After the recent publication of Deception Island, I, of course, began working on a new project. (One can never stop working, not if you want to get anywhere). The project—currently untitled—stands at about 10,000 words. Until recently, it has been successfully mocking me.
This is not terribly uncommon for me. I start writing something and cruise for a while (like 10,000 words) and then the ideas dry up and what I do produce begins to feel superficial and forced. For a while, I will literarily flail around. I try forcing the issue (thus the forced feeling). It doesn’t work. I try walking away, taking a break. It doesn’t work. I seek inspiration by reading something similar to what I’m doing. It doesn’t work. Nothing works. I’m stuck.
I’ve been writing for a while now. Longer than I like to think about. This isn’t the first time I’ve experienced this phenomenon and I have learned the most common causes. Generally speaking, if you know the cause of a problem, you can figure out the solution.
But it isn’t always a quick process. It can involve a bit of trial and error. Or a lot of trial and error.
There are usually one of three reasons why this blockage occurs.
- I can’t do the story justice the way it stands.
This usually breaks down into two reasons: I either need to do more research, or the story is too ambitious for my writing skills. Earlier this year, I was sketching out a historical tale set during the Indian wars in Wyoming/Montana. But it quickly grew apparent as I worked on it that I wouldn’t be able to write it until I actually spent some time in the area. Now that I realized that, I could put the story aside and move on to something else.
- Somewhere along the way, the plot has taken a wrong turn.
I, generally speaking, am an organic writer. That means I don’t carefully outline or plot out an entire novel before I sit down to write. I know where it starts and an idea of where it will end up, but I literally make up the journey as I go. This makes for some interesting twists and turns (because often I didn’t see that coming any more than the reader did) but it also leads to the occasional dead end trail. Often, when the ideas dry out, it’s because I’ve taken a wrong turn somewhere. Then it’s just a matter of figuring out where that happened.
- Some kind of decision or commitment needs to be made.
Sometimes, whether we like it or not, we need to make a decision about our project. It can be hard. Decisions imply commitment and that can be frightening. What if we make the wrong decision? (See #2 above). However, the longer we postpone these decisions, the better the chance the story will force it upon us. It does that by keeping us from doing anything else.
In my particular instance, the problem I was facing fell into category 3. I needed to make a decision.
I had determined the situation/problem that begins the novel. I had also continued the main characters from Deception Island, because series characters are popular right now (look on Amazon or Goodreads. Nearly every title has a # attached) and it is much easier to continue characters than create entirely new ones from scratch. I had the general location and an idea of the plot.
But I was stuck, blocked.
So what was the problem?
I had to decide whether the project was going to take place before or after the action in Deception Island. Was it going to be a prequel or a sequel? Thing is, I’d been putting off that decision, even as I wrote two chapters and well into the third.
Then the story stopped me. I went into block and stayed there for a couple of weeks. I stayed there until I realized I needed to make this decision. Was it going to be a prequel to Deception Island, or a sequel? It was time to make a decision.
I decided it needed to be a sequel. I decided.
Almost at once, the backstory fell into place. The relationships between the characters grew deeper, more nuanced, as did the plot. Suddenly ideas were popping up everywhere, like mushrooms after a rain. I’m not stuck anymore. I’m not blocked.
And all I had to do was make a decision.