Breaking through the blockage
Two of my esteemed fellow Mad Genius Club authors have tackled the problem of “writer’s block” over the past two days. First, Sarah Hoyt discussed “The Curse of the Second Novel“.
Second novel curse is the near ability to complete a novel after either your first sold novel or a novel that either performed or you felt was way above all your other work to date.
The symptoms are as follows: your novel feels dull, lifeless and flat; you second guess yourself constantly, every step along the way; you’d rather be doing anything, from scrubbing toilets to rotating the cat than writing, and as a consequence, you’re remarkably easy to distract. Things that would otherwise be no problem at all become insurmountable challenges. Minor colds flatten you and you can’t concentrate to write. The fact that you haven’t vacuumed in a whole 24 hours distresses you; your cat’s love and affection is a major interruption. As a result, whatever your normal writing period is ten times lengthened.
She offers various suggestions to get over the problem, which she sees as being rooted in insecurity.
Yesterday, Kate Paulk expanded on Sarah’s article in an essay titled “When You’re Lost in the Depths of the Pants“.
Of course, when you’re an extreme pantser like me, you do run the risk of getting lost somewhere deep in the pants, possibly with a bad case of plot kudzu making it impossible to see where you’re going. Some of Sarah’s commenters wondered what to do when they get lost or they run out of spoons and simply can’t make things work the usual way if they’re extreme pantsers who really can’t work from an outline.
. . .
As an extreme pantser, my experience is that something like 50% of the process is trusting your subconscious. Another 50% is having the confidence to let your subconscious steer. Then there’s 50% figuring out how to turn your conscious brain off, and 50% shaping what emerges so it doesn’t read like that weird dream you had where the talking carrot was utterly terrifying but nobody else in the universe can tell.
This morning I’d like to offer my own approach to the problem – which is pretty straightforward. I take the literary equivalent of a roto-rooter to the blockage, and bore my way through it by brute force. If one avenue of approach is blocked, I abandon it and take a completely different one, then turn back from that road and bore my way into the problem from another angle. That’s worked twice for me so far, and looks set fair to work a third time later this year. Let me explain.
I’m a combination of plotter and pantser when it comes to preparing to write a novel. I work out the initial plot and structure in my mind, and frequently set it out in point form in a document. However, this is never set in stone. Those blasted characters turn out to have minds of their own (often of fiendish deviousness), and can head off in different directions almost before I’ve realized that they’ve left the straight and narrow path I’ve worked out for them. I then have to go haring after them, screaming “Come back! You’re my creation, dammit! Where the hell do you think you’re going?” Sometimes, they listen. More often than not, they don’t… (Sigh)
Sometimes I just plain get bogged down. I can’t make the plot or the characters go where I want them to be, and all my efforts feel flat, uninspired, and frankly boring. A couple of weeks of this, and I’ll be climbing the walls in frustration. I’ve learned, in such situations, to make that frustration into a spur for renewed creativity. I simply shelve what I’m working on and tackle something completely different.
In early 2014, I was working on the third volume in my military science fiction Maxwell Saga, which was published as “Adapt and Overcome“. It wasn’t doing anything or going anywhere. I spent almost six weeks circling the drain, getting more and more grumpy and irritable. Finally, one morning, I just said “To hell with it!”, and started writing a stream-of-consciousness document – whatever came to mind, no plot, no outline, no nothing. Thirty days and 150,000 words later (a third of that being excisions, deletions, insertions and additions), I had a 100,000-word military science fiction novel titled “War to the Knife“.
It went on to become the first volume of a trilogy. The second volume, “Forge a New Blade“, was published in 2015, and the final volume, “Knife to the Hilt”, will be published later this year, the good Lord willing and the creek don’t rise.
I surprised myself by how successful this exercise was. I really hadn’t expected that result – it was completely unplanned. Nevertheless, my readers tell me that “War to the Knife” is one of my best mil-SF novels. The thing was, by refusing to stay bogged down, fighting a losing battle, I moved the problem onto new ground of my own choosing. I didn’t let it dominate me; instead, I dominated it. I broke new ground, and it paid off handsomely.
I remembered that lesson later in 2014, when I began to battle with another book I was working on. Instead of beating my head against a brick wall, as a deliberate exercise to distract myself from the blockage, I started writing a Western novel – a completely different genre for me (a moribund one, according to conventional wisdom), and one that required a great deal of research to make it historically authentic. I treated it as an occasional project, one I turned to when I felt over-tired or frustrated from concentrating very hard on the mil-SF novels that until then had been my bread and butter. I completed a rough, unpolished first draft by mid-2015, then set it aside for future reference if I ever felt that way inclined.
Quite by chance, not intending anything by it, I put up the opening chapter of that Western on my blog early in April 2016, because I was short of blog fodder that day and thought, “Why not? What have I got to lose?” To my pleased surprise, reaction to it from my blog readers was very favorable. In fact, within 24 hours, I received an offer for a contract for three Westerns from a small publishing house. Needless to say, I wasn’t fool enough to turn that down! A couple of months of hectic polishing and fine-tuning later, and my first Western, “Brings The Lightning“, was out the door and on its way.
It’s sold pretty well for a first effort in that genre, and I’m currently writing its sequel. Look for it later this year.
Finally, another “anti-blocking” effort has led to a similar development. I’d produced a few fantasy manuscripts during my years of learning the craft of fiction writing, but none of them were much good. However, the field still interests me, so after the experience of “War to the Knife” and the Western project, I decided to treat it as yet another exercise in distraction when I got blocked on my work in progress. I ended up producing three or four fantasy stories that I think have the potential to become novels in their own right. Two of them progressed until I’d written a third to a half of each one.
In December last year, I asked my blog readers to select one of the two for further development. I put up an excerpt from each novel, and my readers selected the first excerpt as their favorite. I’ll therefore be finishing that novel as soon as my current Western project is complete, for publication (hopefully) prior to LibertyCon in June. (I won’t neglect the second fantasy novel, either; that will be a future project – or I may merge it with the first one and make a multi-volume series out of them.)
Therefore, I offer this suggestion as a way to overcome “writer’s block”. Don’t get blocked – find a way around the block by tackling something completely different, then come back to the blocked work when your mind’s been creative in other ways. You may be surprised at how well it pays off! So far I’ve got two books published out of such “distractions”, and a third on the way. If this keeps up, I may end up publishing more “distractions” than main projects!