A couple of years ago I spent the day at a High School, talking to English classes of students aged 15-17 about writing. It was a fun day, the kids were smart, engaged and I like to perform.
It’s the most common question authors get along with, “Why?”
My stock answer is, “I order my ideas online. They come from a factory in China, in a cardboard box labelled Tractor Parts.”
I then went on to talk about how it works. For creative types (which is anyone who actually stops long enough to poke at a random thought) ideas come from everywhere.
The best ideas come from asking What If?
The rest is just typing until your fingers bleed.
There does come a point where, as the poet said, “You have to shit, or get off the pot.”
For me this comes after that first rush of inspiration, the heady romance of new love. The dreaded, Bright Shiny Thing Syndrome (BSTS) that I have suffered from. It is where the delirium of the creative rush ends and the hard work begins.
Depending on your writing style, you might edit as you go. Write a first draft, then re-write it (once or a dozen times). Or you might just write it and edit and send it off to your publisher (who has a professional editor to do all the tedious stuff like correct your grammatical errors).
Once that high wears off – many writers stop. They coast to a halt. They say, “I have writers block!” Then they go off and write something else, and repeat the process.
If you want to be a shitter, not a sitter, then you have to abandon all bathroom analogies – because straining is exactly the wrong way to have a successful bowel motion.
In writing, like in pooping, you should be relaxed. The strategies I use for moving through a blocked plot point or a dead end include:
- Write something else.
Don’t abandon your current WIP. Just refocus your mind. I write short stories, or work on another novel idea (I have about 8 stories ranging from short to novel length in the works at any one time). When you have had a break, be it an hour, or a weekend, come back to the thing and have a fresh look at it.
- What Would Lassie Do?
In writing, WWLD? means look at it from a different perspective. Think outside the box. Consult your muse, your beta readers, ask your dog for advice. Whatever works for you. Put yourself in your character’s shoes, or the shoes of someone else in the story and think about what is happening from their perspective. Why is this scene important to them? You don’t have to jump heads and write from the villain’s viewpoint – but give some thought to what others are doing in the scene and use it to build detail.
What are your characters saying? Seriously – just because you hear voices doesn’t mean you are Jesus. I talk (using my inside head voice) to my characters all the time. I’ll say things like, “Man, that guy is a total jerk. He shot your girlfriend, he shaved your cat, he knocked over your snowman. What are we going to do about it?”
They come up with the best ideas – because they are the ones who know best what they would do. Obviously, I’m not a zombie killing expert, or a special forces veteran, or a paramedic with a vampire to support, but the characters I write are all these things – so they know what to do to solve the challenges they face in their stories.
If however, you hear voices telling you that everyone around you is an alien reptile, you might want to talk to someone about that.
- Write It Out
Stop thinking and just write. I had a scene in a story yesterday where a character needed to recite a list of known Gods and what they were the god/dess of. It was a comedy story, so it was pretty easy to come up with a few, like Queezycocktail, the god of hangovers, Al’Bhumin, god of omelettes, and Polysisticos, goddess of fertility. If I kept going, I’d probably come up with some great ones – but I realised I was thinking too hard – so I just started writing names. A kind of free-thought exercise – and soon had a list of 20 ridiculous deities which made the joke about the culture having more gods than people even funnier (Varicousia, goddess of roads and map-makers was a personal favourite).
Veinous, goddess of spurned lovers and revenge also just came to mind.
Feel free to leave your comic deity suggestions in the comments, it might end up in the story…
- Go Back a few steps
If you write yourself into a corner, where you really don’t know what the Hell is going on anymore, then stop. Go back to where you did know what was happening, and start re-writing from there.
Avoid the [Just then three suffragettes descend from the sky
On an old fashoned wooden deus ex machina, singin’–] deus ex machina of giving your protagonist a tool or surprise knowledge that gets them out of the dire situation. It’s almost cheating.
Doctor Who is a classic for this – David Tennant’s reign was pretty much – point and click – sonic screwdriver can get you out of anything. Worst part of the entire reboot really.
You’re a better writer than that. Go back to the point where you strayed from the path and work out what happens to move your story forward without having to resort to cop-outs or maiden-rescues. Thinking about that, I realise that in Tankbread 4: Black Snow I’m dangerously close to a situation like this. Our heroes are in the deep-doo-doo and it would be easy to send in a cavalry and rescue them – but that would be a cheap solution. Character growth and plot advancement requires that you challenge your characters.
- Make ‘Em Bleed
No one wants to read a story where nothing happens. It is important to make sure that something happens to people we like. Even the imaginary ones.
Your hero (of whatever gender they identify with) is challenged – that is the story. We don’t care if they live a life as dull and pointless as ours – 90,000 words about a day job just like mine isn’t a book I want to read.
They are heroes for a reason. Just like we aren’t.
So you challenge them. Here’s an example from a story I am working on for an anthology with the theme of blood ties.
Pietr is a Russian American living in New York. His grandmother raised him from a baby and she is the only family he has. However, health insurance is expensive and grandma is dying of a rare form of blood cancer which means she needs transfusions once a week. The hospital has declared her terminal and withdrawn care. She is living at home, with her paramedic grandson to take care of her.
In desperation, Pietr has taken to kidnapping late night pedestrians with matching blood types and draining them to keep the old lady alive.
He isn’t a sociopath, or a psycho, he is just desperate and is wracked with guilt.
Already we have challenges: the poor Russian guy is in a real bind. He is driven by an obsessive love for his grandmother (he owes her everything) and is horrified by the idea of having to commit murder – but he does it.
With a brief intro to set the scene, the murder of a late night-jogger, the transfusion process and the background shown in dialogue and so on, we now ready to start the story. The previous 12 months in these characters lives are irrelevant – we have summed that up in a few hundred words. We have arrived here and now in the story – because this is where things get worse. Worse – is where stories start. Helluva lot worse – is where stories should take us.
For Pietr our Russian-American paramedic and reluctant killer, he makes the mistake of selecting a pretty young woman to be his next blood donor – and she is a vampire – who is bored and curious – so she goes along for the ride.
Unlike Pietr, the vampire is all about the killing – and she revels in his horror and guilt. She blackmails him and uses him to bring her victims while she uses her blood to keep Grandma alive. Of course, things have to get a lot worse for Pietr before the story is resolved.
It must be resolved. It might not be a happy ending, but it will be an ending. I know how it ends and Pietr has to suffer, because he has killed the innocent. He also must also be redeemed because he did it for love. But, boy is he going to suffer first.
- Keep It Real
Real of course depends on the rules of your story Universe. In Pietr’s case, it’s New York (as I see it from TV, novels, movies and my own seedy imagination). I’ve never been there, but I think I can describe a New York at night, where vampires stalk the streets.
Cars drive, people jay-walk, neon flashes and a beautiful, if somewhat pale, young woman sleeps during the day in a drainpipe under Central Park.
Aliens (the raygun type, not the immigrant types – though, Mexicans armed with with alien weapons technology invading the US would be a cool story) are not going to happen in this story.
Dinosaurs are not going to happen in this story. Flying cars, superheroes or talking cats are not going to happen.
You need to keep things straight in your world*. People will accept anything as long as it is plausible (or imaginable). If I was writing about talking cats, flying cars, and superheroes – then those things would be part of the world I wrote around this idea.
Engines of Empathy is a complex world – very like our own, but just different enough to be even more interesting (even the boring day job bits).
When I write interstellar sci-fi, boring day-jobs aren’t really the focus. Epic battles between leviathan star-ships battling over control of jump gates to distant star systems – are more the thing.
*Bizarro is the genre where this rule doesn’t apply. It’s amazing stuff to read.