Therese here. You’ll recognize today’s guest as one of WU’s most loyal commenters, CG Blake. Though CG is an executive in higher education by day, he’s a die-hard writer–and reader–by night, with more than thirty years of writing and editing experience. His favorite books lean toward family sagas, with the works of Richard Ford, Alice McDermott, Alice Munro, and Anne Tyler populating his keeper shelf. CG’s first novel, Small Change, is a tale that covers twenty years in the lives of two families, exploring the many ways they’ve affected one another–for better and worse–and the secret that binds them together. I’m happy he’s with us today to talk writer’s block–what it is, and how to overcome it. Enjoy!
Mind the Gap: Strategies for Overcoming Writer’s Block
Two images come to mind when I think about writer’s block. The first is the legendary daredevil, Evel Knievel. If you were around in the 1970s, you remember Evel Knievel. His forte was ramp-to-ramp motorcycle jumps. In 1974 he attempted a failed jump across theSnake RiverCanyonin a steam-powered rocket. The other image is from the underground Tube system inLondon. Waiting for a train in 1986, I heard a tape-recorded British accent warning, “Mind the gap…Mind the gap…Mind the gap.” I didn’t get it until the train arrived and there was a gap of about a foot between the platform and the train door.
In many instances, what we refer to as “writer’s block” involves a gap of some sort. Usually, it’s a gap in the story. As James Scott Bell observed in his classic craft book, Plot and Structure, writers typically hit a wall somewhere at the beginning of act two in the three-act structure. In act one, the writer introduces the main character in her normal world. An inciting incident rocks her world. An antagonist poses a threat, usually physical or emotional. The writer has set up the story in act one. And then. Nothing. The writer knows major turning points lie ahead at the end of act two and they have in mind a thrilling climax, resolution and denouement in act three, but the writer has no idea how to get from here to there.
Story gap almost always has a stepchild called scene gap. Scene gap occurs when the writer has figured out all the major plot points, but doesn’t have enough interesting scenes to move the story from one plot point to another. The writer knows it’s not enough to throw in a scene for the sake of boosting the word count (unless you are doing NaNo, of course—kidding!). The scenes must be interconnected. They must move the story forward. Scene gap is often a function of the writer not thinking the story fully through—the whole story and not just the major plot points. This is a particular problem for “pantsers” like me. I’m a minimalist when it comes to written outlines. I do a lot of pre-outlining and pre-writing in my head (don’t ask me how because I have no idea) before I sit down to start a first draft, but I typically commit only about a dozen major milestone events to a written outline. I know writers whose written outlines go on for 50 pages or more. I admire that level of pre-planning and organization, but I need to discover the story as I write it.
So let’s look at scene gap. Take an 80,000-word first draft. Let’s say your average scene is 2,000 words, give or take. You will need 40 scenes to generate 80,000 words. A lot of stuff has to happen to get to 40 scenes. So here’s a crude and hackneyed example of major plot points: Boy meets girl. Boy falls in love with girl. Girl doesn’t like boy. Boy tries harder. Girl really doesn’t like boy. Things look bleak for boy. Boy does something heroic and selfless for girl. Girl falls in love with boy. Complication develops. Boy overcomes complication and wins girl’s heart. That’s about a dozen plot points. The challenge comes in creating scores of interesting scenes that connect those plot points.
The secret to overcoming scene gap? Cause and effect. Actions and events have consequences and those in turn have greater consequences. The experienced writer can overcome story gap and scene gap through a lot of creative brainstorming, discovery and building upon prior events. Large quantities of your favorite beverage and chocolate never hurt, either.
A more formidable obstacle is writer’s block related to character gap. I fundamentally believe the best novels are character-driven. What do you do when your main character stinks? Your main character is too good or—worse—too bland. Boring characters are the worst. You’ve chosen an occupation or persona for your main character that you know nothing about. Even though you’ve done a lot of research, your character lacks authenticity. Arthur Golden had this experience when he wrote the first draft of what became Memoirs of a Geisha. Then, he found a geisha and interviewed her and it made all the difference in the world. The fix? There are a number of excellent character templates and craft books that extensively discuss character development. The key is this: build the character before you write your first draft. Some writers sit down and write for pages about the main character: a whole family history, with likes and dislikes, dreams and fears. Much of it may never get used, but they know their character intimately when they sit down to write.
How do you know whether you face a gap as wide as theSnake RiverCanyonor a train station gap you can nimbly hop over? Here are some strategies for dealing with writer’s block:
- Step back and do a candid self-assessment. What’s blocking you? Is it a problem with the story? Are you stuck in a scene? Are you having a hard time coming up with the next scene?
- Take a day off. Get away from your writing space. Clear your head.
- Give a fresh look at your manuscript. Hone in on where the problem lies. If it’s a story problem, break down what’s wrong with the story. Not enough action? Have you hit a dead-end? Take apart the story. Think “cause and effect.”
- Try something different. Write the same scene from a different character’s point of view. Ask yourself what you expect to happen and what would be a complete surprise?
- Jump ahead and begin writing the ending. You may discover the story has more dimensions than you think.
- Breathe life into your characters. Give your main character a daunting challenge.
- If nothing helps, work on something else.
How do you deal with writer’s block? When you hit the wall, is there usually a problem with the story? A scene? A character?
Photo courtesy Flickr’s h.koppdelaney