A man sets out to draw the world. As the years go by, he peoples a space with images of provinces, kingdoms, mountains, bays, ships, islands, fishes, rooms, instruments, stars, horses, and individuals. A short time before he dies, he discovers that the patient labyrinth of lines traces the lineaments of his own face. –Jorge Luis Borges.
It’s a real beach, that devil of a writer’s block. A real hot beach. I can’t go for a swim to get the sand out of my drawers and cool down. There are sharks in the ocean. Jelly fish scattered around me. Those darn jellies and their sting stop me. There is no way off this beach and out of the sun. I’d say that sums up my version of writer’s block. Pretty bad, isn’t it?
Instead of a beach, it might be a snow storm. Or out on a desert dune and no oasis. Or stuck in an elevator that won’t go up or down. There isn’t an easy out. It’s always a beach when a work-in-progress falls on my head.
The characters, especially Miss Main, are not letting me in on their inner lives and their secrets. In one way or another, characters I’ve befriended, fallen in love with, have shut down my story.They are leaving the party with no explanation. All the struggle in the world won’t get them back to the Yellow Brick Road and on their way to the Emerald City. No amount of alchemy will return Dorothy to Kansas. You see, it’s not their story.
So how do I get myself off the beach? Through the snow storm? How can I find that oasis? Certainly not by gritting my teeth and grunting my way forward. Those jelly stings hurt like hell and I am not fond of shark bite.
Of course, I could take a helicopter lift off the beach and be done with the whole damned mess. But abandoning Story is not an option. If I abandon her, she dies, never to live again. No other creator can breathe life back into her.
The only way off this beach of writer’s block is to let go. To trust Story, when she is ready, to reach for my hand, to squeeze it softly, then lead me out of the darkness and into the sunshine. Trusting Story means I have to sit myself down and write first draft crap. Complete garbage though it is, this is only the Lewis and Clark part of the journey. Laying down a beautiful, scenic highway comes later.
Does this work every time? Does this work for every writer? I’ve lost enough stories to know that the answer is probably no. All I can do is try and write that first draft crap. Once that draft is done, there’ll be another and another until a final, polished manuscript is ready for the world. If I don’t do this, I will have the death of more stories on my conscience. Then I have failed not only my stories. I have failed myself.
So what do I do to get back on track with Story.
I have a couple of morning exercises I practice.I am not always able to do them, but I do try. Been doing them a couple of years. I wake up thirty minutes before my day begins. I make myself a cup of coffee. Then I sit myself down, draw a card from my tarot deck or randomly choose a hexagram from the I Ching or open up a book of photographs or paintings. The chosen image is a prompt. Inspired by this image, I free write 50-250 words of a scene, a reflection, a short essay or a prose poem.
Next comes a Copy Exercise. I copy 250 words or so from the work of a writer I admire. It might be a short story, the chapter of a novel, or an essay. Once I complete that work, I try a different writer. Over the past two years, I have copied Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Alice Munro, Yasunari Kawabata, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Graham Greene and P. D. James. In case you wonder why the rotating writers. It’s so I won’t start imitating one writer or another.
Both these exercises loosen my mind and get my subconscious going. They let it know that I am available. As a bonus, the prompt exercise occasionally gives me a blog post.
Some Suggested Techniques
Creating can be scary and hard. Often our subconscious will prevent us from going boldly where no writer has gone before. Over the years I’ve used a number of techniques that have helped.
QUIT TRYING TO MAKE PERFECT: Give yourself a break. You are human. Nobody gets it right the first draft. That novel, story or blog post you admire so much may have taken the author twenty, thirty, forty drafts before it was ready for primetime.
MOST OF ALL: To get the imagination going, simply to Be Available.
FREE WRITE: Free write for five minutes as fast as you can, beginning with the sentence: I am afraid to write this story because…
THE FRIEND: If you are writing a novel or short story, think of your Main Character as a Friend you are getting to know well. Ask yourself what it would take for you to abandon a friend. Has this occurred with MC?
THE HEMINGWAY: Hemingway stopped in mid-sentence at the end of a day’s writing session. The next writing session he picked up that the sentence where he laid it down and wrote his five hundred words for that day.
PROMPTS: For each of my three nanowrimos, I used a visual prompt for each day’s work. I pulled up my day’s image, then asked how the image related to my characters and their story. It gets funny when my characters reside in Bithlo, Florida, and the picture is of the Eiffel Tower or New York City. Sometimes I have to stretch but it’s okay. The wine on their table was produced in France.
THE ELMORE LEONARD: Get the characters talking. Elmore Leonard once said, that when a character quit talking, he killed them off. I find murdering a character a little extreme. Then you have bad character karma and that is a real beach. Who wants that? Sending them to bed without supper can wake them up to sunny side.
CHANGE CHARACTERS: Write a scene from a minor character’s point of view. I once wrote a story about a contract killer. Before he fulfilled a contract, he got a manicure. So I wrote a scene from the manicurist’s point of view. Without knowing anything about him, I wanted to know how she saw him?
CHANGE PLOTS: Write some scenes that are not in your story. Take your Main Character grocery shopping. What kinds of food does she like? Does she move through the store slowly or briskly? Does she have conversations with the other shoppers, or with the store employees?
DATE A CHARACTER: Take one of your characters on a date. Where would the two of you go? What would you talk about?
INTERVIEW YOUR CHARACTERS: Ask a friend to portray a character in your story and not just the hero or villain. Give them a profile of the character. Make a list of ten open-ended questions for the character to answer. Then interview them. Pretend you are Jimmy Fallon. Or interview the character for a major character role in your story.
THE LAST SCENE: Write the Last Scene. It should mirror your First Scene. If the First Scene begins on a trip in a car, your final scene might have MC in a car. Once you have written your final paragraph, you now have a destination for your story.
LIST 10 THINGS: Return to your First Scene. List ten things in that scene, such as: a bridge, a man with a cane, a duck, a river, a bulldozer, a pebble in a shoe, a dead tree, rain clouds, a dollar bill and a pair of spectacles. Now choose a character other than your Main Character. Write a scene including that character and one of the ten things.
THE WEEKEND NOVELIST: Over the years I have read hundreds of books on writing. Blessed is the one who picks one writing book and sticks with it. If I had to choose just one, it would be Robert Ray’s “The Weekend Novelist”. The first edition is best but the more recent edition will do. It is designed for non-professional writers with a forty hour work week. Setting aside several hours each weekend to work through the exercises in the book, the novelist will have a polished novel in one year.
TAKE A BREAK AND FIND THINGS THAT INSPIRE YOU: Sometimes we run out of gas just like our cars. Find things that inspire you and help you rediscover that inner creative. It can be a movie or reading a scene in a book or a piece of music. I have a friend who wrote her first published novel to the sound of Dave Matthews.
These are not hard and fast rules. They are guidelines. Each writer has to discover the process that works best for them. The important thing is to keep writing. Remember a day without writing is still a day without writing.