Using every trick in the writer’s book: last ditch help to get unblocked

Another way to get over or around a blockage? Get help. Outside help.

Warning: I don’t use this method until I’ve tried everything else to get unstuck; it takes a bit of time, and the willingness to throw open the mind for a while. But if I’m not making progress, even with everything in place, I’m willing to accept help from without.

Codified help from a writing teacher

I use the easy kind of help that is always available: a book on writing. Cheap. Available 24/7. Ignorable if necessary. Authoritative. (You didn’t really think I was going to go consult a live human, did you? Not my way of learning: I’m doing this ALL by myself, no editor, no critique partner, no beta reader until I’M satisfied with it. Otherwise known as DIY – do it yourself.)

First, I decide roughly what my problem is: plot, character, theme, action, dialogue, introspection, infodump, situation, scenery…

Then, I ask myself which of my many books on writing – I have 50 close at hand, and have my favorites among them – might give me a clue from OUTSIDE myself on what to do to solve my problem.

Once I’ve chosen a book or two, I scan the list of chapter headings (another reason to put headings on your chapters) until I find something in the category of my problem, and select the chapter(s) to read.

Finally, I take from the exercises at the end of the chapter (my favorites all have these) whatever my subconscious seems to want to look at – today. I try to limit it to three ideas, preferably ones I hadn’t thought about, or haven’t considered recently, and also ones I haven’t annotated extensively in the margins of the book yet – I am looking, after all, for NEW ideas to kickstart my brain.

I copy those three down in my working notes file, and close the book. (This is not the time to get into a cozy learning situation: I’m looking for ideas and writing prompts.)

Applying the principle

Today, Donald Maass’ book, Writing 21st Century Fiction, Chapter 5, Standout Characters, provides, under the heading ‘Warm and alive’ in the exercises, the following, which fits my needs precisely – because I’m trying to write an emotional journey:

• Find a spot where your protagonist is in a black mood. Objectify it. How is this blackness different than any other? What does it look like? Why does it feel good to feel bad? Will it blow over? When? Create a passage in which your protagonist studies her own misery.

• In your current scene, what’s the hidden high principle that your protagonist sees at work? Express. it. Make the action show it more.

• In the last inner monologue you wrote, insert one insight, question, or worry that hasn’t hit you (or your protagonist) before now.

Now I’m going to go write the d%#n thing – and I’ll come back and tell you how it went.

Experiment result:

• I picked this prompt because my character ends the scene in a black mood. To establish why that black mood was so different from any other black mood, I had him interviewed by a psychiatrist that he has consulted years after about why his life went off the tracks on that day

The interview, in the form of a transcript alternating between the psychiatrist, P, and my character, A, but without the fill of words describing action, internal monologue, or dialogue tags, clocked in at 1,903 words – and came flowing out of my fingers with little to impede it, in one single stream. It took as long to type as that many words take – a couple of hours, tops – and my brain didn’t ‘but’ in once.

Darn that brain! This is exactly the scene I’m having trouble writing, from the point of view of the SAME character. But, from a different TEMPORAL pov: looking back many years later to a diamond-clear memory of the same scene, in a parallel universe where a choice he made shortly after the end of that scene took a different path into the future. THAT my brain has no trouble writing.

The scene I WANT my brain to write, well, that one is giving me trouble.

The key part here is the last line in the prompt: ‘Create a passage in which your [character] studies [his] own misery.’ Since my character wouldn’t talk to a psychiatrist about anything unless it was either court-ordered or some other traumatic situation had made it unavoidable, I invented a situation in the alternate future where he WOULD have to talk to one, made it dire enough, connected it to EXACTLY the same scene – and it practically wrote itself. Hmmm.

• I thought about the ‘hidden high principle’ my character would see at work, worded it to fit the scene (‘Friends don’t betray friends.’), and forced the consequences into the scene.

• And, upon consideration, decided to add one insight, one question, and one worry into the last three steps of the emotional journey that forms the spine for this scene. The major part of the scene is done by then, and each one of these additions will make short work of the last internal steps of the scene, ones that weren’t planned to include dialogue (it’s his reaction to what’s gone before) – and will happen, quickly, in his head.

This leads naturally to the final thought which ends the scene – and which now fits perfectly both with the rest of the scene, and the beginning – like a bookend, and leaves my character in a lovely black mood.

Success? Yup.

This technique often gives my subconscious free rein to play with the material at hand, and give me another entry into it when one way seems blocked.

I almost never use this kind of prompt to write something other than the work-in-progress: I’m not hiding from the WIP, just having trouble phrasing it, or organizing it, or coming up with a plausible reason for it.

Having to rely on prompts is not an indication of desperation – if it was that, I’d go write a short story or something.

It is an indication that the brainstorming isn’t over. Even though brainstorming is officially allowed at every step of my ‘process,’ when I have spent too much time on a scene (‘too much’ is a subjective judgment that varies all over the bounds of reasonableness), the rational (left) side of my brain balks at dumping more time on the problem.

I really don’t know where it thinks I’m going to go, since dropping the project is a no-go, and ‘try harder’ isn’t working, but rational brain sides are not logical. Maybe it thinks the right side has had too much time already. Who knows. The fact is, I’m stuck.

In the case of this scene, ‘too much’ was already closing in at 15,000 words for a scene that will eventually be a fifth of that.

Using a writing prompt is a backdoor way of using a crowbar to loosen up the logjam.

It gave me permission to ask ‘why’ again, and tipped the writing over from State 0: ‘I will never be able to write this scene’ to State 1: ‘We have a lot of bits and pieces here, but all it will take is time to fit them all together; of course I will write the scene.’

Funny things, brains.

How do you use writing prompts to shake your brain loose?


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