From time to time writers may face blank pages and find their minds are blank, too.
Some give up. That’s it, I’m at 30,000 words and there’s nothing more to say. But what if the imperative stop our minds raise for us is beneficial to our craft?
What if our trained instincts are telling us that it’s time to take a look, not at the next 1,000 words, but at the story structure as a whole? If you accept that our inner writers, in partnership with our inner readers, know quite a lot, and that it’s our strong talent that keeps us longing to write, then when our mind refuses to take another step, we perhaps ought, like Lassie’s owner at cliffside, to stop and listen.
This extended pause may well be a gift to story structure. We can use ten minutes here and there to outline the story as a whole, character development arcs, individual turning points, Hero’s Journey structure, individual scene structure. Write blurbs, reviews, and taglines. It may take days, or weeks, or whatever, to pass, but the more we think positively and professionally about using this blank white time, the less fear we feel facing it.
This week I promised to write up some ways to bypass writer’s block. If you have more I’d love to hear them. Like sleep mnemonics, it’s wise to change up strategies to keep them effective.
- Often “writer’s block” occurs at about a third of the way into the story. What’s stopping you might well be your own excellent professional intuition, your feel for story. Because this is where any weaknesses begin to show up and the storytelling energy flags. Thank your intuition — disguised as “writer’s block” — because this is the time to address any structural flaws in the first act of your story. What if you weren’t blocked? You would have to make changes through the whole thing instead of just the first third or so. Whew. Thanks, writer’s block! To sharpen your first third, here are some strategies and resources:
- The best way I have found to strengthen Act 1 of a short story or novel is to visit the masters of story structure: screenwriters. Visit scriptlab.com and listen to the superb five minute talks on Act 1. Read Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat. Take out your favourite films and examine the first 8 of 24 chapters.
- Re-outline your first act, and use the screenwriter’s rule of 15: make a list of 15 different ways you could have opened the story, could have established tone, setting, saved Blake Snyder’s Cat, etc. That’s 15 each. You’ll be digging so deep you’ll be sweating. It’s worth the effort.
- Cut your story from the beginning, page by page or chapter by chapter, saving all for possible use as backstory later. Do this until you reach a moment when the energy seems fantastic and your character is making a strong choice, preferably a sacrifice. This is the point that no matter how irascible, misguided or irresponsible, your protagonist is a hero. When you and the reader desire what your hero desires it’s easy to write what the hero will do next.
- Use Donald Maass’s brilliant advice: think what your character would never do, and have her do it — believably. This is possibly the best recipe for character development ever devised. And buy his books and attend his talks if you possibly can.
- Trust your craft and story prompts. Record yourself reading story prompts (I record Dale Adams Segal‘s Hour Stories for my own use) and set yourself in your best writing spot with a timer and the knowledge that your talent never has and never will fail you. The story prompts set your inner writer on autopilot. If you try this and nothing happens, do return to point 1 in this article and try one of the preparations again.
- You love writing. Remember what that feels like. As often as you may, for a few moments imagine yourself where you want to be. Picture yourself in your best writing spot. See your hand moving your pen across paper, your fingers tapping at your keyboard. Feel the smile on your face. Think, I love writing. Think, And I’m very good. And my characters rock.
In a writers’ life as in a writer’s work, pacing is everything, and there have to be times of rest and beauty. Writer’s block is the eye of the storm. It’s a moment of reflection, a pause to gather strength. Don’t worry, because your work has been, will be, and is, wonderful.