Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Guest Blogger ~ Angela Fiddler

Writer's block -- dealing with problems in the beginning of a novel before they turn into huge problems at the end

I love writing. Writing rocks. Writing, when everything is going well, is about the best feeling in the world. I have a loving wife who supports me and who understands that 'Can't talk. Writing' is a perfectly good excuse when the hard questions, such as 'did you unload the dishwasher' or 'shall we go visit your folks this weekend' come up. In short, writing is the most awesomest awesome, awesome thing that a single person can do in public, private, or with pets in the room. Go writing!

Unless you can't write. The words don't come and the cursor seems to mock you with its empty, useless blinking. Or worse, you live on a ground floor, your windows are painted closed, or you've signed some sort of ridiculous rental or condominium by-law agreement that made you swear you weren't going to throw whatever you use to write out the window. Then what?

I know there are dozens and dozens of books and websites out there on how to deal with writer's block, but these are things that work for me. I'm not going to lie to you. Some of the treatments I talk about are worse than the cure. I've cut, and cut drastically the first/middle/last 20,000 words of something I was working on, and although I cut and pasted it into a new document, I knew, in my heart, that there was either nothing in those words to salvage, or that those words only fit in the piece one way, with the characters in only one mental state, and though I said I'd go through and pick apart cute turns of phrasing, I never have. Because amputation is amputation, and anything sewn back on after it's been cut off is bound to go evil, as any science fiction or horror writer will tell you. (Your mileage may vary on that last 'going evil' part.)

So here is what works for me when I'm either the one writing, or I'm critiquing for a friend whose story is going nowhere.

Did I begin at the beginning?

This is the petering out problem. A great, cracking story has begun, fantastic characters are introduced, and a great world is built up around them and…nothing. It may go a page, it may go twenty, but then there's the feeling of 'and now what' and you don't have a single clue as to what that what is supposed to be. From all the work I've critiqued, I can normally tell a great story that has petered out has failed because the story did not begin at the right spot. Especially for fantasy and science fiction, the desire is to start it either after a great battle has finished (for both science fiction and fantasy) or as the intrepid hero is off to the castle to meet Y about problem X (for most often fantasy, but substitute 'home base to get new orders,' for 'castle' and it works for science fiction, too). More to the point, as the reader of these failed beginnings, I get the sense time and time again it's either began far too early before the action has begun, or too late for the reader to either (A) care about the characters about to be thrown under a bus or (B) way after the epic whatever had happened.
I always ask myself, at what point do things change to the point where if nothing is done, the world ends, and what where my main characters doing immediately before that? (In erotic fiction, that answer should be fairly obvious, btw)

Am I loving the Bacon Guys?

There's a brilliant scene in Season 1 of Stargate Atlantis. It's just two guys, talking about how bacon is the food that makes other food worth eating. And you can't help but nod with the wisdom behind that, religious or vegetarian objections aside. Bacon *is* the food that makes other food worth eating! These two, nameless, uniformed men speak the truth! You love the bacon guys. Go bacon guys! Then Koyla comes through the gate and shoots them both. And seriously, you just met the bacon guys, and they're dead, but you *care*. It's an awesome scene. If the action starts before your reader loves your characters, even just a little, they're going to have a hard time connecting with them as horrible things are being thrown at them.

Am I too afraid something may not be explained?

Back story is important. It adds a dimension to the characters, a history that can be hinted at, and conflict between characters that can be eluded at or ignored with tragic consequences. And I'm all about the tragic consequences.

However, back story doesn't usually belong in the front of a story. As much as the author cries that the reader won't understand their prose if the reader doesn't understand that Bad Guy X did Action Y to main character Z in the very first scene, or that if it's not explained how the main character got to the action of the start of the book, then reader isn't going to understand.

The author shouldn't be afraid that their readers isn't going to trust them. I mean there is a limit of how much mysterious mystery you can cram in (I'm looking at you, Lost), but there's a fair bit of tension you can have. Most readers are more likely turn the page to find out why rather than give up in disgust because everything is not instantly explained. Critique groups are partly to blame for this, because the moment they get to something that isn't completely explained in a neat package, some people feel compelled to ask for more exposition. In commercial fiction there is a trust that the author will get to the dark looks between the dreaded Count and his beautiful Ward eventually. As long as you know you'll get to it, eventually, don't let a critique partner demand to know more information than they really ought to have. Don't interrupt the flow of what is happening now to talk about what happened last week/month/century.

The first chapter has to do three things. It has to introduce an interesting character, in an interesting world, with an interesting problem he or she has to either solve, or fail miserably at solving, by the end of the book. Everything else can wait.

Why am I using today as a starting point?

It should be clear, to you, if not immediately to the reader why you have started the novel the day, of all the days in the character's life. What causes the change that makes the character suddenly need to get involved outside their day to day lives to fight the greater good? It helps if there is a personal as well as global reason, and helps even more if their motivation doesn't come down to just 'money' 'family' or 'trying not to die'. Sadly, we all need money, we all should think family is important, and we're all, even crossing the street at the cross-walk, trying not to die. What makes your character more unique than that?

What happens if the character fails?

This may not have to be dealt with in the first chapter. But soon, the reader has to know what will happen if your character stops fighting. If he or she throws up their hands, says, "Bugger this, I'm going back home to my farm/my town/Alpha Centauri" there has to be dire consequences. How does the world end? This question may not work when dealing with a contemporary romance, but in science fiction and fantasy, it is of upmost importance.

And if they can quit and walk away, it's a huge failing of:

Where's my tension?

No, really, where is it? Tension is needed, even from page one. If you've ever seen pictures of slush piles, or hear editors talk about slush burning parties, there is no hope for a story that starts getting good in chapter 4. Sad, tragic, not the way they did it in the old days, but true. Back story, as it is in the back and not in the present, pretty much guarantees that the main character, if he or she is in it, will survive. There goes your tension.

And there has to be a buildup of tension. The characters rarely can still be solving the same problems in chapter thirty as they are in chapter one. The characters, by their own actions, have to struggle to fix the problem, even if their attempts have just made the situation worse. Your bad guy is out there, stirring the pot, and it's not enough that your characters just react to what is thrown at them. They have to try to get ahead of the ball and start making changes themselves, for better or for worse. The stakes have to get higher, the personal involvement the characters feel needs to get deeper, and if they give up, their world has to end or change so badly, it might as well have ended.

Okay, I have all that. And I'm still vacuuming my cat. Now what?

Checklist time!

◊ Do you have the right main character? Is he/she/it going to be the character who has the most to gain, the most to lose, and is most at odds with the message of the book. If no, a book can be done from the outsider point of view, but it's very hard to pull off well when the greatest emotion is reported, but not shown. While working on Castoffs, my first erotica novel, there was a blond thug in it that had to bring the main character from place A to place B. I decided he needed a name, called him Vision, and Vision stole the next four books right from under the main character's nose. In the second book, I needed a name for Vision'sdriver, a character I had no plans for at all. I called him Hanz. The vampire series is now the Vision and Hanz show. I'm just saying.
◊ Is your world too big? Do you have a cast of thousands already and you've not gotten past the first chapter? Eliminate as many duplicate point of view characters as possible. Remember any more than a couple characters introduced on a page are too many characters for the readers to keep straight.
◊ An antagonist that does not just kick children and steal candy from puppies is a rare, valuable thing. What is he doing to make sure the good guys don't just waltz in and take over? Why is he being antagonistic in the first place? Does he have a legitimate gripe against your main character? The more real he is as a character, the more he will be remembered.
◊ Is the startling point, the point that changes everything and gets the story rolling happening off screen? And if it is off screen…why? Drag the action onto the page, get your characters in the thick of things for their emotional involvement, and then have them deal with the consequences as things spiral out of control.
◊ Take away the easy outs. Make the characters work. Eliminate any character that only exists to go to the main character to tell or give them stuff. Knowledge has to be hard won. I'm the first to admit that it is rough to have painted the characters into the proverbial corner, but it's even tougher to make readers care about characters that never have to suffer or earn what they're given.
◊ If a chapter/scene/section isn't working, switch it up. Switch point of views. Switch motivations. Switch the outcome of the scene itself. If that doesn't help ask yourself why you need that scene to begin with. If you need to cut, cut swiftly. It will hurt less. Go back to the point in the story where you know deep down that you've backed the wrong horse or gone on the wrong tangent and begin again. For me, it's amazing how listening to the little voice in the back of the head telling you that the scene isn't working can save so much effort. It is almost impossible to recover a scene that feels like it was forced out.
◊ Trust yourself. If you are bored with a scene, ask yourself why. Be honest. I find this especially useful when I've written things out long hand to be dictated or transcribed into text, or I'm reading it over in a draft stage. If I'm bored with a section, or if it goes nowhere or nothing happens, I'm more likely to skip it or work on it then and there so it becomes important, things change, or it goes somewhere. These nowhere scenes and nobody characters can change the book in a whole new way you hadn't even thought of, connecting a bunch of random scenes that had come at the beginning to make it seem like you had that very thought in your head the whole time. Go with it.

I don't plan my novels. I may break out the odd post-it note to work out a tricky scene, but I'm very fluid when it comes do what happens next. I trust my intelligent characters to react intelligently to the problem they're dealing with. Whatever you do, as long as it works for you, is fantastic. But a good solid base can carry a novel through the muddle in the middle right through to the end, and a bad beginning can sink a story before it even had a chance to get good.

So, what's your surefire way to unblock writer's block?

Angela's website: www.angelafiddler.com
Angela's Loose Id titles can be found here
Angela's ManLoveRomance Press are available here


Jeanne said...

Angela, I just printed off your blog post so I'd have it for future reference.
Thanks so much for joining us today!

Amy said...

Apparently final exam week is my usual solution to writer's block. Giant heap of papers to grade by a VERY specific date... and the people in my head won't shut up.

Angela Fiddler said...

Yes, definitely. The days you have a kabillion different things to do are prime writing days. The days where you have nothing to do but write uninterrupted all day are the days you set out to break your streak of wins in freecell :)

Jeanne said...

What helped me was getting rid of all the games on the PC. I'd say, well I wrote X number of pages so I deserve a break. I'll take half an hour. When I'd come back, I'd lost the thread and I'd sit and stare on the screen thinking where was I?
Without the games I've increased my output

Jeanne said...

I'm going to do some errands. I'll leave the responding in Angela's capable hands!!!

Angela Fiddler said...

If you haven't seen it before, http://lab.drwicked.com/writeordie.html is a wicked resource to write with. Basically you set up a limit of what you want to do, either word wise or time wise, then if you stop typing it starts to flash and then you get a punishment. It's really effective, and it only lets you pause once. Plus, if you close the window or try to surf away, it copies what you've done to the clipboard for later.

Ken said...

Excellent advice! I'll confess I've written a few aimless stories in my day that end up in some obscure folder, never to be touched again. It happens.

Even with good characters (or good research, for those of us who also write non-fiction), there are those days where nothing wants to come out. I tend to do a few things when this happens:

1. Write anyway. So what if it's crud? Eventually, something decent will come out of it. A few salvageable sentences are better than nothing.

2. Read a good book. Somehow, reading the work of others can become the instigator for those creative juices and make the ideas pop inside my head.

3. Just walk away. When I'm not in front of a blank screen, my mind is always off in a billion directions daydreaming to some degree. Thoughts come out better when there's no pressure from the incessantly blinking cursor.

Angela Fiddler said...

Ken, you're so right! Reading a good book is one of the best things things for writers, whether they're blocked or not.

I get flustered when I'm critiquing someone's work, and they tell me that they don't read, or worse, they just don't read fiction like it's some sort of badge of honour.