Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Beating "Writer's Block".

I've read on quite a few blogs recently about aspiring authors who suffer from writer's block quite regularly, and who often struggle for some time before overcoming this most frustrating of obstacles.

Almost all authors have a unique approach to their writing; some like to simply start with a blank page and no idea of what their next story will be about; others like to plan every single stage of the journey before ever applying fingertip to keyboard; others still like to let their newly created characters lead the way, essentially plotting their own stories via their individual personalities. For what it's worth, I think that its these varying approaches to creating a complete novel that sometimes cause the author's block to appear.

In sixteen years' of writing, I've never had writer's block. That may possibly be because my imagination is especially broad, but many others can lay claim to an equally vast internal universe of creativity, so I don't think its the cause of my good fortune. I reckon it's in my style of creating a novel, so I thought I'd share my own personal method - it might not work for the next person, but if another author sees something that they like, takes it, and says goodbye to writer's block, then it will have been worth sharing.

PART 1

1) The idea. I'm not somebody who wants to just sit down and start writing away about, well, nothing. My novels are plot driven, as are most thrillers. So first of all, I need to know what the main, core idea will be. Once I've got that down on paper, even if it's just a few scribbled notes, I know I'm on my way. If you're a writer, you'll know your core ideas whenever you find them: they'll be the ones that instantly excite you, and make you want to write about them.

2) The basic plot. My method is simple: sit down for a few weeks, and thrash out ideas on paper and in my head. One good technique I use is to play movie soundtracks on my headphones whilst thinking about what would be really cool to have in my novel: it's surprising how your imagination comes to life when you're listening to Pirates of the Caribbean or similar blazing away in your head. It helps if you're a visual sort of thinker for this technique to work. I sometimes also use coloured cards, each with major plot points, and arrange them in the order I think might work. They can be re-arranged easily, letting me play 'God' with the plot-lines.

3) It's here that you can add major events known as Turning Points. Anyone familiar with screenplays will know about these, but essentially they're the points where Act 1 becomes Act 2 and Act 3 etc etc. In the centre of the story it helps to have a MAJOR division called the Point of No Return, where your hero / heroine generally starts fighting back against whatever problem the story demands that they solve. By the time you've finished writing the novel, these points should not be obvious to a reader, but should none the less be present and essential.

4) The Chapter Layout: As the general storyline forms itself through the basic plot, I then begin the chapter map. This usually is a 'guideline' as opposed to a rigid structure: its purpose is to provide a map that I can follow as I write the first draft, and it's this above all that prevents writer's block. No matter where I am in the story, I know where my characters have been, where they're going and why. The reason I say that this is only a "guideline" piece is that if you try to force characters into plot developments, it can come across as cliched or force the author into contrivances that spoil any sense of discovery for the reader. So, as I write and new ideas come into play I keep everything fluid: sometimes the idea for a major twist comes half-way through writing a draft, or maybe a new character trait develops unexpectedly and just 'fits' right - I always leave these natural developments in, and alter any preceding storyline to match during the redrafts. It pays to keep notes of these changes, to remind you of what to do later on. My chapter layouts are usually on two sides of ordinary A4 paper, one line per chapter with a brief note of the scene and who's in it. Simples.

5) Research. If your story needs it, then get your story straight now. Locations, facts, historical background: whatever it is, find it out and have it ready saved somewhere so that when you're powering through your first draft, it's ready to go. The ubiquity of the Internet makes small details like the name of a road easy to grab on the go, but have all detailed research ready so you're not bogged down halfway through trying to work out how your hero can valiantly create a nuclear bomb from a shoelace, a daffodil and a tube of Smarties.

6) Take a week's break, then sit down and get cracking on draft number one. You're all set to go, you know where you're going and why, and with your headphones soaring with whatever epic score you like you'll see the movie of your novel streaming before your very eyes.

7) When your first draft is complete, probably after several weeks or even months, put it away and take a month off. It's hard to do, but I can tell you I wish I'd done it more often. When the month is up, get the novel printed out and read it as though it were something you'd bought off the shelves. Make brief notes about the mistakes you'd made ( there will be plenty ) as you go along, and then you'll be ready to get started on the SECOND HALF of writing a novel: the editing, polishing and perfecting, which will no doubt take some months.

PART 2

8) Editing. This is down to you. The point is, by this time you'll have a first draft that is much closer to the hoped-for final version than you would otherwise have been able to create working 'blind', typing whatever came first into your head. You'll have something that has structure, purpose and characters that have a reason to exist and direction in their lives. Every edit you make from this point on will bring you closer to the finished product and improve what already exists, instead of you still chasing rainbows trying to figure out what your novel is 'really about'.

9) Months later.... Congratulations, you've finished! Take a well earned rest, and start planning your approach to literary agencies ( see earlier posts for information on this ).

There will no doubt be those who say that such an approach as mine stifles impulsive creativity, the spark of true genius etc etc. It doesn't - those sparks still arrive, and you can always find somewhere to put them in your story. The bottom line is that if you don't have at least some idea of what your story will be about and where it's going, you're making yourself vulnerable to writer's block. If your current, different method isn't working, give mine a try, or at least elements of it. You'll never know until you do....

7 comments:

Glaznost said...

I think there are some excellent ideas in there Dean. Personally i'm a "seat of the pants" writer, and after i have the basic ideas of the plot i just write and join up the dots between the plot points, but i can see the merits in your steps and next time i get stuck i may well give some of them a shot. I particularly like the plot points on coloured cards, that's ace. Makes reworking so much easier if you can join them all together in a different way after you've torn them apart.

Thanks!

Eliza Green said...

I also find the headphones trick a good one for me when writing. The story seems to flow better when I am listening to good tunes!

Sean Black said...

I have a tried and tested way to avoid writer's block. I call it the "Massive Mortgage" approach.

Good advice though, Dean.

Dean Crawford said...

I can see how that would provide the necessary inspiration Sean!! :o)

Talli Roland said...

Great post, Dean. I must say that I don't really believe in writer's block. If you get your bum on the chair and start writing without over thinking it, you'll get out the words.

Jen Black said...

Not writers block, but sometimes the tap runs dry for a while. I go away and do something else for a while and by the time I get back in the chair, the tank has filled up again.
Too much socialising can cause this!

Talei said...

Excellent approach. Really useful to see how another writer works, I'm always intrigued.

Right now, I'm rethinking major plot points for my manuscript, it seems late in the day as I'm well into the editing process but I feel something is missing. I love the ideas of the red cards and playing god so will try that out.

Thanks for sharing!