To Finish or Not?

One of my students is a young writer—just beginning to get serious about the craft. She has never finished a story before, but then again she hasn’t written much. However, she already has the impression in her mind, “Finish what you start.” That is an excellent notion, but at times it can be detrimental. Sometimes what you started wasn’t a good idea, or maybe you didn’t think it through before beginning. Sometimes you need to stop and ask yourself if it’s worth it.

If you’re working on something, and you no longer feel any love for it, and you’re writing it out of a sense of duty—stop. The idea isn’t going anywhere. The story won’t write itself, and it also won’t walk away. It’ll still be there—in your ‘unfinished’ file in your computer. Put it in the back burner and let it simmer. Some ideas are like wine—they need to be put in a dark place and left alone for a while to become really good. You might discover later on as you pocket away ideas that a story will come along and use all those great ideas in one impressive story, and it’ll be better than you could have ever imagined.

However, say you have a story in mind—you’ve outlined everything, and you know exactly what you have to do, but you find yourself staring at a scene you really don’t want to write. Maybe it’s a talking scene—not much action, and it’s boring. You’d prefer to skip to the exciting part, but you’re heard the warning against that, so you’re stuck. What do you do? Do you skip or press on through it? If you skip, you’ll only have to write it later, and it still won’t be any more exciting. However, if you press on through this difficult scene knowing what happens next will be an epic scene, you have something to look forward to. It’s like crossing a stream. You want to get on the other side, but first you have to wade through water. You can’t run through it because it’s up to your thighs, so you take one step at a time. As soon as you reach the other side, you can run again. Take it one word at a time, one sentence at a time, one paragraph at a time, and before you know it the scene will be finished, and you’ll be on your way to that exciting part.

There are times when you’re writing a scene and nothing feels right about it. You just getting discouraged more and more, and you don’t see how it’s going to work out, so pause (not full stop, but pause). Look at the scene and think: is there any other way this scene can unfold? Explore the possibilities, different characters’ POV, maybe change the setting or the approach. Once you get a clearer idea, then copy and paste what you had written and put it in a ‘deleted scene’ file. You never want to absolutely delete something you’ve written because there might be a sentence or a paragraph that you’ve written that you can use later. Once you’re removed the text from your original manuscript, you can now rewrite the scene.

This happens because characters are very stubborn. This is their story you’re showing, and they want you to get it right. If you get any detail wrong, they’ll cringe and wince and then complain and kick and scream. You need to be aware of their discomfort immediately and figure out what the problem is. Once you do that, it will be easier to follow the story, and the characters will behave.

So, if you’re struggling with a story and have genuinely lost all interest in it, let me tell you a secret: you’re not going to like it more once you finish it. On the contrary, you likely won’t want to look at it any time soon—if ever. It’s okay to stop writing a story that no longer captivates you.

Am I encouraging uncompleted stories? No. There will come a part in every story where you won’t want to write it, and you will have to determine if it’s because the story itself has no direction, or if you’re just plain bored with it, or there’s some other interesting idea you would much rather to explore. There are times to press on and write it to completion, and there are times to stop and let the story simmer while you take on another challenge. The dangerous potential with this is writing so much but leaving a trail of unfinished stories, so you will have to challenge yourself to complete something so the sake and satisfaction of completing it.

No matter what, always be writing.

New Project Writer’s Block

New Project Writer’s Block—what is that? It’s after you completed your latest project, and after you’ve celebrated such an accomplishment, but you don’t want to go back immediately and revise because you want to put a little distance between that piece of work and yourself. Instead you want to begin a new project. Something fresh—something exciting! Now is the time to put all those story ideas you got while writing your other project to good use!

If only you could remember them.

If only they were half as interesting now as they were when you originally got the idea.

Now you’ve opened a new document and find yourself staring at a blank page and blinking cursor. All those ideas you had back then don’t seem so enticing anymore. So you go back through your older files to find any story you might have left unfinished. Maybe you’ll be prompted to finish it now.

But still, you find yourself uninspired to write—unmotivated. If you had written every day from beginning to end of your last story, you probably feel like you ran a marathon and deserve a break from writing.

Now, this is where the danger of this Writer’s Block lies. The ‘New Project’ Writer’s Block can last a week, a month, a year, or even several years! How does this happen? Let’s break it down.

  1. Completed project means you deserve a break
  2. Enormous mental strain to build a new story/world/cast of characters is wearisome
  3. Uncertainty of which story to write next makes you indecisive and leery

All of these tie closely with one another. If you’ve completed a story, you don’t feel like diving headlong into another mess of conflicts to sort out through the process of writing. You don’t feel like discovering new characters, their personalities, habits, backgrounds, and their involvement with other characters. Even if you’re working on a sequel, restarting the writing engine with a new plot is tiresome. And when you’re tired, you’re not motivated or inspired to write.

Now, just because you’re not inspired to write, does that give you the excuse not to write? Say you take a break. What happens to your writing skills if this Writer’s Block drags on for a year or so? Will you be as sharp and on the ball as you would have been if you kept waiting every day?

“But what am I supposed to write if I don’t feel like writing?” Something—anything—whatever you can think of. It could be a journal entry or a poem, or you could try writing out one of those ideas you got while writing your other story. It might fall flat, but you might discover a character there or a unique plot twist you could use in another story. Go back to the ‘Playground Experience’ and focus on perfecting specific elements of your writing. It’s like having a toolbox. You might not need all the tools, but you want to make sure they don’t rust and dull from lack of use, so sharpen them, polish them. Write a one-shot specifically on creating a relatable antagonist. You never know—it might spark a fantastic idea, and you’re off writing a story again.

Ideas come from anywhere. That is why you have to explore and seek out new ideas, new concepts, new angles to old ideas.

In May 2013 I completed writing my medieval fantasy story. I had been writing 2,000 words a day since I got the idea back in January 2013. Five months later I was really worn out from that marathon of writing. Now, in June 2014 I finally discovered my next story and have been faithfully writing it. However, between May 2013 and June 2014—that’s a little over a year! What did I do in the meanwhile? Wrote—every day. I co-wrote numerous stories with writer friends just for the fun of it. Revised older work. I tried out new ideas hoping it would lead to my next novel. I kept falling flat on my face, but I pushed myself up and told myself, “Write at least 500 words a day—1,000 or 2,000 is preferable.” I didn’t write because I feared not to write. I just knew that if I didn’t write, I’d become irritable to be around. Writing is my way to express myself, my way to stay sane and to understand everything I encounter in life. I didn’t worry about beginning something I couldn’t finish because I knew it would come together in the proper time.

With any form of Writer’s Block but especially the New Project Writer’s Block, real life tends to get in the way, and we may be tempted to use this to justify not writing. Is this all right to do? No. If you’re a writer, you will write—maybe not a lot. You probably won’t like everything you write, but you will write.

Here’s an example of Real Life getting in the way—just to show you I can relate to the struggle. Immediately after I finished my medieval fantasy novel in May 2013, my mom broke her arm in June 2013, and the very next day my sister with her three small children came to visit from England for the summer. That weekend my favorite cat had her first litter of kittens, and the next week my sister’s cat had kittens too. So we had two cats, eight kittens, three small kids, and somebody with a broken arm all in the house. The next week, my mom had surgery on her arm, and I was asked to stay overnight with her instead of my dad staying. On top of this, a good friend of mine had her first baby, but she was sick afterwards, so I was worried about her. Then my sister-in-law was also pregnant and had several false alarms which included me driving two hours to their place to drop off their other son from visiting with us only to be asked, once more unexpectedly, to stay the night with them in case my sister-in-law went into labor that night because they wanted me to watch their son. Then I had to paint and then repaint a room to prepare it for even more guests from England and help a sister pack up and move out of state. At last my sister-in-law had her baby weeks later, and I had to spend the night at their place again, and then finally everything calmed down by September.

This is what it’s like when Real Life interrupts. At times like this, it’s tempting to not write because it’s simply easier that way, but I knew I needed some form of normalcy in my life during this chaos. I brought my laptop or my Alphasmart NEO with me at all times, so I could write. While in the waiting room waiting for my mom’s surgery, I was the only calm and patient one in the room because I was co-writing with a friend. I was able to take everything in stride because I had taken the time to clear my mind, taken the time to see everything from the bigger picture like a story, and from the viewpoint I was able to remain calm.

Regardless of all this, did I get frustrated and discouraged due to the New Project Writer’s Block? Yes—plenty of times. I felt worthless as a writer because I couldn’t focus on any one project, and all the projects I was working on kept stalling. I was worried I wouldn’t find a new story that would propel itself onward with me hanging on for dear life to write it all. But then pieces started coming together—pieces from old, completely unrelated stories began to fit together to form this new idea, and then it took off, and that’s what I’ve been writing these last few months with no end in sight really.

Is there a way to prevent this New Project Writer’s Block? Well, I have a theory, but I have yet to get it to work for me. Maybe it’ll work for you. As you near the end of your massive project, before you complete it, determine what you will write next and prepare it. That way, once you’ve finished the other story, you can jump right into that one (maybe giving yourself a little break if you want). This hasn’t worked for me yet because I find myself unable to work intensely on one project while simultaneously outlining and world-building an entirely new endeavor. That is a lot of mental work, and you risk losing interest in your immediate story because the new one sounds much more enticing. You don’t want that. The readers can sense that in your work. That is why you must dedicate time to each story.

So, is there a solution? Again, if we had some kind of magic solution to any form of Writer’s Block, it wouldn’t be a problem for us anymore. The solution is unique to each writer and your situation. However, you need to determine for yourself what kind of writer you will be. Some have tried to write every day but find they can’t stick to it and end up loathing everything they write. To be honest, it’s hard for me to comprehend that, but I know it is a true struggle for some writers, and I respect that. However, be consistent with your writing if possible. If you have to go back and write fan fiction just to get through the dry spell of ideas, that is fine (write fan fiction for your own stories if you want. That’s always fun to do).

The key to overcoming Writer’s Block is determining exactly where you are in life and writing, recognize it for what it is, keep your imagination engaged, bounce ideas around with friends, and try to write something every day. What you write doesn’t have to be for anyone else’s eyes but your own. It can be random sentences in a notebook, a paragraph, a poem, a song, maybe even the rough sketch of an idea or an outline or even dreams you’ve dreamt. It can be a short story or a fan fiction story or something you co-write with someone. It can be a full novel or even a screenplay. And it can change from day-to-day until a story seizes your mind and refuses to let you go until you’ve penned it.

“What if that never happens, Kelly? What if a story never grabs a hold of me like that?” I wish I knew the answer to that, but all I can say is I’ve felt the same fear before, but a story always came. I just had to be patient for it. In the meanwhile though, you might need to evaluate why you write. If you know that, if you can lay hold on that, then nothing will tear it from you, and you will write.

This may not have given you the answers you were looking for, but maybe it gave you some hope. Keep daydreaming stories, keep listening and watching for inspiration every day around you, and keep writing. Turn that Writer’s Block into a steppingstone to your next great adventure!

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.