Writer’s Block

Since I started writing my novels a few years ago, I’ve probably written close to a million words.

Procedurally, for Kismet, my first novel, I planned and thought about the basic story line for over ten years. Eventually, I conceptualized the story right down to how I would start the book. Therefore, when I sat down and faced that blank computer screen one night, I knew how the book would begin, exactly what the first chapter would look like.

My fingers flew over the keys and I wrote the initial chapter in maybe an hour. Of course, that first chapter ended up being revised many times but that’s a different story. The point is, I wasn’t intimidated by starting the novel, actually sitting there and writing those first words.

Stop and think about it. If you know what you’re going to write about, you’ll either start with description or dialogue. You will either describe a scene or you’ll have someone speaking. Remember that all you’re doing is telling a story. If you’re sitting with your child and he or she asks you to tell them a story, how would you begin?

If you remember that, getting started will never be a problem. So getting started has never been a problem for me from first sentences to first paragraphs to first chapters. One of my favorite first sentences started my second book in the series, The Manse: “It was going to be a long and lonesome day, Charlie was gone.”

So, to be honest with you, I’m probably not the best person to discuss writer’s block because I’ve never experienced it.

Apparently, I’m told, writer’s block occurs when you either can’t begin or you’re writing and you suddenly can’t go on because you can’t think of what to write next. This seems to be the holy grail of writers’ fears.

Beyond the compulsion to write, so important, there are really four things you do as a writer that will prevent problems with either getting started with your writing or continuing with your writing. They may be described as conceptualizing, executing, revising and remaining flexible during the process.

One of the joys of writing are the challenges that arise during the process of writing. For the third book in the series, I had been thinking I wanted to write a flat out noirish action piece, very hard boiled. I thought about the basic outline of the plot which would revolve around the kidnapping of Anon’s youngest daughter and then I sat down and whipped out the whole book in about 48 hours of uninterrupted writing.

And it was great! I loved it. To date, it remains Kathy’s favorite in the series. The only problem was, in word count, it was a novella, not a novel. Hmm. What to do? I didn’t panic. I didn’t experience writer’s block. I simply thought, well, what if the story continued? What would happen next?

I ended up utilizing the convention of doing a book one, book two format within the longer novel, two separate but related stories that all grew out of the same plot line and became The Feral Pistillate.

The late Robert B. Parker, creator of the Spencer series, noted that when he wrote his novels, one chapter seemed to flow into the next. James Lee Burke, the author of his own P.I. series, indicates he never knows where his story is going beyond the next chapter or so.

After I wrote the first four or five Anonymous Man novels, I found I no longer do much conceptualizing anymore. In fact, for one of the novels, Obsessions, I purposefully sat down with absolutely no idea what I was going to write except that it was going to involve sexual abuse and obsession. And I found Parker was right, one chapter seemed to flow into the next.

Another reason writer’s block should not be a problem is because your characters will often give you your story or change how you thought the story would unfold. Don’t ever say that to a non-writer because they’ll think you’re crazy but for those of us who write, we know that is true.

It first happened to me writing Feral. Charlie and Anon, Penny, Anon’s daughter and her husband Sean and the ever faithful side kick Mike had all gathered in the library parlor of the manse to decide how to respond to a death threat against them. As the author, I had a plan, of course, but what did I know? As I started writing the dialogue, the exchange between these characters, Charlie took over and changed my whole plan. The whole second half of the book changed when her plan was adopted.

So, you’ll experience an inability to start or continue, I’m convinced, when you’re really not ready, at any particular time, for whatever reason, to write. I suppose, as has been suggested in writing classes, you can grab a couple of key phrases from your narrative and do some sort of written free associating that will supposedly get you back on track or you can simply forget it for the moment and go get a taco and a beer. You’ll come back to it when your addiction, that compulsion to continue writing, rears its ugly head.

Some authors revise as they go. Dean Koontz talks on his web site about spending hours laboring over one paragraph. Most writers though will plow through the story and when it’s finished, go back and revise it. I do both. Whether I revise as I go or afterwards depends on how fast the story is flowing from my brain to the computer screen. Sometimes I’m on such a roll, I literally can’t stop to take the time to revise. Other times, if I’m writing at a more leisurely pace, I may revise more as I’m writing. So, do what works best for you.

In our writing class last month, a lady talked about writing to a point and then stopping when she said she lost control of her characters. I had the impression that it scared her so bad, she hasn’t gone back to them, she hasn’t continued writing their story. In fact, she went to a psychiatrist friend of hers and had the characters analyzed! She was appalled to find one of her principal characters was suicidal and she didn’t even know it.

What she was experiencing was a fear of letting her characters take her along for the ride, where ever that might lead her. She was afraid of who her characters might turn out to be. She was afraid that if her characters turned out to be too far removed from how she thought of herself, she would be ashamed she had created them. And she fell into that trap because she hadn’t conceptualized and because she didn’t realize that creating compelling characters means creating characters who will often be nothing like you, the author.

Writing a novel will definitely take time. You’ll be interrupted. Sometimes, you may not be able to get back to your key board for a period of time. I’ve had that happen. I’ll sit down and suddenly realize, I’ve lost the thread of the story. Now, what was Charlie doing when I left her? The answer is to go back and read what you’ve written. Oh, that’s right, she just took out two hit men and she and Anon are fleeing on the subway. So next they need to link up with Mike at the safe house.

One last point before we leave writer’s block. Writing involves creativity but it also involves dedication and discipline. Most professional authors will tell you they faithfully write so many words each day. John Grisham used to get up very early in the morning and write for two hours before he went off to his office to practice law. Stephen King writes 2000 words a day. Janet Evanovich writes each morning and then does her business related activities each afternoon.

I’ve found I’ve had to become much more disciplined with books in print since I have to spend time promoting the books, preparing the future books for publication while still finding time to write. By becoming a structured writer, you’ll also be creating an atmosphere in which you lessen any possibility of ever experiencing writer’s block.


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