protagonist didn’t want to do it, so naturally he was no help. “It’s not fair,” Protag grumbled. “Didn’t I beat this guy already? Wasn’t that enough?”
The novel ground to a halt. In line with my less is more approach to worldbuilding, I don’t complete huge lists of traits for my characters. Much more important than their childhood pet or favourite colour, their personalities and choices are my focus. No short cuts there.
I was stuck.
Interview with the Bad Guy
Protag sulked. Antagonist stared out of the window, eyes fixed on a future only he could see. I decided to take a risk.
“Um, Antagonist? How are you going to win this once and for all? Why will you win?”
He turned his gaze towards me. “I am better and I am right.”
He explained himself fully and precisely, without emotion because that’s his character. It was the infamous villain’s monologue of so many movies and comic books, but before the battleground had even been decided.
I let him speak. I took notes (longhand works better for this kind of exercise.) About three-quarters of the way down the page, the solution came to me. I had to hustle him out of the room and get writing.
“I have more to say, if you would permit — ”
“Thanks so much for your time, but I have an appointment with my laptop. See you soon.”
He sounded disappointed. Not many people listened to him like that; they were all afraid of him. He couldn’t scare me and I’d heard enough.
Let the character speak
When you get stuck, interview a character. Interview the bad guy, the bad guy’s chief henchman, the protag’s best friend, the bartender who serves him whisky when things go wrong. Secondary characters often give a new perspective on the character that rounds him out. Of course, primary and secondary roles are all relative to where you’re standing, as the hero in your own tale.
Sometimes problem solving needs a different approach. The answer is within you. This isaway to coax it out of hiding.
There are secrets at the heart of every story; there is something that must be uncovered or discovered, both by the reader and by the characters. Hannah Kent
Images of beautifully curated writing spaces fill Pinterest and mock less organised writers at the top of equally beautiful articles. White walls enhance carefully chosen artefacts on the table, and there is always coffee with artistic foam.
JK Rowling started Harry Potter’s journey at The Elephant House Cafe in Edinburgh. Beat Generation writers like Jack Kerouac met at Vesuvio Cafe in San Francisco. Maya Angelou rented a room in a local hotel by the month. Marcel Proust wrote in bed. Roald Dahl and George Bernard Shaw had sheds in their gardens.
The necessary environment is that which secures the artist in the way that lets him be in the world in the most fruitful manner.
Creating a ritual
A space to write can form an essential part of the ritual of writing. The mind and body is primed for the coming activity, and overcomes the inertia of getting started. This is particularly important to evade writer’s block. Like a sports or crafts person, we need to show up and do the work. By having designated space and a list of things to follow, you can avoid the empty brain syndrome of not knowing what to do next.
However, one size does not fit all. Some like music, others, white noise, others natural sounds. Some must have silence, and others like activity around them while their peers shudder at the thought and close the door.
Routine is a prison
Most of us have busy lives. In order to write every day, or capture inspiration when it strikes, we must be able to write in different places. Life is rarely ideal for more than a moment, especially if writing is something you squeeze into a packed schedule rather than your sole activity.
Knowing your ideal writing space is one thing. Learning to block out the non-ideal will free you to write elsewhere. Before my last holiday I would have said it was too hot, too distracting and uncomfortable to write at the beach. In fact, writing by hand in a small notebook and observing people was a revelation. Dialogue fragments, poem ideas, and simple journaling poured on to the pages. The background sounds of the sea are very soothing for me, which helped.
Music can be the best companion, or the worst. I find lyrics distracting, as they compete against the words I’m trying to find. Instrumental music is good, especially familiar pieces that fade into the background. You can find lots of playlists on 8tracks designed for study or writing. There is a free option with ads, or you can pay a monthly fee to avoid ads and make your own playlists.
I tried a nature noise generator and found that rain is soothing but thunder distracts me. There are over one hundred and fifty noise generators available at myNoise.net. They are grouped by activity or need, such as focus, to mask tinnitus or external noise, or for relaxation and sleep. Each soundscape has several elements that can be customised to create your perfect mix.
Not only helping you to work better, the soundscapes can also keep you company while working alone.
Making anywhere your best place to write
Creating a ritual and finding a dedicated space is helpful to a solid writing habit. Being able to change things up, whether that means learning to write with noise or creating your own soundscape to block it out, will broaden your options. Routine should be your servant and not your master.
In the end, it is about creating different options for the situations you find yourself in. Then you will not be reliant on your lucky mug or favourite pen. When the idea strikes, you will be ready.
I’m stuck. Just forty minutes ago the words were flowing, full steam ahead. Now they’ve dried up. I stand, stretch, sit again. Still no words.
It’s time to follow my own advice. I say that writer’s block can be overcome*, so this is my opportunity to walk the talk. I resist the temptation to fall into a social media vortex. The weather is too hideous for gardening or a walk, so I head to the kitchen.
Flour, butter, sugar. The basic elements for baking are all there, and it is truly amazing how many variations flow from them. Like Lego blocks, they can build many things. I grab my trusty recipe for oat and raisin cookies.
Not enough butter, so I make up the shortfall with avocado oil. It’s supposed to be super healthy, and it ought to be at that price. Must have been feeling well off that day.
The recipe says raisins. I substitute mixed fruit and chopped ginger. Little changes make these cookies uniquely mine, raisin and oats and something else.
Creaming butter and sugar is repetitive and soothing. I can’t get this wrong and there’s no pressure of time. I sift the dry ingredients together and inhale the aroma of cinnamon, noting the random speckles of brown against white flour.
While I combine ingredients, the story problem simmers in the background. It’s meditative, this focus on a single thing. I lose the plot. I start clean up while the oven preheats. Blobs of dough sit unevenly on assorted baking trays. They’ll all taste great.
The aroma of baking is heavenly and I inhale deeply. The kitchen is quiet and tidy again. After hours of mental effort, turning the focus outwards and creating order restores calm. I feel more in control and the nagging voice of doubt recedes, because the cookies are a small but certain win.
And then the protagonist whispers, “I fell asleep on the train and now I’m waking up in Sheffield with a dead phone and no money. Help.” Oh yes, I can work with this. The next steps light up in my brain and I return to work energised, with tea and a warm, delicious cookie.
*No more writers block
Simple repetitive tasks are calming, approached in the right mindset. Step away from the keyboard. Let your subconscious work on a problem while you occupy your brain elsewhere. Engage all your senses and pay attention.
Limitations create problems. Solving those problems demands creativity.
Making something tangible is satisfying in a way mental work is not. Small wins help enormously on the way to the bigger goal. Enjoy your cookie.
We’re meant to be up and at it, all the time. Get on the grind, be always hustling.
Some days are not for progress. Especially for creators, some days it just won’t come. You run aground, the wind drops, the tide falls away. It’s not artists’ block, but something deeper. The well has run dry.
What does it mean, this empty feeling when the words won’t come and the eyes don’t see and there are no more songs in your head? Your Muse can’t be heard. Maybe they have fallen silent, maybe they are struggling against louder voices in your head.
At this point, you need to give up, without giving up completely.
Diagnosing the cause comes first, then action. Step away from your project and check in with yourself. Spend some time considering the possible origins. Write it down if that helps. I find pen and paper works better.
Body– are you hungry, tired, tense from inactivity, thirsty?
try this Go for a walk.
Drink some water rather than yet more coffee.
Go to bed an hour earlier for a few nights.
Stretch your hands and back regularly.
Mind – are you overcommitted, frazzled by too many demands, exhausted by conflicts in relationships?
try this List all your current commitments, personal and professional, consider delegating when possible.
Let go of perfectionism and embrace the idea of good enough. Prioritise and finish the most urgent thing on your list.
Start saying no. Between FOMO and the need to be liked, you risk spreading yourself too thin. Be choosy about where your energy goes.
Identify the people who are energy vampires, sucking the life out of you. Spend less time with them. Yes, even if they are your mother or close friend.
Spirit – are you deeply unhappy, profoundly lost, lacking in motivation for life itself?
You might need help from another if your depression and/or anxiety stands between you and what you want and need to do. I wrote here about what to do when you feel you can’t go on.
try this You can make a start on refilling your well by creating something different; a cake, a tidy room or garden area, a picture if you write, a poem if you draw.
Seek out peace in whatever way makes sense to you. You probably gave it up at some point, whether it be running, prayer, music, looking at the ocean, reading, or yoga. Schedule a half or even a whole hour. Devote the entire time to your own tranquility.
Go to a museum or gallery or store and enjoy looking at beautiful things. Then come home and make something small that is not connected to your main project.
Of course a week off in the Caribbean sounds like the perfect answer to the blahs. What it actually represents is time and space to do the things above. Since we mostly can’t take off whenever we need to reset our compass, what’s needed is a pause.
Just don’t stop completely.
You pause, catch your breath, and then you can go on.
As each year draws to a close, we naturally think about taking stock. What did we do, what did we get, what are we still hoping for, good or bad. It’s been a hell of a year, on many levels. Sometimes the big picture is overwhelming, and we can only make sense of small things. Like tracking our own progress, footprints in the snow.
I recently read a Medium post by Dajana Bergmark, called Blueprint for a productive 2017 . I liked a lot in the post, especially the brain dump and the idea of prioritising your effort, because effort and time are finite resources. I never have enough, and I’m sure you’re the same. But the further I read, the less attractive it became, for me. I’m not good with organisers and ticking boxes, and forcing myself results only in abandoning the whole idea. I don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater.
Any system has to be customised to suit you. Take what you can use and leave the rest.
I’m a whole picture person who baulks at prescribed step-by-step plans in minute detail. Details matter, but at different levels for everyone. So, I look for a broad brush solution I can live with, then drill down only as far as I will actually implement. I wrote recently about making progress with writing, and seeing that at the level of a whole piece. This is about a closer look at how things are moving forward.
I mentioned before that I took up watercolour painting as a complete beginner. I devised a simple list which allowed me to track progress without it being a chore.
Attend a beginners’ class (weekly for 10 weeks)
Complete at least one painting every week – from the class or a book
Date each painting and write 2-3 comments about technique on the back
File paintings consecutively in a portfolio
Just dating each painting proved to be an incredibly powerful tool. It allowed me to see my progress over time, which was very motivating. Committing to one painting a week, thinking about the techniques and writing a comment helped me move fast, even when the classes were over.
I was able to join an improvers’ class after a few months. Granted, many of the artists there were much more experienced, but that also spurred me to learn more and raise my game. But without my portfolio behind me, I would never have had the courage to consider that class.
But what if I don’t want to paint/write, or don’t know what to paint/write?
Painter’s block, creative block, writer’s block all yield to action. What works for me is to step away from the emotion, and simply get to work. That might mean opening a random page in a magazine and painting whatever is there. It might mean going to a writing prompt website, picking one, and writing. It might mean creating something else; a poem, a meal, a garden, an ordered and tidy room.
If I want to improve, that means practising my art, just as an athlete practises before the big game or competition. I can’t afford to do only what I want, especially when time is precious.
The water does not flow until the faucet is turned on.
In other words, inspiration comes after initiation. Get warmed up, then get going.
Tracking my journey as a writer
This is very important, yet it must be simple. For writing, my 2016 list looked like this:
Attend a writing group regularly and produce work for it
Submit to at least 10 competitions
Revise my novel to make it ready for submission
Read 2-3 craft books
Write a weekly blog post NaNoWriMo
Using a standard calendar that comes with Excel, I have noted what I wrote and when. For my blog, WordPress has analytics built-in. It is surprising how motivating it is to see a run of completed boxes. I guess the whole idea of star charts is not just for kids after all. I can see which months were better for writing than others. And I can course correct when necessary, which is why NaNo dropped off the list.
Yes, I achieved those goals. Feels good, too!
Each written piece is tagged and dated, and sometime soon I will compare the first and last, the group pieces with my other work, and so on. Now it’s time to think about next year’s goals, building on this year’s successes and challenges. I might build another layer of detail into my tracking, or commit to a number of words per week. I already know that writing every day is impossible with my current commitments, (because I tried it, and failed) so a weekly target is more realistic.
That which is measured, improves. That which is measured and reported, improves exponentially. Pearson’s law
As long as we don’t spend all our time reporting instead of producing work, this could be useful. Making a beautiful map is not a substitute for making the journey.
My Very Easy Tracking Plan™ boils down to this:
Find a system that you can commit to over a long period.
Track your work, no matter how simply.
Finish your stuff.
Enjoy your achievements.*
In the end, it is producing the work and growing as a creative that matters. Not blog views, competition wins, external validation of some sort. That may come, and of course we hope it will. But the work comes first. Always.
All the following are suggestions. You are the author, you are in charge of your words. Feel free to disagree, just make your choices conscious ones.
This time, a few thoughts on beginnings, middles, and ends.
Where do I begin?
Screenwriters are told to get in as late as possible. This means starting close to the action, but not without some context. Sure, we want to see some of the protagonist’s ordinary life. We don’t want a blow by blow account of how she gets up, showers, has breakfast, and goes to work. Writers are also advised to begin ‘in media res’ or in the middle of things. Action is a great opener, but being dropped in the middle of a battle when we don’t know who is fighting or why, is a mistake. We don’t care about the characters yet.
Prologues are sometimes used as a way to get round this problem of where to start. A little explanation, and then we can drop into the fight in chapter one. While prologues can be done well, the usual advice is to avoid them. Try writing the prologue, then seeing if you can cut it later, sprinkling the information through the story.
The first chapter is your chance to sell the reader on investing their time in your story. Literary agents have a number of pet peeves. Some are listed here on Writer Unboxed, which is useful reading. But think of yourself as a reader. Don’t you feel cheated by any of the following?
‘it was all a dream’ then the character wakes up
nothing is really happening, plot is stalling
description and exposition rather than action
lots of characters introduced, with no context
character and place names that are (a) too similar or (b) unpronounceable
Make the first chapter count. Show the reader enough to make them curious, to wonder what happened next. That’s the goal of storytelling. Hook the reader with a flavour of your story, your Big Idea, and get them to turn the page.
Successful novelists may not follow these rules, but remember this. Every trad published author wrote a first novel, that had to interest an agent enough to read on. Every self published author has to get the public to read on. When you’re mega-successful, then you can relax. Until then, polish your opening, get feedback, and make it shine.
The soggy middle
Many writers talk about hitting a wall, five chapters in, 30,000 words in, wherever. The initial shine has worn off and the story is far from its end. Some jump ship at this point and chase the next shiny idea. I wrote about why it is vital to keep going and finish your stuff. Having a strong outline certainly helps, but plotters are not immune from an attack of the blahs.
I don’t like the term writer’s block. I think there are times when writing is easier, and times when we experience resistance. When we hit resistance, it’s time to use some different techniques. They might also help with NaNoWriMo, which is currently ongoing. (I’m not participating this year, but that is for a different post.)
Remember that it’s not necessary to write chronologically. For some writers, writing as a jigsaw puzzle works better, but in that case a clear idea of the story structure is needed – just like the picture on the puzzle box.
What to do when the story comes to a grinding halt? Some things that have worked for me, and some I haven’t tried yet, are listed below. I didn’t invent these.
Start writing that scene you’re avoiding. Promise yourself a little treat at 500 words.
Write all the backstory you have on your characters, starting with the protagonist.
Interview a secondary character about the protagonist.
Interview the antagonist. What do they think of the protagonist?
Write the end and work your way back.
Write a scene you are looking forward to, then write towards it.
Pantsers – try outlining, no matter how sparse. Think about the bones of the story.
Plotters – try asking the characters where to go next. Let go a little.
Write something else – an opinion piece, a poem. Bonus points if it is about a character.
Different creation- bake a cake, paint, draw, photograph something.
Use the ‘why?’ technique. Ask yourself why you have got stuck, write down the answer. Then ask ‘why?’ with that answer. Keep asking why, until you reach the heart of the matter. This works for life stuff too. About four or five cycles will usually be enough.
Why am I stuck? because I don’t know how to put Mary in the forest
why does she need to be there? because she needs to meet a witch
why does she need to meet the witch? because she needs a spell of invisibility
why does she need the spell? it will allow her to free her sister (the main story thread)
why can’t she get the spell from someone else? hmmm… hadn’t thought of that. How about, she has to sell the jewellery her mother left her, and buy the spell from the scary warlock in her village (who I can write as another interesting character). But while sneaking through the forest she is confronted by the witch, who can see her because she taught the original spell to the warlock, so they could meet in secret when they were lovers?? Now, there’s a bigger story to be told.
That’s one way past the resistance, opening up more possibilities by creating your way through.
And that’s a wrap
Endings can be simple, or tricky. You want to leave the reader with a good feeling. You want the reader to miss the characters when they turn the last page, and tell others about the story.
Plot twist is one of the most difficult, but memorable endings if you can pull it off. Misdirection is the key, making the wrong answer plausible, and the correct answer understandable. This can be satisfying and prompt re-readings to spot the clues. You will need to examine your story carefully, to make sure that the clues and red herrings are in order. It’s easy to lose track through re-writing.
Avoid deus ex machina endings. Literally meaning ‘god from a machine’, it dates from the days of Greek tragedy. When there were too many problems to untangle at the end of a play, a god would descend from the sky and solve everything with a flick of his hand. The sudden discovery of a weapon, weakness, or other artefact that magically solves things breaks the contract with the reader, which is that you will repay their time with a properly satisfying story.
Circular endings can work, with the story retracing some element that was introduced at the start. It could be the same environment, the hero arrives back home but changed. For example, Frodo returns to the Shire. In The girl with all the gifts, the story opens and closes with Melanie, a classroom and Miss Justineau. The environment and characters, and their relationship, has changed.
Be sure that your ending follows genre conventions. A romance must end with happy ever after, even if it is qualified. Your story question must be answered. It’s best to tie up plot threads, though you might want to leave one open for the next book. Too many hanging questions breaks your reader contract, again. But it’s reasonable to leave some spaces for the reader to fill in, as long as they are not gaping plot holes.
Have someone else read the story. Ask where they got bored, or excited, or puzzled. It can tell you a lot about what is needed to improve the story.
Enjoyable stories leave you with the sense that characters have moved on and changed, even if they are going on to new adventures. And if you’ve done your job well, the reader is invested enough to follow your characters, and your writing, on into the future. That’s what we all want, isn’t it?
Writers want to tell you a story. And then, we hope we’ve earned the chance to tell you another.