The experience of writing Steel Butterfly has been one of brief, intense periods of activity (and progress) followed by long stretches of nothing at all. My computer tells me that the last time I edited the latest chapter was February of this year: ten months. More than enough time to bring an infant to term. (I don’t know if other mothers think of time in this way; certainly I never did, pre-motherhood, but now I find it a useful measure. If it ain’t long enough to have a baby in, it ain’t that long. And of course the converse is also true.) So, you know, a not-insignificant amount of time. My memory, when consulted, adds the helpful rider that, when I accessed the file this February past, I fiddled around for half an hour or so, played a few hands of solitaire (probably), then felt too tired or sad or disgusted or whatever to continue, and closed the file again.
For when you’re stuck…
I don’t believe in writer’s block per se. I do believe that 90% or so of story-creation is instinctual and unconscious, and that whatever process governs the writer’s (or at least, my) ability to get words onto paper (screen, wax tablet, whatever) will halt unless the conditions are, like the littlest bear’s porridge, just right. (You, hypothetical reader, may be different. You may exert such masterful control over your unconscious processes that you can muscle through these … cessations. There’s no right way or wrong way, so long as the words are getting written and you, the writer, are pleased with the end result. But most of my best thinking happens when I’m not paying attention to it.)
So what are some wrong conditions?
1. The writer’s emotional state. Seems pretty obvious. If you are distracted by real-world problems–or even real-world joys–you probably will not be able to write effectively.
2. The writer’s physical state. Ditto. It doesn’t even have to be pain that distracts you. When I was pregnant, I was unable to sit comfortably in a chair for the long stretches required to concentrate on writing. I probably should have found an alternate solution: a standing desk (ugh, with swollen ankles and feet? Maybe not) or dictation or something.
3. The story is wrong. Either something you’ve already written contradicts where the story wants to be going, or something you’re about to write is not going to work. It is best not to force the story into the shape you want it to be. If the problem happened earlier in the story, it is kind of like a dropped stitch in knitting: you will have to tear out everything you’ve done since the mistake, fix the mistake, and then do it all again. Tedious? Well, maybe, but presumably you enjoy knitting, or you wouldn’t have started the project in the first place. If the problem is about to happen … well, unless a future version of yourself appears before you and gasps out, “No–not that plot development!” how can you know?
This is more challenging. If a 3 corresponds with a 1 or 2, the time necessary to regain your equilibrium may also help to shake loose the right plot development. If you don’t have that kind of time (maybe you are a published writer with deadlines, and not a dilettante like me), you can always do something else, something physical and repetitive and boring, to help your subconscious produce the right answer. Taking a walk is good, or a shower. Washing dishes, or folding laundry, or some other tedious, necessary chore, can also help.
4. You just don’t have the right words. Everything else is fine. You feel okay (or you are writing to purge those feelings of not-okay-ness), you have had adequate sleep and/or are adequately caffeinated, you know what happens next … and still nothing. You sit and stare at a sterile white screen with a blinking cursor mocking you.
What do you do? You have no idea how to go on.
Sometimes … you can just say so.
In Voyage to Ruin, I got stuck in just such a way. Fortunately, I was writing with an omniscient narrator who liked, now and then, to interject his own opinions into the goings-on, so I wrote:
I must pause here and confess, dear readers, that I am puzzled as to how I should continue. In fact, a part of me wishes I did not have to continue at all. I would much prefer to leave you here, with the charming image of Captain Flynn at the helm of his beloved ship: a man in the prime of his life, rather good-looking, made handsomer still by his evident happiness—a man, it must be admitted, of no particular virtue, but in whom a certain dash and ebullience of spirit might almost have obviated the need for virtue. I would like that of all things, because the events to come are unpleasant in the extreme, and will no doubt be as disagreeable for you to read as they are for me to relate. However, to leave you with the impression that Captain Flynn’s story ends here would be iniquitous, vile, false. We must remember that the service of truth sometimes requires the endurance of suffering, and if things become too frightening, we will hold each other’s hands for comfort, like children lost in a dark wood.
Wow. That narrator had one heck of an orotund style. But however over-the-top the words, the idea was straight-up truth. I was puzzled as to how to continue. I didn’t want to keep writing. The narrator expressed them, but those were my thoughts and feelings. And, expressing them in the story’s style helped unstick my brain and get the words flowing.
What about a story with a more limited POV? I hear you asking, assuming there is a you and I am not just yapping into a void. After all, omniscient POV is really not popular right now.
It can still work!
In fact, the reason I am writing this now is because I used this technique, or trick, this morning, to get Steel Butterfly unstuck. Now, Steel Butterfly is told in third-person limited with no narratorial intrusions, so instead of describing how I felt, I had to describe what the POV character was feeling. (To make picking up the story more difficult, I had stopped right before what I thought was going to be an action sequence with a particular plot development, only to realize that the story needed a different, much more emotionally-charged development. So I had to dive in to that without having a chance to warm up on some dialogue or scenery description or something easier.) So I chose to describe the tension I felt, that I couldn’t just make the story get on with it already!
The moment stretched on and on and on. Move, Aine thought at it. Break. End. But it did not move, and it did not break, and it did not end.
Not a lot to it, but that little paragraph helped get the story going again.
And a little bonus tip: learn and use rhetorical devices to make your prose stronger. The technique in the final sentence is Anaphora, the repetition of words or phrases. It is helpful for emphasis, and also for slowing down the pace, making the moment seem even longer.
I don’t know if this technique would work for everybody, but it works for me every time. If it works for you, I’d love to hear about it in the comments!
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