25th Trillium Award

FICTION CRAFT BY SHAUN SMITH, ET AL

 
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Moving Pieces

With A.C.E. Bauer, Heather Birrell, Julie Cross, Megan Crewe, Ursula Poznanski, Tess Fragoulis, Jill Williamson, Hilary Davidson, R.J. Harlick and C.C. Benison

For this month's Fiction Craft I asked ten authors the following question: What methods do you use to get the story moving forward again when the writing stalls?

In one of Eric Lax?s biographies of Woody Allen, it is explained that when Allen gets stuck while writing a film script, he takes a shower. The distraction of the shower frees up his mind and the words or scene or idea or whatever he is looking for often comes to him. Distraction is an odd beast. Where the mind is sometimes unable to force its way through, it can often slip in sideways. When I am writing and I suffer that fatigue one gets after many hours at the keyboard, and the words threaten to turn to both jelly and stone simultaneously (Douglas Coupland has beautifully described the feeling he gets at this point as being like ants walking on his brain), at that point the only restorative method at my disposal is to pick up a guitar and strum a few chords and struggle for a little while to play a song or two. It serves me well that I am utterly incompetent at playing the guitar; if I was any better, I might become engrossed by the activity and not return to writing, but because I am such a poor guitarist, I inevitably become discouraged and put the instrument away. By then it has done its work of closing down the part of my brain where words come from, and of going in to clean out all the cobwebs and dried glue that has accumulated. No doubt a neurologist could explain the phenomenon in terms of brain hemispheres. I just like the way it feels. And it allows me to get back to work for a while.

Sometimes one faces a much more serious stoppage. I hate the term ?writer?s block? because it is something often perceived by people who have never experienced it as a kind of magical and romantic state, like being in a haunted trance. Such people are idiots. This kind of block?one which entirely stops the forward momentum of a novel?is about as magical and romantic as a broken vacuum cleaner. When I am faced with this kind of block, the only solution is to let the book tell me where it wants to go. Writing a book is like taking a dog for a very, very long walk. At first you can guide the dog, lead it where you want it to go, but eventually the dog will stop and pull in a different direction. Call that dog the writer?s subconscious. For me, the process of writing anything of value is the process of digging down into the subconscious and unearthing what?s there in order to gain an understanding of it, in order to make some sense of it and thus create a version of the world that makes sense. When the writing stalls, I know it is because the subconscious is telling me that I am pulling the leash in the wrong direction. The only way I know to overcome this is to return to the point where I instinctively know I took a wrong turn. What I always find is that I did not afford a character the opportunity to do something that would have been pivotal for the novel. For me, everything springs out of character. It is my characters who decide what happens in a story. Although I am their master, it is they who are going to take me for a walk. I can generally point them in the right direction, but if I don?t let them go where they will, eventually they will dig in their heels. For me, listening to the characters is key to getting a story moving forward again.

Now let?s find out how some other writers tackle this problem.

 

A.C.E. Bauer is the author of the novels Gil Marsh, Come Fall and No Castles Here. Bauer lives in Cheshire, CT.

I have tried many methods to help me when my writing stalls. Most of them don?t work. That?s because what does work is hard: to sit down and write.

Chances are, what will come out will be crap. That?s okay. I may write crap for days at a time. It?ll get thrown out, eventually. But in that crap I may finally get the idea I need to move the story forward.

If what stymied me was a transition to the next scene, I pretend the transition is already written and continue with the story. Later, when the story is flowing again, I can go back and find the right transition (which usually turns out to be pretty easy). This also works if my character doesn?t make sense: I continue to write, making him or her make sense, and then I fix what didn?t make sense later. If it is the setting that was bothersome, I switch settings, and keep writing as if it had been the setting all along. Later, I?ll make the setting consistent.

Essentially I keep going until the story flows again. Once that happens, fixing earlier problems becomes much easier.

What doesn?t work for me: taking time off from the story. Playing mahjong, solitaire, minesweeper or any other computer game; trying that complicated recipe that sounded so delicious; checking out Facebook, Google+, blogs, listservs, Wikipedia or other online site; reorganizing my closet; basically any non-writing, time-consuming activity will get me nowhere.

That isn?t to say that a brisk walk, or a change of scene, or a fun night out won?t help. But that?s true even when the writing is flowing. It won?t substitute for the hard work. The writer Jane Yolen likes to tell new writers that the secret to her success has always been ?Butt In Chair.? I would add, ?with only your story before you.?

 

Heather Birrell is the author of two story collections, I know you are but what am I? and Mad Hope. She lives in Toronto.

For me, it?s nigh impossible to create new work using a keyboard. I have to force myself to put pen to paper. My stories usually begin with questions or aggravations I think require examination or probing. Then scenes or bits of dialogue or images accrete around these questions and the pile-up I?m left with becomes the shape of the story. If the story feels incomplete, I try to find my way back to what prompted me in the first place. Sometimes it?s helpful to write a sort of mission statement ? outline exactly what I?m trying to accomplish. This probably won?t yield new material, but it sometimes reminds me of what?s important in terms of the story?s core or impetus. Because my process is not straightforward, it can take me a while to find the holes in the narrative. What is missing? What personal shorthand am I using? Am I being unnecessarily cryptic or heavy-handed? If I can determine the shape of the hole, I try to fill it with a free write prompted by a query about the missing piece or beginning with a line I?ve already written that feels either problematic or laden with possibility.

All of this sounds pretty vague, and it?s definitely very personal, so here are some more concrete suggestions (in no particular order) for palpating your story?s pulse and layering the right kind of muscles over its bones.

If you are ?free? writing (see Natalie Goldberg?s Writing Down the Bones) time it and force yourself to write to the end of the interval, even if the majority of your scrawling is dedicated to digressions concerning your lack of talent/worth as a writer and human or lists of things you must do before the end of the day, week, month, year. Do not cross out and do not lift your pen from the page. Knock the mighty editor from her lofty perch.

Go for a walk. Take a dog or a kid with you. (I?d recommend choosing a kid or dog you know.) Sniff around. Greet strangers. Dawdle. Ignore words in favour of letters. It?s overly yogic to advise attention to the breath, but never mind. Notice your breath. (If it seems like it might be useful, take your character for a walk and force her/him to adhere to the above.)

Read poems.

Divorce yourself (amicably) from plot. In my experience, plot does little in terms of plumbing depths or finding emotional resonances or locating the opening you may need to pry the story apart and inspect its guts.

Have a nap. This is a remarkably effective means of solving creative conundrums although very hard to orchestrate if you have small children or an all-consuming day job or dishes in the sink. Try anyway, and make sure you have a bit of ?twilight time? post nap to record the brilliant and lovely connections your astonishing brain has lobbed out to you.


Julie Cross is the author of the novel Tempest. She lives in Illinois.

I have several methods I use to keep myself moving forward, or at least forward with word count. A lot of times, when I?m stuck on a particular scene or moment in a book it?s because I may not be in the right mood or mindset to portray the emotions needed through the characters. And yes, I realize it?s a lot like acting and you?ve got to fake it sometimes, but if I?m super happy and giddy about something and need to write a powerful scene where a beloved character dies, chances are good it?s going to turn out flat and two dimensional. In these situations, I move on to a different scene later in the book or even set it aside for little while. When I try to force something it ends up taking longer anyway, so the time off doesn?t usually delay the final product in the long run.

Another method that really helps me when I?m stuck is writing diary entries for my characters. It?s an opportunity to get in their head (in first person) and have a much better visual on what they are thinking or feeling so that my main character can properly react. A lot of times when I get stuck it?s because there?s something (or several things) that I have decided about a character or their background. Mostly stuff that would never make it into the actual book, but knowing these personal details about all my characters help create a much more complete story that feels real to readers.

So overall, my best advice to writers new and experienced is to make sure you?re in the mood and keep writing with passion and have fun! Don?t make it feel like work unless you absolutely have to. Especially when creating that first draft. Edits are more difficult to make into a fun activity ? at least it is for me. With edits, I usually make a bullet point list of all the changes needed for the next draft and then a schedule telling me exactly which days I plan to work on each item listed. I?ll usually tackle the most difficult changes first and move on to easier ones after that. Hope this helps, and don?t forget?writing is supposed to fun!

 

Megan Crewe is the author of the novels The Way We Fall and Give Up the Ghost. She lives in Toronto, ON.

In my experience, there are two reasons why my writing stalls, and they require different solutions.

One reason is the story itself. I'm eager to write and excited about the book, but somehow what I'm putting down seems aimless or rings false. This is generally a sign that I've gotten off-track. I don't know my characters' motivations well enough. I'm making them do something that doesn't make sense, because I have the idea it needs to happen. I don't have a clear enough sense of how to get from point A to point B. So what I have to do is step back and figure out what's missing. A lot of this happens in my head: brainstorming plot possibilities, imagining the situation from different characters' points of view and considering how their histories will affect their responses, visualizing the setting and how the characters will move around in it. If it gets too complicated, I'll start taking notes to keep my thoughts in order. I may do some additional research. I might realize I first went wrong three chapters earlier, and either go back and rewrite from there or make a note to fix the earlier problem and continue as if I already have. Whatever the case, I keep poking at the story and looking at it from different angles until I have a clear sense of direction again. And then the writing starts flowing.

The other reason is me. I'm having trouble concentrating; I have to fight to form every sentence and the words I do put down feel weak. Usually this is temporary, and I just have to re-immerse myself in the story. Sometimes that means listening to my playlist for the book, letting the music remind me of the themes and emotions that excite me about the story. And sometimes simply reading over the last scene I wrote can get me focused. Other times I have to step away from the computer completely, find a comfortable place to sit, and picture what I think will happen next in the story. Often when the immediate pressure of putting ideas into words is gone, my sense of who the characters are and what they would do returns rather quickly. Then I can go back to the keyboard ready to work.

Occasionally, if I'm sick or exhausted or otherwise having a particularly bad day, the writing just won't come no matter how I try. I'll keep wrestling those sentences out until I know I've given it my best shot, and then I accept that this day is a bust. If you're getting good writing done on a regular basis, I think it's important not to beat yourself up the rare times your mind needs a break. Just think of it as a chance to catch up on the various chores you've been neglecting!

 

Ursula Poznanski is the author of the novel Erebos. She lives in Vienna, Austria.

I have developed a three-step emergency plan that has gotten me through every writing crisis so far (and God, I hope it will continue to do so.)

Step 1: Music and chocolate

Sometimes it?s just a question of motivation. When I know that the next chapter is going to be a bitch to write or the sun is shining or I?m tired or lazy (or all of the above), music and chocolate are what work best on me. I have a huge collection of movie soundtracks. Gladiator, K-Pax and Inception?just to name a few?trigger an immediate Pavlovian writing reflex. Well, and chocolate works like fuel ...

Step 2: Looking for the hidden problem

If Step 1 doesn?t work, I have to face the fact, that I probably took a wrong turn in my last writing session. Or the one before. Sometimes a so-called ?writer?s block? just indicates a massive logical flaw or a plot-hole. It feels as if the writing stops itself to avoid further damage. Unfortunately, looking for whatever caused the stop is no fun, but as soon as I have detected the problem and disposed of it (which can take days, I?m sorry to say), the writing is normally fun again.

Step 3: Crying for help

A good writing partner has turned out to be crucial for me. Mine is called R., and she is pure genius. Whenever I want to burn my notebook or to change my job and become a shepherd in the Tyrolean mountains, I Skype with R. After two or three hours it usually turns out that I failed at Step 2. (R. is merciless. If she discovers that the big mistake was made on page 3 of 400, she will tell me so and her advice will be to dump 398 pages and start from scratch.)

To put it briefly: If you can?t overcome the block it?s mostly because you don?t see the wood for the trees, and then you need someone with an axe.

 

Tess Fragoulis is the author of the novels The Goodtime Girl and Ariadne?s Dream. She lives in Montreal, QC.

There are several ways in which I deal with a story that gets stuck, depending on whether there is a deadline, personal or imposed, or not. If there isn?t, I like to set the story aside for a while, because staring at it in frustration will not solve any of its problems, and I?ll probably develop an unproductive attitude towards it and it towards me. Some time and distance is the only cure, whereas forcing the matter will only make things worse. If I really need to get something done, free-writing to explore the character or the scene may bring forth the information I need or expose the fundamental problem that led to the road block in the first place. To keep my hand in the story so I don?t lose touch with it, especially if it's a longer piece, I may work on some other aspect of it for a while until I am ready to go back to the problem part. There?s always something to do on a novel?revising sentences or punctuation, working on a different character or chapter, which may shed light on what?s missing or needs to change. Depending on the stage the story is at, as a last resort, I may ask someone else to read it?a trusted and sympathetic, but also a sharp and honest reader. It?s a dangerous method, only useful to those who won?t crumble under the critical eye and/or influence of others. Some stories, of course, can?t be unstuck?I?m not ready to write the story, or I?m not truly interested in it, or the story is dishonest in some way, or I simply have no idea what I?m after. Some writing is just for practise and experimentation anyway, so there is no need to cry over spilled words.

 

Hilary Davidson is the author of the novels The Next One to Fall and The Damage Done. She lives in New York, NY.

To put it plainly, I cheat. One of the things I learned from working in journalism is that you can write a story around the parts you don?t know, rather than letting those question marks halt you in your tracks.

With fiction, I often have key scenes from the story in my head as I write, but I rarely know what connects those scenes. When my writing stalls, it?s usually because I don?t know how to move from what I?ve just written to where I want to go next in the story. There?s a lot about the plot of the book that I only figure out as I write. So, instead of stopping and trying to puzzle it out?which can take me a long time to accomplish?I?ll leap ahead in the story and keep writing. Doing this means that my first drafts are disjointed and messy, but that doesn?t faze me because I?m a big believer in writing multiple drafts to get the story right. Giving myself permission to jump ahead helps me keep my writing momentum.

 

Jill Williamson is the author of the novel Replication, The Blood of Kings Trilogy -- By Darkness Hid, To Darkness Fled and From Darkness Won -- and other works of fiction. She lives Oregon.

I?m a cross between an outliner and a seat-of-the-pants writer. Before I start writing, I have plotted out all the major scenes in the book, even though I don?t know exactly what will happen. When I come to a place in the story where I?m stuck and don?t know what to write next, I tend to do one of three things.

I stop writing and go do something (dishes, laundry, sit on the couch in the living room and stare at the ceiling). And while I?m doing whatever, I daydream my way through the scene. Often I?m stuck because I don?t know my characters or storyworld well enough. So I might take some time to think through the backstory of a character or the fantasy world I?m creating. The more I know about the people and places in my stories, the easier it is to write.

I skip ahead and write the next scene that I?m excited about. Since I have to keep my word count up each day, I sometimes can?t afford to stop and daydream, so skipping ahead keeps me working, at least. Then I can come back to that hole later and fill it in after I?ve had time to daydream.

I force myself to write something, even if it?s bad. I wanted to be a writer, and some days the work isn?t easy. Editing is my favorite part of the process anyway. For me, that where my story gets good. So my initial goal is always to get the first draft done, no matter how ugly it is.

R.J. Harlick is the author of numerous works of fiction, including the novels A Green Place for Dying, Arctic Blue Death, The River Runs Orange, and Red Ice for a Shroud. Harlick lives in Ottawa, ON.

The murky middle, after five books I know you very well. In fact, now that I am in the middle of my sixth book we are getting reacquainted once again. With this new mystery, I started off, the way I always do, racing through the first chapters and then as invariably happens, I hit the proverbial brick wall when the creative juices slow to a crawl. I know, if I did a chapter outline, the way teachers of creative fiction courses say you must, I likely wouldn?t be facing this problem. But whenever I?ve tried, I?ve not been able to stick to the outline. My characters take the story where they want it to go.

But I do have a few tricks up my sleeve to help batter that brick wall. And one of them is a key bit of advice I picked up from someone long forgotten after many days pounding the wall of my first book, Death?s Golden Whisper, without loosening a single brick. The advice was to throw into the story something you had not thought of before, something that your main character has to deal with and try to resolve.

So in Death?s Golden Whisper, I threw in an unplanned body, one of the advantages of writing a murder mystery, that kept me going for many pages. In my second book, Red Ice for a Shroud, I had a sudden inspiration that resulted in a totally unsuspected twist that kept readers guessing until the very end and me writing frantically to see how it would resolve. A romance that came to a sudden unexpected end re-inspired me in A River Runs Orange and I ended up working through this over the next two books. In Arctic Blue Death, I came up with a new suspect, someone I?d thought of as merely a bit player. And in the current book, A Green Place for Dying, I yanked the pressure up several notches for Meg Harris, my protagonist, by having someone very close to her suddenly go missing.

But finding this unexpected turn, this sudden twist doesn?t come easily. So I take long walks with my two dogs, with my mind swirling around with possible ideas. Though one thing is certain. It has to be in keeping with the overall storyline and consistent with my main character, although it can come from left field, so to speak. In the meantime I keep writing. I never stop even if it is only a few hundred words at a time. The important thing is to keep the story moving forward. Eventually the light bulb will flash on and you will shout ?Yes? and next thing you know you are writing furiously if not to finish the book to at least move it along over several more chapters.

 

C.C. Benison is the author of numerous novels, including Twelve Drummers Drumming, Death in Cold Type, and the ?Her Majesty Investigates? mystery series. Benison lives in Winnipeg, MB.

In the larger matters of crafting a novel?plot, for instance?I prevent stalled-writing opportunities from even raising their ugly little heads by thorough outlining before I write the first word of the text. I also write extensive character sketches beforehand. Knowing the characters well and knowing well the path they are to take helps me keep the story moving forward. I usually know what the characters are doing and thinking in any given situation. But not always. When I reach an impasse, I usually give myself a certain amount of time to solve the problem (writing is largely a problem-solving exercise whether plot construction or word choice), but if I can?t, I simply move on. I?ll leave a series of X?s in the text with a note to myself about what I was thinking and what is needed, then return to it at a later date. I find that furiously worrying the problem, determined to solve it before writing another word, has little useful effect. Corny as it sounds, ?sleeping on it? often does a world of good?although the sleeping may be days, weeks, or even months. Usually, when I come back to the now-ancient stalled bit, the solution seems much easier, at times self-evident. It?s as if the subconscious had been beavering away at the problem all along and was only waiting for you to return your conscious mind to it. One minor strategy I sometimes use when I?m stalled is to pick a novel at random off the shelf in my office, open a page at random, and read a paragraph. The content is almost always irrelevant to what I?m writing but somehow, in many instances, simply reading someone else?s good prose is a tonic and sets the wheels in my head turning more quickly to the solution to my own problem.

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Read past editions of Fiction Craft:

February 2011: How do you approach the use of conflict in storytelling?

November 2011: How do you capture character voice in dialogue?

October 2011: Under what conditions do you do your best writing?

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Shaun Smith is the author of the YA novel Snakes & Ladders and the e-book Magical Narcissism: Selected Writings on Books, Writers, Food & Chefs. He has published journalism with CBC.ca, Quill & Quire, Toronto Star, The Globe & Mail and numerous other outlets. His book blog "Shaun Smith's Sunday Sundries" appears each Sunday (no kidding!) on Open Book Toronto.

Follow Shaun on Twitter.

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