Five Things: To Stay Involved While Blocked

For today’s Twin Thursday with Rachel of Undivinelight fame, we’re looking at things you can do to keep working on your story while you’re facing down the jaws of writer’s block. This isn’t the same thing as hitting burnout; it’s not that you’re so sick of the story that you physically cannot look at it. At least in my case, it’s that I genuinely want to work, but the words won’t come. So here are some ways to stay connected to your story even when you aren’t progressing wordcount-wise.

  1. Worldbuild. Especially if you’re writing any sort of speculative fiction (fantasy, sci-fi, so on) or historical fiction of any stripe. Take some time to build out your setting, your cultures, your technology. You just might find something to kick-start your words!
  2. Flip your story. Open a new document or turn to a fresh section in your notebook and try telling it from your antagonist’s point of view. You might just get some much-needed insight into whatever is causing your block. Maybe you need your villain to attack this backwater village, but you just can’t figure out why they’d do so. Or you know you need your hero to come across this reformed henchman, but you don’t know how or why their paths intersect. Looking at the story sideways may show you.
  3. Revisit your outline. If you have one. Otherwise, go over your notes or original concept for the story again. Is the story you’re writing still the one you set out to tell? If it’s changed directions, is it for better or worse? Then you can either map out your story’s new direction and follow it or grab the reins and try to get it back on course.
  4. Noodle. Write character backstories, vignettes, scenes that you wish you had room for in your story but just don’t. Look up character prompts and questionnaires and fill them out. Let an alien land in the middle of your medieval fantasy just to see what your protagonist would do. Get yourself better-seated in your characters’ headspaces. You’re not married to these words, so just have fun.
    Caveat: You don’t get to do this just to stall. You do still need to actually do words on your story. As much fun as side-pieces are, don’t get lulled into thinking you can do them forever.
  5. Write Anyway. I know, I know, you’re probably sick of hearing this one. But it really is the best thing you can do for yourself. You can chip away at the blocks forever, but the only way to blast through it is to keep putting words on the screen. Even if it’s slow. Even when you’re convinced they suck and nobody’s ever going to read this drivel. Write. Anyway.

Five Things: People Said that Changed My Writing

A very late Twin Thursday with Rachel from Undivinelight! As always be sure to check hers out!

This week–well, last week, really–we’re talking about five pieces of writing advice that have stuck with us in some way or changed the way we approach our stories in some way.

  1. Mind the spine. One of my mentors in grad school asked me this after I’d spent almost a year working on my current manuscript (one semester with another mentor and a few months with him). He’d read the first two chapters, and I was working on the next few to send along. I didn’t really get what he was trying to say. I had characters. I had a series of events. I had a setting and a loose premise. Ergo, I reasoned, I had a story.
    Not so, said he. The spine of the story is the main conflict that everything else is built around. And my story didn’t have one. I ended up rehashing the whole plot and starting the story over from scratch with just two months left in the semester. To this day, that was still probably one of the hardest, most gut-wrenching, and best decisions I ever made with a story.
    It also completely changed the way I think about plot structure. I learned to tighten my focus, to make my stories lean and quick, and to make sure that everything, all the muscle and the nerves and even the pretty decorative bits, attach back to the spine somehow.
  2. Find your catalyst. This one wasn’t said to me directly inasmuch as it was the focus of a digital workshop that I attended with superstar agent Kristin Nelson. As I talked about a little bit in the query/pitch workshop, the catalyst is the thing that happened that starts the story rolling. It can be anything, really, but it does have to be an event; a death, a birth, an announcement, a chance encounter.
    I have–or had before I found this trick–a bad habit of starting the story too far back from the catalyst. I would spend two or three chapters just setting up the thing that I really actually wanted to get to. Now that I know what I’m looking for, I can get my story right to the chase and off to a running start.
  3. Prune back the excesses. This was a hard one to hear. But it’s important. As a writer, I don’t always notice when my characters are going through emotional whiplash, jumping back and forth between extremes depending on my own mood as I wrote it. Or when I start a trauma-conga. Or when a character’s backstory or skillset gets to be a little too over the top. Sometimes, you just need someone to tell you to scale it back.
  4. Cut your favorite part. Another hard one. I have a habit of getting an idea, an image of a scene in my head, and the scene just has to go exactly the way I envisioned it. Usually because I’ve decided that this one thing is pithy or witty or vitally important and it must be there. And, usually, that one thing that I’ve committed to 110% is the thing that’s ruining the scene in question.
    Case it point. I had decided, for my main WIP, that the mother character was very much like Mother Gothel from Disney’s Tangled. So much so that I had a significant portion of the soundtrack on my writing playlist to set the mood. I even dedicated an entire scene to the moment when my main character refused to play along anymore. But it didn’t fit. Not with the characters, their histories, the way the rest of the story played out, and trying to bend the story to fit that one moment was pulling everything else out of place. So it had to go.
  5. Write no scene in which everyone agrees. Another bit of advice from grad school–the same mentor, actually–that stuck with me. It’s easy in a scene to let your characters fall into a self-feeding wheel of yesses. The characters all agree, and the tension in the scene fizzles out. Picture the Council of Elrond from The Lord of the Rings if all the assembled peoples of Middle Earth gathered, looked at the Ring, and said, yep, evil. Let’s go drop it in a volcano.
    Pretty boring, right? But now put them at cross-motives with each other. These two  don’t trust each other. This one wants to use the Ring for good to defend his country. This one doesn’t care what happens to it as long as he doesn’t have to touch it. And so on. Now you can let the characters do the hard work of creating tension. Suddenly, you have a dynamic, memorable scene.

Five Things: To Smash Common Blocks

For today’s Twin Thursday, Rachel of Undivinelight and I are doing some rapid-fire writer’s block-busting. These are specific jams that you might run into and an easy way to fix them.

  1. Dialogue feels stale. Try really getting into how your characters speak. Not just what they say, but how they say it. People speak differently depending on their education, upbringing, gender, and countless other factors. Try tapping into that to breathe fresh life onto the page.
  2. Action scene has you feeling disoriented. Zero in on your character’s senses and thought progress. Especially for large, chaotic action sequences, the temptation is to go for the bigger picture. But if that makes you feel lost, focus smaller. Tighter details, more intimate sensations. It can help ground your reader and yourself.
  3. Wandering plot. To be entirely honest, I’m a pantser most of the time. So if the story starts to go off-script, I usually let it. At least for a trashdraft. Sometimes I find neat treasures down that way that I can work into a better scene as I’m editing. If you don’t want to do that, though, create a scrap document and name it Noodle (or something similar) and paste the off-topic writing over there. This way you get to still have your fun writing the thing without actually committing it to your draft.
  4. Lack of confidence. Especially when it comes to your skill level. You have an awesome idea, but you’re afraid that your talent as a writer isn’t quite to the point that you can handle multiple POVs or a kingdom-wide famine. Find a book that does the thing you want to do and try to emulate what the writer did. This way, you can grow your skillset in a no-pressure setting. It’s like the practice mode on a new video game. Once you have a head for the controls, open up that new document and give it a try!
  5. Enthusiasm has waned. This is a toughie. Everybody hits it at some point. Heck, I’m fighting with it literally as I write this. The story’s not going as fast or as fun as you thought it would. You hit a plot snag. The shine wore off and the hard work is showing through. Unfortunately, there’s no quick fix here. You just need to put your butt in the chair and hands on the keyboard and muscle through. Eventually, either the love will come back and you’ll be proud of what you made or you’ll decide that you have to walk away from it for a bit. Just be sure that, if you do take a break, you’re doing it because you mentally need the distance from the project, not just because it got a little rocky.

Five Things: To Revive a Trunked Story

Suuuuuper late Thursday post, sorry! I’d like to say that Camp NaNo was the reason for my absence, but if we’re being completely honest… Pokemon Go came out. And whoops, there went my willpower. But I do have a really strong Pidgeot? So I guess I have that going for me?

For my should-be-Thursday-but-really-it’s-Monday post, I’m going to be looking at steps that I use to get back into a story that you’ve set aside. Most of this advice is for when the draft was put away half-done, but some of this also applies to dusting off an old manuscript for revision. The illustrious (and prompt) Rachel from Undivinelight had hers up on time, so be sure to read it as well.

  1. Refamiliarize yourself with the story. Reread the whole manuscript, your outline, your notes, worldbuilding. Any and all material you have on-hand. The point of this is two-fold. First of all, you want to remind yourself of what the story is and how it works. This will help you to make sure the rest of the story follows a natural progression. Secondly, you’re reminding yourself why you love the story and, ideally, getting yourself psyched to work on it again. This last part is especially important if you trunked the story because you stopped caring about it.
  2. Make a plan. Yes, even if you’re a pantser. You don’t need to have a vivid, detailed outline to start writing, but you do need to set a target. Giving yourself a goal, a trajectory for the project, can make getting through to the end easier.
  3. Lock the old document. You’re not editing right now; you’re generating new material. Open a new document and hide the old one if you can’t stop yourself from trying to ‘fix’ what you did before. Finish the crappy draft first–you’ll have lots of time to make it good later.
  4. Get yourself excited again. I mentioned this a little in step 1, but I feel like it deserves its own step, too. Talk to someone who knows the story. Delve into the characters, dig into the setting, try out a recipe that your setting is known for. Do whatever it takes to bring the story to life for you again.
  5. Write. This is the hard part–I’m struggling with it right now, in fact. All the prep-work in the world won’t get the draft done if you don’t put words on the screen. As one of my mentors in grad school used to say, BICHOK. Butt in chair, hands on keyboard. You can do this! Get it done!