Friday, July 10, 2009

Christine: Wrestling the Bear That is Writer's Block

I had the toughest time breathing life into the main character of my newly completed young-adult novel.

And not just because she was dead.

The story: Shannon dies in a car wreck en route to high school on the first day of her senior year. Her distraught parents have a new baby to fill the void. Fast-forward seventeen years, when younger sister Summer uncovers a journal Shannon kept the summer before she died. The journal connects Summer not only with her sister, but with long-buried family secrets.

I blogged a year ago that this project plunged me into my worst-ever case of writer’s block. I dug deep to make the story real and relevant, and the writing process started to feel a lot like therapy. It was thrilling, enlightening, cathartic … and terrifying. Terrifying enough to make me come up with excuse after excuse, distraction after distraction, to avoid my novel. Jack Nicholson’s voice rang in my head every time I walked past the computer without so much as slowing my pace: You can’t handle the truth.

So being a chicken was one problem. My other problem was decidedly more prosaic: Writing this novel was technically really tough. I was juggling two story lines at once: the dead sister’s and the living sister’s. I had to forge a “relationship” with two protagonists who were intimately enmeshed yet had never even met. I had to deal with characters involved in both girls’ lives (their parents, for instance) who had to display subtle differences from one time period to the next. I had to bring Shannon to life solely through her journal. I had to continually swing from one generation to the next and back again, somehow making it all hang together.

But angst and frustration notwithstanding, I really wanted to write this novel. I felt more connected to it than anything I’d ever written. I knew I would emerge stronger and wiser if only I kept pushing forward.

And I did. I love my novel and what it taught me about myself. I love what it taught me about writing. And I love what it taught me about wrestling the bear that is writer’s block. Here are a few tips I cultivated along the way:

- I find that writing a novel is a lot like reading one. In both cases, if I stop at a boring part, I’m totally unmotivated to return to the story. Follow the showman’s adage of always leaving your audience wanting more, keeping in mind that the audience when writing a book is you. Be sure to feel excited, intrigued, agitated –anything other than bored – when you walk away from your manuscript, even if that means stopping in mid-sentence. Make sure you’re always champing at the bit to pick back up where you left off.

- Fill out a Facebook survey or personality quiz … only fill it out as a character in your book. Answering even mundane questions (your character’s middle name, what she had for breakfast this morning) will help you slip into her skin. The insight might even lead your character in new directions or otherwise help shape the plot.

- Google a word, any word. Bread, you say? Okay, bread. Now click on a random hit. (Mine was Wonderbread.) Read a few paragraphs from whatever Web site you’ve just wandered onto. Now incorporate something … anything … from what you’ve just read into your manuscript. (Mine was yoga, which improbably is included on the Wonderbread homepage copy.) Now incorporate that word, or a concept associated with that word, into your manuscript. Ridiculous, you say? Ludicrous? Pointless? Do it anyway. If you somehow make it work, you’ll forever after smile knowingly when you reread the passage. If it doesn’t work, you can delete it later. Either way, it just might jumpstart your brain.

- Write out of sequence. If you’re plodding through a tedious yet essential passage and tempted to just walk away (and remember, you can never walk away when you’re bored), jump ahead to an exciting part of the plot. Chapter one can lead to chapter 13, which can lead to chapter 21, which lead to rewriting chapter 13, etc., etc. It sounds like a lot of trouble … but at least it keeps you writing. I’d rather rewrite than stare at a blank computer screen.

- Talk about your manuscript to someone you trust. This was a tough one for me. I’m eerily protective and secretive of my projects when they’re under way. They feel so intimate, and I’d feel vulnerable cracking open that door. But I broke the pattern on this novel. It really helped when I was stuck to mull over a character or plot point with a close friend or family member. I got unique perspectives, varied feedback, great ideas and heartfelt support. What took me so long?

- Take a walk. Watch a movie. Weed a garden. In other words, step away from your novel (but not at a boring part!) and trust it to whisper in your ear when you’re doing something else. That’s what my novel did for me. It never abandoned me.

The least I could do was return the favor.

(P.S.: Congratulations, Sara, on the beautiful addition to your family!)


    1. Christine,
      I think you wrote this post just for me! I'm struggling with my WIP for many of the reasons you mentioned. I keep backing off from writing a really tough scene. I fear it's because I can't "handle the truth." Thanks to your post, I'm going to go for now....

    2. Great post! I love the tip about leaving yourself something exciting to write. So often I want to complete the scene, afraid I'll lose the magic of it if I don't. But then I walk in to a blank page - the start of the next scene - the next time I sit down to much harder to get going that way!

    3. These are great tips! I especially love the random googling. I'm sure I'm going to use that in the near future.

    4. Thanks for this post. I recognized a lot of my struggles with a story I've been working on for Way too long yet can't seem to abandon for some reason.
      I have always had a prologue but never could quite find the right chapters to go next as 'first'....I even started writing the middle to try to get past it. Finally in desperation I wrote the end and started backwards from there.
      Glad to hear about all the work taught you, as I've had the feeling that's what a lot of this work I've been doing has been about. A learning experience and knowing after this, I can write pretty much anything I need to. ;) And hopefully, a lot easier.
      At least that's what I'm hoping once I see the end of my testing on my writing project.....
      So I'm glad to know there are ways to make it through!

    5. Oh, this is so helpful. Thank you!