Production Writer’s Block

What is Writer’s Block? It’s a common term in writers’ circles, but what exactly is it? Everyone can agree that Writer’s Block is when you’re stuck or uninspired to write, but what is it? Well, there are two kinds of block:

      1. when you’re in the middle of the story but don’t know where to go from there, have no motivation or inspiration to continue.
      2. when you’ve completed writing a story and find yourself suddenly without anything to write.

Let’s break down both forms into two posts.

In the first form, which I call ‘Production’ Writer’s Block, you are in the middle of your story, have a good idea where it should go and how it should end, but the story isn’t appealing to you anymore, or the characters aren’t engaging to you. You’re no longer excited about the story. This is dangerous because if you’re bored with the story and the characters, your readers will detect your boredom in your words, and they’ll get bored, put the book down, and never pick it up again. They won’t remember anything about it, and if asked if they read it, they’ll shrug and lift the corner of their lip in a slight disgust, “Eh, it was okay.”

You don’t want that. You want them completely captivated by your words, but in order for them to be absolutely taken in, you must believe in the story and surrender to it. Words can convey emotions—that is what makes words so powerful. It is commonly said if the author cries, your reader will cry, and that is true. Of course, the author’s cry at a death scene will be more like, “Nooooo!…..hehehe……hahahaha….BWHAHAHAHA!! My readers are going to HATE this!!” whereas the reader’s cry will be a prolonged, “NNNNNOOOOOOOO!” but then they get excited because they want to see how the rest of the story will unfold without that fundamental character. Likewise the emotion of boredom is transferrable from author to reader, and you don’t want that.

What is the case for this Production Writer’s Block? It could be a few things:

  1. you didn’t outline, and now you’ve gone as far through the story as you could imagine
  2. you forced a character to act out of character, and now they’re digging their heels in and literally stopping the story.
  3. maybe you imagined a certain scene to take place in a specific location and unfold a certain way, but the story doesn’t want that.
  4. or maybe the story lacks plot, structure, or direction.

In the case of #1, I’ve already discussed outlines in great length. I believe I don’t need to go back over that. However, if you have run into this problem due to lack of outline, now is a good time to stop, sit down with your characters, and discuss the direction of the story. Am I saying you have to outline the entire story then? No, but at least get enough to push you along.

With #2 and your characters misbehaving—I’ve mentioned this before as well in previous posts, but specific last week’s post about ‘When to Step OFF the Outline‘. You might have planned the story perfectly from beginning to end, but as you’re writing it, your characters develop, and suddenly they don’t want to do what they’re told to do in a certain scene. If you forced them along anyway, they have been pitching a fit all this time, but it only manifests itself when you come to a major part in the story, and the character must do something but absolutely won’t. By this time you’re tired of struggling with the character, and you probably don’t understand what his or her problem is. If this is the case, you need pinpoint which character is giving you the most problem, go back through the story and find the place where the problem began. Then negotiate with the character. If the character doesn’t want to stick to the outline, then take the chance and follow their lead. Remember, your outline is a guideline—not a hard and fast rule. However, the character’s problem might be extremely minor but brings to light how another character reacted, which further develops that other character.

For instance, say one character just discovered this other character isn’t who she says she is (I’m making this scene up on the spot just for this post):

Wait a minute,” Kilroth grabbed Locket’s arm and spun her back around to face him. He searched her face trying to understand what exactly she just told him. “You mean to say that the real Blackadder’s dead and that you’re not her?” When her smile widened, Kilroth narrowed his eyes, tightening his grip. “Who are you? Tell me now!”

You’d love to know, wouldn’t you? It’s bugging you because you know you know me, but you just can’t place it, can you?” She tilted her head to a side, ignoring the pain in her arm where he gripped her.

So, sounds pretty good, right? Say that Kilroth is the one throwing a fit, waving red flags after this scene. He’s fine with everything that was said, but there is one minor detail that Locket did that he caught and would have latched onto for the rest of the story, but the author didn’t record this, and that’s why he’s having problem. So, let’s rewrite it. See if you can spot the added detail.

Wait a minute,” Kilroth grabbed Locket’s arm and spun her back around to face him. He searched her face trying to understand what exactly she just told him. “You mean to say that the real Blackadder’s dead and that you’re not her?” When her smile widened, Kilroth narrowed his eyes, tightening his grip. “Who are you? Tell me now!”

You’d love to know, wouldn’t you?” The smile faltered for a moment as a wave of sadness passed through her eyes—sadness Kilroth didn’t understand. However, it vanished when she blinked, and she grinned with bright eyes. “It’s bugging you because you know you know me, but you just can’t place it, can you?” She tilted her head to a side.

In that version, Kilroth saw sadness in her, and that tells him that she’s not withholding information just to be difficult but because there are deeper choices there. Armed with that knowledge, he would approach the topic differently.

It is amazing how interwoven the story is to each word and phrase.

Now, on to the third reason why you might have Production Writer’s Block—maybe you imagined a certain scene to talk place in a specific location and unfold a certain way, but the story doesn’t want that. This probably doesn’t make a lot of sense, but let me give you an example.

Once my character, Vixen, entered a new scene. We’d never been to this setting before, so through her eyes we were able to get a feel for these new surroundings and such. I had her walk into an impressive skyscraper, but when she stated her purpose, she was escorted to the massive underground bunker—lots of illegal activity happening here. But then the scene stalled. Vixen had barely just stepped off the elevator and looked around when she told me, “This isn’t the right place.” I knew if I pushed on and insisted on using this setting (since I had spent so much time on descriptions building it!), I would get Writer’s Block, so I backed off, thought about it for a moment, discussed this with the characters, and I realized they didn’t want it underground. They wanted the story to take place above ground—the entire skyscraper was the operation, no hiding. This changed the dynamics of the story a bit, but it also made it more interesting.

So if you found yourself coming to a stumbling halt in your writing, take the moment to lift your head from being so involved in the story to see what is really happening, and adjust appropriately—even if that means going back, changing location completely, and having to cut out several thousand words in the process. Words are never lost. Just put them in a ‘Deleted Scene’ file, and they’ll be there if you ever need them again.

Okay, now, let’s discuss the final reason you might have Production Writer’s Block—lack of plot, structure, or direction. Say you get a really cool idea for a character—a female character who can be both the protagonist and the antagonist, but she plays the game not to win but only to make it as difficult as possible for the other characters to achieve their goal. If they lose, so be it. If they win, they worked hard for it. Sounds like a neat character, eh? But what is her story? If you tried to write a story about her, she’d throw all kinds of fits because she insists she’s not the main character, so who is the main character? What is their story?

You can have the same problem, but instead of it stemming off a character-based story idea, it’s a concept-based story idea. I think I used this example before in another post, but for instance, say you came up with this brilliant idea of worlds between dimensions and only specific people can travel to the different worlds due to markings on their hand. Now, those people can drag ordinary people into different dimensions with them, but what happens to the ordinary people is that they gain supernatural power as long as they’re in that dimension. However, they lose it as soon as they’re taken back to their own dimension. Sounds fantastic, doesn’t it? But what’s the plot? Who are the characters? What’s this story about?

When you encounter the problem of either of these last two instances, it is definitely a problem. There is no magic formula, no steps to tell you to take to create an plot for those brilliant characters you have or a plot and characters for the concept you have. However, there are several things you can do.

      1. sit down and talk with those characters or brainstorm that concept. Think through them completely, and maybe, just maybe you’ll find the plot.
      2. grab your brainstorming (maybe not necessarily writer) friend, meet for coffee or pizza, and tell them everything you know about your story—spoilers and all. Perhaps they’ll be able to spark the seed of a plot.
      3. put it on the back burner and let it simmer for a bit.

That last one might be a bit discouraging, but don’t lose faith. Just because you can’t write the story or that character now, doesn’t mean you won’t ever write it. Back in 2008 I came up with a concept, but every time I tried to write it, I hit a brick wall of Writer’s Block, so I shelved it. Now, years later, other elements came into play, and I took it down from the shelf, opened it up again, and that is the book I am currently working on. Also in this story I am finally using an awesome character I had never been able to place in any other story before. So don’t lose hope.

So what happens if you have this Production Writer’s Block? Go back and figure out where the root of the problem lies. Determining that is actually part of the solution. As for the rest of the solution, having a talk with your characters may help, or maybe you need to present your dilemma to your writing group or a few writing buddies or your brainstorming friend.

There isn’t a single solution for the problem of Writer’s Block. If there was, it wouldn’t be a problem anymore since we would have mastered the solution already. Simply recognize where you are, do what you can on your own, and if necessary, reach out to others.

Next week we’ll discuss the second kind of Writer’s Block that there is, which I call ‘New Project’ Writer’s Block.

When to Step OFF the Outline

I wrote an outline for my story, but I’m stuck. I have Writer’s Block. The characters aren’t agreeing with me. What do I do?” Let’s discuss this.

There are times when the story and the characters simply won’t do what you’ve asked them to. They kick and scream and bite, and you sit back in your chair with arms folded glaring at the computer screen. It’s not supposed to be this way. It’s supposed to be easier than this. After all, you are their author! Why won’t they listen to you?

One very important thing about writing you must remember: when writing a story, you are writing their story—not yours. They’ve gone through it, experienced it, and they know what they’re talking about. You are simply a vehicle for their story to be told to the world. “But they don’t exist! How can they be in such control when they’re just figments of my imagination?” I don’t have the answer to that. I simply know that as writers, we are not in control of the story.

You may get a fantastic idea for a story and carefully outline it. You sit down and begin writing. It’s going well—no problems. Then suddenly you ask a character to do something, and the character crosses her arms, steps back, and glares. Now you’re at crossroads. On one hand, the outline requires the character to do or say a specific thing, but on the other hand the character absolutely refuses. Without the character cooperating, the scene won’t unfold as planned, and there will be a ripple effect throughout the rest of the story. When you talk with the character, she insists you, “That’s not me! I wouldn’t do something like that.”

You sighed and try to reason with her, “But that’s what you told me you were going to do when we wrote the outline!”

She doesn’t back down. “Well, you just didn’t know me well enough back then. Now you know me better, and you should know I wouldn’t do that. Don’t make me.”

Then what am I supposed to do? If you don’t demand to know Blackadder’s real identity after seeing him fight like that, that changes everything! I mean, you’re not going to have a reason to meet with Remus once you get into the city, and I honestly don’t know when Blackadder will ever tell you who he really is, and you know how important that is for the story!”

The character smiles—a knowing smile that makes you feel small. “Just trust me—trust us. The story will work out just fine.”

Now you have a choice. You can throw caution to the wind and trust the character, or you can insist to stick to the outline and force the character to do something out of character. Here’s something to consider when you’re faced with this decision: have you ever tried to make someone do something they didn’t want to do? How smoothly did that end? He was probably glaring at you for the rest of the evening and wouldn’t forgive you for a week. That’s bad. That’s inconvenient, but it’s worse when it’s a character in your head. You can’t just walk out of the room and leave him to cool off. The character is with you every step of the way, talking behind your back, playing your conscience, and just being a pest. Not only that but he also picks fights with other characters in the cast. When one character is thoroughly unhappy, no one is happy

Say you force a character to act out of character and you finish the story. Then what? What you then face is the daunting task of revising that story to prep it for publication, and after such a struggle to write the story, how much are you really going to look forward to diving back into it and fighting some more? You will most likely shelf the book or stick it in a drawer hoping it will sort itself out while you get on to another project, but you know deep in the back of your mind that you will probably never touch that story again. If you do, you’ll start from scrap and redo it completely.

All that time, all those words wasted—simply because you wanted to have your own way and didn’t trust the characters.

So you see, when you’ve outlined a story, but the characters want to change something, it is always in your best interest to go along with them. This is when a detour from the outline is acceptable. They have a way of coming back to the outline and getting back on track. If they don’t bring the story back to the outline, in the end you will be grateful because the story turned out better than you could have imagined. Not only that, but you will be eager to go back and start the revision process which will then lead to publication.

You may plan your story to the smallest of details, but then the story may want to get off track. This can be discouraging especially if you spent a lot of time and energy working on that outline, but life is like that, isn’t it? You can plan out your goals and dreams, and plot out every detail along the way, but then life throws you a curveball, and you have to dodge or get hit. Take it in a stride. Remember, writing is—after all—a reflection of life.

When NOT to Use an Outline

So, why should anyone not use an outline? Because it’s fun. Admit it. The recklessness of getting in the car one day and just driving without any plans or any idea where you’re going is appealing. Some mysterious stranger stops by and says, “Hey, I’m going on this quest. I could use your help,” and you’d jump for the chance of an adventure. You don’t know where you’re going or who you’ll encounter or how it will all unfold, and that’s what makes the journey all the more exciting. And when the story falls flat on its face, you might be able to step back and point at your characters, “It wasn’t my fault! They made me do it!”

That’s what it’s like writing without an outline. Is it wrong? No. Remember, a lot of writers will switch between being a plotter (one who uses outlines) and a pansters (one who doesn’t use outlines). I am one such writer. I prefer to outline my historical fiction mainly because of all the dates, events, and actual historical figures encountered in those books, so an outline is useful. However, being stuck to the rules get mundane at times, and I want nothing more than to break free and just write—for fun.

However, there is one thing you should keep in mind when considering not using an outline when you write. Writing without an outline is best when you don’t have a deadline. Now, it’s not impossible to have a deadline but write without an outline, yet deadlines demand principled writing, and they don’t give room for the exploration of random scenes which may or may not be in the story or for Writer’s Block.

Writing without an outline puts the writer very in tune to the story and the characters. The author constantly has his finger on the pulse of the story, listening for any signal from the characters of changing the course of the story. This also gives the WRITER a chance to be surprised by the story. A protagonist character may do an action that shocks both you and the antagonist. Someone else you thought was dead may suddenly appear in the story with a longwinded explanation as to how he really didn’t die. Two characters you thought for sure would end up together happen to be third cousins twice removed, which makes for complications.

As you can see, there isn’t a shortage of surprises you can experience when writing without an outline. It makes you go, “AHHH!” then “That’s awesome!” then “Bahahaahahaha” then “Wait—no!! Now what am I going to do?” It’s commonly said if the author is shocked or cries, the reader will then be shocked or cry. This is part of the addiction to writing without an outline.

So, if you’re tired from writing with everything mapped out, and if you don’t have a deadline to meet but just want to explore the writing world and characters, writing without an outline may be what you need. If you haven’t written for a while, but every time you sit down to write, you find yourself discouraged because you think you need to do all that planning and prep work (world building, character questionnaires, etc.) stop for a second. You might give yourself Writer’s Block just thinking like that. It might be that you need to write and step away from the norm and expected and just try writing without an outline.

You may find this isn’t for you—doesn’t work for you, and that doesn’t make it wrong. Everyone has their preferences, and it varies from person to person. What works for you may not work for someone else, and that is very important to recognize.

However, sometimes in the middle of writing a story that you’ve outline, you find the story isn’t going that direction, so what do you do? Is it possible for you to both have an outline and not have an outline for the same story? We’ll discuss that in next week’s post, and then we’ll finally move on from the topic of outlines!

When TO Use an Outline

To use an outline or not to use an outline? Which should it be? All your life you’ve heard both arguments but no real direction, so you can’t decide. Let’s discuss two terms you may hear: plotters and pansters.

Plotters: writers who outline, structure, and plot out their story before writing the actual story.

Pansters: writers who have an overarching idea for the story, a general idea where it’s going and how to get there, but they don’t outline it.

Is one way right and the other way wrong? No. Truth be told, a lot of writers switch between the two. For instance, normally I consider myself a ‘plotter’, but with the book I am currently writing, I’m a panster, but before we discuss being a panster and not outlining, let’s explore reasons why outlines are valuable to a writer.

Outlines are like the roadmap to your stories. If you are serious about publishing work, and you don’t want to get Writer’s Block, consider using an outline. Here are some uses it achieves:

1) You get familiar with the story and characters before writing the actual story.

2) It shows you what your story has the potential to look like.

3) It helps you establish goals.

4) It’s a guideline when you don’t feel motivated to write but know you have to.

5) It also helps so you don’t forget the story if you can’t write it right away.

When you write an outline before writing the story, you get familiar with the characters. They get into your head and start conversing with you. The more familiar you are with the characters, the easier you can determine whether or not you want to spend the next several months and years breathing life into them and then chasing them all over the globe. You might have a cool idea for a character, but no story to attach to them. Using an outline helps you explore possibilities for that character and see if the story develops on its own. If it doesn’t, then you’ve saved yourself some time because where the outline ends is where you would have hit Writer’s Block.

An outline draws you a picture of what your story may look like. I say ‘may’ because sometimes the characters become so real they don’t stick to the outline. This is all right because the outline is a guide to help you until the characters take over. It’s like looking at a picture or watching a video of someone you’ve never met. You get an idea of what they look like and how they act, but it isn’t until you actually meet them that you can determine if your assessment of them was accurate or not.

Points 3 (it helps you establish goals) and 4 (it’s a guideline when you don’t feel motivated to write but know you have to) work together. You establish goals such as writing one scene a day or getting to a certain point in your story by the end of the week. Some days you won’t want to write—might have a fever or simply no will to write—and having an outline keeps you on track. It shows you, “If you just write this scene right now, you’ll be able to finish on time. If you wait until later, the scene will still be there. It won’t write itself, but you would have lost that time.” So you plow through it, and while you’re pushing through Writer’s Block, you overcome it and rediscover something enjoyable about your writing.

Outlines are useful if you have an overly active imagination and hundreds of characters just clambering for attention, but you can only write one (or two or three if you’re very dedicated) story at a time. However, you know from much personal experience the dreaded human habit we all have of forgetting. If you’re in the middle of a huge writing project and suddenly you get a fantastic idea for another story, if you don’t write it down, you will forget it. It’s better to pause the project, outline the other story, and then return to the original project. This accomplishes two things. First, it helps you remember the details of the story, and secondly, it gives the story time to develop and for you to decide whether or not you really want to invest time and energy to write it. Sometimes you may never write the story you outlined, but it’s reassuring to know if you ever find yourself without anything to write, all you need to do is look back in the file of Outlines and pull out something you haven’t written yet.

Outlines are also very important when co-writing because otherwise, you may never finish the story. Not only that, but if you hit a snag in the story or find you really hate one character, you can backtrack and then change a response and resume writing. This happened to me once when I was co-writing with a friend. We had the entire story outlined. I had a character who was disturbed, complicated, compulsive, and simply annoying. I didn’t like my own character, and finally my friend texted me asking if we could kill the character. We were at 60,000 words (that’s over a hundred pages) in the story. However, this character was very important, so a death wasn’t that simple. We decided to find the one point in the story that turned her character into who she became—it was a simple author fault because we forced her to act out of character, so she was pitching a fit the rest of the way. Finding that turning point, we went from 60,000 words back to 27,000 words and rewrote the entire story—but we stayed on the outline and completed the story. As an ironic note on that story, by the time we reached the same scene where we stopped in order to backtrack, we were already back at 60,000 words. In other words, out backtrack experience may have cost us some time, but it did not cost us words.

Word of Caution: There is a danger of outlining TOO much. You may be the kind of person who must know every little detail of every character, every scene, and everything, and that’s okay. However, stories are organic. This means they grow and morph as they will—whether or not you want it to. You may try to put them in a box and force them to stay there, but the story may fight you—often manifesting as Writer’s Block. Previously, I discussed Static Authors and Interactive Authors, and if you insist on sticking to an outline regardless of the will of the story, you may find yourself veering more toward being a Static Author. There is nothing wrong with that. However, if you find yourself always struggling to write and tired when it comes to putting words on paper, you might want to consider the fact you need to step off your outline and trust the story. You might be surprised. The story could very well lead you right back to the outline and end up exactly where you had planned for it to go—just not how you had planned it. Or it could end up in an entirely different than what you plotted out, but to be honest, when that happens, it’s usually better than anything you could have ever planned.

Is an outlined a fixed object?” No. Consider it more like the skeletal structure newborn. The bones of a baby are not solid like an adult, but as the child grows, the bones strengthen and calcify. The entire skeleton is there. If you look at an x-ray of a baby, you’ll see the skeleton of a human being. It’s different because it’s immature, but it is still human, and the baby will develop her unique features and personality given time. Outlines are similar in the fact that they are the immature skeleton of the untested story. As you, the author, gets more familiar with the characters, settings, and conflicts, the story’s personality begins to take shape.

I will go into more detail of stepping off the outline, but next week we will first discuss reasons not to use an outline. For some people, outlining just doesn’t work for them, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

See you then!